Tuesday, January 05, 2010

I Know Thee Not, Old Man

When I got an Apple TV for Christmas, I demonstrated it for my wife by showing her the climax of Orson Welles’ Chimes At Midnight.  I love that scene.  I think I even tried to show it to my kids.

This morning in the shower, though, I thought of a question.  I suppose I could find this answer with a little more study, but sometimes it’s fun to get people’s impressions. After all, that’s what I love so much about Shakespeare – the humanity he instills in his characters that make us all immediately understand what they’re going through.

So, here’s my question.  Does Falstaff die a broken man, convinced that the new king Henry has abandoned him?  Or does he understand that “did what he had to do now that he’s king” speech?  Welles’ performance at this moment seems to suggest both.  There’s a flash of a smile, a sort of an acknowleding, “My boy has gone farther than I ever imagined he would” expression.  Just for a second.  After the procession continues, though, we see the broken man who still swears, albeit with a little less energy now, “I will be sent for.  You’ll see.  He’ll send for me in private.”

Perhaps it is a combination of the two. He’s proud, and understands, but at the same time also understands that no, he won’t be sent for.

How’m I doing?  Close?


(I have another Falstaff related post coming later today. I’m on a Falstaff kick. :))

1 comment:

Frank Moraes said...

Beware Welles' Shakespeare for it is more Welles than That Bard! Welles' take on Falstaff is quite different from any other I have seen or from what one would take from the text. There is really no buffoon in the character here. Falstaff seems quite intelligent, using what gifts he has to make his way in life.

To answer your question: Falstaff dies a broken man. It is because he is broken that he dies. "I shall be sent for in private," is said only to save face. But I think it must be remembered that that is all Falstaff has done from the beginning of the film. When last we see him from the rear in long shot, he is hunched over walking awkwardly with a cane. He is tiny as he passes under the arch, but his shadow is enormous. (Very similar to The Third Man.)

Shakespeare was not big on writing pleasant characters. Falstaff, with all his faults, is as close as we get. And even that depends upon the performer. No writer in the history of the English theater has had more and better editors and directors and actors to fix his oh so many problems.

I too consider myself something of a Shakespeare geek, but that doesn't mean I hold him in that high a regard. In many ways, he is like Orson Welles (although without the excuses—I think Welles did very well given his obstacles). Neither man created a perfect piece of narrative art. Both have loads of brilliant moments, but nothing works completely.

Shakespeare never wrote a decent comedy. The histories are dreadful. He was best at tragedy. Still, Hamlet is a mess: hands down the most over-rated play of all time. Despite the amazing amount of creativity that actors and directors have put into it, it is always un-watchable. I'm kind of fond of Richard III, but I have a real problem with Shakespeare's constant use of villains who make Sweeney Todd seem realistic. "Since I cannot prove a lover, to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain and hate the idle pleasures of these days"! How many times in his plays do we hear similar speeches by his villains? Richard's a villain because he's lame? Don John is a villain because he's a bastard? Iago is a villain because he was fired? Please!

The most fulfilling play is Macbeth. And I believe it is not over-performed the way others of his plays are because modern artists don't feel the need to fix it. Everyone is so determined to make Shakespeare into the greatest writer ever (an amazing, but preposterous claim), that they can't help but try to fix the train wrecks that define his catalog.

As for Welles, at least we do have one perfect and unique film, even if it is a documentary: F for Fake. Most of his other films are quite watchable. In fact, most are quite good. And the scenes that have been released of The Other Side of the Wind are some of the most exciting film I have ever seen.

Prince Hal is a villain. Falstaff is a complex and troubled man who dies broken. And Orson Welles, once again, gives Shakespeare better than he gets.

[A slightly expanded version of this comment is published at Frankly Curious, under the title "Falstaff Dies a Broken Man." http://franklycurious.com/index.php?itemid=1102]