The Classics: Chapter 11 – Chimes at Midnight (1965)

falstaffThe masterpiece of Orson Welles has the same youthful exuberance and vigor as Citizen Kane, but it’s a lot more memorable. Shot in Spain with a limited budget, it has a rotten splendor. The film is about the baroque contrast between the lowly and the lofty; the tension between hedonism and greatness. Welles gives the performance of a lifetime as Shakespeare’s tragicomic Falstaff. Falstaff’s den—a whorehouse—is a labyrinthine, tubercular netherworld: people’s faces appear to sprout from the walls as if they were malformations in the architecture. But it’s full of merriment and depravity. It has life in it. Then there’s the king’s castle, the palace of angularity, sobriety and forbidding empty spaces. Falstaff stands in rejection of chivalry, honor, order and any concept of an “honest life” (he’s both a coward and a sensualist). Armored for battle, he’s like a creature from science fiction… a fat toy scurrying for safety. In the famous battle sequence, Welles gives us a full picture of his worldview, with the mud swallowing the bodies, sculpting the carnage. If this is how greatness is built, with chivalry, honor and order to support them, then how could they be just? Welles said the movie was about “the betrayal of friendship”, and when the betrayal comes, it resonates. Falstaff’s defeat is like the defeat of simple human feeling: there’s a purity to him that kingly figures lack. Welles sides with the wicked, rustic side of human nature, but he expresses the pain of being left behind, of greatness eluding us. But it certainly does not elude this film. (Watch out for Margaret Rutherford as the hysterical, frenzied madam… she laughs as if she were consorting with the devil).

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The Classics: Chapter 3 – Hunger (1966)

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Henning Carlsen’s brilliant film about a starving artist, set in 19th century Norway. Per Oscarsson plays Pontus, the homeless writer who holds on to his delusions of control and creativity in the midst of famine. It’s one of the all-time great performances. The town of Christiana (today’s Oslo) is populated by a swarm of strange faces. Pontus spies at these faces from a distance, convincing himself that they are the subjects of his art—that they’re his misshapen muses. As far as he’s concerned, they provide him with inspiration. The genius of this film is the gradual, horrifying revelation that he has it all wrong: the faces are staring at him and his deteriorating body and mind in disgust. The artist is transformed from subject to object, from creator to sewer rat. He becomes the grotesque character in someone else’s narrative: an anonymous narrative in which he is the joke. And so the fictions that he makes up to preserve his sense of self-worth as a human being and his role as an artist become increasingly meaner, more desperate, fueled by paranoia. He gives his last coin to a homeless man, a “true” dispossessed (he won’t allow to think of himself in those terms) to appear charitable and gentlemanly one more time, to set himself apart from the poor fellow. This portrait of the artist as a scavenger—as a cannibal toying with self-destruction because he can’t accept he’s not looking at the world from the heights anymore—has the pull of a nightmare. A true god needs no nourishment, and Pontus dreams about fighting rabid dogs for food. It makes the title take on a dual meaning: the hunger within him is more terrifying than the famine that hits Norway. Yet there is something sublime, even heroic in his determination not to bend. The artist will not be destroyed by anything or anyone but himself. He trudges on, like a cockroach after a holocaust.

Dir. Henning Carlsen / 1966 / Denmark