It doesn't take much prodding for me to praise Orson Welles. The man was the original studio system martyr—a dynamo whose personality made him irresistible, and also made it impossible for him to get work. He was always fun to watch on screen—I mean, just look at that grin!—but the man knew how to write, too. I've been thinking about Touch of Evil a lot lately. Not the famous opening tracking shot, nor the inexplicably less famous second tracking shot, but the ending, which never fails to give me chills.
Orson's corrupt sheriff, a sinister fat man whose weight Welles was not more than a decade away from, lies face down, dead in a gully. Marlene Dietrich, the mealy-mouthed fortune teller who was the only person who liked him, watches on, stone faced, and delivers the finest movie eulogy of all time. "He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?"
The ending's ambivalence recalls that of The Third Man. The monster, both played by Orson Welles, is dead—killed by the only man in the world who loved him. Just in case he's feeling a little bit too good about his crusade, though, the dead man's woman makes sure he knows that he hasn't done anything great. Yeah, you killed the bad guy. But the bad guy was Orson Welles, dammit, and he was the most fun part of this movie!
But it also recalls a couple of Shakespearean eulogies, one of which I was reminded of this morning by Super Theater Twitter Guy Jonathan Mandell.
There are a lot of ways to deliver that line, which Hamlet uses to remember the murdered father whom he is about to kinda-maybe-sorta-think about avenging. Taken with Dietrich's Central European ambivalence, it offers the same, "I don't know—what's the point of mourning the dead?" shrug. If Hamlet is that ambivalent to his father, well, I get why he's not racing to the armory in search of an uncle killing sword.
I saw Julius Caesar at BAM a couple of weeks ago. It's a lush production, fuzzy at the start, but furiously clear by the time the murderin' starts. At the end, when the stage is covered with the traditionally Shakespearean corpse-pile, we get this eulogy, over the corpse of Brutus: "His life was gentle, and the elements/So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up/And say to all the world 'This was a man!'"
I love it. I don't know how these all connect, exactly, and I won't force it. But I do know that if the best you can say for the dead is, "Well...he was a man," perhaps the eulogy business is not for you. The press release for Julius Caesar touted it as something revolutionary, but an all-black Shakespearean tragedy set in tropical climate is hardly new. Orson Welles did that with Macbeth in 1936, a reminder that while he may have been a few hundred years behind Shakespeare, he was decades ahead of everyone else.
Just for grins, I looked up the Times' original review of Welles so-called "voodoo Macbeth." It is, how shall we say, really fucking racist. Critic Brooks Atkinson—he of the eponymous theater—tells us that the cast in this "darktown version" of Shakespeare's tragedy "have conjured [a] weird, vari-colored raree-show out of the fine stuffs of the theatre and the ferocity of Negro acting." The costumes are "an idealization of Negro extravagance," and the staging is done "with an eye to the animalism of the setting." But though the play offers "sensuous, black-blooded vitality," it "has missed the sweep and scope of a poetic tragedy." This is my favorite bit (emphasis mine):
As Macbeth, Jack Carter is a fine figure of a Negro in tight-fitting trousers that do justice to his anatomy. He has no command of poetry or character.
There's been quite a lot of chatter lately—and probably for decades—about the death of theater criticism. Asked to eulogize the golden age of New York criticism, I can't give anything more than a Dietrichian shrug. What does it matter what you say about plays?