Monday, September 28, 2009

The Immortal Story

The Immortal Story, 1968
Dir: Orson Welles
September 27, 2009

This is an hour long made for French-TV film by Orson Welles. Yup. Again, I was probably not gonna watch it, but I read a decent review of it and decided that I really should just bang out everything that Welles has done. This is however a film with no real DVD release in the US, so you're gonna have to DL this to see it if you feel intrigued.

The story is about an elderly Mr. Clay (Orson Welles) who lives in 19th century Macao (China), who recalls hearing a story when he was young about another rich elderly man who solicits a sailor to impregnate his wife, decides to make it happen in real life in his old age. Of course, he has no wife, so he has to find a woman to play the part (Jeanne Moreau) and find a sailor (Norman Eshley) with the help of his bookkeeper Levinsky (Roger Coggio). Yeah, this is real. The woman, Ms. Virginie, has a score to settle with Clay, and hopes to make it the last "game" that he ever plays. The melancholy sailor has heard the story too (almost everyone has) and is dubious, though he is down to get "5 guineas."

Everything about the story starts with Mr. Clay's dislike of prophecy and ambiguity, and his need for everything to be "fact." When Levinsky tells him the the story he remembers never took place, that it's just a story that sailors told to entertain one another, he can't believe it. Many have read the corpulent character of Clay as a metaphor for the director himself; seemingly able to control the world around him he ends up as a hollow shell who succumbs to the prophesy he wants to both own and destroy (basically an apocryphal sailor's yarn). Like many of Welles' characters his failure is one of true imagination, unsatisfied by the tales he spins and the facts he commands, Clay attempts to will an immaterial and pointless world into being. Nevertheless, this is amongst the most joyless and least physical of all Welles' performances, his visual presence in the film often limited to the vision of him presiding over events in his high-backed chair. I was slightly dissapointed after his mind-blowing performance in Chimes at Midnight (1965).

The acting seems to take a backseat to Welles' direction, which while still maintaining the feel of a Wells film, is something entirely new in tone and literary interpretation. The film has a surprisingly dreamy quality, beautifully rendered and intricately told, it is a world-weary work preoccupied with the exhaustion of narrative storytelling (sometimes lines are delivered as if they were being read from the short story, and while some of them blew my hair back, like the sailor's ruminations on what must have gone through his father's mind right before he drowned, they seem more literary and less cinematic than I would like), and perhaps even the world itself. It is the most stately and reserved of Welles' films that I've seen, the piano music giving it a feeling and sensibility closer in tone to Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975) than The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). I guess it can also be noted that this is Welles' first color film effort. At times the film deploys naturalistic lighting schemes, while at others it is dominated by either bleached-out or deeply hued tones (particularly of burnt orange). As is true of all of Welles' post-synched soundtracks, sound seems to emerge from both inside and outside the world of the film. Thus, the seamless movement from what appears to be voice-over narration to the roughly lip-synched dialogue of a character early in the film is typical of the manner in which the film self-consciously plays with the processes of cinematic storytelling and technique. It can be jarring, but it has a point in the Welles universe.

This really isn't a film. It's a short visual essay that it really hard to describe. By the end, Clay is dead, exhausted by his deed and his inability to perceive any of it. Moreau has helped in Clay's demise, but her bond with the young sailor lasts just one night, and she too seems burdened by her act. The sailor is destined to never have Virginie, left to walk back to the docks in Macao with only the 5 guineas. Levinsky, now master-less, is left to listen to the sound of the seashell that the sailor left, as if it might give him answers. A sincerely sad and elusive statement from a man who may have captured the world if someone had let him, The Immortal Story really got to me at parts, despite its incoherence and short length. But maybe that's part of watching it. You can't really grab it before it fades away.

(There aren't even that many good photos online.)

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