If heaven would make me such another world
Of one entire and perfect chrysolite,
I'd not have sold her for it.
Shakespeare's Othello is a play about a man who throws a world away - who possesses perfection and destroys it. But the possession cannot be represented, no more than can the perfection itself ("What fine chisel/Could ever yet cut breath?" - The Winter's Tale). One can only allude to it, talk about it, sing to it, yearn after it or boast that one has had it. The woman who is, or who would represent, perfection, the woman herself, the representable woman, has all the flaws of flesh and blood (sonnet 130: "I grant I never saw a goddess go;/My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground"). If she is taken to embody perfection, it is by convention, or illusion.
What can be represented is the destruction of perfection. But this can only be represented in a strangely indirect way. It might be said that in Welles's film, the murder of Desdemona is shown as directly as it could be: she dies by, and is seen dying through, a sheet of fine fabric pressed over her face. But to show it this way is to show, more than anything else, the impossibility of showing. It is death struggling to be represented and finally failing. Anyway, the murder of Desdemona is not the same as the destruction of perfection. The murder symbolizes that destruction (the destruction of perfection can only be symbolic), but does so by leaping over itself into the real, where, we know, perfection is not.
By the time of the murder, perfection has already been destroyed. The pure evil of Iago, the mental collapse of Othello require Desdemona as the symbol of what is to be lost. For Welles, these processes (the Iago process, the Othello process) must be made infinite. Not because he wants to delay killing Desdemona, but because the throwing-away of the world is, from one point of view, the definition of art, and art must never end.
Filmed over three years in various locations, Othello will become, for Welles, the first of several models (to be followed by Don Quixote and The Other Side of the Wind) of a film on which the production time expands to become part of the infinity of the editing time. ("I could work forever on the editing of a film," Welles said.) Drawn out by a chaotic shooting schedule, time and space seem to hold out the chance of an endless deferment of the closure of dialogue (solving the problem for Welles of how to be in a dialogue with others, when he is by inclination a monological being). In his account of working with Welles on the 1978 Filming Othello, cinematographer Gary Graver told how Welles kept putting off shooting the reverse shots of himself that were needed for the scene of his conversation with actors Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir (who played Brabantio and Iago, respectively, in the original film). The deferral of the reverse shot is a way of unmaking the film. In some way never to have done with Othello: perhaps this is the desire that drove Welles to make Filming Othello, with its ambiguous title (is Filming Othello, as it appears on the surface, a recollection of the completed act of making Othello, or is it, itself, the continuation of the never-finished filming of Othello?). That Welles left behind multiple versions of Othello both indicates something about his working methods and suggests how Welles's Othello has become a spectral film, a work that can never be screened without the ghosts of other possible versions haunting the projection.
What might be expected to serve as the connective tissue to hold the fragmentary images together is speech: the voices of actors speaking the language of Shakespeare's play. The continuity that is absent from the images would be meant, then, to be restored by the voice. But does it work? As everyone knows, the soundtrack of Othello is full of problems: it's often out of synch, with people talking while their lips aren't moving, or saying something different on the soundtrack from what they appear to be saying on screen; some of the dialogue is barely intelligible or nearly inaudible; no consistent attempt is made to match volume level or mouth-to-microphone distance to characters' apparent distance from the camera; it's obvious that Orson Welles dubs Roderigo (played on screen by Robert Coote); and so on. These problems make access to the film more difficult, but an access that's crooked is not necessarily a useless one. If we consider Welles as an artist who works with fragmentation, then a fragmented soundtrack becomes, obviously, not a drawback or a flaw, but an integral part of the structure of the film. (The attempt to impose a more conventional soundtrack for the so-called restoration of Othello sponsored by Beatrice Welles only proved the structural and aesthetic necessity of the soundtrack as Orson Welles left it.)
Welles promotes the relationship between sound and image - which is undeniably a theme in the play - to a major structural place in Othello. Any editing choice in any film presents a certain degree of arbitrariness, but, in narrative films containing dialogue, the range of choices is generally limited by the soundtrack. In Welles's Othello, however, the choices of shots and of shot duration are, to a truly extraordinary degree, free from restriction by the soundtrack. The free determinacy between sound and image - an element that Welles exploits brilliantly - sets up what might be called an internal distance in the film. On the level of the characters, this distance manifests itself as the separation between the person as an image and the same person as a voice. Voice haunts image; the image haunts the voice; there is no solid ground, no resting point, for comprehending the film: one listens while putting what one sees in brackets, and at the same time watches while bracketing what one hears.
In such famous scenes as the shot with the medicine bottle on Susan Alexander Kane's bedside table, or the kitchen scene in The Magnificent Ambersons, depth of field creates an internal distance that has to do with the time of the image. It takes time for the characters to move from the background to the foreground, or back, and the time it takes them to do that is a representation of the time it takes us to read the shot. The deep shot in Welles brings together the time of the characters and the time of the viewer. In Othello such an internal distance is created less often through depth of field than through the disjunction between the sound and the image. This is a more difficult distance to deal with, because there's no analogue on screen to help the viewer bridge it. It's a disorienting, decentering internal distance that resembles the blowing-apart of time.
There is, or was, a tradition in Shakespeare criticism concerning the "double time" of Othello. This refers to the fact that if you sit down and go over the text, it becomes obvious that there is no time when Desdemona and Cassio could have committed adultery. Normally the audience in a theater would be unaware of any contradiction, because the audience is caught up in the psychological intensity of the play. In short, two different time schemes seem to be operating: the imaginary time scheme that Iago invokes, in which things take a long time and there is a lot of time for everything (so that near the end of the play, Othello can aver "that she with Cassio hath the act of shame/A thousand times committed"), and the psychologically intense, tightly compressed time scheme of the dramatic action, in which Iago manipulates Othello so adroitly that Othello has no time to reflect, and everything moves quickly to the catastrophe.
If Shakespeare's play has a double time, Welles's film could be said to have a multiple time. This is clear in the "temptation scene," in which Iago gets Othello to believe that Desdemona is unfaithful. In Welles's film, this scene lasts about twenty-five minutes, and (though it constitutes a single action) is broken up, taking place over many settings, so that a clear sense of temporal continuity is lacking. In Shakespeare's text this action essentially transpires in a single scene, but Welles interpolates material from later in the play. Because of these interpolations, the dispersion of locations, and the internal distance that the soundtrack is incessantly creating, the process of Iago convincing Othello to throw away the world seems to take an indefinite amount of time.
Welles shoots this scene in two ways, both of them highly Wellesian. The scene opens with an extended traveling shot of Othello and Iago sharing a sustained dialogue as they walk across the roof of a fortification. This long take cuts to a series of extremely disorienting montage-based moments, the most frenzied and extreme of which have to do with people walking away from each other. For example, the moment of Desdemona and Othello separating from each other in a vaulted hall is extended by cutting among a series of somewhat different camera angles on the same action (as also happens in The Lady from Shanghai and other Welles films). Welles not only extends the duration of the temptation scene but also expands the temporality of the scene by giving it, first, the time of the long take, and then the fragmented montage time of the separation scenes, with paradoxical effects on the film's pace, because the fragmentation doesn't speed up the film's action but slows it down and stretches it.
Both the tempation scene and the double time scheme have to do with the creation of belief. Since, in cinema, the belief of the spectator is generally linked to offscreen space, it's remarkable that the sound of Othello almost literally destroys offscreen space. If shooting conditions militated against creating a convincing sense of offscreen space for Othello, the soundtrack reinforces the sense that some disaster - of which the film as we see it would be the trace or result - has overtaken offscreen space.
In radio, all space is "off" and is evoked by sound, which alone has materiality. From his experience in radio, Welles sometimes brings to film a purely vocal offscreen space, as in the scene of the dying Major Amberson contemplating something that "must be in the sun." But offscreen space as conjured by the looks and movements of characters to impose an imaginary spatial coherence - this is something Welles has little interest in. He prefers to leave offscreen space unfilled, to reorganize the world with each cut, or to deny the offscreen by enfolding all space, all revelation within a single shot. Welles's cinema is a forgetting of offscreen space, a denial of its potency.
The eavesdropping scene in Othello evokes the magic of cinema as Welles conceives of it, while incidentally also justifying the flaws in the soundtrack by making the listener's imperfect reception of sound a dramatic point. The hole in the wall through which Iago presents Cassio and Bianca to Othello is like the hole in the world that the light of the movie projector makes (a light that becomes visible in the "News on the March" screening room in Kane): cinema forcibly breaking into the world of the film. Wellesian cinematic magic does not restore an illusory wholeness but unmakes wholeness through the play of distances, drawing out the processes of loss and corruption, suspending the conditions of time and space in favor of the free mutual referentiality of far-flung spaces and disjoining times.