Sunday, March 4, 2012

Don Quixote

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2009)

I’ve written quite a few times about my continuing wonderment at the ever-increasing availability of great cinema. I used to read about most of the great foreign directors with resigned futility, knowing I’d never likely get to see more than a handful of their works. The Japanese master Ozu seemed to embody inaccessibility, and now I have fourteen Ozu works on my shelf at home. In a way that’s just a triumph of niche consumerism; in another way, perhaps, a transient state en route to a world where every extant movie is perpetually downloadable. Or looking at how things are, maybe it’s a high water mark, which will only survive as a trace of a time when people foolishly thought they could spend money on movies as opposed to, you know, food.

Orson Welles

(Well, let’s leave that last thought aside.) As with so much else in cinema, Orson Welles presents a unique case here. It’s not just that some of the titles most cherished by Welles aficionados – The Other Side of the Wind, The Dreamers, The Deep, various others – aren’t available on DVD: it’s that they were never completed in the first place. Some of this comes down to bad luck (for example with shady financiers), some of it perhaps to a wayward temperament, but in any event Welles seems to me more and more like a spiritual father of our new multimedia age. Long before YouTube and DVD extras and other challenges to the paradigm, Welles seemed intuitively drawn to working in glimpses and fragments, the classical “finished film” apparently increasingly incidental to his creativity. Perhaps this just reflects having to learn to play the cards he was dealt – and he did that brilliantly, discarding the rest of the deck (and most of the players) and making up his own highly iconoclastic rules.

Welles started making a version of Don Quixote around 1955, filming it in bits and pieces over several years (often punctuated by acting jobs on other movies, the fees for which largely got ploughed back into this labour of love). His vision of the work fluctuated, the lead actors died, the world changed, but it appears he did accumulate enough material for a finished film. He edited and played with it on and off for years, but never settled on a final version. At various times he joked (or not) about calling the film When are you Going to Finish Don Quixote?

Jess Franco, who later went on to a hugely prolific if artistically marginal career (almost 200 films, deploying almost as many pseudonyms) was a second-unit director on the film, and almost twenty years ago acquired the rights to most of the available footage. He made an assembly of the film, and screened it at Cannes in 1992, to very limited enthusiasm. Almost no one thought it adequately represented Welles’ likely intentions, even less his standards of quality. Still, it’s been the best there is, and its unavailability in North America has bugged me ever since then. But no more, for it’s now been released on DVD, by Image Entertainment.

Jess Franco’s Orson Welles film

The biggest surprise to me was how coherent it is – by which I mean it has a beginning, a middle and an end, with only intermittent evidence of externally imposed artificial limbs. I don’t suppose this should have been a surprise, but the project’s turbulent history and the poor reviews for Franco’s version had led me to expect something far less viable on its own terms. Many long sequences feel much like finished Welles, even if it’s often hard to maintain focus through the myriad technical challenges: Franco’s project must surely be a labour of love, and yet seems shockingly slapdash at times. It has an often very poor picture quality, and a murky soundtrack fluctuating (or so it sounds) between Welles’ voicing all the main characters at certain times, while using other (rather jarring) voices at others. Some (I assume) “special effects” added by Franco are as bad as anything you’ll see outside, well, his own films. The second-rateness carries over to the DVD – if ever a project needed Criterion-type explanatory notes and extras, this would seem to be the one, but there’s absolutely nothing provided.

Even so, the project’s inherent charm and virtuosity win through much of the time. Welles’ concept has Quixote and Panza finding themselves in the modern world, adding a further level of absurdity to Quixote’s self-invention as a “knight errant.” They joust against bicycles; they become enchanted by television; Panza finds himself cast as an extra in a movie directed by the famous visiting American, Orson Welles (some travelogue material used here, with Welles wandering through Spain, may actually have been intended by Welles for other purposes). We’re accustomed now to such inventions, but it still seems fresh and radical here.

I mentioned YouTube already- what a source of treasures that is for Welles aficionados. In addition to several sequences from The Other Side of the Wind, there’s a sequence from Don Quixote not included in the DVD (apparently Franco couldn’t obtain the rights to it) – although with a missing soundtrack– where the knight visits a movie theater and attacks the images on screen. It might actually have been one of the film’s most inspired inventions, and it’s hard to imagine Welles would have excised it from his dream version.

Tracking Welles

Obviously this alone would be a fatal blow to any notion of the Franco DVD being, in fact, Orson Welles’ Don Quixote. And yet, the fragment does take on an extra sheen for its crippled disembodiment. Another invaluable website is (updated, for a site devoted to a long-departed figure, far more regularly than you might think as the ripples of his legacy perpetually wash up new wonders). This has an article by Audrey Stainton, his secretary for a time, where she describes how even after years of work and much monetary investment, Welles carelessly left the negative languishing for years in a Rome vault, neglecting to pay long overdue storage costs. Only a huge fluke kept it from being destroyed.

You can probably see that if I had the time, I could track and collate and muse about pieces of Don Quixote for weeks and months. Not that I could add anything to what’s on Wellesnet and in the ever-growing library of Welles literature (and no, I don’t buy all those books). But it’s not necessary that we all be academics or movie detectives. The DVD is strange and beautiful enough, sometimes in its very frailty and severe imperfections, to warrant your time on its own terms.

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