Monday, March 13, 2006

On Sunday I had the opportunity of seeing a program at the Academy of Music Theater in Northampton, MA, titled “The Unseen Orson Welles.”

Presented by his friend and cinematographer Gary Graver, the three-hour program was produced by Larry Jackson, the former manager of the Orson Welles Cinemas in Cambridge, MA, another friend of the later actor and director.

Graver is associated with Welles’ protégé Oja Kodar. Welles bequeathed his films to Kodar and the materials are stored at Filmmuseum München in Germany.

Except, I suppose for the material Graver presented this weekend, which he said comes from his Orson Welles Archives. While some of it was entertaining and exciting to see, Graver’s rambling unprepared introductions did not put the films and clips into a context that they needed.

Graver said he started his relationship with Welles when he learned in 1970 that he was in Los Angeles and managed to talk with him on the phone. He shot some test footage for Welles, which he approved, and he “was in.”

For a person such as myself who has a number of Welles’ films, have read books and articles on the man – I even had the chance to interview Barbara Leaming who wrote a great bio of Welles – a lot of what Graver said was material I already knew.

The problem is that he didn’t say enough for the folks who were casual film fans there to see something rare.

The program included:

The original trailer for Citizen Kane – not a very rare item.

The 1998 re-issue trailer for Touch of Evil – also not so rare.

About ten minutes of a television production of Merchant of Venice, in which Welles starred as Shylock and shot in Venice and London. This clip was a visual stunner, but the bad sound equipment at the theater rendered the dialogue, especially Welles’ lines, almost incomprehensible. Graver gave no date for the production and Leaming doesn’t mention it in her book. British actor Charles Grey was a co-star.

The 1956 television pilot for the planed Orson Welles Presents series was next. The Fountain of Youth was a delight. Welles used still photos, silent footage and sound footage to create this story of a romantic triangle. It won a Peabody Award for Excellence, but the networks passed on it.

There were a group of television commercials from Japan from the 1970s in which Welles shilled for G&G Whiskey. Graver said that by this time Welles had stopped drinking anything but wine and they used iced tea in the glasses. The spots are funny because one could tell Welles was not the least sincere in his delivery of the product the producers had him describe as “ a glass of happiness.”

There were promo reels for The Deep (which was later made, not by Welles, as Dead Calm) and The Dreamers. These were shot so Welles could raise money from investors. Frankly neither was very interesting and one could only imagine how Welles would use these clips to try to get funding. Could you imagine a pitch meeting with someone like Welles with that physical presence and voice?

There was a clip from an on-going project called The Magic Show, which was filmed by Graver and showed Welles performing a magic trick.

A short clip from the American Film Institute’s tribute to Welles was also shown. Welles is seen giving part of his acceptance speech. The irony that Graver didn’t tell people is that Welles showed a clip from The Other Side of the Wind after his speech as a way of trying to raise money to complete the film.

The Other Side of the Wind was the finale of the program. There was about 40 minutes of scenes Welles had edited from this last film. One or two of these scenes were ones that had been seen before and the quality of the images was fair to poor. Graver explained this was a work-print and the condition wasn’t very good. He said that the original elements were at the Munich archives and that Kodar was making arrangements for the film to be assembled and released.

The scenes weren’t helped by less that sharp digital projection.

He noted that he shouldn’t even be showing them at this time.

Without a proper set-up, the scenes didn’t make a lot of sense. There were several scenes of the birthday party has-been director Jake Hannaford (played by John Huston) was having and the scene in which Hannaford’s stooge is trying to explain what the film is about to a studio executive who is watching scenes in a screening room.

Then there were several sequences of the movie within the movie, which Graver said were “a little sexy.” They feature Kodar in various stages of undress running and walking endlessly through a deserted cityscape and a studio back lot with another actor.

It was only after the show ended during an informal Q& A period that Graver said those scenes were a parody of Michelangelo Antonioni’s style. Welles apparently hated Antonioni’s films.

This little tidbit would have been helpful to people to understand what they saw.

Graver shared anecdotes about Welles during the show, none of which were particularly insightful. He did seem to genuinely miss the man with whom he worked for 15 years.

I asked Graver what it was like to work with drive-in and direct-to directors and then switch gears to Welles. He didn’t really respond and by his expression he didn’t really what to discuss his career with the likes of Fred Olen Ray. At no time did anyone mention Graver’s career out of his Welles context.

Undoubtedly scraping along on a low budget and a tight schedule was good experience for working with a filmmaker such as Welles. I wanted to know, though, how a guy like Welles operated on a low budget: what was different.

While the show was interesting, its flaws made the three-hours seem like an awfully long time.


Marky Mark said...

Oh man. You are SOOOO lucky I wussed out. My fidgeting and groaning would have multiplied your agony ten-fold.

Marty said...

Hey Mike, sorry I never got back to your v.mail about the show, and I'm truly sorry I missed it. I've never quite got my head around Welles' entire career, and it sounds like the show would have to contributed to a greater understanding of it.

To bad about the speaker's sheepishness regarding his Olen Ray/shlock career. I'm almost more interested in that. As a matter of fact I AM more interested in that. A quick look at the IMDB shows STILL him chugging out chum by the bucketload.

SRBissette said...

My question, had I made it: "Would you say SATAN'S SADISTS was a breakthrough film for '60s?"

Kip W said...

Patrick Dennis's novel Genius is a hilarious fictional look at a down-on-his-luck Orson Welles shooting a career-saving low-budget art film in Mexico. The chapter where he actually shoots the movie comes close to answering your question. It's priceless stuff, actually. The narrator seems to be the same character that narrated the two Auntie Mame books.

I expect by now you've read about Richard Fleischer. Naturally, it hapened while you were on vacation from the blog.

(btw, I finally got a job doing prepress at a print shop. Yay!)