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DVD Reviews (for 12/3) - Orson Welles: It's All True

Orson Welles as you've never seen him before.
by Peter Sobczynski

Although he only completed 13 feature films as a director (including two documentaries) before his death in 1985-a seemingly paltry number for a man of his stature and career span-Orson Welles worked on many other projected projects throughout the decades that, for one reason or another, either never came to fruition or which had to be stopped during production for various reasons (usually financial) and were never completed. There were so many of them, in fact, that a sort of cottage industry has developed around bringing these scraps to the big screen in one form or another; the 1995 documentary “Orson Welles-A One-Man Band” offered tantalizing glimpses of a number of these projects (including scenes from “The Deep”, based on the same material that would later be filmed as “Dead Calm”), his ambitious attempt at filming “Don Quixote” was edited together by Spanish schlockmeister Jess Franco and there have even been recent rumblings that the legal handicaps surrounding his last film, “The Other Side of the Wind”, may be resolved in the near future. (If only people had shown this much interest in his output while he was still alive...)

Of all of his abandoned projects, the most famous is “It’s All True”, not only because of the high profiles of both the film and the people involved but for the lasting and damaging effect that the project would have on Welles’s subsequent career. In 1942, while in production on “The Magnificent Ambersons”, his follow-up to “Citizen Kane”, Welles was asked by the government to go to South America to make a film in conjunction with the Office of the Coordinator of Latin American Affairs as part of a goodwill gesture to strengthen inter-American ties at a time of war. Immediately after finishing a rough cut of “Ambersons”, he left for Rio to start work on what was to be a three-story film; “My Friend Bonito” would tell the story of the friendship between a boy and his bull, “Four Men on a Raft” would depict the famous raft trip taken by a group of Brazilian fishermen to Rio in order to protest the prices they were getting for their catches and a third would depict the famous Carnival in Rio.

Soon after he began, an astounding number of disasters occurred. One of the actual fishermen hired to play himself in the raft sequence drowned while recreating part of his voyage. Back in California, “The Magnificent Ambersons” had an ill-received preview that caused panicked executives at R.K.O. to fear that they had a bomb on their hands and set about recutting the picture with the aid of Welles’ editor, future director Robert Wise. Finally, there was a major executive shift at the studio and the people responsible for financing “Ambersons” and “It’s All True”, not to mention hiring Welles in the first place, were all canned. The new board terminated Welles’s contract, canceled “It’s All True”, chopped over 40 minutes out of “The Magnificent Ambersons” before dumping it in second-rate theaters and insinuated that they did all this because Welles had abandoned “Ambersons” to go off to Rio to waste a ton of money on an extended vacation. None of this was true but Welles was quickly tagged with the reputation of a guy who wasted money and who could never bring himself to finish a film-something that would haunt him for the rest of his career.

The 1993 documentary “It’s All True” recounts, using interviews and archival materials, all the details of Welles’s South American adventure in a way that dispels a lot of the myths that have surrounded both the man and his film over time. For most film scholars, that would be enough but the real heart of the film is the inclusion of much of the surviving footage of what Welles shot during his time down there. Only brief bits remain of “Bonito” and the Carnival sequence (though what we see of the latter-some of it shot in color-is really impressive) but the “Four Men on a Raft” segment is shown in a nearly-complete form. Although not without its flaws (the footage itself was silent and the music added on for this documentary never quite feels organic), there are moments of breathtaking beauty to be had in the sequence that serve as a reminder that Welles was a natural-born filmmaker and that even his scraps had more to them than the entire output of most directors you could name.

Directed by Richard Wilson, Myron Meisel and Bill Krohn. 1993. 87 minutes. Rated G. A Paramount Home Video release. $14.95


(Fox Home Video. $19.95): Strange, I would have thought that the near-total rejection of “Gigli”, “Paycheck”, “Jersey Girl” and “Surviving Christmas” suggested that audiences wanted to see less of Ben Affleck, not another 30 minutes of him gadding about in red tights in a film that people weren’t exactly that ga-ga for in the first place.

(Miramax Home Video. $29.95): I wasn’t the hugest fan of Zhang Yimou’s 2002 martial-arts epic, which became a surprise hit this summer when Miramax finally deigned to dust it off their shelf. The narrative structure of the film, in which nearly the entire story is related in a series of flashbacks, was so arch and closed-off that I could never get really into it-it lacked the emotional impact of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” orZhang’s upcoming “House of Flying Daggers”. However, the cinematography from Christopher Doyle is so ravishing that it is probably worth a look for no other reason than to bask in its beauty.

(Columbia Tri-Star Home Video. $29.95): One of the few blockbuster sequels in recent memory to live up to the intense pre-release hype. Worth it just for Sam Raimi’s homage to his “Evil Dead” movies during the chaotic operating-room sequence.

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originally posted: 12/03/04 17:30:26
last updated: 01/18/05 09:00:50
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