Posted in: DVD, Film Reviews

Cinematic Archeology on DVD – “Orson Welles’ Don Quixote”? Not Even Close

Don Quixote on DVD – Finally?

Don Quixote is one “lost” Welles film that is surely doomed to remain that way: unfinished, fragmented, a puzzle with pieces that have been recut so many times they simply don’t fit together. Welles jokingly renamed the film “When Are You Going to Finish Don Quixote?” because he continued to rewrite and reconceptualize the film as he went along. It’s as if the act of creating in the moment was the point, not the finished production. Financed solely by himself, it perhaps became a project so personal that he couldn’t finish, and it remained in fragments when he died in 1985.

The DVD release of the 1992 “reconstruction” haphazardly cobbled together by legendary exploitation director turned indifferent B-movie hack Jesus Franco (he was an assistant to Welles during some of the principle photography) isn’t about to change that. Oja Kodar, Welles’ muse/partner/collaborator for the final decades of his life, sold the rights to the footage in her possession to Franco and producer Patxi Irigoyen (they also acquired the footage from Suzanne Cloutier), but was terribly disappointed at the resulting film. According to longtime Welles cameraman and friend Gary Graver, Franco and Irigoyen used practically every scrap of footage they had, including sequences he had shot for a Spanish TV documentary he made in the middle of production (another little project to get more production funds). Certainly it’s hard enough to guess at Welles’ intentions from the notes and partially-edited footage (in various stages of rough cut) left behind over the course of a decade of shooting on the run and dragging the footage around from country to country as he tinkered with the editing, but there is little evidence of any serious attempt at a legitimate reconstruction from the film on display, and it’s missing vital footage that remains in the possession of the film’s original editor, Mauro Bonanni, who was not invited to participate in the project.

From what I know about Welles and the history of the film, Franco’s version is not even an approximation, never mind a reconstruction. There’s no story here, simply a random succession of events and images and a whole lot of narrative detours. But even as a visual record of Welles’ raw footage it’s a travesty. It’s a given that much of the existing rough cut footage is in rough condition, showing the signs of wear and tear from years of tinkering on moviolas and dragging the reels from country to country. But Franco and company have, if anything, compounded the problems with hazy, blurry copies of the master footage and video noise introduced as a result of the project’s most egregious crimes against Welles: the video manipulation of footage to layer images one on another. At one point, the sails of a windmill are stretched across the screen (to suggest a windmill come to life and reach out to Quixote? was that in the notes, Franco, or was it all your inspiration?). The soundtrack is no better. Franco uses fragments of recorded dialogue (with Welles providing the voices of both Quixote and Sancho as well as the narration) and fills in the rest of the film with voices that barely resemble Welles’ work. You have to have to watch the mouths move just to pick out the speakers in this dissonant audio mess.

I had the opportunity to watch an eighty-minute version of the film, cut down by Kodar and Graver to, at the very least, cut down the clutter of Franco’s all-in approach. That version is a disappointment, to say the least, but this is a travesty. And it’s the only version around.

Screen capture from the Image DVD of "Don Quixote" (from Gary W. Tooze at DVD Beaver)
Screen capture from the Image DVD of “Don Quixote” (from Gary W. Tooze at DVD Beaver). The distracting lines on the outline of Sancho’s face and collar are an example of “interlacing,” according to Tooze, the result of a poor PAL to NTSC transfer.

It wasn’t exactly a moot point in the past, but frankly it was (at least in North America) only Welles aficionados who had any access to the film in past, either through film festival screenings or import DVDs (it was previously available as a PAL import from Spain and France). Yes, they were the audience most prone to be upset and offended by the work. They were also largely an informed audience who understood that this was not an Orson Welles film, but a hack job purporting to be a legitimate take on an unfinished project. The stateside DVD release makes this film widely accessible to any number of viewers who have no context for the production and will attribute the finished film – and the appalling manipulations to the original material – to Welles. That’s neither a service to the artist nor to the public.

The new Image disc is taken directly from the PAL source, which only adds to the visual noise (comparisons between the DVD versions can be found at DVD Beaver, courtesy of Gary W. Tooze), and it features no supplements of any kind, let alone an explanation of the real story behind this version of the film. I don’t hold Image, the producer of the DVD, at all responsible for the content of Franco’s production. It is the only authorized version available and they surely felt an opportunity to make a rarity available to the public. However, with context, the release is almost meaningless. There’s an opportunity to do something interesting with this unfinished and unfinishable film. This isn’t it.

Glorious Quixote – Not on DVD

Dennis Lim did a nice job of parsing the issues surrounding Franco’s film in the Los Angeles Times this week, and he offers a tip to see an essential sequence shot by Welles but not included in the film (it’s in the possession of Mauro Bonanni, who, at least at one time, had hoped to be involved in a reconstruction of the film himself). Click here for Don Quixote (with accompaniment by Nico)

Don Quixote goes to the movies - see Patty McCormack screen right
Don Quixote goes to the movies – see Patty McCormack screen right

It’s a scene Quixote charging a movie screen and slicing it to tatters while “fighting” the figures projected upon it to the hoots and cheers of the movie audience – Welles’ modern answer to tilting at windmills. The scene also features Patty McCormack, the child star of The Bad Seed who Welles cast in the original framing sequence to the film. He reportedly scrapped those scenes as he rethought the film through the years of on-and-off shooting, so it’s unlikely the scene would have even made it into an accurate recreation of Welles’ intentions (if such a thing could be even remotely possible at this time), but it is a delicious scene and, even with the accompaniment by Nico in the YouTube clip (she drones Jim Morrison’s “The End”), it’s a more authentic piece of lost Welles than most everything in the Image DVD.

For more details and informed insight, see Todd McCarthy’s review in Variety of the 1992 premiere at Cannes. For further information on the film’s rocky production, check out Joseph McBride’s Whatever Happened to Orson Welles and Orson Welles at Work by French Welles scholars Jean-Pierre Berthome and Francois Thomas, who offer a refreshingly sympathetic perspective on Welles and the act of artistic creation: “Welles is almost certainly alone among major filmmakers in having invented the means to allow himself the right not to show his work to the public until he judged the moment had come, even it that meant he never showed it at all.” It’s a well articulated insight and perspective that I, at least in part, struggled to express (not nearly so well) in an essay I wrote on Welles for GreenCine a few years ago.