December 30, 2012

Missing Orson Welles

Immediately after debuting with the much-talked-about and controversial ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941), Orson Welles was directing and producing his second film (under his banner Mercury Production) with RKO, the studio which had offered him the unprecedented contract that had attracted the obvious envy and wrath of the film-making fraternity. No one then, not even Welles, would have imagined that history will remember his first as the ‘Greatest Film Ever Made’ for several decades to come, despite some handsome accolades that had come its way. For RKO, Welles was the boy-wonder they had discovered and had turned into a sensational film-maker, whose first film, despite the fame and controversy, remained a box-office failure. Welles was contractually bound to make a second film with them, and this time too, like with ‘Kane’, he had the rare opportunity to have the right to the final cut. However, the talks between Welles and RKO on the second film failed. Welles went on to make his next, with the same studio, but this time they retained the right to the final cut. A few months later, Orson Welles was fighting a futile battle to make the film he wanted to make.

The rough-cut of ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ that Welles had prepared was 135 minutes long. After poor response at test-screenings, the studio decided to chop it down. Eventually, they re-shot the climax in the absence of Welles, to achieve a ‘happier’ ending. The version that was finally released was 88 minutes. More than half of the film’s musical score, composed by Bernard Herrmann who had done a phenomenal work in ‘Kane’ (and who later worked with Alfred Hitchcock on some of the most memorable films of all time), was also deleted. An angry Herrmann forced the studio to remove his credit from the final film, threatening legal action if they declined. Eventually, the rough cut of the film was also lost and the footage destroyed, and the world could never see the film its director wished to make. As Welles later said about the studio’s treatment of his film: “My whole third act is lost because of all the hysterical tinkering that went on. And it was hysterical. Everybody they could find was cutting it…. They destroyed ‘Ambersons’ and ‘it’ destroyed me.”

The film remained a big box-office failure, despite enormous positive acclaim and a ‘Best Picture’ nomination at the Academy Awards. This was Welles’ second, and last, film being nominated for the same. In a few years, Welles was to struggle to find funding for his future projects as the studios would simply not work with him. Welles was only 27, when ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ happened, and this was the start of his regret of being and living the life of a film-maker.

I watched the film last evening. Obsessed with ‘Citizen Kane’, I was excited to revisit the second work by the prodigy. And though the film kept reminding me of the predecessor, with its stunning low-key black-and-white cinematography, palatial sets, and common faces, I missed Orson Welles, the actor. His familiar voice providing the narration only accentuated this feeling, the feeling that I get while watching those Woody Allen films that do not feature him as an actor. However, a big smile came over my face at the very end of the film, when Welles’ voice speaks out the credits (one of the earliest films to do so) with shots of film equipment for crew and head-shots of the cast. In the end, over the image of a microphone, the assured and confident voice announces the final sentences, after which the microphone recedes into the distance, under the lights and a framing so reminiscent of ‘Kane’.

The final words are: “I wrote the script and directed it. My name is Orson Welles. This is a Mercury Production.”

December 23, 2012

Must Watch Before You Die #33: Z (1969)

I think I’m an obsessively positive person; obsessively, because my need for positivity, and my faith in it, borders to an extreme. I think this world is a beautiful place, and it’s disappointing how many fail to notice the abundant beauty all around us. But then, I have friends and acquaintances who have completely contrary views from mine. Whether they have a hint of cynicism or a rational realistic approach to life, they believe that we live in a miserable world which cannot hope to get any better. I cannot argue with them because when they talk about the wrong being committed by man all around the world, I can only nod silently, and regretfully. Because then my theory that “nothing bad can happen to you if you are good” falls flat on my face. Because then I realize that perhaps my persistent positivity has so much to do about the way I have cocooned myself away from the rest of the world. And then, there is this unnecessary, unreasonable, inexplicable guilt.

Let me state some facts. I do empathize with the innocent victims of man’s heinous crimes occurring all around us every moment. I do wish that this never happened. I do know that I will do all that is expected of me in such situations. But largely, at an emotional level I remain unaffected. Not having a TV is a big advantage, and every time there is some sensational and disturbing news driving the media into frenzy, I thank myself for not having the idiot-box at home. I do not indulge in any kind of social networking, and BlackBerry and WhatsApp are still Greek and Hebrew for me. The morning newspaper and Google News keeps me updated about everything, and I’m fine with that. Most of my waking hours are spent alone in my room, listening to music, watching movies, reading, writing, or talking on phone with those who are fine with my obsessively positive way of life.

The latest news of the brutal gang-rape in Delhi is echoing all around the country, and beyond, as I write these words. It has disturbed me immensely, perhaps more than before, and I pray to God for that girl, and I hope adequate and effective measures are taken for a better future in a better society. But then I retreat to my cocoon. And I smile, looking at the joy all around me. I know there is no reason to feel guilty about it, but how can I be sure that I am not being an ostrich, with its head buried in sand, cutting the world from its view, and believing that it is safe? Is it true that the only way to stay positive and preserve one’s sanity in this horrible world is by staying shut in a room, and staying hopelessly obsessed with hope, and dreams and fairy-tales?

Amidst all this, I got to watch Costa-Gavras’ provocative political thriller ‘Z’ (1969). Watch it for its use of film editing to complement the story it wants to tell. Watch it if you are cynical or a realist. Watch it if you are an obsessive optimist. Watch it if you have already watched ‘Shanghai’ (2012), the Hindi-language adaptation of the same story. Because a film so disturbing to your intellect without disturbing your senses, and a film so powerful and confident with its design, is rare. And ‘Z’ is that rare masterpiece.

P.S. Now that we have survived the Doomsday, I congratulate you and me, because this assures for us a sustained discovery of cinema and its pleasures, and more Must-Watch recommendations to come!