Sunday, July 29, 2012
Make no mistake, this is a circa 1943 film, not a 1993 one. But for lovers of old cinema, this is worth a look. The experience of making this film scarred Orson Welles for life (he only did it, I understand, to help the war effort), and it really isn't very good. But, it does have some of the Welles master touches here and there. More of a curiosity piece than anything else.
The "film" starts out as a documentary, then concludes with the some actual footage shot by Welles for the project. Both parts complement each other, and so this is a film for those interested in Welles, film-making, Allied politics during World War II, and Hollywood studio machinations. The Welles footage is interesting, but it does no more than loosely recount a story basically taken out of the newspapers of its day.
I managed to see this film at its "premiere" at the New York Film Festival, held at Lincoln Center in September 1993. Several of the producers were there - I recall waling past a gathering of them afterward out by the street, perhaps three men and a woman - and I recall one of them saying, quite reverently, "It isn't every day that you get to see the premiere of an Orson Welles film." After later learning what they had to go through to get this made (finding and rescuing the remaining footage, getting the financing out of France of all places, somehow piecing together the facts of a project nobody except some poor Brazilian locals and a few of Welles' loyal associates wanted told, I should have stopped and shook their hands - or maybe just bowed.
I'm a bit of a Welles fan, though surely not the ultimate one. So, it was quite an honor to be present that night. The house was packed, and everybody seemed appreciative. The film made a bit of a splash at the Festival, and then was quickly forgotten. And that's a shame, because to understand Welles and the best of film-making, I think you should see this film.
Throughout his life, Welles held a grudge about the incidents behind this production. He was asked ("ordered" is perhaps slightly overstating it) to drop everything (and the list of his active projects is staggering) at the start of World War II and shore up the United States' relations with Brazil (and, by extension, with all of South America). What the US government, the studio, and the Brazilian government wanted (but apparently never made crystal clear to Welles, they just "assumed," ahem), was a simple tourist look at the Carnival and maybe a few other scenic spots. Welles complied, basically because he wanted to serve his country and trusted his Hollywood associates to honor their agreements and responsibilities and take care of winding up his remaining projects under his remote direction.
All very nice, in theory. There is many a slip twixt the lip and the cup, however. Welles did film the Carnival, but then he started thinking for himself - after all, he was the 'boy genius." Rather than look at this as a chance for a vacation - as almost anyone else would have done, and as his detractors over the past 70 years falsely have maintained he actually did - he started listening to the people and developing story ideas based on what he heard. How radical!
The main story idea Welles developed centered around an epic journey by four fishermen to the Capital to speak to President Vargas about how they were being exploited. And they were being exploited, there is absolutely no question about that. He started filming in the slums ("favelas"), because, quite logically, that's where the people being exploited lived. President (actually Dictator) Vargas (rather ironically known as "Father of the Poor") didn't want any of this Communist propaganda about slums being filmed, so he threw Welles out of the slums, got in touch with Washington, Washington got in touch with Welles' employer RKO, Welles' supportive boss got fired, and Welles was effectively recalled (after shooting a token schedule in June and July, 1942). Along the way, his follow-up to "Citizen Kane," "The Magnificent Ambersons," was ruined because everyone at the studio now knew that Welles was on the outs and disregarded Welles' instructions from Brazil (and also probably because they just felt like ignoring him in any event).
Welles didn't get to direct again until after the war, several years later. It wasn't called a blacklist, but he was as blacklisted as anyone. Even then, his formerly Olympian reputation was completely shot, at least with studio executives who assigned projects.
His anger and bitterness lingered. Thirty years later, during interviews, he would suddenly, angrily and almost randomly drop the name "Nelson Rockefeller" (during his NY Governor/VP days) as if Rockefeller (essentially the guy at RKO who sent him to Brazil) was the evil master puppeteer making the whole world dance to his tune (as he had made Welles dance). The name "Vargas" also pops up unexpectedly in Welles' other work, usually not as the most sympathetic of characters, Welles would on occasion mention that German submarines had been operating off the coast while he was filming, which had heightened the tension surrounding this production and no doubt made Washington listen especially carefully to what its tenuous ally in Brazil wanted.
With Welles himself destroyed (which some who themselves were not called "boy genius" probably didn't mind a bit), the film itself became irrelevant. It had served its purpose, murky as it was, of bonding Brazil and the US closer together than ever - though, ironically, by being against Welles. The background of all this infighting was quickly and conveniently forgotten by just about everyone else, but certainly not by Welles. Most of the film is lost, because it was from a "failed project" and nobody but Welles had any interest in preserving the evidence of the political hit on a respected director (Welles actually tried to save the film he had shot, but he ran out of money). Some survived, but not necessarily the best parts or enough to sustain a narrative.
As for the film itself, there isn't much of a "story." It is a tale of some ordinary, poor Brazilians who do something extraordinary. But the film is important because it is full of the magnificent Welles touches and sheer humanity that he brought so effortless to film - and, of course, because it was true and reflected well on the Brazilian people. I particularly recall a shot of the fishermen, in the film's concluding segment, walking down a lonely Brazilian street. At first we are near them - then the camera pulls back and we see these tiny figures advancing into a huge city. How easy a shot is that to conceptualize, after the fact? But you will struggle to find such obvious, perfect metaphors in the work of others.
In a way, as the documentary portion of this film makes clear, Welles lost big early with this project, ruining his chances of creating masterpiece after masterpiece like a Hitchcock or a Billy Wilder. However, he was the one who achieved the lasting victory. Long after Vargas had committed suicide and Rockefeller had died of a heart attack while in flagrante delicto, the people of Brazil were comparing Orson Welles to Martin Luther King for his attempts to bring the plight of the working poor to the public's attention. To this day, you may not find a more admiring group of Welles fans than you will in certain obscure precincts of Brazil - and all because of a film project that "failed" and cost him a huge chunk of his career.
You and I may righteously admire Mr. Welles because he made great art - there is no real dispute about that. The Brazilians, however, admire him because they know he actually did something for them above and beyond what he had to do - and for which he suffered horribly - to help them in their daily lives. Which do you think is more significant admiration? Which legacy would you rather leave behind? And all because of a film that never got finished and nobody ever heard of!
I recommend this film to those who are not looking for a standard "story" film, but rather for some insight into a true talent and some examples of his genius. It is well worth the trouble.