Archive for Don Quixote

Film Club April: The White Sheik

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2010 by dcairns

It’s eight forty-five on Wednesday 31st March and I’m finally sitting down to write about Fellini’s THE WHITE SHEIK. And by the way, the April Impossible Film Quiz will appear tomorrow morning.

The movie starts with a blast of Nino Rota. “This music?” asks Fiona. “They reused it?” I explain that Nino Rota’s various Fellini scores all sound like circus music but that this isn’t the theme from EIGHT AND A HALF. If you have a collected Fellini scores album (I have two or three), they do tend to blur together. Which isn’t intended as a knock. If you ever go to the Cannes Film Festival you absolutely must have this music on your MP3 player. The first time I was there I was lucky enough to find a cassette for sale for 30 francs in the market place, and the connection was cemented.

But this is the first ever Fellini-Rota collaboration, and thus momentous. Rota’s death in 1979 tore a hole in Fellini’s screen world, although it’s nice to see his later, post-Rota films garnering more appreciation now than they did at the time of release.

It’s amazing the way this film prefigures the rest of Fellini’s career, while still remaining a modest comedy with no great pretensions. The concern with low-grade showbiz activity, already introduced in the co-directed VARIETY LIGHTS, which will culminate in GINGER AND FRED (Berlusconi-era TV is the only form of showbiz not to be looked upon kindly by Fellini), is already present. We get traveling shots past Roman fountains and monuments, which will eventually make up about ten minutes of ROMA. We get a tracking shot past a man asleep in bed, which is reiterated four or five times at the close of I VITELLONI (Fellini’s first hit, which rescued his career after this movie tanked). Somebody says, “…and the ship sails on.” And we get Giulietta Masina as Cabiria, who will famously return in her own movie.

Vittorio DeSica, speaking of his matinee idol days, said he was so handsome that women would leave their husbands on their honeymoons and seek him out. So either DeSica saw this movie and borrowed the idea, or he said this in the 50s and Fellini swiped the notion for his screenplay (co-authored with regular collabs Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano, plus Antonioni). Wanda (Brunella Bovo — whom Fiona calls “The Italian Jessica Harper”) ditches her pompous and controlling new spouse (Leopoldo Trieste, popping his eyes like Mantan Moreland) in order to meet her beloved White Sheik, star of the fumetti.

Alberto Sordi is fantastically pasty and flaccid as the Sheik, Fernando Rivolli. I assumed this was a Fellini joke, where the Valentino figure is a grotesque, but Sordi did play some straight leading man roles (as in I TRE VOLTI) without any apparent irony, so maybe I’m wrong, and he was considered some kind of catch.  His tight trousers expose the proportions of his thighs, like overstuffed sausages, to unappetizing effect. And his arse is a colossus. But I think Fellini is on top of this — as a good cartoonist, he tends to reveal character through appearance (leading to later accusations of Manicheanism). So the fact that Sordi’s sleazy actor is a sleazy actor is obvious to us long before Wanda realizes it, and that’s OK.

The movie follows two parallel lines, with Wanda’s adventure with Sordi and his crew intercut with Trieste’s efforts to conceal her absence from his family. Through his comical misery, Trieste gradually gains a bit of sympathy, having started as an insufferable prig (and not being the most prepossessing fellow). Wanda gets sympathy mainly by being sweet and cute, and by the romantic and essentially innocent nature of her quest.

All the supporting players are starry-wonderful, like the dyspeptic policeman who considers Trieste crazy, and the hotel manager who keeps trying to interest him in postcards.

For those of you watching the Optimum Releasing Region 2 DVD — isn’t the sound quality terrible? Every time there’s quiet dialogue or music it sounds as if it’s simultaneously underwater and on fire. And yet the louder stuff sounds OK — I suspect the intervention of incorrectly calibrated digital technology, but I’m no expert. Maybe the film needs restoration — or maybe Optimum’s notoriously slack quality control is playing up again (if you’re ever searching for a truncated cut of a celebrated film, however obscure the mutilated version, the chances are Optimum will have released it.)

I made a point of looking at THE SHEIK and SON OF THE SHEIK too, to see if Fellini actually drew anything specific from them, and in fact, the much more sophisticated SOTS (with a credit for “turbulent music” and production design by William Cameron Menzies) has one composition which does strongly resemble a key shot in Fellini’s movie, at what Fiona called “the world’s most pathetic suicide attempt,” when Wanda throws herself into the Tiber but picks an unfortunately shallow spot, her sitting position recalls a shot of Vilma Banky which I’m unfortunately unable to screen-grab.

The fumetti makers are of course a film crew in all but name, and probably a bit more elaborate in their set-up than any real photo-strip creators (I certainly can’t imagine the artists of Jackie magazine having such an infrastructure). The fast montage of stills being taken — with no apparent story discernible, just a pop-art collage of faux-twenties romantic exotica — is the cinematic high point of the movie, as well as the only but with any relationship to Antonioni, although it’s ten times more Felliniesque. Actually, the failed suicide recalls Antonioni’s episode of AMORE IN CITTA, released the following year, but only very dimly.

(There’s a lovely story about Orson Welles shooting DON QUIXOTE in Italy, while simultaneously directing his own scenes in DAVID AND GOLIATH. Leading his crew on donkeys up a weird rocky promontory, Welles was not in the least dismayed to find a fumetti crew already set up at the summit, right in the path of his shot. These denizens of an inferior form of art were apparently beneath the range of Welles’s lofty perceptions, so he carried on setting up as if they weren’t there — and by the time he was set up, they’d duly gone.)

Despite the humour of Fellini’s work, and his past as co-proprietor of the Funny Face Shop, selling caricatures to American servicemen (one customer, Sam Fuller, wrote, “He’s made better pictures since.”), FF didn’t make many pure comedies, and his next few movies swing closer to tragedy, so this is a slightly unusual mode for him. He uses dramatic techniques to amp up the comedy, as in the fast cuts of expectant faces staring at Trieste when he has to flounder about in his own lies, and the POV shots tracking towards his relatives as he approaches them.

It’s a pretty funny film, and the gags are delivered with affection. At the end, when Wanda is reunited with her panic-stricken husband, it’s genuinely touching. First, Fellini threw away most of his dialogue and had Bovo and Trieste communicate in comedy sobs, like a couple of Stan Laurels.

Then, at the Vatican, Bovo discovers that Trieste’s family is very nice, and he kind of realizes it to. “You’re my White Sheik,” she says to him, and he looks briefly perturbed by this new and mysterious responsibility, but he’s recently tested his resilience in new and challenging ways and it seems like he might be up to it, whatever it is.

This has been a delayed, and slightly truncated Film Club, so I promise an epic next time — SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS seems like a film we all have lots to say about, so I’m suggesting that.

Bea negative

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2008 by dcairns

Hat Trick

Jon Tuska’s Encounters With Filmmakers is pretty interesting, especially the section on Welles. In the space of 48 pages he goes from defending Welles to attacking him, in a way that suggests some personal score is being settled, though what it was isn’t recorded. But it is somewhat illuminating with regards to one of the great mysteries of Welles scholarship: what IS IT with Beatrice Welles?

Welles’ daughter, who appears in his CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, has impacted on Welles’, shall we say, postmortem career in two ways. Firstly, as inheritor of his version of OTHELLO, she has made the film available in a “restored” form that is not to everyone’s liking. This version has had the music transcribed and re-recorded (Welles’ original soundtrack had been damaged when release prints were made), the voices electronically adjusted to be more in synch with the lip movements (arguably an improvement, but in no sense a restoration, since the film, dubbed from first scene to last, had always been awash with lip-flap) and printed credits inexplicably favoured over Welles’ spoken ones (the restorers apparently were unaware of the existence of the narrated opening, although it appears in Leslie Megahey’s BBC profile The Orson Welles Story, which should be essential viewing for anybody engaged in Welles scholarship — check it out on YouTube).

Secondly, Beatrice Welles has sued or threatened to sue most of the other parties engaged in restoring her father’s work. Most famously, she has delayed work on THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, a late Welles film apparently all ready to be cut together into screenable form, provided somebody is willing to pay to extract the footage from the bank vault it is stored in (Welles’ chief backer was the Shah of Iran’s brother-in-law, leading to financial difficulties when the Ayatollah took command of Iran) and pay for the post-production work. Whenever a backer comes forward and shows interest, Beatrice scares them off.

Reflections in a Golden Eye

But Beatrice also threatened those behind the restored TOUCH OF EVIL (which isn’t 100% perfect but is far more respectful than her own restoration of OTHELLO), causing the film to be withdrawn from the 50th Cannes Film Festival. She had absolutely no legal claim to ownership or artistic rights over this film, but Cannes being an auteuristkind of show, they pulled the film rather than deal with any controversy from the daughter of a great Palm D’Or-winning director.

The Stand

Tuska ~ “He left $10, 000 each to his three daughters from his three marriages while dividing the bulk of his estate between [Paola Mori] his third wife and his mistress of many years, Oja Kodar, with an additional provision that should Paola die, then all that remained of his estate should go to Oja.”

And ~ “Other than the cash bequests to his three daughters, Oja received the Los Angeles home and all its contents, Paola the home in Las Vegas, its contents, and whatever money would be left. Paola contested the will, in large measure I believe because of the provision that upon her death everything would revert to Oja rather than to Beatrice. A hearing was scheduled for 14 August 1986. Two days before, on 12 August 1986, Paola was killed in an automobile accident a short distance from her home in Las Vegas. Oja Kodar got everything by default.”

I think it’s understandable that Beatrice Welles, having simultaneously lost a mother and been cheated of an inheritance by fate, might have conflicted feelings towards her father. He not only divorced left her mother and was probably absent for much of her childhood, he left her a rather paltry sum and placed restrictions on her mother’s inheritance (I’m amazed that’s even legal — if you leave somebody something, isn’t it then THEIR property?) Welles was of course quite entitled to leave the bulk to Oja Kodar, who had been a loyal companion during his autumn years, in a relationship which lasted longer than any of his marriages.

Beatrice, with a mixture of love, resentment, a proprietorial feeling for her father’s work, and anger at the criticism of the restored OTHELLO, much of which came from people involved in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, is now a potential obstacle to any Welles restoration ventures — I’m amazed she allowed Kodar and Jesus Franco’s version of DON QUIXOTE (the one truly indefensible Welles “restoration”) to be screened. Perhaps the thing was so cheaply assembled that the makers were indifferent to legal bluffs.

(Film historian and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow was approached by Kodar during the QUIXOTE process. She had been driving around Europe with Welles’s rushes in a van — although as much as a third of what Welles had shot was in the hands of one of his cinematographers, who was refusing to deal with Kodar. [The Welles legacy is riven with feuds, it seems!] Brownlow looked at the material and could see no way to make sense of it. Welles had claimed the film was virtually complete, but the material was haphazardly logged and boarded, and without Welles to explain his intent, inexplicable. Brownlow regretfully passed, Kodar kept looking until she found former Welles associate Jesus Franco, who made an offer too low to refuse.)

Mirror

I suggest anyone trying to restore a Welles film should visit Beatrice first and get her on-side, if possible. However cantankerous and obstructive her behaviour thus far, her feelings are at least understandable. It’s a great shame that the personal hurt she has experienced is now depriving others of the pleasure of seeing her father’s films as they should be seen.