July 21, 2009

If anyone can still afford to go on vacation, it would be worthwhile to pop in the DVD of Around the World with Orson Welles (or stream on Netflix) before the journey. You’ll learn important tips about expatriate American bohemians and the beauties of Basque sports. A seven part documentary series he filmed for British TV in 1955, it takes him to Basque country (2 episodes worth), almshouses in England, bullfights in Spain, and the St. Germain-des-pres section of Paris. Two parts are absent from the disc:  The Third Man in Vienna is sadly missing, and  The Tragedy of Lurs , which considers the case of a convicted murderer of a British tourist family, Gaston Dominici, was never completed. Joseph McBride, in Whatever Happened to Orson Welles?, relates that it was “partially restored for French television in 2000, and released with a new documentary written and directed by Christophe Cognet, The Dominici Affair.” These travel essays, veritable home movies, are an immensely enjoyable tour through eccentric pockets of Europe.

Welles, fresh off his globe-hopping thriller Mr. Arkadin, is in a chipper mood throughout, likely happy to be far away from the producers who would cut his films to ribbons (as happened with Arkadin). Peeking his cherubic face into loosely styled interviews with chatty locals, the series is a fascinating glimpse into Welles’ off-camera personality. All the anecdotes about his gregarious camaraderie and booming laugh ring throughout each episode. It’s not completely off-the-cuff, however, as Welles continually comes around to ideas regarding independence, individuality, and the question of dignity in aging.

There is a grab bag of styles throughout the show, with the St. Germain section funneling Welles’ observations through Art Buchwald’s typewriter. Framed as a piece he’s writing about the neighborhood, with Welles as his subject, it opens with an overheated nightclub montage, whip-pans settling under the nose of a clarinet player intercut with furious lindy hoppers. These sensationalistic elements are far afield from Welles’ concerns here, and McBride says that some shots (of Paris intellectuals Jean Cocteau, Simone de Beauvoir, and others) were added by producers after shooting. Even on quickie TV shoots Welles couldn’t get away from studio meddling!

Anyhow, his main subject here is expatriate American eccentric Raymond Duncan, who makes everything he needs, and who says, you should “not need what you cannot make”. Clad in a homemade tunic and sandals, this proto-Beatnik discusses independence, (Duncan: “The greatest thing in the world.” Welles” I say, Here Here!”), the decline of the west as a result of the rise of the pantaloon, and American’s creeping tendency toward conformism. The exchange is lengthy and detailed, and one senses Welles’ sympathies fade only when Duncan mentions that he doesn’t allow women to wear pants at the theater he runs. Welles raises an eyebrow, prods him about the women’s independence, and pivots into the influence of Puritanism on Duncan’s brand of radical freedom.

The section entitled “London” concerns itself with question of aging. The first half of the film finds Welles conversing with a gaggle of giggling old widows, residents of a local almshouse that cares for them. He interrogates them about their politics (they’re all Tories), the length of their stay, and their dining habits. He draws out that none of them invite the others over for dinner, and jovially chides them for their rudeness. This loose dialogue is immensely charming, illuminating the dignity of these poor old women and their curiosity regarding this portly stranger. McBride draws a parallel between this and the following segment with the lost ending of The Magnificent Ambersons. He quotes Welles describing the sequence in a decrepit rooming house as being about “the deterioration of personality, the way people diminish with age, and particularly with impecunious old age.” Contrast this to the statement he makes about the almshouse:

“To be old and indigent is not just an economic problem, it can be a tragedy in human terms, a tragedy of loneliness, a loss of dignity, a loss of the sense of individuality. And that’s why I admire, and I think British people should be so proud of, institutions like this almshouse.”

The second half of the episode talks with three retired soldiers living at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. Welles draws them out about the details of their uniforms, old war stories, and the everyday details of their life, which they discuss with relish. Their lion in winter bearing, as McBride notes, bears a strong resemblance to Richard Bennett’s Major Amberson. They watch as the world passes them by, but maintain their dignity throughout, regardless of their reduced circumstances. Things loosen up even more when they hit the local pub in full regalia, and Welles queries them about their living quarters, concerned that they never have time to themselves. The oldest of the group, at 85, strongly states they have their own small rooms, enough to shut the door and read a book if need be. Stating that those over 90 need additional assistance in the ward, Welles wisely notes that this elderly bull seems like he could live fully for at least another decade. In emphasizing their virility, the man notes that they are enjoying the “evening of life in independent retirement”, repeating the phrase with his two friends, proud of their station in life. Welles quotes it again at the close of the show, as the gentleman stride back to their military home. It’s a beautiful segment, and the high point of the series.

I have yet to mention the delightful Basque section, with its uncanny images of pigeon hunting (and the firecracker bull!), or even the  bullfighting show dryly hosted by Kenneth Tynan and his wife Elaine Dundy, but there’s nothing that can top those old Chelsea warriors, so I won’t even deign to try.