Da capo (da ka`po) adv. Abbr. DC Music From the beginning. Used as a direction to repeat a passage. [Italian : da, from + capo, head.]
– The American Heritage Dictionary (1)
What does the phrase ‘the cinema of Orson Welles’ evoke? For too many, its meaning is limited to the 12 feature films Welles completed and released during his lifetime. But there is more to Welles than what we think we know of him: for every one of those 12 features, there are dozens of unseen works of varying stripes: fragments, test shots, rushes, and even a few nearly finished films which, for various reasons (usually legal or financial), Welles was unable to complete or release during his lifetime. In the category of ‘nearly finished films’ is The Deep, a thriller shot in the late ’60s upon which Welles suspended work either because his leading man, Laurence Harvey, had died unexpectedly or because he simply decided there were more important projects to funnel his money into. Another almost complete work is The Other Side of the Wind, a satire of Hollywood made between 1970 and 1976; the film was reportedly fully shot and partially edited by Welles when legal complications involving the film’s financiers prohibited him from completing a final cut. Welles also toiled quite happily on Don Quixote from 1955 until his death, making it perhaps the most famous Welles film viewed as ‘lost.’ Jonathan Rosenbaum, for one, believes that the raw footage (not the version Jess Franco stitched together in 1992) constitutes an achievement greater than either of the two projects mentioned above. And even this inventory – which doesn’t take into account the plethora of rougher, more openly unfinished works Welles left behind – is merely cursory.
Since 1995, the Munich Filmmuseum, which holds most of Welles’ unfinished and unreleased works, has been slowly gathering and assembling the available material for its eventual public presentation and release. The work I’ve been able to view includes intriguing oddities such as Orson Welles’ London, one section of a proposed film for television which Welles completed in the early ’70s but which was never shown publicly. A series of vignettes featuring Welles in a variety of roles – often of a self-mocking nature – London riffs on subjects as diverse as ‘Swinging London’ and Winston Churchill, revealing an unabashedly comic side of the filmmaker never manifested so explicitly in his released work; the film is a delight. Orson Welles’ Magic Show assembles sections of a project Welles shot on and off from 1976 until 1985, intended to be a definitive cinematic record of his best magic tricks, mixed with elements of history and autobiography as well as narrative segments. The Munich assembly includes only the material Welles edited and combined with sound, but even in this highly truncated and abbreviated form, the project has the aura of a major work. Perhaps Welles would have transformed the material into a radical, freeform essay in the manner of F For Fake (1975). As it stands, the film possesses all of the mystery and enigmatic command of any great magic show and confirms Welles’ own mastery of the form.
Until the work in Munich is complete, a proper vision of the cinema of Welles must remain elusive, a veritable series of partial understandings and half-glimpses. The released Welles canon is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the work this filmmaker produced during his lifetime and – at best – a fundamentally abridged guide to his extraordinary gifts and lifelong preoccupations.
II. The Dreamers
For me, the most tantalising of all of the projects Welles was unable to complete or release during his lifetime is The Dreamers. Written in 1978 in collaboration with Oja Kodar – Welles’ closest companion and most important creative collaborator during the last two decades of his life – and continually revised until his death, the script is based on two stories by Isak Dinesen (née Karen Blixen), “The Dreamers” and “Echoes.” From them, Welles and Kodar wove the tale of opera singer Pellegrina Leoni, who, after losing her voice in a fire, determines to abandon her life, wishing from then on to lead the lives of many. Her friend, the merchant Marcus Coccoza (later changed to “Kleek” by Welles and Kodar), follows her around the world, a faintly perceptible presence who watches over her. The musical term ‘da capo,’ which translates literally as “from the beginning,” is used throughout the Dinesen stories and was the original title of the screenplay, its metaphors of starting over and beginning again being of obvious relevance.
Dinesen was Welles’ favourite author and he had long yearned to bring her work to the screen, a task he ‘officially’ achieved only once with his stunning 60-minute adaptation of Dinesen’s “The Immortal Story” (produced by French television in 1968, this is perhaps the most poetic and evocative of the late works he was able to finish and release). Besides being the film critic for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum has written extensively and astutely on Welles, serving as the editor of This is Orson Welles and authoring numerous articles on the director. Rosenbaum suggests a number of reasons why The Dreamers may stand as the most personal of his late projects: “One thing that is quite interesting to me – and I’ve argued this before – is that Welles was most personal on his adaptations. Some people think that Citizen Kane (1941) and The Big Brass Ring are really personal, and they are in a way. But in fact he was even more personal on Don Quixote and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). These are the most personal of his works, along with Chimes at Midnight (1965) and The Dreamers” (2).
“I think The Dreamers is personal for several reasons,” Rosenbaum continues.”It’s personal because of the fantasy of being other people. And because of Oja and the importance of Isak Dinesen.” Another who shares this conviction is Bill Krohn, a prolific author and film critic who has been the Hollywood correspondent for Cahiers du cinéma since 1978. In 1985, he reported the discovery of major portions of Welles’ aborted Brazil documentary – long thought lost – which were later released posthumously as It’s All True (1993). This places him in a unique position to assess the merits of unfinished works by this great director. Three years before he ‘rediscovered’ It’s All True, Krohn interviewed Welles for Cahiers and touched briefly on the resonance between the story of The Dreamers and Welles’ life and career. “When we got around to F for Fake, he proudly pointed out that there wasn’t a single Welles shot in it, partly because some of the material was shot by [Francois] Reichenbach but also because he said he’d gotten sick of doing Welles shots. And he said that in The Other Side of the Wind, there was nothing by him. There was either stuff shot by Jake – the director played by John Huston, which was an interesting style but Welles said not his – or it was stuff shot by AFI students with a variety of cameras. I said, ‘Well it sounds like your motto could be Pellegrina’s motto in “The Dreamers”: ‘From now on, Marcus, I will not be one person. I will be many people.’ And he said, ‘We shot that line last night.’” (3).
Krohn goes on, “In terms of the script and the story, it was an attempt at a summing-up, I think, of the period of wandering and independence. And he did identify with that line, ‘I’m going to be many people now.’” It’s hard not to agree with Rosenbaum’s and Krohn’s sentiments. Unlike The Big Brass Ring – another Welles and Kodar script written in the early ’80s – The Dreamers was never conceived as an explicitly commercial project. (In fact, it was only after Welles was unable to find studio financing for The Dreamers that his friend, filmmaker Henry Jaglom, suggested he write what became The Big Brass Ring, with the caveat that a role for a bankable male lead be written into it (4).) In this sense, The Dreamers may perhaps be regarded as a purer look into Welles’ heart than its more famous cousin (which, after all, is more famous largely due to its posthumous publication and later filming by the director George Hickenlooper), a grand summation of the themes which obsessed Welles for most of his life, told with the words of a writer he loved.
When I suggested to Oja Kodar that The Dreamers may have been the most personal of Welles’ late projects, she first corrected me by saying that The Cradle Will Rock – Welles’ unproduced autobiographical screenplay about his efforts to stage Marc Blitzstein’s opera of the same name in 1934 – was, in her view, his most personal, while also stressing his ongoing, never-ending struggle to complete The Other Side of the Wind (5). But Kodar went on to say that in many respects The Dreamers was indeed a singularly personal endeavour for Welles, commenting, “The fact that he fought for The Dreamers for a very long time and spent a lot of money and started shooting something – as usual with his own money – in that respect, maybe one could refer to this project as his last most important thing.” And when I relayed to her Krohn’s opinion – one that I share – that Welles identified profoundly with the dream of Pellegrina, she said, without hesitation, “Absolutely. In that sense, yes.” Describing how he envisioned the project to Krohn, Welles said, “Well, it’s on a large scale, but it must be awfully perfectly and beautifully done, on a slightly unreal basis because it’s true Gothic romance, you know, it’s heavily romantic and dreamlike and so on” (6). The script, tantalisingly suggestive of this vision, is one of the finest I’ve ever read.
III. A Home-Made Movie
And yet, as Welles also indicated to Krohn, it is not unproduced in the precise definition of the term. The Dreamers was never completed or released, but Welles shot around 25 minutes of material for the film (excluding retakes) in 35mm 1:85 widescreen between 1980 and 1982. Initially, this footage was almost certainly intended as tests or ‘promo’ material to interest potential producers or financiers; the very first series of shootings in 1980 unambiguously were made for that purpose (7). But when Welles was unable to find outside financing (Hal Ashby’s then-newly formed company, Northstar, expressed interest initially, providing seed money for Welles to do a rewrite of the script only to back out once they read the new draft (8); Oja Kodar also remembers the script being rejected by Miramax and the BBC (9)) a reasonable interpretation is that he began to simply shoot the film himself in earnest, by fits and starts. Given that Welles had been consistently self-financing his own projects for upwards of a decade by the time he came to The Dreamers – and had first done so with his masterful independent production of Othello (1952) 30 years earlier – it’s hardly surprising that he would begin filming without outside funding or a full cast in place. (The Other Side of the Wind had been shooting for four years before John Huston was cast as its lead character, Jake Hannaford; Welles simply shot around the character until then.)
Gary Graver – Welles’ indispensable and brilliant cameraman who photographed all of his film projects after 1970 – argues against this interpretation, saying, “Because he never intended to go on and make the whole feature with his own money or anything like that. So people think that it’s another unfinished work. That’s not true. It was never intended to be finished with his money” (10). For her part, Kodar believes Welles would have continued to make the film with his own money (11), but what matters in the end is that both Kodar and Graver agree most of the material Welles did shoot would have ended up in the final film. “Because of the lack of money and so on, we tried to shoot in our own garden and he wanted to see how this would look and so on,” Kodar says. “But very often, the demos would turn out so well that everything we shot on Hollywood Boulevard would have been in the finished film.” This suggests that there’s great validity to Rosenbaum’s belief that the distinction between test or promo footage and footage intended for a finished work may not be even worth making in the case of a director like Welles.
Rosenbaum says, “Welles sometimes changed his mind about things. So he might have done it for one reason one time and wound up using it another way another time. It’s very hard to get the idea of fixed plans with Welles. I think he constantly shifted. So, consequently, I think that it’s a kind of an unanswerable question.” Furthermore, as Krohn reminds us, “You know, he said he was shooting tests for Citizen Kane when he was shooting footage that went into the film.” In Krohn’s interview with Welles, the director offered his own spin on his idiosyncratic way of working, speaking here specifically of what he had completed on The Dreamers: “Whenever I get interested in a movie I’m going to make, I often do a scene or two of it, which gives rise to the legend of my not finishing movies. What I’m really doing is trying to find out how I want to make the movie. You know, I should call them tests or something.”
The footage Welles left features only two actors, Kodar as Pellegrina and himself as Marcus. However, Kodar remembers Welles mentioning Timothy Dalton for the leading role of Pellegrina’s lover in one of her many lives, Lincoln Forsner; Peter Ustinov as Baron Clootz; Oliver Reed as Guildenstern; Bud Cort as Pilot; and Welles’ old friend Jeanne Moreau as an old woman who is seen at a nightclub in Venice at one point in the script. For the crucial role of Emmanuelle – a boy whom Pellegrina meets and discovers to have a voice startlingly similar to her own prior to her tragedy – he thought about casting an unknown Mexican boy (12) .Perhaps at a different stage, Welles envisioned a cast entirely comprised of mostly unknown actors. As Graver recalls, “We were going to shoot it in Europe and he was going to use English actors, because they were close and they were better than Hollywood actors. That’s what I remember, about the actors. So we really didn’t have a cast…they were going to be young, up-and-coming English actors from the theatre or just starting out in movies.” Either way, one can presume that these roles would have been cast once Welles either found funding or resigned himself to shooting the entire film with his own money.
IV. “The Three Of Us”
Welles used his Hollywood home as his set. As Kodar told Stefan Droessler of the Munich Filmmuseum in an interview conducted in 2002, “…our house, just 30 metres from Hollywood Boulevard, was simply turned into a 19th century Milanese villa…As I said we had little money and the only expenses Orson could afford was to order a piece of iron fence, three or four metres of fence, which you can see in the scene of Pellegrina’s last farewell to Marcus Kleek. It was the only set design we used in our house” (13). The production was, to say the least, minimalist. The crew was essentially comprised of Welles, Kodar, and Graver, with Welles wearing, as he had since his earliest days in the theatre, many different hats, a fitting metaphor for a film about a character who dreams of living the lives of many different people. Kodar says, “Oh, he did everything. He even sometimes physically would pick up a light or something and fix it somewhere where he thought it should be. Orson is really the gaffer, the electrician, the focus puller” (14).
Graver characterises his collaboration with Welles this way: “Well, Orson did it all. I mean, basically the way we worked was, it was his eye, his vision and he said what he wanted, and I would suggest certain lights and he would say Yes or No. My responsibility was a technical one, to make sure that the light values were there and that the film stock was correct and that we had the proper exposure.” But the importance of Graver in the late films of Welles can not be underestimated; Welles found in Graver the most magnanimous and loyal of collaborators and it was in collaboration with him that Welles made some of his most adventurous experiments in style and form.
“People would come and go,” Kodar continues. “One evening we would have one focus puller, the other night we would have somebody else. You know, we couldn’t engage the crew and tell them, ‘Now, guys, you are going to work for 10 days or two weeks or something.’ Gary would just bring whoever was free and somebody would come for very, very little pay – or nothing at all – and it was done like that. But basically the three of us – we were the crew.” Kodar remembers it as a happy time, however, and recounted to me an incident which seems to sum up the production’s run-and-gun nature. She says, “We were doing some things with the smoke – he wanted the effect of a mist. And we brought the smoke machines and somebody from the neighbours called the fire department about the smoke. So that big, shiny, wonderful engine comes with those guys dressed in yellow with the helmets on their heads and everything. And the chief of the firemen runs into our yard and, by that time, we knew what was going to happen and we were hiding as quickly as we could all those props. And Orson sat under the tree with his cigar, smoking the cigar. And now the man came and of course he realised that he was shooting something. And Orson innocently looked at him and said, ‘I am enjoying this evening!’ And the guy said, ‘I see, Mr. Welles, but don’t make me believe that all this smoke came out of your cigar!’”
Graver also recalls his time on this Welles set with fondness, saying, “I was never one to tell him ‘No,’ you know. The last scene I think we shot was in the house and Orson kept adding more lights and another generator and kept lighting and lighting and lighting. I said, ‘God, I have to keep running down more lights.’ ‘Well, we need a light out there, we need something over there, we need a backlight, we need a light on the tree.’ So I said, ‘Well, I’m going to need another generator, I’m going to need more crew.’ ‘Well, get ‘em!’ And then, when we were finished and he got the bill, it was like a couple thousand dollars or something. Oh, he got mad at me! He said, ‘What’d you let me do that for!’ I said, ‘Me?’ He said, ‘Gregg Toland shot Citizen Kane with one light in a lot of scenes! Gregg would never do that!’ I said, ‘Well, all right.’ I’m not going to tell him, ‘No, you can’t have those lights !’”
I’ve encountered more than one Welles fan who has scoffed at the idea that Welles shot portions of this elaborate period piece essentially in his living room and backyard. But if John Cassavetes repeatedly used his California home as a principal location for his films, why should we look down at Welles for doing the same? Indeed, it is further testament to the personal, interior nature of this project that Welles would make such a choice, even if was brought on by financial necessity. Rosenbaum believes it is in this sense that the project aligns itself with the work of figures like Cassavetes, Godard, or Mailer, all of whom used their own homes as film sets at various times. “His cinema is a hand-crafted cinema,” Rosenbaum says. “And I think he kind of wanted it that way and that’s why the idea of a big budget project may have kind of been a dream for him.”
Krohn offers his own interpretation, identifying Welles’ cinema during this period as part of a strain he identifies as “M.I.A.” cinema. “I introduced the term M.I.A. for Welles and Nicholas Ray, who had done, of course, We Can’t Go Home Again (1974),” Krohn says. “And I said, you know, these people have been missing, but they’ve been missing in action, meaning that they’ve been working.” Krohn goes on to name King Vidor, Samuel Fuller, and Budd Boetticher as directors whose work came to fall into this category by virtue of the very personal, hand-crafted nature of their late career experimentation. “These are people who didn’t stay around in Hollywood making what I call industrial films, like Don Siegel did, like Robert Aldrich did, but sort of went out to explore the world. Jerry Lewis went to Sweden and made a movie that will probably never be seen. They were seeing a new world opening up for filmmaking and they wanted to flex their muscles in that way,” he continues. “They were sick of Hollywood or probably what Hollywood was turning into. And Welles was the first to leave. So there are a lot of homemade films.”
V. The Dreamers as a Major Welles Film
And what of Welles’ homemade film of The Dreamers? To be sure, it is an incomplete vision – shards and fragments of a larger whole which was never to be. But strewn throughout these pieces are some of the most delicately beautiful – and revolutionary – moments in all of Welles. The most substantial work Welles completed was on two scenes. Set in a monastery where Pellegrina lies dying late in the story, the first scene shows Marcus telling her story to Lincoln Forsner and others off-screen. Photographed in black-and-white, this material is marked by Welles’ supreme oratory gifts and the spartan visuals characteristic of much of his late work. Kodar says she intended to utilise these shots when she hoped to make the film herself in the years after Welles’ death, something Graver believes Welles anticipated in his very decision to shoot the footage. Graver says, “[H]e wanted that done, I think, in a way, in case anything ever happened to him, he would have himself in the picture, setting it all up. Because for the rest of the movie, you could almost have a shadowy figure, lurking around, watching her, watching over her. But he set that up because he wanted Oja to have that footage.”
Developing Graver’s notion of Welles as a literal and figurative shadow in The Dreamers, Kodar says, “Because in many things, you see Orson in a certain sense left me that freedom. Because he had problems with his health, and he planned to shoot a lot of scenes in Toledo and some scenes in the snow in Switzerland and so on, this would have been hard physically on him. And he was planning on using a double. Because, finally, he says, ‘I am your shadow,’ to Pellegrina. And he would have been a shadow all through the film, except, of course, some scenes where we need his voice and so on.” Consequently, Kodar would have required little more than a good vocal double for Welles in order to make the film after his death and still manage to ‘cast’ him as Marcus. She says, “This would have been a little tough. But – maybe wrongly, maybe I think a little too much of myself – I think I would have overcome these difficulties.”
The second major scene Welles began work on was that of Pellegrina’s farewell, her goodbye to Marcus as she sets off to begin the first of many new lives; the ninth revised draft of the screenplay indicates the farewell scene was to be intercut with Marcus’ monologue in the monastery, presented as a flashback. Welles shot this scene twice, both times in luxuriant colour. The first version, set inside Pellegrina’s living room as she and Marcus discuss her plans, is elaborately mounted but plainly incomplete. Welles only left behind audio of his lines; he never made reverse shots of himself and his line readings are done in his own voice, not with the slight accent he speaks with in the other Dreamers material. Kodar says, “This was really a demo. We were trying to see how the scene could work in this poor decor.”
It is, then, the alternate version of the farewell scene which lingers in memory. For this version, Welles chose a different setting, moving the majority of the action outside to Pellegrina’s garden, and pared down the dialogue considerably. Most importantly, though, it may be regarded as essentially complete; indeed, it is apparently the only portion of the work Welles completed on The Dreamers which he left fully edited. Utterly self-contained, on its own terms it’s as much of a Welles movie as Citizen Kane or Chimes at Midnight – and arguably more of a Welles movie than an utterly butchered film such as Mr Arkadin (1955), because it’s all his. As far as Krohn is concerned, this scene exists at the summit of all of The Dreamers material. “For me, the other interior stuff is very nice, but The Dreamers fragments that matter to me – and they matter on the same level as, say, “Kubla Khan: by Coleridge – are the garden fragments, which are edited together and he left really just like that,” he says. “I am moved as I am by very few things in cinema every time I see the garden fragment. It’s like that great Bob Dylan song or that great Beatles song that you can’t get enough of.”
Joseph McBride, author of one of the finest critical studies of Welles ever published, the forthrightly titled Orson Welles, and of a forthcoming biography of the director, lavishes praise on all of the footage Welles shot, saying, “I find the material emotionally haunting and visually enchanting. All the material is beautiful, some of Gary Graver’s best work” (15). But McBride concurs with Krohn that the garden fragment – to adopt Krohn’s useful and eloquent name for it – possesses a special kind of lustre, commenting, “Perhaps the most beautiful shot in The Dreamers is the long shot of Pellegrina in the garden.” In the fragment, we first see Pellegrina standing inside her villa, looking out her shades as she speaks to an off-camera Marcus. She sees a woman outside, and her dream sparks inside her as she says, “Marcus, I could be that woman. And then I could be someone else! There are so many women I could be.” The next shot in the material takes us outside to Pellegrina’s garden, as Kodar enters from screen right and announces to Marcus (voiced by Welles, but – consistent with Graver and Kodar’s descriptions – seen only in shadow) that “Pellegrina is dead” and proceeds to tell him of her plans to live the lives of many people from that point forward.
Welles’ modest set decoration is glimpsed only sporadically in the darkness of night. The photography is tenebrous and black, with pockets of colour – the gold ring Marcus gives Pellegrina before she leaves, for example – enriching Welles’ carefully chosen palette. Always wanting to escape, as Krohn terms it, the “postcard” quality of so much colour photography, Welles finally did so here, in the best scene of his most personal late project. Compositionally, it is an incredibly intimate fragment, comprised substantially of close-ups and medium shots of Pellegrina. One can speculate that just as Welles eventually let go of the brazen stylistic flashiness of his early work by the time he made a work as starkly simple as Chimes at Midnight, he had similarly let go of his oft-publicised disdain for close-ups by the time he made a work as inwardly focused as The Dreamers. Pellegrina moves through her garden tracked by the shadow of Marcus, her protector and idoliser, in the process laying out what is to be the path from now on in her life: always moving, always in transience, but always pursued by her friend. Marcus listens patiently as she states and restates what has become her mission statement: “Oh, Marcus,” she says, “I will be many persons.”
Breathtakingly, in several instances Welles cuts just as Marcus’ figure moves across screen, usually diagonally; Welles’ precision editing is seen to great effect here.She concludes her monologue standing against an iron gate in an image recalling a similar shot of Jeanne Moreau’s Virginie in The Immortal Story and which reflects what she feels has become her imprisonment in the life of Pellegrina, drained as that life is of what gave it its meaning: her voice (16). This scene is about her compulsion – her need – to escape that imprisonment and it becomes about the dream we all have, to greater or lesser degrees, to break free of the imprisonments and invisible fortresses which constitute our own lives.
Developing Krohn’s observation about the relation between Pellegrina’s dream and Welles’ career as a film artist, Graver observes, “Orson had a great style and you can tell it’s Orson, but I’ve always said that Touch of Evil (1957) is totally different than Citizen Kane. And Chimes at Midnight is so much different than The Lady from Shanghai (1947). But yet you feel it’s Orson’s hand on everything. He always wanted to do it different. He never wanted to repeat himself.” For Welles, the imprisonment of fixed cinematic style was just as deadly as the imprisonment of personality. Watching this scene, one has the overwhelming feeling of having located the origin of Welles’ philosophy of diversity and renouncement of authorship, explicated fully in F for Fake and carried over thematically here. The garden fragment concludes with Pellegrina asking plaintively, “What do you think, Marcus, of this paradise they talk about? Is it anywhere?” For a director who continually returned to the idea of lost paradises – Kane’s childhood, the magnificence of the Ambersons before the age of the automobile, Merrie England before Prince Hal’s betrayal – this line can be viewed as a precis of a lifelong obsession. And something more, too, for Pellegrina’s question “Is it anywhere?” calls into doubt the reality of such paradises and whether or not Pellegrina will be able to find one at all, even if she realises her dream and becomes many people.
The sense of loss in Kodar’s voice when she reflects that she can never return to this garden – for it would call to mind Pellegrina’s great triumphs within it – is palpable and devastating, as nakedly emotional a moment as Prince Hal’s rejection of Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight or the flurry of meanings evoked by the single word “rosebud” in Citizen Kane. As beautifully realised as the fragment is from a visual standpoint, it is nonetheless the power and grace of the performances which arguably account for its final greatness, reminding us once again that Welles’ is an actor’s cinema. Kodar shines, fully justifying Welles’ intent to have her star in the film. Her reading of the line “Left to right, Marcus, but never home again” – referring to Pellegrina’s decision to leave her villa and her life, and to the ring Marcus has given to her, which he says will guide her “left to right” – is a stunning moment, as finely acted as anything in Welles.
In style and overall tenor, the closest analogue to the garden fragment in the released Welles canon is his other Dinesen adaptation, The Immortal Story, with its quietly expressive visual poetry and mournful tone; this should hardly come as a surprise given how adept Welles proved himself there at finding cinematic correlatives to Dinesen’s language and outlook. But I think the garden fragment of The Dreamers may be even greater and it is surely more personal, and not only for Welles. The Dreamers represents the apex of Welles’ creative association with Oja Kodar, his dearest friend, collaborator, and muse. As Kodar describes her collaboration with Welles to me, she downplays her role in the writing and conception of The Big Brass Ring to place emphasis on her level of involvement in The Dreamers. “The fact is that in The Dreamers, I really worked a lot with Orson. I would say that my input was very, very big,” Kodar explains. “There are erotic scenes that would have been probably, after The Other Side of the Wind, the most erotic film Orson ever made. And that, for example, is not in the script. He called me ‘my erotic expert.’”
As Graver explains it to me, Kodar’s participation in The Dreamers was fundamental, saying, “Oh yeah. She became more and more involved in the writing and everything and the production. Of course, Oja knew Orson before I did for five or six years, but as he got to trust us, he would have us go out and do things for him. Like scenes, you know, that didn’t involve major actors. On The Other Side of the Wind, he’d say, ‘You guys go do it.’ And he’d draw a sketch and say, ‘Here’s what I want.’” Kodar goes on to pinpoint her own deep-seated identification with the character of Pellegrina, saying, “I would hate to be pompous or pretentious, but I still am and I have been many different persons. I had these different professions and I travelled a lot. And in many ways – and God forgive me for saying this – I am Pellegrina. And it’s a kind of intimate thing which I am going to say, but at the same time he has been my Marcus Kleek and he has been all those lovers that were after her. In my life, I did run away from him a couple of times. And he did chase me.”
Kodar’s directorial debut, Jaded (1989), has some tenuous connections with The Dreamers. While this completely idiosyncratic film is fully Kodar’s own work – and, apart from one sequence, contains nary a reference to Welles’ cinema – echoes of The Dreamers are felt throughout, in the profession of the leading character (an opera singer) and in the (largely implied rather than stated) desire of the characters’ to escape their lives. Wonderfully photographed by Graver in typically low-budget conditions, the film is set in the seediest parts of Venice, California and a running joke makes reference to the disparity between that Venice and the ‘real’ Venice, the Venice of the characters’ dreams. If nothing else, these parallels indicate just how deeply Kodar responded and related to the story of The Dreamers.
Yet I fear that despite all of what I’ve just written – the importance of Kodar and Dinesen, the reverberations that the stories’ themes had on Welles’ life and cinema, and the singularity of much of the work he completed on this film – that there persists a knee-jerk tendency to reject The Dreamers fragments as a part of the Welles oeuvre because they are just that: fragmentary, incomplete, lacking the context which would have given them meaning and value. While it would be foolhardy, even destructive to argue that this tiny portion of The Dreamers would be preferable to the whole Welles wanted to complete, it would be equally silly to deny the magnitude and importance of what he did complete on the basis that it doesn’t conform to our notions of what is or is not acceptable kinds of cinema. Film may be the only art form where there is no market for, or general acceptance of, unfinished or fragmentary work. But, one may rhetorically ask, if such work is respected, studied, and adored by those who respond to it in other forms, such as music and poetry, why shouldn’t we adopt that same attitude in the cinema?
Krohn’s comparison of the garden fragment in The Dreamers to Coleridge’s poetic fragment “Kubla Khan” strikes me as particularly apt and provides a useful starting point, a way of legitimising of the Welles material by finding equivalents to it in the other arts. The difficulty, as always, is finding a way to make cinematic fragments available in, if not a commercial domain, then a public domain; without a release of some sort, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever begin to be accepted as part of the Welles canon, let alone find appreciative audiences. The Munich Filmmuseum’s assembly of The Dreamers makes significant progress towards this ideal, standing as it does as the only way most viewers are likely going to be able to see the footage, at least in the short term. Because of this, it seems important that the assembly has drawn praise from those who care most passionately about this material. Krohn is satisfied that it preserves the garden fragment untouched, while integrating the other, more rough material into a comprehensible whole. Indeed, the assembly arguably goes one better than this, inserting the garden fragment as a flashback during Marcus’ monologue in the monastery, where the script indicates it belonged. Joseph McBride says, “I find the assembled material has a certain unity of style and approach that makes it work well despite its fragmentary nature. Though it’s frustrating that Welles left only fragments of the project completed, the fragments are substantial, and the assemblage by Stefan Droessler and his colleagues stands as a coherent condensed film version of the Isak Dinesen stories.” Having premiered at a Welles conference in Mannaheim in the autumn of 2002, the assembly is available to view at the Filmmuseum for those willing to make the trek to Munich. As with so much of the challenging, radical cinema of Welles, the journey is worth it.
VI. New Chapters
Even after Welles’ death, The Dreamers has retained a special hold on those who know and care about it. For seven years, Kodar held onto the rights and laboured to make the film herself. “Like him, I was almost, almost on the edge of making it and then it fell through,” she explains. She is unequivocal in saying that she would not have directed the film without using the footage Welles shot in some manner. Eventually Kodar began shopping the project around to other filmmakers. Rosenbaum – as convinced as Kodar of the necessity to utilise the Welles footage in any future film made of The Dreamers – suggested the name of Chilean master Raul Ruiz. “There was a time when I tried to set up a thing with Raul Ruiz, when I first met Oja. I got her to go to a Raul Ruiz film. And he was interested in doing it. The idea that I had was something that would actually incorporate the Welles footage, because that would be much more interesting than somebody else doing it. I mean, to me the idea of somebody else doing The Big Brass Ring was of practically no interest.” But, for a variety of reasons, the Ruiz project never panned out. At another stage, there was talk that Welles’ friend Peter Bogdanovich might make the film (17).
Bernard Rose, the director of such films as Immortal Beloved (1994) and Ivansxtc. (2002), read the script in the late ’80s. “I went, this is actually really good, it’s a really good, fast-paced kind of romance,” Rose says. “And if you have read the Karen Blixen stories on which it’s based, it’s very, very close. It’s not a distant adaptation at all. So you have to say as much as the script is really good, the thing that’s really, really good are the Karen Blixen short stories. Both of them” (18). Contrasting sharply with director George Hickenlooper’s decision to rewrite Welles’ and Kodar’s script for The Big Brass Ring when he made it into a film in 1999, Rose intended to remain faithful to the original screenplay. “I don’t think it needs rewriting. I actually think it’s really good the way it is,” Rose says. “I just think what was wonderful about it was this sort of ten layers of storytellers – stories within stories within stories within stories – and he handles that with such ease in the screenplay.”
Rose came close to filming the screenplay in the late ’80s with producer Tim Bevan at Working Title. In the mid-’90s, he and producer Denise DiNovi pitched the idea to Amy Pascal at Columbia. “We walked into her office and she said, ‘Well, what’s your idea?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s this old Orson Welles script…’ And I think I got about that far into the pitch and then Amy Pascal went, ‘Oh no, I’m not doing that!’” Though Rose may have come closest of anyone to making the film happen in a studio context – including Welles himself – he remains pessimistic about its commercial chances. “You’re not talking about an easy sell to take that film in to raise money from anyone because you can’t really make that film for less than $15 million,” he says. “It’s a big period piece, it’s got quite a large cast in it, and it’s long, too –ì you’d be lucky to get out with a running time less than 2:40. And that’s long. And it’s a film that’s wistful and elegiac…how are you going to sell it to an 18-year-old?”
If Rose seems somewhat resigned to the project’s lack of commercial appeal, Rosenbaum believes that Welles never gave up on his belief that his films could reach a mass audience, if only they were released properly. He says: “Generally one thing that I would say that I think was a continuing problem for Welles – because he started out as a figure in the mainstream – is that in the whole latter part of his life, the only kind of commercial chances he had were as an art house filmmaker and he never accepted that. I think it made things harder for him.” Kodar offers her own analysis of why the film has languished unmade for so long even after Welles’ death and as Citizen Kane is routinely selected as the finest American film. “You know, one of my difficulties, I think, was that – not only with that script, but I have the experience with some other things – people are kind of scared of taking something written by Orson Welles. I don’t know why. If there was an unfinished film and somebody wanted to try to find someone to finish it, instead of myself, I would understand that they are afraid. But with a script, I don’t know.”
In Krohn’s estimation, however, the garden fragment is, in its way, enough of a legacy. “I have such a peculiar attitude towards it and it could be mistranslated as David Thomson-ism. But I’m so thrilled with what’s there that I just have not invested much emotion in what might yet be. But if it was done by the right person, it would probably be great.” In the final summation, then, we are left with one remarkable screenplay, less than a half-hour of wonderfully evocative images, and one profoundly beautiful fragment – the garden fragment. “It has its own existence and is part of his oeuvre and should be honoured as such, at the very highest level. But not with the other stuff,” Krohn laughs.. “Not with the inside stuff. Just the stuff in the garden. It’s magical. It’s magical and it’s self-contained. It tells the whole premise. It sets forth the creative framework of Welles reduced to a flitting shadow, soon to disappear completely, and Oja on camera, which is one of the great performances in a Welles film.” Krohn continues, “And it leaves you with a question, What is going to happen with this woman when she goes on her travels? What would happen to me if I did that? What would happen to all of us if we were somehow less tied to what Schopenhauer called the principum individuationis, the ego, the self, the little isolated identity that becomes our cage. And then the last question, What is this paradise that men talk of?”
A valid question may be why Welles shot so little – two major scenes and bits and pieces of others – over such an extended period of time. But Rosenbaum believes what he did achieve was significant considering all of the other projects he had going on during this time – both projects of his own and work he did for others – and, more importantly, that Welles never let go of his own dream of completing The Dreamers. “My own sense is that he didn’t abandon projects.. The one time I met him, I asked him when he abandoned the idea of doing Heart of Darkness.. And he said, ‘I never abandoned it. I still want to do it.’” Kodar sums this thought up about as succinctly as possible, saying, “I repeat all the time – and friends of Orson’s repeat all the time – that it’s not that he didn’t want to finish his movies. It was just that he couldn’t get the money to finish them. So he would stop and then he would pick up again and again and so on.”
Robert Graves once wrote, “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.” Graves was Welles’ second favourite writer after Dinesen, and few filmmakers have exemplified Graves’ axiom better. As an actor, Welles worked for-hire in second-rate films (money without poetry) to earn the funds to subsidise his work as a director (poetry without money), in his final years enacting the dream of his own very particular lost paradise: that of the true independent, the real maverick, quietly and serenely crafting his utterly homemade last things.
VII. “I Dream”
Near the end of the final draft of Welles and Kodar’s screenplay of The Dreamers, there is an exchange between Lincoln and the old storyteller Mira.
I have often asked myself, what would have been if she had lived? What would she have done? She might have become a dancer in Mombossa. She might have gone with us into the highlands on an expedition for ivory or slaves and made up her mind to stay awhile and been honoured by some war-like natives as a witch. In the end, I thought she might have decided to become a pretty little jackal, running about and playing with her shadow, having a little ease at heart, a little fun. On a moonlight night like this, I’ve thought that I could hear her voice up in the hills.
It is true then, you have learned to dream?
I have blown about by many winds, but yes, Mira – by the grace of God – I dream.
For their invaluable assistance in the research of this piece, I offer my particular thanks to Stefan Droessler and Bilge Ebiri. Bill Krohn’s enthusiasm for The Dreamers was a galvanising force for which I am deeply grateful. Additionally, this piece wouldn’t have been possible without the generous cooperation of Gary Graver and Oja Kodar.
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth ed., Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2000.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, interview with the author, March 2003.
- Bill Krohn, interview with the author, April 2003.
- Barbara Leaming, Orson Welles, Viking Press, New York, 1985.
- Oja Kodar, interview with the author, May 2003.
- Bill Krohn, “Entretien avec Orson Welles,” Cahiers du Cinema, 1982
- Stefan Droessler, interview with the author, January 2003.
- Frank Brady, Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles, Scribner, New York, 1989.
- Droessler, 2003.
- Gary Graver, interview with the author, June 2003.
- Stefan Droessler, “Oja as a Gift,” The Unknown Orson Welles (brochure), Munich Filmmuseum, 2002.
- Droessler, 2003.
- Droessler, 2002.
- Kodar, 2003.
- Joseph McBride, interview with the author, May 2003.
- For a discussion of this as it relates to the original Dinesen stories, see Sara Stambaugh, “Isak Dinesen In America,” www.ualberta.ca/~cins/lectures/isak_dinesen.htm. Accessed July 2003.
- Connie Benesch, “As Welles Put It: Just Wait Til I Die’,” Los Angeles Times, June 27, 1997.
- Bernard Rose, interview with the author, March 2003.