13 January 2006 | EddieK
Only a hint of what Welles could accomplish
Following Orson Welles' fascinating yet tantalizing career can be frustrating for the aficionado. So much of his oeuvre remains hidden from view that each discovery from the archives is greeted with an inordinate amount of enthusiasm. Take this intriguing yet relatively disappointing collection of documentaries Welles directed for British TV in the 1950s.
The documentary series explores various aspects of European Culture. Welles takes his camera in search of Basque country, Spanish bullfights, the idiosyncratic denizens of Paris' St Germain des Pres, and the loquacious and venerable Chelsea Pensioners. The "St Germain des Pres" episode best typifies the offbeat subject matter. Welles spends most of his time interviewing a commune dweller who makes his own clothes. After that, Welles dashes through the town, capturing glimpses of celebrities like Jean Cocteau and Eddie Constantine ("Lemmy Caution"), before discovering a group of "Letterists" who are dedicated to (you guessed it) inventing new letters.
Unfortunately, Welles' typically low budget and the nature of the subject matter limit his range of cinematic expression. Despite the exotic and obscure locales, most of the footage consists of relatively static interviews, captured in long takes with obligatory reaction shots of Welles inserted to break up the monotony. Even the bullfight episode lacks the dynamic footage one might expect; Welles' camera is grounded in the stands, preventing him from getting involved in the action.
The highlight of the series is the second Basque episode. True, the first few minutes repeat the introduction from the first Basque show, but after that Welles has a lot of fun interviewing kids playing 'pelote' (a game similar to jai alai). Welles gets his camera into the pelote action, and seems rejuvenated by the subject matter. An 11-year old boy joins Welles and acts as a tour guide for the rest of the show. The episode ends dramatically, with Welles quoting a Basque aphorism against a night sky lit by fireworks.
For a better example of Welles' creativity in the documentary genre, check out his 1974 essay film, "F for Fake." "Around the World with Orson Welles" is a far more pedestrian effort, but it should whet the appetite of Welles fans who continue to search for "lost classics" among the great director's oeuvre.