IT'S ALL TRUE
It's All True (1993) dir. Richard Wilson, Myron Meisel, Bill Krohn [based on salvaged footage from the 1942 Orson Welles docu-drama It's All True] original cine by Floyd Crosby & Joe Noreigo [Bonito], Joseph Biroc, William Howard Greene, Harry J. Wild [Carnaval], George Fanto [4 Men On A Raft] original score by Jorge Arriagada
narrator: Miguel Ferrer
Paramount Pictures/Les Films Balenciaga
the Shadow flies south
Dec 7, 1941. The Japanese attack Pearl Harbour and America is at war. A couple of months later Nelson Rockefeller asks you to go to South America as a cultural ambassador. Well maybe you're strung out from your radio shows and movie projects... but hell, you're a patriot, so you pop another Dexedrine, head for Miami, catch the clipper for Rio, arrive just in time for the Carnival.
Actually, you have other reasons to fly south. For one, you've had second thoughts about marrying Dolores del Rio, despite her nifty bank account and thrillingly erotic underwear... and for two, you've been wanting to make this nice little art flick which seamlessly mixes documentary and fiction using two or three different stories set in Latin America. If the Feds will pick up some of the tab, then RKO studios will pick up the rest. Fraud? Hell, the concept is in the title: It's All True.
Who are you, exactly? You're Orson Welles, magician, the man who saws beautiful women in half... Orson Welles, radio actor, the man who plays The Shadow... Orson Welles, director, the man who made the greatest Hollywood movie ever, Citizen Kane... Orson Welles, world famous at 27.
the mark of the voodoo
It's All True: a documentary about a documentary... or a documentary about a myth? The fascinating thing about the Wilson-Meisel-Krohn 1993 documentary about the infamous uncompleted Welles film is how it somehow becomes what Welles was aiming for all along. No script? He was the script. The man with the 16 mm Kodak in the middle of the dancing, perfumed mob of the Carnival is following the narrative instinct of the era: the lst person singular, where "I" is the unity. He could be Henry Miller, he could be Antonin Artaud... but in this case, he's Orson Welles, artist provocateur, a man well-schooled in the use of the new media to sell his personality.
In the 30s and 40s, the lst person narrative was a revolt against the institutionalized documentary narrative of the 3rd person... and the omniscience of the hidden persona. Like most artists, Welles was always at the centre of his work, whether he used a mask or not. His newspaper columns and radio spots were often unorganized improvs on political and cultural themes of the moment.
Today we see It's All True as a fragment made whole, a portrait of an auteur at work. Like the work of Sophocles or Homer or any number of ancients, the surviving sequences of Welles' Latin American film exist in myth, which in turn become the story, an interrupted history salvaged by legend. In a strange irony, there was never any need for Welles to complete It's All True, as the entire action is simply a background to his own story. Welles is a cult not because of his successes like The War of the Worlds or Citizen Kane, but because of his supposed failures, of which It's All True is the keystone.
It isn't surprising that politics eroded the cultural agenda of the Welles good-will mission. The authorities in both countries wanted something "pretty", a superficial view of Brazil that would encourage tourism rather than criticism and cries for social justice. Because the autocratic President Vargas had dismantled the Praza Onze -- the boulevard the Carnival traditionally used as its route -- and Welles decided to use the samba anthem "Farewell Praza Onze" as his soundtrack, his populist position was immediately anti-establishment. When he decided voodoo was the root of the carnival samba, and started filming in the favelas, the slum shanty towns on the hills of Rio, his cultural position was again anti-establishment.
Worse still, when the brass at RKO back in Hollywood viewed the rushes, they were unimpressed. "He's just shootin' a bunch of jigaboos jumpin' up and down, y'know?" is how Welles himself describes the studio reaction. So they cut off the money and It's All True was doomed.
But of course Welles has another more romantic explanation for the failure. The witch doctor who was contracted to lead the voodoo ceremonies sank a six inch steel needle through the "script" when told there was no more money. The needle had a piece of red thread, no doubt taken from the red suit that Welles wore as he filmed and danced in the Carnival procession.
All true... or just a Welles fiction?
My Friend Bonito
The Mexican story about a boy and his pet bull was already being filmed by a second unit under Norman Foster before Welles flew to Rio. Shot in black and white, the action details the strange ritual known as "the blessing of the animals", and has a child-like Antonin St. Exupery "Little Prince" feel to it. Legions of children and adults bring their pets and livestock to the village church to be blessed by the priest. Cats, dogs, chickens, mules, cattle, horses... creatures great and small. We don't really have time to consider the anthropology behind this charming fragment. The leaping sheep as seen through the church portal or the children running with their pets indicates a "peaceful kingdom" vibe in a world without brutality. The usual high and low-angle shots we associate with the Welles theatre style tantalize and leave us wondering about what might have been.
Bonito was based on a story by the acclaimed documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty, who is surely a stylistic marker for Welles in the S.A. project. Flaherty's recurring elemental subject of Man and Nature, seen in his classic Nanook of the North (1922), and more obviously in Man of Aran (1934), is the template for Welles, especially for the third story, Four Men On A Raft.
And the samba story? That's all Dolores del Rio....
Most of the budget was spent -- or squandered -- during this story. Welles says he intended most of the 16 mm footage to be source material, to be restaged and refilmed in color on a soundstage later. By itself, the pandemonic dancing and "perfume wars" was insufficient, which is why Welles decided to shoot a voodoo ceremony in a favela, give drama to the action as well as trace the source of the samba.
The Wilson-Meisel-Krohn documentary uses the Carnival footage as a frame for their story of the Welles S.A. adventure. It opens with a sketched portrait of a witch doctor and Welles explaining his mission to Rio and his interest in the samba, closes with color footage of the Carnival, and a radio clip of Welles and Carmen Miranda explaining the various percussions used in the samba. Welles says he had in mind to actually intercut the third story about the voyage of the jangadeiros (Four Men On A Raft) with sequences from the Carnival.
We can see the possibilities here for dramatic contrast. The primitivism and poverty of the Fortaleza fishermen contrasted against the urban orgy of Rio in the throes of the Carnival would be one way of capturing the soul of modern Brazil. The cut-in method of the newsreel would be used, something Welles had done before in film and radio.
The Carnival as a subject was later brilliantly realized in Marcel Camus' 1958 film Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro) wherein the Orpheus-Eurydice legend is used as a storyline, skillfully using the samba as a soundtrack and voodoo as a desperate resort by the distraught Orpheus -- a Rio tramdriver, guitarist and samba leader -- to reclaim his dead girlfriend Eurydice, murdered by an anonymous Carnival figure costumed as "Death". Did Camus get the idea for his film from Welles? No doubt, just as Welles himself was probably influenced by the lightweight musical Flying Down To Rio (1934) in which his then current paramour Dolores del Rio had a significant role, dancing the samba with Fred Astaire.
Four Men On A Raft
This story survives almost intact, although there are a few transitions that seem abrupt, as if footage is missing. This part of It's All True could be described as a work of love, a work of social commitment, as Welles had been abandoned by the studio with only minimal resources and a skeleton crew of devotees. "Minimal" means little money, a silent camera and black and white film stock.
How he came by the story of the four fishermen from Fortaleza has been well-documented. A feature in Time Magazine, the 1600 mile voyage was seen in Homeric terms, even if the adventure was relatively uneventful. Yet it gripped the imagination of the Brazilian public and gained the sympathy of President Vargas, who agreed to extend the social benefits the fishermen and their families had previously been denied.
The cinematic poetry of the big landscape of sky and sea is reminiscent of the classic silents of Eisenstein. No metric montaging to be sure, but we can see Eisenstein in the photographic grouping of the characters and the preference for large groupings seen in the long view, made small yet heroic in the face of an impersonal Nature. One of the most impressive sequences is when the body of the drowned fisherman is carried in a litter from the ocean to a primitive graveyard high on the dunes. We see the entire village strung along the ridges of the dunes, men, women and children, in a grim procession whose ultimate destination might be in the sky itself. The beauty is in the diagonal bisection of Time and Space. The shaping of the clouds is the shaping of the dunes, as if one is a reflection of the other.
Welles used his live theatre experience to good effect in this low budget re-enactment. The fishing community became his ensemble, eagerly participating in his fictional insert, namely, the romance and marriage of the young fisherman and a village girl (played by a then thirteen year old, Francisca Moreira da Silva, who is interviewed in the Wilson-Meisel-Krohn documentary, along with family members of the four jangadeiros). His premature death is the crisis which forces the village into action, and four volunteers decide to sail south and appeal for help. The journey is a journey through history, from a peasant feudal society to a bourgeois industrial society. Their arrival in Rio is remarkable for its juxtaposition of cultures. The crude raft with its white sail and simple crew materializes in the bay of a sophisticated city noted for its modernist tropical architecture and beautiful multi-cultural women. Women in swimsuits and shades loll on the sand as they and their playboy consorts look towards the commotion on the water. Fishing boats and pleasure craft swarm out to meet the smiling, triumphant jangadeiros. A military Stuka fighter plane makes a low pass....
What we don't see is the big "double wave" that capsizes the raft during the filming of the heroic jangadeiros' entry into Guanabara Bay, Rio. We don't see all four jangadeiros being tossed into the water and their leader Jacare disappearing below forever. The same day RKO cuts the funding and Welles, trapped by loyalty to his subject and the memory of Jacare, is forced to continue his film by whatever resources he can muster. Naturally, the irony of Jacare's death also becomes a point of political concern: he could survive the original 1600 mile voyage unscathed, yet drowns when performing a simple re-enactment at the behest of a party boy Hollywood director.
Thus Welles inserts the drowning of the newly married fisherman at the beginning, a symbolism for Jacare's Fortune denied.
the ambassador wears a blue silk kimono
One, two... one two three four. Etc. Face it, all this dancing makes a man horny. You have your own samba, your own camera, and these aggressive ladies just love an American movie man who can dance. Besides, they know about you and Dolores, so they just have to have a piece of the action. Quickies before lunch, quickies after lunch... all arranged by your secretary who discreetly pretends to see it as business. President Vargas knows it isn't business, though... his spies are always watching, always reporting the erotic details. His spies, always watching... the names, the details... his spies, his movie.
Maybe one of them was the husband of that lovely creature, what's-her-name, was the person who took a shot at you as you lolled on your hotel bed in a blue silk kimono. Bullet tears a hole in the headboard and you swiftly drop to the floor, crawl out to the balcony and escape via the next room. This is nothing, you already rehearsed this sorta action, last night you were in Hollywood, that movie you and Joe Cotton and Dolores made together, Journey Into Fear... only that time you fell from the parapet to your doom. This time you take the elevator, slip out into the throng on the Avenida Atlantica... take refuge in an art gallery where you mingle with some Brazilian acquaintances who insist you join them at a bordello for the evening. No problem. You're already dressed for the occasion... and nothing like a close encounter with a bullet to stimulate a man's libido.
Ah, Rio! Takes a heavy toll on the body and the expense account. It's tough being a cultural ambassador when some people think you're a commie, others, a Nazi.
One, two... one two three four... you hate carnivals, actually. You hate all those lunatics spraying you with their atomizers as they dance around... it ain't perfume, buddy, it's ether... that's right, ether. They're all stoned outta their damn minds... so how can you avoid being stoned yourself?
failure and mysticism
"It began a pattern of trying to finish a film which has plagued me ever since," says the older Welles, indignantly recalling the fiasco of It's All True. Fact is, he did try to finish it. He paid two hundred grand for the unprocessed footage of Four Men On A Raft, worked on it during lunch breaks and at night as he played Rochester in Jane Eyre. He had a deal to buy the rest of the film, predicated on the success of his theatre production of Around The World In Eighty Days... but the show was a financial flop, and so the fate of It's All True was a slow fade into failure and mysticism.
When Scott Fitzgerald died, he left The Last Tycoon unfinished, another work from the same Hollywood period. Like the Welles movie, the mystery of its interrupted narrative becomes mystical as the curious impose their fantasies on the design and create a mythology. Coleridge's Kubla Khan, Byron's gothic novel.... The history of art is the blending of fragments and myth. Even work that appears to be finished exists as a extension of a mystery -- if it's any good.
© LR 11/02
*Background info from Barbara Leaming's 1985 bio Orson Welles and Charles Higham's 1985 study Orson Welles: the rise and fall of an American genius
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