Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Orson Welles documentary killed by musak

The very splendid Simon Callow is touring England doing readings from the third volume of his biography of Orson Welles, which is making its way to the top of my reading list. I was within a couple of hours of going to his reading in Norwich this week but couldn’t sensibly afford the £17.50 train fare on top of the £19.50 for a ticket to attend the reading, so I consoled myself by watching Magician, the new documentary about Welles. Callow appears in it, of course, as do many of the good folk you want to see in a documentary about Welles (Bogdanovich, et alia), and there is a fair shake of footage from Leslie Megahey’s peerless film about Welles (in fact, about three quarters of the interview footage of Welles is from BBC documentaries), but the film itself is poor. It’s so skimpy it’s like a trailer to a film about Welles. There is no imagination at all in the selection of clips. Guess which clips they showed from The Third Man? Correct. From Citizen Kane? Correct. And can you guess which clips they showed from Touch of Evil? Of course you can. And I’ll say it here that if you really want to watch the greatest tracking shot in cinema you won’t find it in a film by Orson Welles. You’ll have to watch The Music Lovers by Ken Russell. Anyone can track with a camera when you are shooting in black-and-white and all you are tracking around is mute objects. For the mighty tracking shot introduction to a performance of the Piano Concerto in The Music Lovers, Ken Russell brings in a small army of talking walking people for his Panavision camera crew and sound recordist team to follow, frame, and listen to. But getting back to the Welles documentary, the biggest failing of Magician, and it is a terminal one, is that the wholly unimaginative choice of film clips extends to the choice of soundtrack music, and to its appalling use. For the most part it comprises of badly performed musak versions of the blandest most obvious Classic FM favourites. Then the director really puts his boot through the bottom of the bucket. I would have hoped that someone on the production team tried to stop him from playing the musak over the dialogue and over the clips of Welles’s films. But they failed. Perhaps the conversation went something like this:

Sensible person on the production crew: “The musak is too loud. It’s covering up the words, and when you use it over the top of the great Cathedral shots in F for Fake it looks like Welles has lost his talent and his mind.”

The Director: “No. When people pay top dollar to see a documentary about Orson Welles, what they are really paying for is badly played musak. Classical favourites in funkily naff new arrangements.”

"Don’t they want to listen to what the experts are saying? and what Welles is saying?”

“No. They want to hear Musak. They’ve paid for the Musak."

“No one pays for musak."

“They do when they a buy a ticket to this film. Ask anyone to name the five most overused pieces of classical music in film history, music for people who know nothing about music, and I’ll bet you that the five most popular pieces are in my film. That’s called Marketing. That’s why I’m the director and that’s why you have been employed to turn the musak up like I’ve told you to. I mean, it’s a common complaint these days. You hear it all the time. People coming out of the cinema complaining that they couldn’t hear the musak because the actors are talking over it. I admit it says ‘Welles’ on the poster. But what I’m really selling here is Musak.” 

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