DVD Review: Don Quixote
Distribution GCTHV, France, 2003
For many film fans, nothing tantalizes like the prospect of a lost film rediscovered. We've heard the stories of how films thought lost were found again (a print of Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc being discovered in an Norwegian insane asylum) or reconstructed as best possible (Rick Schmidlin's work on Greed), and always hold out hope for similar finds. Then there are projects like some of Orson Welles' films, that have been left incomplete. Most with more than a passing interest in Welles know all about the piecemeal filming of Don Quixote, a film that Welles eventually appeared to treat more as a personal project for his own enjoyment, rather than any kind of commercial enterprise. However erroneously, this was viewed as another example of his wild spending and inability to deliver a film on time and under budget. Never mind that Quixote was not a studio product, and Welles was under no obligations to deliver it to anyone at any time.
Such are the expectations associated with film, that we demand a finished product to enjoy in a theater, and if we aren't given said product, something must have gone wrong, someone must have failed. I imagine Welles got a great amount of pleasure out of making Quixote, and shaping the footage at his leisure, without a producer breathing down his neck. Viewers who watch the misbegotten Jess Franco supervised version of Don Quixote, however, will get the impression that Welles was wasting his time and talent with the mess that shows up here.
The problem for most audiences will be, as with most of Welles' post-1950 independent work, the sometimes shoddy condition of the footage and the absence of a professional soundtrack. Welles either did not dub much of the footage, or the soundtrack material was lost, and as a result, this version of the film has been dubbed, in mediocre fashion, by actors who had nothing to do with the film originally. Their performances (the English ones at least) are lifeless at best. Compounding the problem is the small amount of footage that Welles did dub, leaving a patchwork effect for those watching the English version of the film, not to mention the differences in tone between Welles' performances and the new voice actors. Further, sound effects are at a minimum, so the overall effect is of a badly dubbed film with little sonic atmosphere.
The film itself, as you can read about in the interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum here on the site, is missing sequences Welles shot, such as a movie theater sequence in which Quixote charges a movie screen with his lance. Footage held by Quixote editor Mauro Bonanni was not included in this cut of the film, and the film is poorer for it. Also, material from Welles' 1960 Spanish TV series, In the Land of Don Quixote, is included, despite having no connection to Welles' original conception beyond location. Yet further, Welles' framing device of himself telling the story of Quixote to a young girl played by Patty McCormick was left unused because Welles had wanted to reshoot the footage with his daughter Beatrice. This is simply being silly - he isn't going to re-shoot the footage now, is he? So why not use what's there, regardless of whether he was going to re-shoot it or not? By leaving out this framaing device, the whole structure of the film is sacrificed.
Why exactly Jess Franco was considered the best choice for the project is beyond me, his work as a second unit director on Chimes at Midnight aside; his oeuvre of cheapo porn-horror flicks hardly make him pop to mind as a first tier candidate, regardless of those who would try to assign this guy auteur status. His confusion with what to do with the footage at his disposal is amply displayed in the choppy, boring way the film plays out. However, I shouldn't lay all the blame at Franco's feet, as no doubt many directors would have had difficulty sorting through what Welles left behind, particularly as Welles' ideas about what the film would become changed over the years.
But you're here for a review of the DVD, right? So let's move on to that. The DVD itself is a decent presentation of the film, such as it is, with the sometimes appalling limitations of the footage. Some sequences are rougher than others, but overall video quality is average. Sound is negligible, given the poor dubbing and minimal background sound. The musical score by Daniel J. White is serviceable but otherwise not of much interest. The disc features French subtitles, but selecting the "Film" option from the menu allows the user to view the film without them. Selecting the English version from the subtitles screen forces French subtitles on the picture that cannot be switched off during viewing.
One amusing translation note comes during the scene in which Quixote tries to rescue a woman he perceives to be captured by a dragon (and is actually just riding a Vespa). When the woman (Paola Mori) finally rides off, on the English soundtrack she says "Get stuffed!" The French subtitles read "Go fuck yourself!" I like the French version better, as it's a more shocking response to Quixote's blind chivalry.
In the end, while students of Welles' work will want some kind of copy of this film that is not a blurry, nth generation bootleg, this is not something for the casual film fan, or even the casual Welles fan. Embarrassing to watch and painfully boring to sit through at 114 minutes, this is a project that would have probably been better served as a documentary. Given the impossibility of finishing the film in any conclusive fashion, this was certainly a better option than the stab in the dark that this version represents.
I like to imagine an ultimate DVD or DVD-ROM of Welles' Don Quixote: viewers could watch an in-depth documentary that discussed the often strange, confusing history of the film. As much of the extant footage as available would be included, perhaps on a second disc. Viewers would then be able to look at the strands of the film, and see for themselves what Welles left behind. A pipe dream, obviously, given DVD economics, but preferable to what we have now, which does no justice to Welles' original vision.
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