Recently viewed…and read

welles:graverMaking Movies With Orson Welles
by Gary Graver (with Andrew J. Rausch)
(Scarecrow Press; 2008)

Secured a copy of Gary Graver’s memoir Making Movies With Orson Welles through an interlibrary loan (all the way from the University of Alberta library in Edmonton). The book was released by Scarecrow Press and is fairly hard to find. I’m guessing it wasn’t a massive print run.

I fear Orson isn’t as highly favored by film fans these days–“Citizen Kane” even lost its coveted Best Ever status when the critics consulted by Sight & Sound inexplicably chose “Vertigo” as the new All Time Greatest Movie a few years back.

“Vertigo”? Really?

Welles’ films are hard to find and they were chronically hamstrung by production delays, minuscule budgets. Welles became a master editor in order to disguise their shortcomings (anyone who has any doubt need only watch the cutting of the battle scene in “Chimes at Midnight” or the attempted assassination of Cassio in “Othello”). In the final two decades of his life, Welles struggled to secure funds to complete projects, increasingly isolated by an industry that favored youth over experience, big concepts and blockbusters over the classics. It is appropriate that he and Graver shot test footage for what would have been his last great stab at Shakespeare, an adaptation of “King Lear”. Lear, another old man who lived past his time, cast out, left to rage and snarl in the wilderness (and, oh, yes, Orson could snark and fulminate with the best of them, as Henry Jaglom’s tape recorder attests).

Gary Graver came along during the great man’s decline, offering his services, rounding up crews whenever O.W. had a whim to shoot more footage for “The Other Side of the Wind” or whatever hackwork was paying the bills that particular month. Circumstances forced them to adopt the tactics of guerilla film-makers and Orson pieced together what he could salvage, incorporating the footage into projects that dragged on through several American presidencies.

Mr. Graver’s collaborator, Andrew J. Rausch, and Welles biographer Joseph McBride do their best to assure us of Mr. Graver’s peerless prowess as a B-roll, second unit director and/or highly esteemed cameraman of classics like, er, “Satan’s Sadists”. But the truth is that by 1970, when Graver met Welles, the latter was in an artistic funk, desperate for whatever help he could get. Graver was in the right place at the right time and he knew how to load film in a camera. Welcome aboard, son

As a memoir, Making Movies With Orson Welles is more of an oral history–choppy and episodic and structurally creaky. For Welles fans, there are some glimpses of his stubborn genius, a few anecdotes about his working methods, some examples that showed he retained his ferocious intellect even in the wilderness, unpitying and hard-driving, a stern taskmaster for young, inexperienced and ever-changing crews. Graver evinces awe of Orson Welles at every turn, which must have made him an agreeable companion for a notorious egoist and raconteur. But that quality also damages his credibility; Graver is (at best) an unreliable commentator, an apprentice refusing to dish dirt on his master, a minor talent who can’t help continually pinching himself at the prospect of working for the man who made “Kane”.

Diverting hagiography; for completists only.

* * *

substance__albert_hofmanns_lsd“The Substance: Albert Hofmann’s LSD”
Directed by Martin Witz
(2011; 90 min.)

On the other hand, I have nothing but praise for “The Substance: Albert Hofmann’s LSD”. Swiss film-maker Martin Witz had the good fortune to interview the psychedelic pioneer around his 100th birthday and those scenes reveal a man still sharp and still, apparently, nursing a grudge against those who took his “problem child” and helped stigmatize it to the extent that even today the possession of a small amount of acid can lead to serious jail time.

Ridiculous.

But let’s lay the blame where it properly belongs. Thanks to idiots like Timothy Leary (the slightest reference to Leary provokes the centenarian chemist to visible anger), LSD was touted as a drug for disaffected youth, an instrument of revolt; taking acid and dropping out was the ultimate insult to a system that relentlessly firebombed a small country in Asia and assaulted and murdered unarmed demonstrators at home.

But LSD should never be used as a recreational drug (neither should cannabis, for that matter). Acid is a agent of transformation, a powerful tool for accessing the psyche and spirit. It should only be taken in controlled situations and the motivation for ingesting it should be rooted in a desire to see the world from an altered perspective, to experience a truly oceanic state. Dabbling must be discouraged at all costs.

Mr. Witz has constructed a clear timeline and included among his interview subjects some of the principal figures of Sixties counterculture, looking much older but unrepentant and defiant, even after all these years. The film is scrupulously fair, a fitting tribute to a great man. Albert Hofmann may have retained some misgivings as to the legacy of his greatest creation, but in his quiet lab in Basel he formulated a potion that literally changed the world. To the day he died, he believed LSD could help alleviate suffering and nothing he saw or experienced in his one hundred and two years convinced him otherwise. “The Substance” makes it clear: he was a psychonaut to the bitter end.

This is documentary film-making at its best.

Highest recommendation.

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About Cliff Burns

I'm a literary writer, specializing in slipstream/ alternative/surreal/science fiction. My influences include Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, David Cronenberg, Rene Magritte, any artist who defies convention and busts open genres, attacking the status quo.
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