With nearly a half-dozen new and upcoming books and the new docu, “Searching for Orson,” ’tis the season of Orson Welles. Pic by Croatian filmmaking father and son Jakov and Dominik Sedlar (“Syndrome Jerusalem”) marks an essential contribution to Wellesiana, as it’s the first docu to dip into the rich archives of the director’s longtime partner/lover, Oja Kodar. Substantial enough to make some critics of Welles eat their words, pic is unfortunately too crudely assembled as it stands to air on prime cable or screen at major fests. Fine-tuning will be needed for wider worldwide distribution.
Critics who have depicted Welles as a failed talent who abused his gifts with laziness and lavish living should not ignore the thoughtful arguments and evidence in this pic. Only the most myopic will be able to come away from viewing this docu without concluding Welles was not only a key — perhaps the key — innovator in narrative cinema, and that he carried on an extremely lively and productive career as an avowedly independent filmmaker.
However, “Searching” is less a scholarly work than an emotionally grounded film that circulates around Kodar’s memoirs and film material, including scads of home movie footage and such rarities as footage from the unfinished seaborne thriller, “The Deep,” starring Kodar and Laurence Harvey. (Harvey’s tragic death halted production.)
At the same time, some of the best Welles critics and observers (including critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, producer Frank Marshall and directors Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg, Henry Jaglom and Paul Mazursky) firmly establish Welles’ supreme importance. Spielberg perhaps goes too far by crediting Welles with discovering depth-of-field, which would be news to those who’ve watched Jean Renoir or Fritz Lang’s pre-“Citizen Kane” films.
Yet Spielberg also rightly observes how Welles took his experiments in theater to create a complex narrative artistry within the master shot that would often be continuous without edits. (Welles’ other experiments in radio and his radical re-thinking of the film soundtrack, though, are never mentioned.)
Kodar’s own importance is stressed by Rosenbaum, who notes that she was sometimes his main writer or co-writer, as well as his central muse in the latter half of his creative life. Kodar’s recollections of first meeting and then falling in love with Welles, and Bogdanovich’s graceful narration of their impassioned love, help humanize the director and strip away the several gross stereotypes that have marred Welles’ rep.
Kodar’s personal collection of clips and stills beautifully match these memories and form the core of doc’s novelty and potency. In this regard (among other factors), “Searching” is vastly preferable to the recent, factually flawed Welles doc, “The Well.”
Bogdanovich’s narration provides a pleasant and highly informed thread to the Welles-Kodar love story, as well as to such little-known stories as that of Welles’ daughter Rebecca and her illegitimate son, Mark, who was given up for adoption.
The Sedlar brothers’ editorial choices can be fascinating, such as a section including Welles’ many different interpretations of Shylock (including several takes of a seaside version shot by lenser and friend Gary Graver), but pic is full of starts and stops, with too many abrupt transitions.
In order to become the widely viewed doc it deserves to be, the Sedlars need to take a page from Bogdanovich’s own superbly assembled and freshly expanded “Directed by John Ford” and refine pacing and editing of their captivating material.
Images and sound of talking heads portions are mediocre, but fortunately take up little of overall running time. Nevertheless, these sections include such gems as Jaglom and Mazursky being intercut as they talk about playing a famously rowdy scene for Welles’ last, unfinished film, “The Other Side of the Wind.” For the record, Graver and Jaglom’s names are regularly misspelled on screen.