Friday, March 24, 2006

Let's Drink to Scholarship

In yesterday's mail, I received an advance review copy of a new DVD box set I have been eagerly awaiting: Criterion's THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN. As the author of two revelatory articles detailing the differences between various different versions of the film, I had hoped that my contribution to Orson Welles scholarship would be remembered on this occasion by Criterion -- especially since my articles could be said to have proposed a veritable floor map for this set, which includes three different versions of the feature, along with alternate scenes and outtakes from other versions.

But the accompanying booklet credits only an article by Jonathan Rosenbaum ("The Seven Arkadins," FILM COMMENT, January-February 1992) with having "explicated seven different texts and ur-texts" of MR. ARKADIN. Rosenbaum's seven included three different episodes of the radio series THE LIVES OF HARRY LIME, a 1953 screenplay draft titled MASQUERADE, and the MR. ARKADIN novel signed, but not truly written, by Welles. The radio shows and the novel are among the extras included with Criterion's lavish new set.

My articles "Will The Real MR. ARKADIN Please Stand Up?" (VIDEO WATCHDOG #10, pp. 42-59) and "MR. ARKADIN - The Research Continues" (VIDEO WATCHDOG #12, pp. 26-29) also appeared in 1992 -- the first in March, the second in July. Between them, they amass a total of 22 double-columned pages on the subject.

The first article painstakingly compared the version of MR. ARKADIN then extant on so many public domain video labels to the alternate version known as CONFIDENTIAL REPORT, which Criterion had just issued for the first time on laserdisc. It also included, possibly for the first time anywhere, photographic documentation of the alternate casting of Sophie in the Spanish version, where the role was played not by Katina Paxinou, but by Irène Lopez Herédia. My second article was prompted by a bargain bin discovery of a completely different, and more satisfying cut of the film, also under the MR. ARKADIN title, on the Corinth Video label. Collectively, these studies not only pointed out the points of variation between these versions, they explained that the ideal version of MR. ARKADIN could exist only in the viewer's collective experience of the three. (The most compelling facet of Criterion's definitive box set is a brand new "comprehensive" cut of MR. ARKADIN assembled from the other extant versions.)

I remember it coming as quite a shock, opening that issue of FILM COMMENT and seeing Jonathan's article, while my own initial ARKADIN piece was still at the printer. But our respective articles were actually quite complimentary; his article got the "scoop," so to speak, that the film existed in different versions, but my articles explained in great detail why they were different, how they differed from one another qualitatively, and they also told people where to find the alternate versions on video. The coincidence that we both happened to be mining this obscure ground at the same time was too striking to ignore, and I used my contacts at FILM COMMENT to get in touch with Jonathan, whose work as a critic and scholar I'd long admired. We spoke by phone several times. I told him about my article, sent it to him when it appeared, told him about the availability of the Corinth Video version once I discovered it (I also made him a copy), and arranged for him to receive my follow-up piece. (I'm interested to see that Jonathan, who wrote in his original liner notes to the Criterion laserdisc that "the superiority of CONFIDENTIAL REPORT... over the various public domain versions... really cannot be quarrelled with," now favors the Corinth version, as I did and do, in his essay for the Criterion DVD booklet.) Jonathan was very complimentary about my articles after receiving them, and kindly mentioned them on page 515 of his notes for the Peter Bogdanovich book THIS IS ORSON WELLES, which he edited.

Those two MR. ARKADIN articles of mine represented, for me, a major step outside my usual genre film perimeters into the arena of serious international cinema. They stretched me, and they also constituted a significant early stretch for VIDEO WATCHDOG. Having written what I believe remains the lengthiest, most detailed reportage extant (at least in English) on the minute differences between the variants of this film, and to have helped bring these differences to public attention in the first place, I regret that I wasn't approached to participate somehow in this Criterion set. But even moreso, I'm disappointed to find my thorough mapping of this terrain overlooked by the various international Welles scholars who contributed to Criterion's booklet.

Of course, Criterion's box set has only just arrived, and I'm in the midst of other duties. I haven't yet had a chance to watch its various cuts of the movie, or to delve into their audio commentaries, so it's possible my work is noted elsewhere. As a writer who feels a sense of personal investment in things Arkadian, I sincerely hope so; I would hate to be the little detail that makes THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN incomplete.

Incidentally, VIDEO WATCHDOG #s 10 and 12 are still available, though #10 is in very low supply. These can be ordered from the Back Issue department of our website (click on the VW link above) or by calling our offices toll-free at 1-800-275-8395. My ARKADIN articles may be 14 years old, but the release of this new Criterion set makes the ink on them seem fresh again, and their method of approaching Welles' baroque masterpiece seem absolutely prescient.

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