October 2008
Itís All True: Orson Wellesís Pan-American Odyssey Online
by Catherine L. Benamou
Reviewed by by Jim Hemphill

In 1941, just after the release of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles embarked upon what was intended to be a four-part project titled It’s All True. This hybrid of documentary and fiction film (a form that Welles would later perfect with such essay movies as F for Fake and Filming Othello) evolved from a standard studio project at RKO into a collaboration with Nelson Rockefeller’s wartime Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA); the intention was to create an anthology film about bullfighting in Mexico and samba music, and their role in Rio’s annual Carnival celebration and the lives of poor Brazilian fishermen, among other topics. 
I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History Online
by Walter Mirisch
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

For cinephiles with a love for American movies of the 1960s, the Mirisch Company label has rich and varied nostalgic associations: from landmark action epics such as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape to such comedies as The Pink Panther franchise and Billy Wilder’s best films, an astonishing number of late studio-era classics were produced under the aegis of brothers Walter, Harold and Marvin Mirisch. 
Martin Scorsese: A Biography Online
by Vincent LoBrutto
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

It was perhaps inevitable that a man so interested in every aspect of technique would turn his attention to the work of Martin Scorsese, a director who exhibits as much range in his filmmaking as LoBrutto does in his writing. Following his excellent 1997 study of Stanley Kubrick, LoBrutto now gives us Martin Scorsese: A Biography, a combination of biography and critical analysis that provides a fascinating perspective on the man LoBrutto considers to be the greatest working American director.

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Itís All True: Orson Wellesís Pan-American Odyssey
by Catherine L. Benamou
Reviewed by by Jim Hemphill

In 1941, just after the release of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles embarked upon what was intended to be a four-part project titled It’s All True. This hybrid of documentary and fiction film (a form that Welles would later perfect with such essay movies as F for Fake and Filming Othello) evolved from a standard studio project at RKO into a collaboration with Nelson Rockefeller’s wartime Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA); the intention was to create an anthology film about bullfighting in Mexico and samba music, and their role in Rio’s annual Carnival celebration and the lives of poor Brazilian fishermen, among other topics.

Welles’ goal, and that of the OCIAA, was to foster relations between the Americas in order to build alliances during World War II. Unfortunately, the film was never completed — political, personal and economic factors led to the production’s suspension, and it now exists as nearly 200,000 feet of nitrate footage stored at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The closest the public has ever come to seeing Welles’ original vision for It’s All True was a combination making-of documentary and brief edit of assembled footage that Paramount released in 1993. 

In the years since its production and subsequent abandonment, It’s All True has entered the realm of myth among film buffs, either romanticized as a glorious rebellion against the system by Welles’ fans or denounced as an irresponsible self-indulgence by his detractors. In his Welles biography, Rosebud, author David Thomson sums up the prevailing view of It’s All True: “There was never a movie there, only an extravagant, self-destructive gesture, and the aftermath of guilt.” Certainly this is oversimplified nonsense, but like so many of the myths surrounding Welles, it has been accepted as truth because it supports his legend as a tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions, an artist with a fear of completion whose problems can largely be traced to a few bad moments (the notoriously disastrous test screening of The Magnificent Ambersons in Pomona) and a few dangerous rivalries (Welles’ clashes with William Randolph Hearst).

The facts are more complex than that, of course, and contrary to Thomson’s belief, there was a movie called It’s All True on which Welles worked diligently for years. It is that film and its history — and what that history means for Welles’ career, the studio system of the era and North-South American relations during World War II — that film scholar Catherine L. Benamou addresses in her masterful book It’s All True: Orson Welles’s Pan-American Odyssey. Benamou’s meticulous examination of production documents, her new interviews with participants and witnesses and her study of the footage at UCLA have yielded the most complete account of It’s All True’s production to date, a history that avoids established preconceptions (and misconceptions) about the project in favor of new insight into both Welles and the cultures in which he worked.

One of the ways in which Benamou corrects the simplistic, bifurcated view of Welles as either a maverick artist or a spoiled brat is to move beyond the auteur theory to present the ramifications of what she calls “political and economic authorship.” Without disregarding Welles’ role in It’s All True as a work of art and commerce (to the contrary, she presents the most specific and well researched account of his working methods on the project that I have read), Benamou explores the deeply complicated factors that contributed to the film’s financing, production and suppression — factors that have as much to do with Mexico and Brazil’s entry into the war (a development that made Welles’ project irrelevant in terms of diplomatic expediency) or with corporate politics at RKO as with Welles’ modus operandi. Benamou unravels all of these elaborate strands with depth and clarity, and also gives due attention to Welles’ collaborators on the project (such as co-director Norman Foster, cinematographer Floyd Crosby, ASC, and Welles’ then-fiancée Dolores del Rio), whose participation has been largely underreported.

Benamou moves beyond the scope of previous writings on It’s All True to explore the impact of the project on the countries in which it was filmed; she also considers Welles’ directorial influence on the golden age of Mexican cinema and Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement. Whereas most critics have chosen to focus on the film’s effect on Welles’ career or the ramifications for RKO, Benamou provides a truly global point of view.

Yet Benamou’s understanding of It’s All True is not confined to cultural or historical considerations. While she refuses to succumb to the limitations of the traditional auteur study, she is nevertheless an expert analyzer of Welles’ directorial techniques and themes. Benamou makes a convincing case for It’s All True as a key film in Welles’ development by connecting the material in It’s All True with such later Welles masterpieces as Mr. Arkadin to contextualize the film within his career. She also considers the ways in which it served as a transitional film between Welles’ period as a Hollywood filmmaker and his later era as an internationally based director.

Has there ever been a better time to be an Orson Welles enthusiast? The past three years have seen the publication of three excellent books on the director, all of which have made major contributions to his study: Simon Callow’s Hello Americans, the second volume of his massively detailed biography; Joseph McBride’s What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, a personal but rigorous account of Welles’ life and work; and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s brilliant Discovering Orson Welles, perhaps the best Welles book ever published in the English language.

To this list we can add Benamou’s superior achievement, a volume that is both as precise (given its focus on one particular film) and it is wide-ranging (in its thorough view of Welles and his work through multiple perspectives) as any prior examination of the director. Benamou concludes that her work is far from the final word on It’s All True, and the fact that she’s known to be a consultant on a major preservation effort at UCLA indicates that this is true — undoubtedly, as more footage becomes accessible to scholars and the public, discussions of the film and its relationship to Welles, RKO and Latin-American cinema will become more numerous and enlightening. For now, however, it is hard to imagine a study more thorough and rewarding than Benamou’s book.

University of California Press
$60.00 hardcover, $25.95 paperback         

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I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History
by Walter Mirisch
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

For cinephiles with a love for American movies of the 1960s, the Mirisch Company label has rich and varied nostalgic associations: from landmark action epics such as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape to such comedies as The Pink Panther franchise and Billy Wilder’s best films, an astonishing number of late studio-era classics were produced under the aegis of brothers Walter, Harold and Marvin Mirisch.

Now, after a career that has included both B-movie programmers and Oscar-winning groundbreakers, Walter Mirisch has written an autobiography that covers the triumphs, flops and everything in between. I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History is a guided tour through more than six decades of Hollywood history, told from the point of view of one of its most esteemed filmmakers.  

Mirisch began as an assistant at poverty row studio Monogram Pictures after his brother Harold, then a buyer for RKO, used his connections to get Walter a job. Eventually, Harold and a third Mirisch, Marvin, joined Walter at the studio, where the siblings learned every facet of low-budget production and desperately tried to elevate Monogram (later Allied Artists) to become a supplier of more prestigious pictures than Bomba, the Jungle Boy. The Mirisch brothers failed in this endeavor, but they positioned themselves to create their own company in partnership with United Artists (UA), which in 1957 was in the early days of its legendary run under filmmaker-friendly executives Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin. It was at UA that the Mirisch Company produced such landmark films as West Side Story, In the Heat of the Night and The Apartment. Eventually, Walter moved to Universal (which scored with Midway) and other studios during the 1970s and 1980s, while also finding time to play a key role in the development of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Mirisch takes the reader through all of these experiences and more in his memoir, which is surprisingly modest given the producer’s many accolades. In fact, Mirisch seems more interested in celebrating his peers — such as writer Elmore Leonard and actor Sidney Poitier, both of whom contribute moving forewords to the book — than in elevating his own reputation (which, in any case, isn’t exactly in need of saving).

As one might expect, the tale is more entertaining than rigorous, and includes the occasional erroneous statistic (such as Mirisch’s reference to the 1992 release Unforgiven winning an Academy Award in 1995 — though he gets the date right at another point in the book), and a timeline that adheres more to emotional continuity than a clearly defined chronology. But what the author lacks as a historian he makes up for in his look at the nuts and bolts of Hollywood deal-making. His accounts of the ways in which his productions were financed and distributed provide fascinating descriptions of the business side of filmmaking and reveal how some of the greatest films ever made found their way to the screen. Mirisch also tells the broader story of how Hollywood changed as the studio system collapsed — he was one of the most important independent producers of his period and thus had a front-row seat to the end of one era and the beginning of the next.

Mirisch’s love for the business is obvious, as is his affection for the majority of his collaborators and his refusal to dwell on the negative (though he does offer a few hilarious anecdotes about difficult actors). The downside of his authorial voice is that the book becomes a bit monotonous by the midpoint, with very little change in tone as the memoir progresses — everything is narrated at the same even pitch in a highly readable but slightly flat style. The book lacks both the conflict and the wit of similar books by producers such as Art Linson and David Wolper, and there’s no real dramatic momentum to Mirisch’s episodic tale. Yet his surprising humility yields its own rewards, and in the end his book is a sort of beach read for movie buffs, a lightweight but undeniably enjoyable look at an important career and the ways it impacted and was impacted by the industry. As the title (which Mirisch got from collaborator John Sturges) indicates, Mirisch was making both movies and history, and his engaging look backward has many modest but genuine pleasures.

University of Wisconsin Press
$29.95 Hardcover

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Martin Scorsese: A Biography
by Vincent LoBrutto
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Few scholars have celebrated the art of cinema with the kind of total immersion that characterizes Vincent LoBrutto’s writings. The author of a series of indispensable volumes on editing, production design, sound and cinematography, LoBrutto has spent the last 17 years building a library of work that, when taken in its totality, provides the reader with an astonishingly comprehensive understanding of the ways filmmakers generate images and the ways those images generate meaning. It was perhaps inevitable that a man so interested in every aspect of technique would turn his attention to the work of Martin Scorsese, a director who exhibits as much range in his filmmaking as LoBrutto does in his writing. Following his excellent 1997 study of Stanley Kubrick, LoBrutto now gives us Martin Scorsese: A Biography, a combination of biography and critical analysis that provides a fascinating perspective on the man LoBrutto considers to be the greatest working American director.

LoBrutto’s tome is as conventional an auteur study as Goodfellas is a conventional gangster movie — that is to say it’s not conventional at all. LoBrutto’s highly unusual structure might frustrate those looking for a straightforward account of the director’s life and work, but for most Scorsese fans, the book yields a plethora of rewards. After starting with a detailed background on Scorsese and his family, LoBrutto moves through the director’s career in a generally linear progression, taking different approaches to the varied films and periods that make up Scorsese’s career.

For instance, for Scorsese’s debut feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, the author focuses on production history, while the chapter on Taxi Driver has him concentrating on the film’s social and political context. LoBrutto also addresses the role that Catholicism and the Bible play in Scorsese’s work (particularly as religion and spirituality pertain to Boxcar Bertha and Mean Streets), and explores Scorsese’s thematic obsessions by comparing and contrasting the two versions of Cape Fear.

The result is a multifaceted tapestry of impressions about Scorsese rather than a traditional biography, an audacious project that works well thanks to LoBrutto’s encyclopedic knowledge of both cinema and Italian-American culture. Few directors are as complex in their references to other films as Scorsese, and in LoBrutto he has found his scholarly soul mate. Like Scorsese, LoBrutto seems capable of remembering every movie he’s ever seen in great detail, and his analyses of the ways Scorsese pays tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and others are remarkably insightful. LoBrutto moves beyond the obvious in recognizing Scorsese’s references and examines exactly how the director’s quotations from other films build upon Hollywood traditions and generate new meanings (his dissection of the relationship between The Searchers and Mean Streets is particularly enlightening). Many critics have touched upon this aspect of Scorsese’s work, but few have done so with the depth and distinction LoBrutto brings.  

LoBrutto’s book also sets itself apart from other writings on Scorsese in the amount of detail it gives to Italian-American slang and mores. Though this is an aspect of the director’s films that has been analyzed elsewhere, the detail and personal perspective LoBrutto brings elevates the discussion to the next level. The author clearly feels a personal bond with Scorsese’s characters and themes, and his intimate knowledge of their milieu informs his chapters on key films such as Mean Streets and Goodfellas. LoBrutto decodes the specific vocabulary and behavior of Scorsese’s protagonists in the same way he decodes the films’ cinematic and Biblical references, moving beyond the surface to explicate Scorsese’s work in all its moral, psychological and aesthetic complexity.

Regrettably, LoBrutto is less rigorous a historian than he is a commentator. As a biography, the book has several chronological inconsistencies, such as placing Scorsese’s interest in Wiseguy (the source for Goodfellas) before the production of The Color of Money in one chapter and during it in another. LoBrutto’s constantly shifting emphases from chapter to chapter sometimes lead to historical contradictions (he places the shooting of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, for example, during that of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore as well as after the production of Taxi Driver, a chronological impossibility), with the result being frustration for anyone seeking precision in the timeline of Scorsese’s career. Yet the benefits of LoBrutto’s intensely personal, unstructured approach far outweigh the drawbacks given the depth of his insights; in the end, the factual gaffes in his book are like the continuity errors in Scorsese’s films — an unfortunate but forgivable byproduct of an author’s intensity.  

The book is less thorough than LoBrutto’s tome on Kubrick and can hardly be called a definitive biography, particularly because the majority of Scorsese’s documentary work and other key moments in his career — such as the period during which he served as producer on films by directors such as Spike Lee, Allison Anders and John McNaughton — are totally ignored. The author also glosses over most of Scorsese’s recent output: The epic, ambitious Gangs of New York gets less attention and analysis than such early shorts as The Big Shave. LoBrutto also dismisses Bringing Out the Dead by glibly labeling it “Taxi Driver Lite” instead of subjecting the film to the same critical discipline with which he examines earlier films.

On the other hand, LoBrutto’s visual analysis of The Aviator, a film he sees as aesthetically problematic, is thought-provoking and original, and his praise of such films as Casino and The King of Comedy is given added validity by the fact that this is no fawning puff piece — LoBrutto’s case for Scorsese’s greatness is strengthened, not weakened, by his willingness to point out what he sees as the director’s flaws. Thus, his book ultimately becomes a study worthy of its subject — complicated, forceful and a springboard for further discussion and argument.

Praeger Publishers
$44.95 hardcover

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