Hubris or admiration?
What is it about legendary works of art that were never finished that cause mere mortals to think they should step in and finish the jobs? Particularly when those works were started by artists of insurmountable reputation?
The tony Criterion Collection's ambitious three-disc box of The Complete Mr. Arkadin ($49.95) tackles one of the longest-running mysteries in cinema history, Orson Welles' unfinished 1955 picture. And thankfully, the disc's producers came up with a wise compromise: In the end, after you've watched all three discs, read all the essays and even the book packaged with this set, you step back with both a "complete" Arkadin and the mystery of that picture left intact.
That's the set's boldest stroke: Where, after all, would film history be without its almost-greats, its shoulda-been-greats, its alleged masterpieces that vanished into studio vaults one day and reappeared decades later as ghosts of their former glory?
Novels left unfinished that arrive restored after long last - Ralph Ellison's posthumous 1999 Juneteenth comes to mind - tend to feel yanked out of their decades and awkward. We can't imagine another painter sliding up to the unfinished work of, say, Munch and adding his own brushstrokes. A while ago the band Wilco and the songwriter Billy Bragg rescued a mound of unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs but they didn't attempt a Guthrie impersonation; they brought their own sensibilities.
Movies, though, are collaborative by nature. Dozens of hands stir the pot, even when the pot is dominated by a singular vision.
Visions don't get more singular than those of Orson Welles, who set out to make Mr. Arkadin long after the clout from Citizen Kane had worn off. It comes from his period in the 1950s, between The Third Man (1949) and his brief return to form, Touch of Evil (1958), when he regularly abandoned films in the editing room. What happened to Arkadin is not as egregious as what happened to Welles' Magnificent Ambersons (re-edited by the studio and, by all accounts, ruined), or as harsh as the strip-mining of Erich von Stroheim's landmark Greed - edited down from a 10-hour epic to two.
What happened is stranger.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, film critic for the Chicago Reader, writes an essay for the box set that divides Welles' pictures into two groups: those he completed and those that (for whatever reason) he didn't.
Arkadin - which tells the Kane-like story of a powerful financier (Welles, in a supremely weird Nordic hairdo) who buries clues to his past in a series of puzzles, intended to be dug up but never to be explained - was released in five different versions, some in English, some Spanish.
The movie is adapted from a novel credited to no one. Criterion includes the book with the set, along with an explanation that it's a translation of a work no author ever came forward to claim. (In some countries, Welles himself owns the copyright.) As for the film, it was taken away when he missed deadlines forced on him by the picture's producers.
He didn't have Hollywood's support. He left America as the House Un-American Activities Committee began red baiting. Less than a decade after making Citizen Kane, he was wandering Europe working on movies when he had the time, abandoning films when money or interest ran out. This fractured state is how historians Stefan Drossler and Claude Bertemes found Arkadin. With help from Welles' friend Peter Bogdanovich, Drossler and Bertemes used piles of notes and versions and outtakes to rebuild the longest version yet, which is included in the set.
Two other versions are includ- ed, too, and not one feels like a finished picture. Maybe the answer to Mr. Arkadin is that it was composed as a mystery, built to send us chasing our tails for as long as we're still interested. Mr. Arkadin, melodramatic and almost a parody of an Orson Welles movie at times, is not a footnote or a milestone but it feels like both.
Then again, as Welles said, "a magician is just an actor who plays a magician."
Big help, huh?
EASTER BONNET: Is it me or does the new Peter Cottontail Collection (Classic Media, $21.98) sound line a spring line of men's golf shirts? What it actually contains is both the old stop-motion Rankin/Bass holiday special, Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971), and the heavily caffeinated new installment, Here Comes Peter Cottontail: The Movie, not a remake or an update. Cottontail is now an action star, vowing to realign the seasons and stop evil bunnies.
Anyway, Cottontail's eyes, I notice, have gotten alarmingly bigger in the intervening years. Sugar buzz, rabbit?
If you like your religious holidays with the religion still in them, one more recommendation: Warner's new Films of Faith box ($29.98), a fine excuse to celebrate three melodramatic (but definitely charming) spiritual flicks. They address doing right (The Nun's Story, with Audrey Hepburn), faithful insistence (The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima), and how the Pope cured poverty in China and rebuked the Soviets (The Shoes of the Fisherman, with Anthony Quinn and Laurence Olivier).
LEFTOVERS: Fun with Dick and Jane (Columbia, $28.98) tells the story of two yuppies down on their luck who turn to crime. Jim Carrey flaps around. An Unfinished Life (Buena Vista, $29.99) has a great cast (Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Morgan Freeman) buried beneath a mountain of Sweet and Low. The Greatest Game Ever Played (Buena Vista, $29.99) is golf; the movie isn't so bad, just another inspirational Disney sports picture. But Wolf Creek (Weinstein, $29.99) is bad, sad, depressing, and well-made. A Faustian deal?
IDIOT WIND: Beware a music biopic or concert documentary- or let's say, anything about any musician, at all - that has a disclaimer like the one sitting at the bottom of the packaging of Bob Dylan: 1975-1981, Rolling Thunder and the Gospel Years (Highway Entertainment, $14.95). It reads "Contains no Bob Dylan songs." What we have here is not unworthy, only gaunt in the wake of Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home. Director Joel Gilbert has a great subject - Dylan's thrilling Rolling Thunder tour and subsequent born-again period - but four hours is a long time to circle a subject from a distance.
He interviews Dylan's Bible class teacher, producers, band members, and even Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, immortalized in Dylan's "Hurricane." It's not irrelevant. It just doesn't feel particularly revealing, especially considering the proliferation of essays and studies on Dylan are only rivaled by those on Mark Twain. (Or is that Abe Lincoln?)
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: email@example.com