IN HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Luis Buñuel noted that while he didn’t fear death and had no great belief or need for an afterlife, he did nurture a desire to return from the grave every ten years or so, read the papers, and then go back to his eternal slumber satisfied that there was nothing he was missing. If Orson Welles was granted this ability, he would undoubtedly arrive at the same conclusion. The same tired dead arguments are thrown around periodically as and when Welles is exhumed. Either a saint or martyr for united auteurs of the world or a cautionary story with the same pro/con arguments repeated ad infinitum.
BOOK REVIEW: MY LUNCHES WITH ORSON
Citizen Kane formerly occupied top spot for four decades on both critics and director’s lists on the Sight and Sound poll. In 2012, it was eclipsed in favor of Tokyo Story on the director’s list and Vertigo on the Critic’s list. One possible result of Citizen Kane losing some of the dust it gathered from being placed on a pedestal is an opportunity to look at Welles outside the shadow of that epochal film debut. Escaping that shadow, however, leads us to confront an even larger one. With Welles this is the shadow of success. Success is the main narrative that revolves around the celebrity gossip industry. The desire to bask in reflected glory and the urge to feed that to several generations of readers. It is not for nothing that Joseph McBride titled his seminal biography on Frank Capra, The Catastrophe of Success; a critical look at another supremely talented film-maker who proved, finally, to be far more self-destructive than Orson Welles.
It is not enough, not for Peter Biskind, editor of My Lunches With Orson, that he made an immortal film at the age of 25 and changed film-making forever, Welles must be a success to. This defines how Biskind in his introduction frames the discussion of Welles’ career which is the lazy and standard rise and fall of the Great Man, the usual cliché of Welles-as-Kane(when Welles-as-Falstaff is more apropos). He also makes some dubious critical observations about Touch of Evil. Peter Biskind had previously established his infamy as the hatchet man for the New Hollywood with his gossip-ridden chronicle of a generation – Easy Riders Raging Bulls which is both the most famous and the most useless work of film history on the 70s generation, marred as it is with the fixation of “success” and reflected glory. If the choice of Biskind is dubious enough, Henry Jaglom’s a better than average interviewer if not as skillful as Bogdanovich in penetrating Welles’ armor as he did in This is Orson Welles (Edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum).
Bogdanovich had worked as a critic and programmer specializing in interviews with Golden Age film-makers, the likes of Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg and the monosyllabic John Ford. This afforded him enough experience in handling Welles’ teasing evasions and discomfort in discussing his work. The charming way he corners Welles into admitting his fondness for Kenji Mizoguchi (“You can’t praise him enough, really”) is one of the sweetest moments in that book. Jaglom had no such training, being a film-maker and a friend of Welles, having encouraged him to develop and write The Big Brass Ring, the script of which was complete and is described by Jaglom as the “Kane for the second half of the 20th Century” with the first film dealing with America in the first 50 years of the same. The resulting film would have been an agreeable bookend to Welles’ career, he notes and his discussions with Welles on the same subject are fascinating especially his observations on various political figures.
In Bogdanovich’s book Welles made some interesting observations on his stylistic preferences. He refers to the structure of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls with its endless digressions and asides. This digressive aspect of Welles is on full view in Jaglom’s book, where conservations tend to wander around several different tangents and curves. Welles is especially reluctant to discuss his films in detail and Jaglom skims that to go on a more wide-ranging yet uneven look at Welles’ varied interests in art, history and culture, his tales of associations with famous actors and, what is obviously the money-spinner of this book, his cutting, rude, descriptions of several major figures in the performing arts from Laurence Olivier to Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin to Spencer Tracy, you can count on one hand the list of people Welles has a kind word to say about, in this book at least.
There are a couple of stray moments of interest when Welles describes his craft, such as his feeling that F For Fake is “the only really original movie I’ve made since Kane” and that he feels that in terms of expanding the grammar of film, “the movies—I’ll say a terrible thing—have never gone beyond Kane”, further noting that “Every artistic form—the blank-verse drama, the Greek plays, the novel—has only so many possibilities and only so long a life. And I have a feeling that in movies, until we break completely, we are only increasing the library of good works.”
More interesting is Welles’ description of his approach to editing,
I hate those great huge rolls of film in stacks of cans. And I have a system, which is, I always make what I call a source, for every scene. Which is another reel that includes every fragment of what I’ve picked out that might be good. Because in a bad take, there may be something I like, so I put all of them on one reel. And before I’m finished with a scene, I always run the source, to be sure I’ve squeezed everything I can out of it. But I have to run through the whole reel to find that one bit, so it takes forever. I spend all my time handling film.
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Such observations are interesting in light of how Welles worked in his European films, especially the production of The Tragedy of Othello, described in his film-essay Filming Othello. In F For Fake, Welles used the Moviola which he lovingly depicted. In Jaglom’s book, he has started using a Flatbed and extols its virtues for allowing him more freedom to think and act and the excitement in his descriptions at less intensive equipment anticipates some of the issues with digital film-making.
Not mentioned in the interviews is that around the same time Jaglom was conducting his interviews, Welles was already exploring Sony Betacam technology and the Montage non-linear video editing equipment, which he discussed with Frank Beacham, at the very same restaurant these interviews are conducted in fact, Ma Maison. This omission, or perhaps restraint, ought to clue us in on the fact that the Welles in this book is fairly guarded and theatrical rather than confessional. There have been some concerns raised by cinematographer and Welles associate Gary Graver whether he was aware that Jaglom was recording the conversations on tape. Jaglom insists that Welles was aware and considering that this book is published nearly thirty years later when more than a few targets of Welles’ attacks are dead, I am inclined to believe him.
A lot of Welles’ comments on the likes of Laurence Olivier and others are probably the kind of backstage “taking the mickey” indulged in by all kinds of professionals. Artists are naturally competitive and Welles is little exception disliking almost all films that came after him, and except for Erich von Stroheim, finding some caveat or the other even among film-makers he admires. Even his rudest dismissal, of the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, leads to a self-critical qualification
I see movies through such a mist of years, I am incapable of feeling the thrill of them, even the greatest ones, because I cannot erase those years of experience. I’m jaded. Before I started making movies, I’d get into them, lose myself. I can’t do that now. That’s why I don’t think my opinions about movies are as good as somebody’s who doesn’t have to look through all those filters. I think all films are better than we think they are.
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The most interesting section in terms of insight is the penultimate chapter of the book where one by one Welles lashes out at various people who had wounded him, either actively or passive-aggressively. My personal favorite is his attack on Charlton Heston. Despite starring in Touch of Evil and even suggesting that Welles direct the film, Heston had always qualified their collaboration as a “B movie” and regarded it as one of his lesser films, this despite it being one of his few good performances as an actor. Welles unceremoniously describes him as a “horse’s ass, because he’s in a film of mine that other people think is important, so why doesn’t he shut up and pretend it’s important?”
The part where the book gets problematic in allowing readers to hear Welles give vent is the lack of editorial context. From reading Welles’ accounts, we get a sense that John Houseman, his former Mercury Theatre collaborator is a kind of slimy individual, an opinion that Jaglom as Welles’ friend doesn’t challenge. Houseman was in fact a highly respected producer who collaborated on major films with Vincente Minnelli and Nicholas Ray, with the latter, no friend of producers in general, describing him as the best he worked with. If Biskind was more scrupulous he would have tried to qualify this and warn readers not to allow Welles’ opinion to inform our own, especially since today Welles’ profile far exceeds that of John Houseman. Whatever animosity that happened between Welles and him, it does no one any favor at this extremely late stage to take sides in this grudge.
Welles’ description of Robert Carringer is also redolent of that self-righteousness which underlies a lot of his statements. Carringer is generally considered the leading scholar on the production of Citizen Kane and he had thoroughly debunked Pauline Kael’s poorly researched contention that Herman Mankiewicz and not Welles had written the whole of Kane. But Carringer’s book on Kane in fact emphasizes, with sufficient documentation that Welles had made radical use of RKO’s production facilities, giving weight to Welles’ famous description of the film set as “the biggest electric train set a boy ever had” and that the film was a “collaborative” work rather than a one-man show. Welles resents this seeming blemish on his genius, when Carringer’s book merely provides a deeper sense of appreciation at how his great talent actually worked. One can only wonder what Welles would have made of Carringer’s introduction in The Magnificent Ambersons’ Shooting Script, which is one of the most critical yet compelling accounts of the production of that film. One which highlights Welles’ erratic behavior, as outlined in contemporary documents and his own evasions on the true nature of that extremely personal film.
Biskind and Jaglom are tragedians who in this book try to portray Welles in a state of decay. They don’t succeed because Welles even in dire straits is filled with an all-conquering vitality. Welles’ life is too rich to measure in terms of middle class success. Described by Jean Renoir as the only true aristocrat among film-makers, Welles comes of more like Prospero; the exiled Duke of Milan in Shakespeare’s final work, trapped in an island yet whose magic and cunning is as powerful as ever. In F for Fake, he disarmingly notes that he “started from the top and worked my way to the bottom” but his career is picaresque rather than tragic, filled with asides, digressions and anecdotes, one which is strangely ongoing even several years after his death.
The radical aspect of Welles’ career is that he lacks a definite final film, since so many of them were incomplete or near-complete at the time of his death. The Other Side of the Wind seems to have the best chance to resurface from the legal quagmire, so we have at least one new Orson Welles film to anticipate in the coming century.