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Orson Welles: Beacon and Exile

Orson Welles: Beacon and Exile

Articles - Directing

After a screening of unknown works by Orson Welles in March, a man in Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater said with surprise, “I didn’t think Orson Welles did anything great the last 20 years of his life!” Echoing this view, a blurb in The New Yorker publicizing the Welles series at Film Forum began: “Orson Welles conquered the film world while still
in his twenties and then slowly dissolved into self-parody.”

The fall of orson welles is familiar in both the clique of film studies and the court of public opinion. And it is wrong. It is only since his death in 1985 that film scholars and critics have begun to truly analyze the evolution of Orson Welles. His career appeared to start at the top and then go on one long decline in the U.S. after Citizen Kane, since the majority of his works after 1950 went largely unseen. The series at the Egyptian, as well as the ongoing screenings at Film Forum from February to April, featured Welles’ best-known pictures. They also offered the only opportunities in the U.S. to see the numerous projects on which Welles worked with vigorous creativity until the time of his death.

Welles’ unknown and largely incomplete projects, which are now being restored by the Munich Filmmuseum, require a reappraisal of his career. The material shows the results of Welles’ career troubles; what it doesn’t show is why his career played out as it did. Common opinion either faults Welles as an egotist unable to work in the mainstream, or Hollywood as intolerant of his genius. Both explanations are insufficient.

John Huston, Welles and Peter Bogdanovich film The Other Side of the Wind

Born in 1915, Welles became a national prodigy in the late 1930s and early 1940s. During this “cultural moment,” the source of his career, the United States remade its culture in the turmoil of the Great Depression and the rise of communist and fascist dictatorships. Welles produced famous works in the moment that were both critical and accessible, experimental and part of the mainstream. He had freedom to create on Broadway, CBS radio and in Hollywood.

Other American artists have negotiated mainstream appeal with independent aesthetics. But in his youth, Welles combined them with an intensity and fame unlike anyone else. Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) are two Hollywood films that use studio craftsmanship to make thorough critiques of American success and industry.

From the mid-1940s, Welles attempted to maintain his position as both a mainstream and independent artist in thrillers like The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1948), Mr. Arkadin (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958); adaptations of classic literature like Macbeth (1948), Othello (1952), The Trial (1962), Chimes at Midnight (1966) and The Immortal Story (1968); and essay films such as F for Fake (1973) and Filming ‘Othello’ (1978). To his frustration—and credit—Orson Welles embodies the American dilemma between mainstream appeal and creative autonomy. He remains both the quintessential Hollywood director and the modern independent moviemaker. To isolate him as one or the other fails to see how he was both from the start of his career, and how he kept trying to be both.

CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE:Welles starring in The Third Man (1949); Mr. Arkadin (1955); with Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai (1948); and Macbeth (1948).

He could have been a self-sufficient film artist. The Egyptian series screened one episode of Welles’ TV program “Around the World with Orson Welles” (1955), which contained an interview with Raymond Duncan, an American expatriate in Paris who made his own sandals, clothes and books. When Duncan states “Independence is the greatest thing in the world,” Welles agrees: “I say, ‘hear, hear.’” The Munich materials show how Welles forsook the resources of Hollywood to maintain his creative freedom. In the last decade of his life, he used hose water for rain and his own home for sets.

But from his youth, Welles was also a creature of the mass media. His roles in other people’s films, in ads and on talk shows are generally viewed as ways for him to earn money for his projects. (Welles himself gave this explanation when he received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1975.) But beyond the need to finance his films, these appearances kept Welles part of mainstream culture. The Munich materials include Welles answering questions at the University of Southern California after a screening of his film The Trial. Welles tells the crowd: “I would love to have a mass audience.” He always aimed his works at the mass public he had in his youth, rather than the art house crowd that might have been an easier market.

The incomplete Munich materials show how Welles continued to develop projects for a mass audience. The color film The Magic Show (begun in 1976) displays Welles’ expertise in trickery, which he had flourished to wartime soldiers in 1943 in the variety event The Mercury Wonder Show. Welles continued to adapt thrillers such as The Deep (1967-1973), of which he said, “My hope is that it won’t turn out to be an art house movie… [but] the kind of movie I enjoy seeing myself… [and that will] show that we could make some money.”

"To his frustration—and
credit—Welles embodied the AMERICAN DILEMMA between mainstream appeal and creative autonomy. He remains both the quintessential Hollywood director and the modern independent moviemaker.”

Welles also continued his popularization of classic literature. These projects include such unfinished works as Don Quixote, on which the director worked for 30 years, from 1955. One original sequence puts the Don and Sancho Panza in a Spanish movie theater. Confusing the film with reality, the Don attacks the screen. The black and white Quixote, shot with actors on location in Mexico, Italy and Spain, contrasts with Moby Dick (1971). Shot in Welles’ house, the film features the director reading from his stage adaptation of Melville’s novel with no props, costumes or other performers. He even acts with himself, as both an old and young sailor in shot-reverse shots. One of Welles’ last projects, The Dreamers (1980-1982), differs from both of these adaptations in tone and style. The film is an elegiac costume drama shot in the director’s Hollywood house and backyard.

Besides working in familiar forms, Welles renewed the cultural moment in new media. His appearances on TV talk shows enabled Welles to update Shakespeare as a popular figure. On the September 26, 1968 “Dean Martin Show,” Welles made himself up as Falstaff, describing the character as “a great great grandfather of all the flower children.” Welles delivered Falstaff’s speech in praise of sack, describing it as Shakespeare’s “first and greatest of all commercials.”

The Munich materials reveal how Welles used his TV appearances as a mainstream forum for invigorating popular culture. The materials resurrect an entire dimension of Welles’ career in his little-known and often completed works for television. For Welles, TV in the 1950s resembled radio in the 1930s, where he could experiment with his own roles and with the possibilities of the medium. Following his narrative work in radio, Welles reestablished himself as a narrator in TV. The BBC series “Orson Welles’ Sketchbook” (1955) consists entirely of Welles in close-up talking to the camera, with brief shots of his sketches to illustrate his stories. Welles reinvented himself as a social commentator, as he had been for newspapers and on the radio in the mid-1940s. In one episode of “Around the World,” Welles investigated the murder of an English family in France. Welles even tried to make himself a TV talk show host like Johnny Carson, in the completed but unscreened pilot “The Orson Welles Show” (1978).

Welles experimented with television as a medium in his dazzling “The Fountain of Youth” (1956). This unsold pilot combines photo stills, live lighting transitions and a host of other devices in a program that still represents a fresh path for TV. Welles also devseloped his ruminative, playful essay form in television, with shows like “Portrait of Gina” (1958), “Orson Welles’ Vienna” (1969) and “Orson Welles’ London” (1968-1971), where the director appears twice in drag.
When Welles’ collaborator, Oja Kodar, bequeathed these materials to Munich, she stipulated that the archive restore them and show them to prove Welles’ activity in his last 30 years. The Filmmuseum’s thoughtful treatments of the unfinished Welles works deserve praise. Yet in Hollywood, the archival screenings were shown separately from his major films.

Welles’ unfinished works deserve large audiences, and can attract them by being integrated with his more familiar films. In 1955, for example, Welles made both “Around the World” in Europe and his film Mr. Arkadin. Echoing Welles’ TV travels, the film’s story follows an American who tours the continent while investigating a mysterious tycoon.
The unknown works can also be organized around themes of Welles’ career, such as his attempts to popularize Shakespeare. One of the most illuminating Filmmuseum programs connected Welles’ various interpretations of Shylock’s monologue from The Merchant of Venice.

The Munich materials manifest Welles’ vitality in a trove of unfulfilled conceptions. Welles may have benefited from the fixed deadlines of live theater and radio in the 1930s, and even from the Hollywood studio system. Without them, even critics sympathetic to the director face the results of his equally vibrant and jittery creativity. In “Don Quixote: The Adventures and Misadventures of an Essay on Spain,” Spanish film scholar Esteve Riambau writes: “His description summarizes the most difficult conditions of Welles’ later work. Material was constantly on the boil, and acquiring new shapes as time passed. The film was subject to the ups and downs of an erratic career in different European countries where the director was pursuing and being forced to juggle other projects, as well as a working method that no producer was prepared to accept, nor any of his collaborators to follow.”

Even in their unfinished state, these materials deserve the mass audience Welles always desired. At the Egyptian, the largest audience came for the screening of his most well-known unfinished project, The Other Side of the Wind (1970-1975). The film illustrates Welles’ ability to mix styles, and to combine popular with critical perspectives. The work mocks the art films of Michelangelo Antonioni. But it weaves this popular parody into a complex and unsentimental narrative about an aging Hollywood director. At the Egyptian, Welles’ cameraman, Gary Graver, stated his wish for a big film company to finance and release the movie. All film lovers should share this hope, though the request would be akin to asking the heirs of William Randolph Hearst to re-release Citizen Kane. The unlikeliness of a Hollywood company supporting this Hollywood movie testifies to Welles’ place in the industry, where he was both beacon and exile.

We can only imagine what freedom and popular success Orson Welles would have had with digital technology. He would have relished the creative flexibility it provides; we can assume he would have found ways through the Internet to exhibit his works to a new mass public.

Orson Welles was neither a pure Hollywood director nor an entirely independent moviemaker. His unknown works restore his legacy to moviemakers who have inherited his bittersweet burden: the difficulties and possibilities of being Hollywood independents. MM

Thanks to the American Cinematheque, Stefan Droessler of the Munich Filmmuseum, Philip Brown for hospitality in Hollywood and the Paletz-Mois.

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