Although nominally a music critic, Alex Ross provides a perceptive appreciation of both film criticism and filmmakers. One of the greatest contributors to film in the United States was Orson Welles (1915-1985) who would have celebrated his centennial birthday this year. If this is a (fair & balanced) examination of one our greatests cineastes, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
By Alex Ross
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
The most popular Orson Welles video on YouTube, edging out the trailer for “Citizen Kane” and “The War of the Worlds” broadcast of 1938, is called “Orson Welles Drunk Outtake.” It shows him slurring his way through one of those ads in which he intoned, “Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time.” Whether he was drunk, experiencing the effects of medication (he suffered from diabetes and other ailments), or simply very tired is immaterial. What’s striking about the video is its popularity. This is largely how today’s culture has chosen to remember Welles: as a pompous wreck, a man who peaked early and then devolved into hackwork and bloated fiascos.
The video points to a decades-old fissure in the reputation of Welles, whose centennial fell on May 6th. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, the author of the 2007 book Discovering Orson Welles, observes that commentary tends to fall into “partisan” and “adversarial” categories—adversarial meaning a tendency to celebrate the early work while detecting portents of disaster. Pauline Kael’s long essay “Raising Kane,” which appeared in this magazine, in 1971, propagated that view: she praised “Kane” effusively but attributed many of its best features to the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and other collaborators. After that film, Kael wrote, Welles “flew apart, became disorderly.” A 1985 biography by Charles Higham condensed the standard story into its subtitle: Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius.
The partisans, bemoaning the fixation on “Kane,” highlight later entries in the canon. Following Welles’s own preference, they often name the 1965 Falstaff film, “Chimes at Midnight,” as his greatest achievement. Like so many obsessives, they acknowledge one another with secret handshakes, making reference to obscure or nonexistent works: the radio show “His Honor the Mayor,” the TV pilot “The Fountain of Youth,” the work print of the unfinished nineteen-seventies film “The Other Side of the Wind,” the lost ending of “The Magnificent Ambersons.” A raft of new books in the centennial year, together with publications from the past decade, suggests that the partisans are slowly gaining ground.
Enthusiasts and skeptics agree that Welles has a way of slipping from one’s grasp. On one hand, he spun tales of damaged power: a newspaper tycoon rises from poverty and ends in desolation; a cop fakes evidence in order to convict people he thinks to be guilty; a macho director secretly longs for the young male stars of his pictures. Truffaut once described Welles’s work as a meditation on the “weakness of the strong.” On the other hand, the movies take life from the margins, from the grotesques in the background. “Touch of Evil” becomes sublime at the moment when Marlene Dietrich saunters into view, as the proprietor of a Mexican brothel that echoes with skeletal player-piano music. The films are full of plays within plays, screens upon screens; an incessant flicker of shadows on walls reminds us that we are looking at projected images. All this comes to a head in the late-period masterpiece “F for Fake,” a study of hoaxes that itself turns out to be a hoax.
Welles causes endless trouble because of his unstable place in the American cultural hierarchy of high and low. He loved tragedy and vaudeville, Expressionist cinema and boys’ adventure stories. He converted genre vehicles like “Touch of Evil” into surreal labyrinths; he made “Macbeth” look like Gothic horror. He was a subversive populist, a celebrity avant-gardist. He was also, frequently, a political artist, one who came of age during the heyday of the Popular Front and never ceased to roil the culture industry. Despite acres of commentary, much about him remains relatively unexplored: his identification with African-Americans, his investigation of sexual ambiguities. In a strange way, he is still active, still working; if, as is hoped, a completed version of “The Other Side of the Wind” soon emerges, he may confound us once again.
The familiar part of the Welles saga, his rapid rise to the pinnacle of “Kane,” has been told many times, most stylishly in Simon Callow’s 1995 book, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu—the first of three biographical volumes to date, with a fourth to follow. But Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to "Citizen Kane" (2015), the product of years of meticulous research, may be the definitive account. It reveals, among other things, that Welles’s reputation as a self-mythologizer is itself a bit of a myth: quite a few improbable anecdotes turn out to be more or less true. Did Welles see Sarah Bernhardt perform in Chicago? Did he make his stage début as Sorrow, the child in “Madama Butterfly,” at the Ravinia Festival? Absolute confirmation is lacking, but the chronologies line up. (A detail from the Chicago Tribune: at a 1919 performance of “Butterfly,” an unnamed child of unusual heft substituted as Sorrow, causing giggles in the audience.)
Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His father, Richard, was a charming, dissipated inventor who worked for a manufacturer of bicycle lamps; his mother, Beatrice Ives Welles, was a pianist and an activist. Welles’s worldliness evidently stemmed from his father, his artistic gifts and radical tendencies from his mother. McGilligan, who has written biographies of Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and Nicholas Ray, has combed through newspaper archives and unearthed many new details of Beatrice’s activities, which included suffragist campaigns and a stint on the Kenosha school board. Beatrice died in 1924, of hepatitis, just after Orson’s ninth birthday. Richard lived for six more years, his health ruined by alcoholism. Maurice Bernstein, a social-climbing Chicago doctor who had befriended the couple, became Orson’s guardian, shuttling him around while engaging in a flurry of high-profile affairs.
Welles attended the Todd School for Boys, in Woodstock, Illinois, and the school’s headmaster, Roger Hill, became a father figure to him. In school plays, Welles directed, designed sets, made costumes, and acted a slew of roles, including Christ, Judas, and the Virgin Mary. Shortly after graduating from Todd, at the age of sixteen, Welles persuaded Bernstein to let him travel alone to Ireland, and soon made his professional acting début at the Gate Theatre, in Dublin. His success was reported in the New York Times, which called him “amazingly fine.” By 1934, when he was nineteen, he had made his Broadway début, as Tybalt in “Romeo and Juliet.” He had also married the actress Virginia Nicolson—the first of three less than happy marriages, yielding three not always happy daughters. His oldest child, Chris Welles Feder, records his inadequacies as a father in her affecting, forgiving 2009 memoir, In My Father’s Shadow.
Welles’s almost overnight emergence as the boy genius of the American theatre is often attributed to luck. He himself said so, and “luck” appears in McGilligan’s subtitle. But the decisive factor was the cultural-political atmosphere of the mid-thirties. For the only time in American history, the government was generously funding the arts, by way of the Works Progress Administration, and radio networks and movie studios were cultivating “quality” or “prestige” projects. During this period, Toscanini became a star of NBC radio and several Thomas Mann novels became Book-of-the-Month Club selections. Neither Callow nor McGilligan does full justice to the New Deal underpinnings of Welles’s career; for that, you have to turn to Michael Denning’s 1996 book, The Cultural Front, which presents Welles as the “American Brecht,” or to James Naremore’s classic study The Magic World of Orson Welles (1989, 2015), recently reissued by the University of Illinois.
Welles’s entrée was the Federal Theatre Project, which tended to take a hard-left, Popular Front line, and pointedly boosted African-American theatre. The FTP’s New York Negro Unit fell into the hands of the Romanian-born, British-educated producer John Houseman, who had admired Welles’s Tybalt. At the end of 1935, the idea arose of mounting an all-black “Macbeth,” and Houseman invited Welles to direct it. The Voodoo “Macbeth,” as it became known, set the template for Wellesian theatre: a displacing concept (the action was moved to a Caribbean island reminiscent of Haiti in the era of Henri Christophe); stark, eerie lighting; ruthless editing. Welles and Houseman subsequently formed an FTP unit called Project 891, which launched Marc Blitzstein’s pro-union musical, “The Cradle Will Rock.” In 1937, as the FTP came under political attack, Welles and Houseman founded the independent Mercury Theatre. Their first production, a “Julius Caesar” in a Fascist setting, was a sensation, and Welles soon landed on the cover of Time.
By many accounts, the most electrifying moment in “Caesar” was the brief scene in which Cinna the Poet is mistaken for one of the conspirators and is set upon by a mob. Remarkably, the actor who played Cinna, Norman Lloyd, is still around, at the age of a hundred and one, and has vivid memories of his work with Welles.
The staging of the scene was, typically, a last-minute improvisation, a conjuration out of chaos. Lloyd described to me the end result: “As the mob begins to move in very slowly, I don’t hear them. I look around, and I’m surprised: there are a lot of people around me. And what I played was, that I thought they wanted my poems. So I took the poem out and offered it to the lead guy. . . . And then Orson moved in as a director. He said, ‘Take it from him and hit him! Throw ’em at him! Throw ’em at him! ’ I said, ‘No, I’m Cinna the Poet.’ Orson gave it its contour: the move around the stage—they’re following me, following me all the time—and my realization, finally, that this was death. I disappear in the crowd as they rush me down the ramp.” Lloyd concluded, “This scene reflected what was happening in the world at the time very much. The audience got it. This is Fascism on the streets.”
In the same period, Welles achieved radio stardom as a hypnosis-inducing vigilante on “The Shadow.” Revenue from this and other radio appearances was funnelled into his FTP shows, causing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to joke that Welles was the “only operator in history who ever illegally siphoned money into a Washington project.” Welles pushed radio in a more artistically ambitious direction with his “Mercury Theatre on the Air,” adapting Shakespeare, Dickens, Dracula, and dozens of other literary properties. Bernard Herrmann joined Welles as house composer, and later followed him to Hollywood, becoming the magus of film music.
The night before Halloween, 1938, Welles and his staff perpetrated the most notorious hour of radio in the history of the medium: “The War of the Worlds,” which dramatized the H. G. Wells novel as a breaking-news broadcast, and convinced a certain number of Americans that Martians had invaded. As A. Brad Schwartz shows in Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s ‘War of the Worlds’ and the Art of Fake News (2015), the audience was duped largely by the pacing. Welles made the opening deliberately humdrum, stretching out a fake music broadcast by “Ramón Raquelo and His Orchestra”—Herrmann’s musicians, galumphing awkwardly. Then a voice broke in with reports of peculiar astronomical sightings and odd events in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. A reporter described, in the manner of the Hindenburg-disaster broadcast, tentacled creatures crawling out of a crashed vessel. The announcer signed off; there was Chopin piano music; the announcer returned (“Ladies and gentlemen, am I on?”), but his voice was soon drowned out amid screams; there was six seconds of dead air; another announcer apologized for technical difficulties; Chopin tinkled on. It had the jagged rhythm of the real.
Schwartz is not the first to point out that the legend of a nationwide panic is exaggerated. Only between two and four per cent of the radio audience tuned in that night, and only a fraction of those listeners went berserk. At the Welles archive at the University of Michigan, Schwartz studied more than a thousand letters related to “The War of the Worlds.” Supporters outnumbered critics ten to one; quite a few listeners admitted to being fooled but added that they had enjoyed the fright. One began by addressing Welles as “You horrible, terrible person” and ended by saying, “I must say it was marvelous.” Schwartz concludes that rumors of all-out panic were fanned by print commentators who wished to ponder the gullibility of the masses and the unreliability of the radio medium—much as pundits fret over the Internet today. “Bedlam did reign that night, but only in newsrooms across America,” Schwartz writes.
For a few days, it seemed that Welles would be punished and that the FCC would implement new restrictions. In the end, though, “The War of the Worlds” had the effect of rallying opinion against censorship. Many people defended Welles’s right to run amok: it was the American way. The Campbell Soup Company signed on as a sponsor, and RKO Radio Pictures invited Welles to Hollywood. As Schwartz observes, this was an ironic outcome: corporate interests proved to be a vigorous censor of unorthodox ideas.
"Kane” was not Welles’s first movie. Among several early attempts, the most notable were silent-film segments that he shot as a supplement to a Mercury production of William Gillette’s farce “Too Much Johnson.” The footage went unused because of logistical difficulties, and later disappeared. Inexplicably, it turned up a few years ago, at a warehouse in Pordenone, Italy. As Richard Brody has pointed out in this magazine, the film pays tribute to the slapstick of Mack Sennett and Harold Lloyd but also anticipates future Welles imagery: extreme low-angle shots frame Joseph Cotten against the Manhattan skyline. The footage undercuts the assumption that Welles’s cinematic style was formed under the tutelage of Gregg Toland, the virtuoso cinematographer of “Kane.”
McGilligan ends his book just as Welles begins shooting “Kane,” but he gives a lucid account of the film’s origins, correcting the impression given in Kael’s Raising Kane (1971). (In 1978, the scholar Robert Carringer dismantled the idea that Mankiewicz should be considered the sole author of “Kane,” but the notion has not died out.) Mankiewicz supplied the central conceit of a newspaper tycoon modelled on William Randolph Hearst, but many motifs are drawn from earlier Welles projects. A play called “Marching Song,” which he wrote with Roger Hill, is framed as a journalistic quest to understand a contradictory historical figure (in this case, John Brown); in an unfilmed script titled “The Smiler with the Knife,” a right-wing tycoon is introduced, as in “Kane,” with a newsreel. Mankiewicz invented vibrant characters and dialogue, but the first draft, titled “American,” meanders. Welles’s revision is a savagely deft feat of editing in which scene after scene comes alive through ingenious compression. In a famous sequence of cuts, Mr. Thatcher, Charles Foster Kane’s guardian, is seen exclaiming, “Merry Christmas . . . and a Happy New Year!” There is a jump of nearly two decades in the middle of the phrase.
Members of the adversarial camp assert that, after “Kane,” Welles fell victim to self-indulgence. In late 1941 and early 1942, he filmed “The Magnificent Ambersons,” an ethereally melancholy story of a Midwestern family in decline. It should have been his magnum opus, but, we are told, Welles absconded to Brazil before he was done with it, frittering away money on “It’s All True,” an omnibus film emphasizing racial and cultural multiplicity in Latin America. The studio that financed Mercury Productions, RKO, lost patience and shut down the operation. “There was never a movie there, only an extravagant, self-destructive gesture,” David Thomson writes in his 1996 book, Rosebud. Meanwhile, “Ambersons” was drastically re-cut and re-shot without Welles’s participation.
Catherine Benamou’s 2007 book, It’s All True, a masterpiece of scholarship, presents the Latin-American project as visionary filmmaking, austere in its technique and radical in its politics. It arose not from idle fancy but from a wartime imperative: the Roosevelt Administration was worried about Fascist incursions in South America, and kept a close eye on Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s authoritarian President. Welles initially went to Brazil to film the Carnaval in Rio; RKO and the Brazilian government expected a colorful entertainment, suitable for propaganda. But he became fascinated by the story of the jangadeiros—four raft fishermen, from the north of Brazil, who, the previous year, had sailed sixteen hundred miles along the coast to Rio, dramatizing the need for improved labor conditions. Welles also embraced Brazilian culture, becoming aware of the Afro-Brazilian origins of samba. He emerged with an ambitious plan for a musical-cultural-political overview of Brazilian life.
Benamou gives a sense of what the samba sequences would have been like. In one, we see musicians in a favela playing “Se Alguém Disse”; then we cut to a high-class night club, where the same tune is heard in a polished, radio-ready version. Other scenes would have revolved around the song “Adeus, Praça Onze” (“Farewell, Square Eleven”), the hit of the 1942 Carnaval. It told of a plan to pave over a plaza in Rio that was beloved by samba players. Too much color footage is lost to permit a full reconstruction of these scenes. But in 1993 a documentary also titled “It’s All True”—initiated by Welles’s longtime associate Richard Wilson—presented rich-hued, shadow-drenched Technicolor shots of the Carnaval that are unlike the clean, bright palette of “The Wizard of Oz” and other early color films.
This film essay on race, inequality, and gentrification failed to please RKO, whose strategy of making “prestige” pictures was foundering in wartime. An on-site RKO representative named Lynn Shores was bothered by Welles’s habit of turning his cameras toward the darker, poorer faces of Brazil. According to one memo, Shores went around complaining that the “whole thing’s about a bunch of niggers.” Benamou establishes that Shores’s reports to RKO misrepresented the filming schedule in order to portray Welles as irresponsible.
By July, 1942, Mercury Productions had lost RKO’s support, but Welles lingered in Brazil, stubbornly filming the jangadeiros sequence. That May, Jacaré, the charismatic leader of the fishermen, had drowned during filming; Welles, determined to honor him, carried on with Jacaré’s brother as a stand-in. Welles made do with a crew of five and a budget of ten thousand dollars. Lacking electricity on location, he worked in natural light. Far from being inhibited by these limitations, he thrived on them, extending the guerrilla mode of making pictures that he had tested with “Too Much Johnson.” In a funeral scene, long lines of figures wend their way along a hill, against a brilliant clear sky. In one shot, you see the trudging feet of mourners in the foreground while those on the ridge behind move in the opposite direction—the kind of visual counterpoint that makes Welles’s films an elemental joy to watch.
Simon Callow is an actor-director-author whose polymath panache rivals Welles’s, and as his immense biography has inched forward it has undergone an evolution. The epic has been told with unstinting verve, but the first volume suffered from an admonishing tone, spotty acknowledgment of political context, and an overreliance on Houseman’s embittered testimony (the partnership ended in 1941). The second volume, Hello Americans, which appeared in 2006 and covered the years 1941 to 1947, highlighted Welles’s predicament as an engaged artist in an increasingly hostile environment. Notwithstanding Welles’s myriad flaws—his bombast, his temper, his disdain for the realities of money, and, most damaging, his habit of going into hiding when crisis loomed—Callow has come to see the latter part of the career as “a tale of heroism, not of self-destruction.”
When Welles returned from Brazil, he was seething with political rage, and the fury endured until he went into European exile, in 1947. Popular Front values were in retreat, but Welles persisted in articulating them. His boldest statements came on a short-lived radio show called “Orson Welles Commentaries.” In early 1946, a black veteran named Isaac Woodard, Jr., had been beaten and blinded by the police chief of Batesburg, South Carolina. A few months later, Welles read aloud Woodard’s affidavit on the air and then addressed the sheriff, whose name was not yet known, in the manner of a Shakespearean comic-book avenger: “Wash your hands, Officer X, wash them well. Scrub and scour. You won’t blot out the blood of a blinded war veteran. . . . You’ll never wash away that leprous lack of pigment, the guilty pallor of the white man.” After several more broadcasts on this theme, the show was cancelled.
Welles’s films took a turn toward the baroque, the circus-like. The storied fun-house shoot-out at the climax of “The Lady from Shanghai” (1947)—in which Rita Hayworth, Welles’s second wife, plays a luridly blond femme fatale and Welles her naïve Irish stooge—is an almost comically blatant assault on the Hollywood dream factory. Mirror images of the stars shatter as bullets fly. Welles’s film of “Macbeth” (1948) presents a calculatedly cold, vicious version of Shakespeare, with stagey whispers and bloodcurdling screams echoing in a cavernous acoustic space. During this period, Laurence Olivier was winning acclaim for his well-schooled adaptations of “Henry V” and “Hamlet.” As the scholar Michael Anderegg has observed, Welles’s unruly and anarchic Shakespeare was out of step with Cold War middlebrow culture.
Scholars debate whether Welles’s departure for Italy, in the late forties, was impelled by the approaching McCarthyite storm. Most likely, the possibility of being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee played a role. Welles became a gypsy artist who never tied himself to one place or institution for long. More often than not, he financed projects with acting paychecks. He returned to America for brief periods—notably to make “Touch of Evil” (1958), his definitive denunciation of police brutality against minorities—but could not regain his footing in Hollywood.
Callow’s latest book, Orson Welles: One-Man Band (2016), covers the gypsy years. The biographer summons his subject with easy authority, his descriptions poised between sympathy and skepticism: “One senses something archaic about him. He behaves like some great tribal chieftain, a warlord of art, riding roughshod over the niceties of conventional behavior, sometimes sulking in his tent, sometimes rousing his people to great heights, now making huge strategic decisions off the cuff, now mysteriously absenting himself.” As before, Callow is especially good at evoking Welles’s theatre work. There are lively pages on the 1955 production “Moby-Dick Rehearsed,” which depicted a nineteenth-century theatre troupe preparing a stage version of Melville’s novel, and on a 1950 Faust revue that featured Eartha Kitt as Helen of Troy, and music by Duke Ellington. Such projects veered between triumph and catastrophe, sometimes on the same night. Callow notes that at one performance of “King Lear,” in New York, Welles’s bellowing on the heath included the words “John! John!! John!!! Switch sixteen is not on!”
There are many delights in Welles’s European films—the knotty whimsy of “Mr. Arkadin,” the florid weirdness of “The Trial”—but Shakespeare elicited his best. “Othello,” an unusually tortuous undertaking, which began in 1948 and was finished in 1951, somehow achieves a commanding stylistic unity, with airy, luminous vistas set against dank, claustrophobic interiors. Welles plays Othello, and the contained violence of the portrayal suggests a man hyper-conscious of how he is being seen, particularly as a black person in a white society. In “Chimes at Midnight,” Welles assumes the role of Falstaff, which he had first played in his youth. As Callow writes, it is one of Welles’s “richest, most detailed, most human performances.” The devastation that passes over his face in the rejection scene from “Henry IV, Part 2”—“I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers”—hints at Welles’s own humiliation by worldly authorities. But the most resonant scene is the Battle of Shrewsbury—a quick-cut barrage of mayhem that devolves into unsightly images of bodies twitching in mud. At the time, the Vietnam War was escalating, and the political message was clear: war has always been a quagmire.
Artists do their best work when they’re old or young,” Welles once told his younger colleague Peter Bogdanovich. “Middle age is the enemy of art.” Welles never got to have a full-fledged late period: in the twenty years after “Chimes,” he was unable to complete a feature-length narrative film. But you can see a late style emerging if you plunge into the trove that he left behind: “F for Fake” and other smaller-scale efforts; scripts in the Michigan archive; conjectural versions of several unfinished films, realized by Stefan Droessler, of the Munich Film Museum; and fragments of “The Other Side of the Wind,” which circulate among fans. The film historian Joseph McBride, in his 2006 book, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, calls Welles’s final decades a “period of great artistic fecundity and daring,” one that placed new emphasis on the disordering power of sexual desire.
Welles was by then on his third marriage, to the Italian actress Paola Mori. (Their daughter, Beatrice, manages his estate.) He had also entered into a close relationship with the Croatian sculptor and actress Oja Kodar, who became his co-screenwriter and chief collaborator. Kodar helped to bring about a burst of sensuality in Welles’s work. The shift is first seen in “The Immortal Story,” an hour-long film based on an Isak Dinesen tale, which was shown on French television in 1968 and is now finally available on DVD and Blu-ray. The Wellesian baroque gives way to an aesthetic of long-held shots, nocturnal stillness, and softly glowing colors. The central sex scene, between characters played by Jeanne Moreau and the young British actor Norman Eshley, is never explicit, and yet it achieves a voluptuous intensity at its climax, with Eshley arcing his body upward and Moreau gasping. As so often in Welles’s work, the imagery is accented by the sound: amid the noise of writhing bodies, we hear an ostinato of crickets.
The vortex of desire is at the center of “The Other Side of the Wind,” which occupied Welles from 1970 to 1976. Josh Karp’s Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of "The Other Side of the Wind" (2015) gives a dynamic account of the film’s making and eventual undoing. The principal character is Jake Hannaford, played by John Huston—a bigoted, reactionary director who is trying to ape the latest trends. His film-in-progress, also called “The Other Side of the Wind,” is a languid enigma in the manner of Antonioni, with Kodar cast as a Native American radical. Hannaford has a history of discovering, befriending, and discarding young male actors; the latest is an androgynous youth named John Dale (played by Bob Random), who is subjected to emasculating directorial insults while filming his sex scenes with Kodar’s character, and ends up walking off the picture. The plot unfolds on Hannaford’s seventieth birthday, as colleagues, critics, documentarians, and hangers-on—including a Bogdanovich-like younger director, played by Bogdanovich—gather to celebrate him. Before dawn, Hannaford dies in a mysterious car crash, as his unfinished movie plays at a deserted drive-in.
The question of Hannaford’s sexuality smolders throughout. In one provisional sequence, Hannaford gay-baits Dr. Burroughs, an effete, elderly schoolmaster who once taught Dale. For a while, Burroughs holds his own, archly noting Hannaford’s own “personal interest” in the young man. Hannaford splutters with rage, his face blackened by shadow—a device familiar from “Kane.” With a sadistic grin, he invites Burroughs to go for a swim, and orders him to undress. “I suppose all schoolteachers are prigs,” the affronted teacher says. “I suppose,” Hannaford answers. “Prigs, or faggots.” Huston’s icy, raw, alcohol-fuelled performance exposes the psychological violence at the root of power.
If Welles had pulled it off, “Wind” would have been a death-defying trick: a comeback picture about a doomed director who can’t finish his comeback picture. By 1975, he had shot the script and edited forty-two minutes of film; but, having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money, he needed additional funds to complete the job. That year, he received a Life Achievement award from the American Film Institute, and he showed a few scenes, hoping for offers of end money. None came—unsurprisingly, Karp notes, since the excerpts betrayed disdain for Hollywood. Meanwhile, Welles quarrelled with his producers, the Paris-based Astrophore company, which was headed by Mehdi Boushehri, a brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran. Four years later, the Shah was deposed, and the film entered legal limbo; at one point, representatives of Ayatollah Khomeini threatened to seize it.
After Welles’s death, in 1985, Bogdanovich and other Welles associates made attempts to complete “Wind,” but disputes over rights and financing kept getting in the way. Finally, last year, a team led by Bogdanovich and the producers Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza secured the Astrophore interest and seemed to win agreement from Kodar and other parties. There have been further delays, but preparations continue. In the world of Welles, nothing ever goes according to plan.
Even when work on “Wind” begins, daunting challenges will remain. In each of his films, Welles found a distinct editing tempo, suited to its themes. His “Wind” scenes suggest two tempos interwoven. The birthday party has a frenzied, scrambled energy; 16-mm. film, Super 8, video, and stills are interspliced, representing the different media eyes trained on Hannaford. The cutting is sometimes dizzyingly rapid, incorporating multiple takes. Gary Graver, Welles’s cinematographer in the later years, recalled him shouting, “Fast! Fast! Don’t bore anyone!” The film-within-a-film, shot in 35-mm. Kodak Eastmancolor, is more luxuriously paced. Although it was conceived as a parody, it contains wondrous images. A sex scene shot in a car, in which Random writhes with Kodar as rain streams down the windows, is among Welles’s most astonishing feats. No one can know exactly how he would have handled this interplay of rhythms, but even a speculative version will show a febrile creative imagination.
On the evening of October 9, 1985, Welles spoke by phone with Roger Hill, his high-school mentor. He read aloud a letter that he had received from a theatrical manager fifty-three years earlier, concerning his and Hill’s play “Marching Song.” The letter said, “It’s a swell show. It makes good reading. . . . But that doesn’t matter. It won’t make money. It isn’t a commercial piece.” Welles then said to Hill, “Disappointments continue to affect my confidence—but never my resolve.” (A reconstruction of the conversation, drawn from Hill’s recollection, appears in Todd Tarbox’s absorbing 2013 book, Orson Welles and Roger Hill.) Toward the end of the call, Welles described himself as a “shipwreck . . . too busy to be destroyed, let alone sink.” He quoted “Cymbeline”: “Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.” Then he said, “A phone is ringing. It’s a money call I must take.” He died a few hours later, alone, at his typewriter.
Money bedevilled Welles to the end. He had terrible business instincts, alienating reliable investors while falling prey to hucksters. What’s remarkable, though, is how little money he ultimately spent. “Chimes” had a smaller budget, in unadjusted dollars, than “Kane,” released twenty-four years earlier. He rarely spent more than a million dollars per picture, even as inflation made this amount worth less and less. If one Welles myth deserves to die, it is that he was a wasteful filmmaker. His career is, in fact, a sustained demonstration of the art of making something from nothing. It might be time to stop imagining what might have been and instead to focus on what remains. As Jonathan Rosenbaum points out, no one goes around saying, “What happened to Kafka?” Making art is difficult, especially in a culture that has cooled on grand artistic ambitions. These tidy parables of rise and fall, of genius unrealized, may say more about latter-day America than they do about the ever-beleaguered, never-defeated Welles.
If he left a testament, it is “F for Fake,” which anticipated the more personal documentary filmmaking of recent decades. Welles begins with a flurry of vignettes on the subject of hoaxes, drawing on footage shot by François Reichenbach: we see the debonair art forger Elmyr de Hory; his wily biographer, Clifford Irving, who proceeds to launch a hoax of his own, in the form of the diaries of Howard Hughes; and Welles himself, recalling the “War of the Worlds” uproar. To this is added an elaborate cinematic ruse, the nature of which should be withheld from those who haven’t seen it yet. What begins as a droll, breezy exercise becomes a magisterial meditation on art and life, truth and fiction. Welles seems to side with his bitterest critics by describing himself as a liar, a faker, a charlatan. But then he says, “What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is art. Picasso himself said it. Art, he said, is a lie, a lie that makes us realize the truth.” The alternative is grim. “Reality? It’s the toothbrush waiting at home for you in its glass, a bus ticket, a paycheck, and the grave.” Ω
[Alex Ross has been contributing to The New Yorker since 1993, and he became the magazine’s music critic in 1996. His first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007), a cultural history of music since 1900, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His second book is the essay collection Listen to This (2010). In 2008, he was named a MacArthur Fellow. Ross received an AB (English, summa cum laude) from Harvard University.]
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