Thursday, November 26, 2009

This is Orson Welles

Yesterday’s post was called Orson and I, but it really wasn’t about my personal fascination and identification with Orson Welles. Today’s is. I guess a lot of people want to label Welles a genius, and it is hard to deny his status as such if you define a genius as someone with off-the-charts, preternatural gifts. The legend says that he was quoting from great books by the age of 2 and putting on full scale productions of plays like King Lear before he was 10. He qualifies once again if you think a genius is someone who transforms how an entire medium is used. He actually had such an impact in three realms – movies, theatre, and radio. Even if you don’t like Citizen Kane, and I know many of you out there think it is hopelessly overrated, it is still regarded as an inexhaustibly useful sacred text by many critics and filmmakers who continue to return to it, shot by shot, for inspiration.

On the other hand, he is assuredly not a genius if we mean someone who knows more than anyone else or is able, without assistance from others, to think up grand schemes and to act on them boldly. Welles badly needed collaborators to activate his best gifts. He is also not a genius if we mean someone with a highly disciplined mind who, by virtue of profound analytical frameworks, sees more deeply and more expansively than others. Oh, and, by the way, much to Welles’ bitter disappointment, he was also not a genius, not even close, by virtue of his facility with the written word. He had a great voice and was a superb improviser and had a way of relating to an audience, whether remote or before his eyes, that few of his contemporaries could match. But his best work was always driven by someone else’s words – Houseman, Howard Koch, Shakespeare, Herman Mankiewicz, Booth Tarkington, Graham Greene – words he often revised or used as a basis for improvisation, but words that nevertheless originated with someone else. He was bitter to the end of his days that people saw Welles as only the “second” author of Citizen Kane ("Mank" being the widely acknowledged "first" author) or that Howard Koch received credit for drafting the original script for the War of the Worlds broadcast. It was typical of Welles that in spite of his many gifts, he would begrudge the recognition others received for drafting scripts – the art he most lacked and yet most desired.

As the foregoing suggests, my fascination with Orson Welles, my love really, has as much to do with the contradictions in his character as anything else. He was enormously talented and never lacked for attention, but he often didn’t get the attention he wanted. He planned scrupulously and was a fabulous producer and director, but he had a tendency to lose interest in projects, to leave them to others to mop up, and then when they didn’t turn out quite the way he wanted, blamed them for botching the job or for interfering with his vision. He was a quick study who could immediately intuit how to stage a script, but his final productions were often slick and superficial, because he lacked the discipline to go deeper. He was so smart and yet so dumb about so many things. I still resent the fact that he let himself get so obese, to the extent that by the last 20 years of his life, he was more often the butt of fat jokes than the subject of serious criticism. But it was strangely fitting that he should be so rotund as well, for like Kane or Falstaff, he consumed and absorbed everything in his path. He DID have some knowledge of everything – however superficially – and had a way of thinking about and acting on that knowledge that had a flashiness and surface brilliance that impressed (and frequently fooled) just about everyone. He was the ultimate dilettante, who despite all his flaws, was, by far, the single person most responsible for fashioning a truly great film.

Despite all the talk of his decline and his failed promise, all of which is true, how many people can say, “I once made a film that everyone should see, and even after 30 viewings somehow remains fresh and exciting.”

Next post: Thoughts on Citizen Kane

1 comment:

  1. He made a pretty good living as a dilettante. And failed promise is the rule, rather than the exception, I should think. I'd rather rejoice in his successes.
    "We should make no judegements before our own time."