01-11-2008 - Traces, n. 10


The Vitality
of Orson Welles

In the second installment of our series on The Religious Sense in American Culture, John Touhey, screenwriter, director, and film critic for Traces, discusses one of the greatest American filmmakers

by John Touhey

It is one of the great misfortunes of our culture that Orson Welles is known to many Americans as a fat old man who peddled cheap wines or as the off-screen narrator of a Tranformers cartoon. Late in life, ignored by the Hollywood establishment, Welles was forced to take whatever work he could scrape up to fund his many unfinished projects. Even at the age of 70, Orson Welles was hard at work trying to create great art, driven by an intense desire for beauty. If the price of continued creativity was making a fool of oneself in a bad TV commercial, so be it. 

Life and Work
Just thirty years before, when he first arrived in LA, the leading newspapers hailed Orson Welles as a wunderkind because of his innovative work on the New York stage and on radio. His resounding baritone voice had skyrocketed him to fame on the East Coast. Now Orson had signed a studio contract that gave him total artistic control of the films he would write and direct, an unheard-of deal during the heyday of the studio system. Many predicted (and jealously hoped) that Welles would fall flat on his face, but he responded by making Citizen Kane, regarded today as one of the greatest films ever made–perhaps the greatest.
Everything after that was a letdown according to many of Welles’ contemporaries. One movie after another ran into problems as investors got cold feet, producers took control of footage in the editing room, and distributors deemed his movies box office poison. In spite of all these obstacles, Orson Welles managed to complete another 11 films in his lifetime, along with producing a constant stream of radio shows, theater productions, television programs, and newspaper articles–while acting in countless films and TV projects. Then there were the many unfinished works that are still being cataloged by scholars, proving that Orson Welles was certainly one of the most accomplished “failures” of the twentieth century.
And what of the films? Most people have seen Citizen Kane, but are the others worth seeking out? The answer is a resounding, yes, absolutely! Watching a film by Orson Welles is often a demanding experience because he refused to let his audience sit back and passively absorb a story. Viewers have to observe and listen carefully, paying close attention and judging what they see to form their own conclusions. Welles encouraged his audience to “test everything,” not taking what they were seeing for granted. A gifted magician by hobby, Welles often enjoyed fooling viewers (as in his infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast), but it was usually a playful reminder that we have to look deeper, to try and see things more clearly.
To begin to appreciate Orson Welles’ work at this deeper level, it is helpful to know a few facts about his background. Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1915, Welles’ early years were anything but typical. Orson’s mother, Beatrice, doted obsessively on her boy and labeled him a genius practically from the moment he drew his first breath. Visitors to the Welles household were usually startled to encounter a chubby toddler who could recite poems and converse fluently on the merits of modern art, or so the legend goes. Little Orson was always the center of attention, yet his early years were also intensely lonely and unstable. He grew up convinced that he was only worthy of love if he proved himself interesting or amusing. And Welles understood at an early age that human life was fragile. By the time he was fifteen, Orson was an orphan, his mother having died of hepatitis when he was nine, and his father, Richard, a victim of alcoholism.
It is this sense of loss that most profoundly marks all of Welles’ films from the beginning. Citizen Kane (1941) asks what is the value of a man’s life, if even his greatest achievements can be boxed up and forgotten? The Magnificent Ambersons (1941) is an ode to the passing of time, as the quaint ways of a Midwestern town are overrun by automobiles and factories, while souls are crushed not only by technological progress, but by life’s many disappointments as well. Chimes at Midnight (1965), adapted from Shakespeare’s history plays, chronicles the demise of Merry Olde England through the tragicomic character of Sir John Falstaff, who discovers too late that his friend Prince Henry is all too willing to cast aside friendship in the interest of political expediency. This acute awareness of death and unsatisfied longing sometimes provokes an explicit plea for meaning (like in the scene in Ambersons when the dying Major Amberson ruminates fruitlessly over his ultimate destiny) but, more often, the religious sense is present in an implicit way. This is true, for instance, in Touch of Evil (1958), in which a cop becomes corrupted when his thirst for justice is thwarted by events and he decides to take the law into his own hands, leading to his damnation.
All this is not to say that Orson Welles’ films are despairing or gloomy; in fact, just the opposite is true. For another outstanding aspect of any Orson Welles movie is its invigorating energy, a characteristic that became ever more important as Welles faced the growing challenges of realizing his many film projects. When outside support for his movies finally dried up, Welles was forced to get more creative. One story goes that, while filming Othello (1952), the actors’ costumes failed to arrive when the film’s producer went bankrupt. Knowing that inactivity could kill his movie for good, Welles improvised, putting the actors in towels and filming the murder of Rodrigo in a “Turkish bath” created out of steam and carefully chosen camera angles. The results were stunning.
Freed from the artificiality of the studio, Welles discovered a new freedom in his work. The whole world became his movie studio. He learned to constantly adjust to circumstances and to value mistakes because they were opportunities to discover something totally unexpected. Back in the editing room, Welles would carefully piece together scenes that could have been filmed on two or three different continents, while continually shaping and reshaping his narratives to find new meanings in the material. The excitement of an Orson Welles film comes from watching a filmmaker in conversation with reality, a conversation that we participate in, because it is up to us, the viewers, to put together the final pieces of the puzzle for ourselves. It was an innovative way to work that would be embraced by the French New Wave and by later directors such as Krzysztof Kieslowski.

The Magician
Perhaps the greatest feature that stands out in the films is their wondrous beauty. Welles was a true artist with an eye for composition and a talent for staging that remains unmatched. When forced to work with inexperienced cinematographers, he still managed to capture images on celluloid that stick in one’s memory because of their staggering visual power. Even Welles’ lesser works, such as The Stranger (1946) and Mr. Arkadin (1955) are capable of captivating viewers with their daring sense of style. Sound was also considered to be vital. Thanks to his background in radio, Welles firmly believed that the ear was as important as the eye. The soundtracks of his films are a medley of overlapping dialog, recorded effects, and snippets of music, creating a rich auditory environment that adds to and often contradicts the onscreen visuals.
The result is a scene like the newspapermen’s party in Citizen Kane. Kane’s pal, Leland, suddenly realizes his friend’s ideals have become corrupted when Kane says he will start a war with Spain because it helps sell newspapers. Meanwhile, a group of chorus girls in the background sing and dance to a tune about Charlie Kane, man of the people, a clever setup of Kane’s political ambitions. Both events happen at once, with the emphasis constantly shifting as Kane is pulled into the dance number and Leland eventually finds himself outside the celebration. The moment is at once invigorating, sad, and thought-provoking. It’s the kind of scene that most directors dream of achieving at least once in their careers, but Welles directed many such scenes, making it look effortless, like a magician snatching cards out of thin air, one after another.
It is no wonder then that his most ardent fans are always hoping some lost Orson Welles masterpiece will turn up. Maybe the reels chopped out of the Magnificent Ambersons will unexpectedly surface in a musty vault or Orson’s friends will finally succeed in completing his last fabled film, The Other Side of the Wind (1975). The films of Orson Welles aren’t like most other movies. Watching Touch of Evil or Citizen Kane is more like sitting down with a beloved and entertaining old friend, spending a long night discussing the mysteries of life together, maybe exchanging jokes or a few outrageous stories, and never wanting to go to bed because you realize this life is too short, too interesting, and too fun to be spent sleeping away.