W for Welles


Poster for F is For Fake, Specialty Films, 1975

From The New Yorker:

When Welles came to Hollywood, in 1939, at the age of twenty-four, he was already famous for his radio work—not least for the great “War of the Worlds” hoax—and heralded as the next big thing without having made a movie. (In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1940 short story “Pat Hobby and Orson Welles,” members of the Hollywood old guard, high and low, see him as a “menace” and a “radical.”) The movie industry was at the apogee of its vertical integration and industrial organization. Great directors were working there, for the most part under tight constraints. Welles was the great liberator: with “Citizen Kane,” he demonstrated the artistic power of the director unleashed, and became personally identified with the art of directing itself. He wasn’t the only one-man show around; Charlie Chaplin, who owned his own studio, was writing, directing, and performing in movies that seemed like the total personal creations they were (and the book makes clear Welles’s sense of rivalry with Chaplin, whose film “Monsieur Verdoux” was based on an idea by Welles). But Chaplin, for all his genius, was a man of the nineteenth century; Welles was modernity and modernism personified, the living future of the art form. In “Citizen Kane,” images seemed unchained, a sort of immediate imprint of the imagination and a mighty music that didn’t so much tell a story as display his mercurial emotions. That great début, about a media mogul who, starting at age twenty-five, uses a newspaper to project his voice and his vision worldwide, takes the cinema itself as its premise and evokes a wild new world, one of vast echo chambers of outsized personalities, which, as it turns out, is the world we live in.

With his grandly clashing passions—and with his extravagant images, scripts, and, for that matter, performances (starting with his own)—Welles is the most Shakespearean figure in the history of cinema. Shakespeare adaptations are a constant throughout his career—including his efforts at a “King Lear,” to be shot in 16 mm. (“mostly close-ups”), that he discusses in the book. But—as is obvious from “Citizen Kane” itself—he knew that his ambitions and his abilities contained the seed of a great fall, one that wouldn’t so much resound as it would pathetically dwindle. After “Kane,” he made many great films (including “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “The Lady from Shanghai,” “Macbeth,” “Mr. Arkadin,” “Touch of Evil,” “The Trial,” “Chimes at Midnight,” and “F for Fake”). But, early on (even with “Ambersons,” his second film, mutilated by the studio), his difficulties multiplied, due to unfortunate coincidences, the nature of the studio system, and his own personality. His 1952 “Othello” was largely self-financed with his earnings as an actor, and throughout the book he refers to his troubled relations with producers on his smaller-budget movies of the fifties and sixties (who did such things as stiffing the actors and sticking Welles with hotel bills). At the time of his death, Welles was planning to shoot and star in his version of “Lear” (“the part I was born to play”) but knew that this and other low-budget movies he planned would “be judged by the standards of the time when I had more money.”

He judges his own artistic legacy and his place in the history of cinema with Olympian discernment. The two movies that Welles talks about at length—and that, in his mind, he pairs—are “Citizen Kane” and “F for Fake” (the 1973 essay-film, loosely sketched around a portrait of the art forger Elmyr de Hory).

The tragedy of my life is that I can’t get the Americans to like it…. Anyway, I think, “F for Fake” is the only really original movie I’ve made since “Kane.” You see, everything else is only carrying movies a little further along the same path. I believe that the movies—I’ll say a terrible thing—have never gone beyond “Kane.” That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been good movies, or great movies. But everything has been done now in movies, to the point of fatigue. You can do it better, but it’s always gonna be the same grammar, you know? 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. I know that as a director of movie actors in front of the camera, I have nowhere to move forward. I can only make another good work.

The “tragedy” of the poor reviews and box-office failure of “F for Fake” wasn’t just aesthetic but also practical and financial: “Because that would have solved my old age. I could have made an essay movie—two of ’em a year, you see? On different subjects. Various variations of that form.”

Instead, Welles was forced to become a celebrity—a talk-show regular who had become better known for his commercials from the nineteen-seventies for Paul Masson wine than for any movie but his first. His genius, as the book shows, was fuelled with an energy that seemed, at times, tragically centrifugal: its torrent of ideas, opinions, memories, grudges, insights, theories, speculations, complaints, and pleas are the living trace of a mind born in overdrive and which, suspended in a kind of content-free fame, is reduced to spinning its wheels.

“King Orson”, Richard Brody, The New Yorker