The Incomparable Orson Welles: The Man, Magician, and Maker of Films / by Samuel B. Prime


Above, the incomparable Orson Welles frozen in a fit of joyous laughter - the kind too rare and so precious. Were the creases in his face earned over years of such signature guffaws or simply brought on with age? Is that a glint in his eye that betrays his seemingly endless originality and optimism, or just the camera flash? Were he still alive today, Orson Welles would be 99 years old. His birthday just passed, not less than a week ago, on May 6th. Nearly a century with Welles. I didn't know the man and never could have. He died in 1985. I was born in 1987. It just wasn't meant to be. However, I have come to know and appreciate his films, his dual obsessions of art and illusion (especially as made manifest in 1973's F FOR FAKE), and at least a version of (who I think of as) the man named Orson Welles - constructed from interviews, anecdotes, quotes, photographs, and more.

Los Angeles is keenly aware of the nearness of Welles' centennial. At this moment, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is in the midst of presenting a Welles retrospective dubbed 'The Essential Orson Welles.' No small coincidence that the series should fall during his birthday. And though I initially understood the series as 'The Essential: Orson Welles' (betraying my bias), its title is not so much important; rather, its content. The screening series opened on May 3rd with a previously thought lost - and incomplete - Welles film, TOO MUCH JOHNSON. Not so much a feature as a film project meant to accompany a stage production, the approximately 60 minutes of footage (essentially dailies that unveil a loose, simple cat-and-mouse story) predates CITIZEN KANE and is technically his first professional film. It was not a marvel, a revelation, or even wholly breathtaking - more so a curiosity, a window into a young director working on a budget, trying new things, imitating those who came before him (especially regarding visual gags), and not always succeeding. It is, as much as audiences will ever see, Welles as an eager amateur. For that reason alone, it is utterly unique and worth seeing. For others altogether, not the least of which being the nothing-short-of-miraculous restoration work done on the only surviving nitrate print, any screening of TOO MUCH JOHNSON ought not to be missed. 

Ever since the screening on May 3rd, Welles has been popping up in odd places. He has been on my mind, wandering into my consciousness at odd hours of the day or night and invading activities that ostensibly have nothing to do with him. I guess he's still fond of the spotlight. In particular, I thought about what Welles had to say about F FOR FAKE, a late-career marvel that (regretfully) has only received its due acclaim in retrospect. Whereas KANE was a kind of treat, F FOR FAKE is Welles embracing the trick - film as a hyphenate, a medium that can fold in upon itself, be ostensibly straightforward and linear (i.e. having a definite start and stop) yet resemble the maze-like circuitousness of Borges' infinitudes. Some viewers might call F FOR FAKE downright experimental and, though they would not be precisely wrong, there is something dismissive or undefinable in the assignation of "experimental." Something that says "we don't know what it is, but we are pretty sure you can safely call it art." Maybe that's not a bad thing, though. For those unfamiliar, you might watch the trailer first - a kind of short film that has everything and nothing to do with the film itself. It is not your bog standard trailer.

From what I can gather, Welles thought F FOR FAKE was his own second coming - the only film of his career that might rival the inscrutable impact of a 25-year-old's success story, CITIZEN KANE. He was right and he was wrong. F FOR FAKE is remarkable, something altogether new, and my personal favorite among his works. It was also an outright failure - especially in the United States. Not only was its failure a profound disappointment; it also broke his heart. Taken from Stefan Drössler's The Unknown Orson Welleshere is Welles on F FOR FAKE: 


"When I finished F FOR FAKE, I thought I had discovered a new kind of movie and it was the kind of movie I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. And it was the failure of F FOR FAKE in America and also in England that was one of the big shocks of my life. Because I really thought I was onto something. And it's a form, in other words, the essay, the personal essay, as opposed to the documentary, quite different. Not a documentary at all."


Welles had uncovered the video essay, that intersection between cinema and creative nonfiction - a form that is literary in construction and often (consciously or unconsciously) involves its author as part of the work. Films by Chris Marker, Agnes Varda, and Ross McElwee come to mind - SANS SOLEIL (1983), THE GLEANERS & I (2000), and TIME INDEFINITE (1993) - to name a few. John Bresland, who brilliantly teaches writing and filmmaking at Northwestern University, is the modern-day champion of the video essay form. He offered a class on video essays in the Fall of my senior year. I had been obsessed with the form for years, but the course was restricted to English students who had completed the requisite foundational poetry courses. I hadn't studied poetry, didn't meet the pre-requisites, so just went to Bresland's office. I made my interest known, asked if I could enroll, and he told me "No." I asked again. "No." I then said something dramatic to him, like "I've been waiting my whole life to take a course on this subject." Saccharine, maybe, but I meant it. And it earned me a spot in John's course.

The form Welles discovered - and mastered - in 1973 with F FOR FAKE is just now coming into its own (in 2014!). He was cursed with that most painful and unfortunate social disorder: 'being ahead of one's time.' But Welles was a serial innovator, an original, someone utterly singular and completely irreplaceable: these sort of people must carry with them the burden of being interesting - and, though often coveted by folks of a much simpler sort, interesting is never easy. James Toback's extraordinary 2013 documentary SEDUCED AND ABANDONED - itself a meditation on the obsession that drives people to participate in the motion picture industry - begins with a tragic and beautiful quote from Welles: "I look back on my life and it’s 95% running around trying to raise money to make movies and 5% actually making them. It’s no way to live." Welles' quote functions as a kind of mantra within the film, an admission that someone - anyone! - would have to be crazy to be in this business, to pursue precisely the kind of asymptotic passion that rarely reciprocates: the pursuit of financing filmmaking. 

"It's no way to live," said Welles. Did he mean that? I mean, really mean that. Looking back on his life, did he regret its course? Was this a most sincere sentiment or just another patented yarn from the famous raconteur? In a recent Nerdist podcast, Chris Hardwick spoke to Jon Favreau mostly about his new movie, but at one point in articulating the trajectory of his own career, Favreau glibly offered: "You don't want to be Orson Welles." Favreau meant in respect to surviving a great, early career success - arguably the greatest in cinema history - by way of CITIZEN KANE. Truthfully, this is the only part of the podcast that I remember, in retrospect - the single part that left me thinking about it long after. Did Orson Welles not even want to be Orson Welles? Could he not help but be a teller of stories? Was this compulsion his disease? More to the point: was Welles happy? 

In looking again at the above picture, now I can't tell whether Welles is laughing out loud or crying for help. Maybe the laughter, the joy, the anecdotes, the art itself (whether celebrated or shot down in its day) was a means of coping with a life not worth living, in his own words. If true, the cruel irony therein would be that his struggle to make art - and to equal or surmount a great first success - would itself cause the pain that the end product (or the process) might possibly relieve. But maybe Favreau's perspective is slightly cynical, a means for him to be at peace with the ups, downs, & luck of his own career. I generally like Favreau, some of his movies, and especially his freeform, conversational show Dinner For Five, which ran on IFC from 2001 until 2005. Most of all, I hope Favreau is wrong about Welles. I hope Welles is wrong about Welles. I hope Welles was happy.