Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Watching Welles

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2006)

Near the start of his 1973 documentary F for Fake, having already established the film’s preoccupation with charlatanism and trickery, the film’s director and narrator Orson Welles delivers a sober promise to the camera: that for the next hour, he will tell us only the truth. With this established, the viewer settles into the film’s discursive approach to its material, focusing on master art forger Emile de Hory and the author Clifford Irving (who wrote both a biography of de Hory and then an alleged autobiography of Howard Hughes, itself later revealed as a fraud) while digressing in multiple directions – back to memories of Citizen Kane and Welles’ famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, into scenes of Welles having dinner, and frequently into footage of Hungarian model Oja Kodar (Welles’ lover for the last twenty years of his life).

F for Fake

Eventually the film narrows into a single extended anecdote about Kodar, her grandfather (also an art forger) and Pablo Picasso – a strange story for sure, but no more than anything already laid before us. After its apparent conclusion, Welles suddenly starts to back pedal, disowning elements of what he’s just been telling us, and then he refers back to his promise about that hour of veracity. “That hour, ladies and gentlemen,” he then announces, “is over. For the last seventeen minutes I’ve been lying my head off.”

It’s the kind of thing that can only work once, and nowadays in a more skeptical, wised-up world, it might not work at all. But when I first saw F for Fake, at the age of sixteen or so, I remember being utterly stunned. It was a moment that fundamentally influenced my sense of cinema – maybe it was even the moment when I realized the passivity of how I’d been watching films, and the inadequacy of that. Over time one’s views of things evolve and shift of course, so that at the extreme Welles’ ruse might almost seem to unbalance the film – it says more about his self-dramatization than about the movie’s ostensible subject. But Welles’ obvious delight in the material is one of F for Fake’s great pleasures, and the degree to which the director may or may not reveal himself between the frames is the real issue on which a certificate of authenticity might be demanded. As a director who traveled the world with his editing table, and who created dazzling juxtapositions and leaps in F for Fake, Welles obviously knew in the first place that the concept of an “hour of truth” in cinema is hopelessly compromised.

In my 1,100 or so words here, I can say nothing of interest to those who know and value Welles’ work, but in casual conversations at work recently I’ve realized again how small that group is. I wrote about Welles some five years ago, but on that occasion I concentrated mainly on Citizen Kane. No apology necessary for that. As I wrote then, Citizen Kane tends to be a film that everyone knows about and knows to be great, but which few people have actually seen (or if they have seen it, they often seem not to know what the fuss is all about). And the later films have little prominence in the popular consciousness.
One Man Band

Five years ago I referred to “numerous unfinished Welles projects that have become more famous than other directors’ finished works. Most famous are Don Quixote, The Deep, and above all The Other Side of the Wind, a mid-70’s expose of Hollywood that sounds strange and twisted and utterly brilliant…and will probably never be seen. This odd shadow career is unprecedented in an art form that depends so much on logistical planning and having the money in place – you weep at a creative force so often thwarted.”
Well, I now see that a little bit differently. The Criterion Collection’s DVD of F for Fake has one of the most wonderful extras of any DVD I’ve ever come across – the documentary Orson Welles: One Man Band. This features two scenes from Other Side of the Wind (both stunning) and others from an unfinished Merchant of Venice and a barely started version of Isak Dinesen’s The Dreamers, among others. And then there are items I could never have imagined, such as some comedy skits filmed in Britain in the 60’s and 70’s that allow Welles to indulge his love of playacting for no great artistic purpose. Which merely makes them all the more endearing. Oh, and then there’s the talk show pilot he filmed with The Muppets.

The most common reason for this trove of loose ends is just that Welles didn’t have the money to finish the projects, or else only got raised from shady and unreliable sources (Other Side of the Wind was seized by its Iranian financiers, and remains tangled up in murky circumstances). There’s also some sheer bad luck – supposedly the negative of Merchant of Venice was stolen when nearly completed, and no one knows where it went. But it’s plain that Welles’ restless creative energy maximized the possibilities for such mishaps. While he was making F for Fake, he took on the strange side project of filming himself reading aloud from Moby Dick. Thankfully, F for Fake was finished nevertheless. But chronologies of his work reveal a strange pattern of overlaps and deferrals and fragmented involvement, not like that of any filmmaker I’ve ever known of.

Spontaneous Joy

It would be trite and foolish to say we’re better off this way, but One Man Band makes it joyously easy to make the best out of what we’ve got. Citizen Kane challenged preconceptions by deploying certain tools of Hollywood studio cinema more imaginatively and richly than anyone had before, and then misfortune immediately set in. Welles made The Magnificent Ambersons then was sent to Brazil under the umbrella of the wartime effort to make It’s All True. In his absence, the studio butchered Ambersons, and the legend of squandered talent was already seeded. Thirty years later, such incidents were endemic to Welles’  - I was going to say career, but that word has a sense of linearity that doesn’t seem right here. I suppose I should just say his life.

We have plenty of examples of great filmmakers who prepare meticulously and take years between projects, and who consequently make fewer films than we (and in at least some cases they) would have hoped – Kubrick, Malick, and so forth. In a way, Welles’ late career speaks to too much spontaneous joy in cinema, to an undimmed thrill at new ideas and possibilities. His glorious fragments make other directors seem confined by systems and expectations. Instead of weeping, as I suggested five years ago, I now think it’s a gorgeous legacy, with the loss of what might have been on screen outweighed by the challenge to our notions of what’s a full and successful career in cinema. All of this makes the F for Fake DVD one of the most amazing artifacts that I know of. I couldn’t recommend it to you more strongly.

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