Orson Welles — Role Model

June 3, 2007 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

I once was at a film festival in Maine and saw a kid there wearing a T-shirt with Orson Welles on it. I must have been in a cynical mood, because I said to myself, “wrong role model, kid, wrong role model.”

I was thinking that Welles, despite the gargantuan talent, had shot himself in the foot, and as a result he may have created a legend but also left behind too little work. I was thinking if you wanted a career in movies, don’t look to Welles, because you might not get anything done. You’re better off with John Huston or Howard Hawks as your man of inspiration.

Now I feel much more warmhearted toward Welles. I wonder how much we should ask any one person to create. Isn’t “Citizen Kane” or “Touch of Evil” enough? In the same vein, should we deride a playwright like Arthur Miller for never having produced a second “Death of a Salesman” — when the existence of that one work of art should be enough from any man or woman?

But no, we always ask for more and more from our artists. And the truth of the matter is that Welles did more than just create the flashy “Kane” and the kinetic “Touch of Evil.” There is also the abysmal — no matter which version you see — “Mr. Arkadin” — and the fluid “The Stranger” and the lyrical “Chimes at Midnight” and the lovely, truly remarkable, exotic “F For Fake.” This last one may turn out to be my favorite Welles film of all. He presages MTV-style editing a decade before anyone knew what that was, and he also creates moments of pure cinema out of pieces of film that never had any right to have any life in them at all.

Because of this, and because of the singular failure of so many promising filmmakers to sustain any career momentum at all, Welles, over time, has begun to look like a model of consistency and reliability — particularly given the astonishing ingenuity of his work. This is also true given the fact that for the last 20 years or so of a relatively short life (he lived to be 70) he did not do very much.

Except of course that he was trying to finish this legendary film with the mysterious title, “The Other Side of the Wind.” For years, anyone with an interest in Welles wondered about its existence. In a Playboy interview with John Huston from the early 1980s, Huston, who starred in the film, had a simple question: “Why doesn’t he just finish the damn thing?”

“Wind” has been caught up in some strange litigation for years — I think I read once it was in a vault in Iran — but I am certain I know nothing really about where it is or what is holding it up. I think there have been various efforts by such Welles friends as Peter Bogdanovich (who also is in the movie) to get it out in public.

But now through the YouTube site we can at least see some of what Welles was up to. Go on the site and search for “The Other Side of the Wind” and you will see clips from this most elusive film. There is a long clip from a Spanish television which excerpts Welles getting his American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement award — even though, ridiculously, he was only about 60 years old.
And then we can see two clips: the first is a dazzling show of editing while the Huston character (a movie director named Jake Hannaford) celebrates a birthday.

It would seem to me that when Welles showed this clip to Hollywood in the mid-1970s it must have scared that crowd just as “Kane” had done 35 years before. While Welles was seemingly hibernating with this endless production, he had actually come up with a new form — mingling editing and sound mixing and seemingly off-hand glances to create a dazzling mixture of pure film that has been mined ever since. I wonder if the reason he wasn’t given financing to finish it was because the other Hollywood hacks simply figured it would be cheaper to rip it off. It turned out it wasn’t cheaper; it took another 20 years for the kind of raucous uninhibited editing that Welles employed to become part of the mainstream Hollywood product.

The second long clip from the film shows Welles in a mood we rarely, if ever, saw from him before. Welles the director never seemed terribly interested in sex. He wigged out Rita Hayworth – a woman of incredible sexual appeal — in “The Lady From Shanghai” so that she lost a good part of her allure. There is some leering in “Touch of Evil” – he wasn’t shy about showing off Janet Leigh, a bosomy, brittle beauty — but it is an adolescent approach to sex and women.

In “The Other Side of the Wind” we see an extended, silent clip as a woman seduces a young man in the back of a car while another man silently drives in a rain storm. We hear nothing but the rain and tempo of the windshield wipers. The silent, beautiful woman unbuttons the young man’s pants, and while we see not much more than the woman’s breasts, and even those are only glimpsed in a kaleidoscope of light as the car travels through the night, Welles is surprisingly graphic in his approach.

He was also able to articulate — as many directors are not — the difference between eroticism and pornography, and the “Wind” scene is undeniably erotic, enhanced because he has imbued it with some mystery and tension — neither of which are inhibitors to sexual desire. When the scene is over you let your breath out because you realize you haven’t been breathing.

What we may never know, however, is how these two mini-movies work within the larger context of the entire story. This was always one of Welles’ perceived problems — creating classic set pieces that sit clumsily within the larger story arc.

But at least the movie is not so much of a mystery any more. Tantalizing, certainly; but you also get the feeling, thanks to the postings on YouTube, that “The Other Side of the Wind” is also less lost.

And I also realize that as the Welles legend continues to grow — and as his richer, more popular and well-rewarded contemporaries fall away in memory — he has also emerged as the ideal role model. For anyone aspiring to be an artist of any sort, you can look to Welles and see that he never gave up, never stopped thinking about his craft, and was always striving to improve himself, even when — most importantly — everyone else had stopped caring.

Buy it here:

F for Fake – Criterion Collection


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