Friday, August 9, 2013

Orson Welles, Then, Now, and Beyond...

There's a pre-conception, held by too, too many, that Orson Welles' creative career peaked with Citizen Kane, his first feature. The idea goes that his long record of unfinished projects, lost reels, failed features, and time spent as a celebrity pitchman speaks to genius wasted. Perhaps this position is simply easier to take than a more considered stance on Welles' body of work: unlike many directors whose filmographies are set and known quantities, Welles' output includes a number of little-known but extant (and, in this Internet age, accessible) works that put lie to the image of the one-hit wonder. And his unknown and lost works have this curious habit of resurfacing at the damnedest times, offering yet another doorway into the world of Orson Welles.

For example, the exciting news came out this week that one of Welles' earliest cinematic forays, long thought completely lost, has surfaced. His 40-minute movies, shot for his 1938 stage production of "Too Much Johnson", were found in Italy, where, after a period of restoration, they'll be shown at the Pordenone Film Festival in October. The plan is to scan them for online platforms, enabling viewers world 'round to see this almost-never-seen footage and mine it for evidence of the filmmaking greatness to come.

This incredible news comes on the heels of the release of the book My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles. Transcribed from recordings Jaglom made of lunchtime chats over the last three years of Welles' life, the book is an informative, funny, and poignant look at Welles during this quiet period. Welles was always an ace raconteur, and the book has him sallying forth on a number of topics, from politics to history to Hollywood to his own work. (One moving segment recalls how, during the making of The Lady From Shanghai, Welles had to effectively reunite with estranged wife/title role-player Rita Hayworth, a second chance that Welles honestly, sadly confesses to squandering.) Though Welles struggles desperately to secure funding for various projects here (at a time when his physical health was far from robust), these conversations capture a soul and artist who is, by no means, finished. (His King Lear, "shot in 16 millimeter black-and-white, mostly in close-up," would have been fantastic.)

Editor Peter Biskind initially seems something of a contentious choice to guide this thing, a sympathetic but shaky editor. Though in his Introduction he offers an overview of Welles' career, he discredits himself with a couple of howling inaccuracies: Biskind lumps The Stranger, for which Welles is the credited and acknowledged director, in with projects like Jane Eyre and Journey into Fear on which his directing input was uncredited, unofficial, and even (in the latter case) miscredited. He later calls F for Fake Welles' final feature-length picture, forgetting (omitting?) the admittedly obscure (but hardly unseeable) Filming Othello. It's enough to make one wonder if this is yet another Welles project thwarted and rendered murky by third-party interference, and what may have been elided or lost in Biskind's "occasional liberties with the text...for the purpose of making the conversations more concise and intelligible."

And yet Biskind's knack for presenting and framing anecdotes DOES serve the material awfully well, making for a remarkably breezy, often funny, occasionally jaw-dropping (as Welles, with nothing to lose, baits Jaglom with some truly strident opinions) and ultimately quite penetrating read. (Quite a few tidbits, such as Joan Bennett's Valentines Day gift to Hedda Hopper, made me fall out of my chair.) In the end, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to neophytes wanting to explore the history beyond Kane. It's certainly not the ONLY book on Welles one should read, but it serves as a fine and humanizing supplement to the available Welles history.

Which continues to grow. Even now, nearly three decades after his death, his body of work continues to expand as these new things come to light. The discovery of some strange film reels, the transcriptions of dusty tapes, brings us a new Welles work. The conversation continues.

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