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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Orson Welles at 100

This week heralds the centenary of Orson Welles, a great filmmaker known most widely for his first film, the groundbreaking and still absorbing 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. The man remains an object of fascination and study. Though many know him solely for Kane, there remains much confusion about both Welles and his body of work, with many assuming that Kane was a peak, followed by a number of unsuccessful projects, appearances in advertisements, and gradual dissolution.

But the fact was Welles never stopped working, filming projects piecemeal over a few years, acting to support his filmmaking efforts, and usually working on a number of projects simultaneously. Many fragments, shorter works, and complete pieces from Welles' lesser-seen body of work can be found on YouTube (a channel, one suspects, that Welles would be using extensively today). And outside their academic or historical value, these pieces are entertaining and engaging in their own right, reminding us that Welles was always, first and foremost, a showman.

So herewith, a kind of "Orson Welles 201", with YouTube links. Dig in!:

The Citizen Kane Trailer - cut by Welles to introduce his film and company to the general public, it's a warm and engaging little piece that also engages many of the movie's more experimental and layered techniques.

Orson Welles' Sketch Book - Six fifteen-minute episodes, shot for European television in that wonderful year of 1955, capture Welles drawing and talking. He draws you in so effortlessly, in this surprisingly intimate and engaging format, that you may find yourself, in current parlance, bingewatching all 90 minutes of it. Some YouTube commenters suggest that Welles basically invented YouTube with this series, which is a fun conceit.

The Fountain of Youth - the pilot for an anthology TV series (The Orson Welles Show, to have been executive produced by Desi Arnaz) is an astonishing stand-alone half hour story, with Welles easily adapting his vision to the small screen. Adapting John Collier's short story "Youth from Vienna," the story is shot through with Welles' vibrant high style, with Welles himself present as bemused, all-knowing narrator. Considered a crucial work by many Welles afficionados, it's a marvelous self-contained piece that spotlights much of what makes Welles great.

The Merchant of Venice - Welles had been fascinated by Shakespeare's drama of revenge and anti-Semitism, and numerous fragments of various attempts to film it over the years survive. In this clip from Dean Martin's variety show in 1968, we see Welles the Shakespearean actor in full force, delivering Shylock's monologue to engaged, deep silence, then sustained applause.

The F For Fake Trailer - also cut and filmed by Welles, this trailer is every bit as baffling as the movie it's meant to represent (and includes much footage that doesn't even appear in the movie, which is perfectly appropriate). And at nine minutes it cheerfully flaunts and subverts its own purpose as a piece of advertising, turning into a bizarre and lively short film in its own right.


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