George Orson Welles was born 100 years ago today and, as Jonathan Rosenbaum tells Kevin B. Lee in the video we posted the other day, we’re still discovering him—in the films we believe we already know—”we’re not equipped for the films when we first see them. We need to get to know them before we can really deal with them”—and in the films we know are out there but haven’t yet seen. Posting the introduction to his book Discovering Orson Welles (2007) today, Rosenbaum writes that “as long as one frame of film by the greatest filmmaker of the modern era is moldering in vaults, our work is not done. It is the last challenge, and the biggest joke, of an oeuvre that has always had more designs on us than we could ever have on it.”
At the very least, we’ve been making some headway. As noted in the big roundup on January 1, we’ve been celebrating this centenary since Day One not only with retrospectives across the country and around the world—in just over a week, Cannes will present two new documentaries and 4K restorations of Citizen Kane (1941) and Carol Reed‘s The Third Man (1949) and among the many ongoing stateside series are the multi-week celebration in Welles’s hometown, Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Touch of Genius: Orson Welles at 100 at the Aero in Los Angeles—but also with presentations of work too long neglected. Following the rediscovery and restoration of Too Much Johnson (1938) and last year’s restoration of Othello (1952), we’ve seen a restoration of Chimes at Midnight (1965) and the team working on The Other Side of the Wind is still at it, though, as Ray Kelly reports at Wellesnet, the project “is still far from done.”
But as Rosenbaum reminds us in “Orson Welles in the 21st Century,” we’ve still got miles to go. A presentable version of Don Quixote still seems quixotic indeed at this point. And: “It is too soon to predict what might emerge later this year from the projected completion of The Other Side of the Wind, his unfinished portrait of another (fictional) maverick American director, played by John Huston. But we can at least expect to be startled by Welles’s unpredictability once again.”
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been pointing to reviews of Josh Karp’s new book, Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind. Now Karp and Welles scholar Joseph McBride are discussing the film in the Projection Booth (173’12”); and Matthew Asprey Gear interviews Karp for Bright Lights. And you’ll have heard that F.X. Feeney, too, has a new book out, Orson Welles: Power, Heart, and Soul. RogerEbert.com is running an excerpt, “Mastery in Midlife: Orson Welles and Chimes at Midnight.” And Movie Mezzanine‘s running another excerpt dealing with The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).
As you’d expect, Wellesiana is spread far and wide today. Some favorite spots: John Coulthart presents a delightful collection of out-of-the-way links; Parallax View gathers writing on Welles over the years by Sean Axmaker, Robert C. Cumbow, Robert Horton and Richard T. Jameson; Kimberly Lindbergs looks “ahead and highlight some of the events that are being planned to honor the man as well as the various new books, DVD and Blu-ray releases that will become available in the coming months”—and links to further reading at Movie Morlocks.
Ryland Walker Knight‘s posted Jorge Luis Borges’s 1941 response to Citizen Kane in 1941: “It is too gigantic, pedantic, tedious. It is not intelligent, though it is the work of genius—in the most nocturnal and Germanic sense of that bad word.” But for New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, that film’s got “what will forever stand as the greatest opera scene in film history: the disastrous première of Salammbô, with Susan Alexander Kane in the title role. Welles was an experienced operagoer, one who even had a bit of music criticism in his past: when he was thirteen, he wrote the ‘Hitting the High Notes’ column for the Highland Park News, reviewing performances at the Ravinia Festival.”
Updates to this entry are likely forthcoming. Meantime, we’ve got Wellesian eye candy for you at the tumblr. And on Twitter, the BFI (which has just announced a two-month season at BFI Southbank, Orson Welles: The Great Disruptor, running from July 1 through August 31), asks, “What’s your favourite #AwesomeWelles moment?” Click that hashtag and marvel.
Updates: At Criticwire, Sam Adams rounds up some of the best writing sparked by the centennial.
The Playlist looks back on every film Welles directed.
Alex Ross has posted the Mercury Theatre’s “incomparably creepy rendition of Lucille Fletcher’s The Hitchhiker, in a version from 1946. Seventeen minutes in, Bernard Herrmann is working out the theme that would become Cape Fear. It was, of course, Welles who launched Herrmann’s film-music career, with Kane.”
Flavorwire‘s Jason Bailey notes that “these days, there’s nearly as much ink devoted to the films he didn’t make or complete—due to financial troubles, rights issues, and the like—as those he did. But for this fan, the most fascinating of the Welles movies that never happened would’ve been his first feature: an ambitious film adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, potentially as groundbreaking as Kane, the film he settled on when Darkness fell apart.”
Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn focuses on Welles’s “rare combination of sensibilities as an experimental formalist—he toyed with voiceover narration, ambitious camerawork, structure and tone each time out—and entertainer.”
Vulture‘s Bilge Ebiri writes about what he’s learned about The Other Side of the Wind from Karp’s book.
The Film Stage‘s Nick Newman points us to an archive of Welles’s radio plays.
Updates, 5/10: First up, we need to catch up with the launch of the Indiegogo campaign launched by producers Filip Jan Rymsza, Frank Marshall and Jens Koethner Kaul, along with Peter Bogdanovich, to complete Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind. They’ve got the 1,083 reels of footage. They’ve hired an editor, Affonso Gonçalves (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Keep the Lights On). And now, as Brooks Barnes reports in the New York Times, they’re “hoping to raise at least $2 million by June 14 to help pay for editing, music and other postproduction costs.” More from Stephen Galloway in the Hollywood Reporter.
And THR‘s Gregg Kilday reports that Karp’s book has been picked up for a feature project. Newcity‘s Ray Pride interviews Karp: “First, there were great, incredible, insane, hilarious stories from the set. Which was great and I started digging into it more and more, finding different stories all over the place—and most of them were just terrific.” But the project was also “such a great mystery and one that seemed like it had the potential to have great meaning.”
Meantime, the Los Angeles Review of Books is running another generous excerpt from F.X. Feeney‘s book. And the New York Review of Books has gathered four pieces on Welles under one URL: Gore Vidal, Joseph McBride, Sanford Schwartz and Michael Wood.
More from John Coulthart: “The Immortal Story (1969) is an oddity in the Welles oeuvre, an hour-long adaptation of an Isak Dinesen short story originally made for French TV but subsequently released as a feature.” And: “Vassili Silovic’s 90-minute documentary about the uncompleted films of Orson Welles’s later years was a revelation when it appeared in 1995. Orson Welles: The One-Man Band was shown on UK TV as The Lost Films of Orson Welles but ‘one-man band’ is more appropriate, not only because of the bizarre song-and-dance sequence he filmed in London, but also because it’s an apt description of Welles’s approach to filmmaking.”
Ten contributors to the Film Experience pick their favorites shots from the Welles oeuvre.
Updates, 5/11: Commenting on the Indiegogo campaign, Peter Bogdanovich writes: “Everyone who knew Orson thought he would’ve loved the idea, and would’ve been amused and delighted by the irony of the whole situation. After years of film industry neglect in his home country, having only been able to make a dozen films over a period of 45 years—now, 30 years after his death—the people are rallying to support him…. Not too long before he died, he said to me, ‘O how they’ll love me when I’m dead.'”
Welles always had his passionate followers, notably Bogdanovich, but they were a little too inclined to buy into the central narrative of a wronged giant. Then, alarmingly, he fell into the hands of the structuralists and the semioticians, who feasted off him to their immense satisfaction and to the bewilderment of the world at large. The quest for meaning in Welles’s life and work eclipsed the human reality; it was still impossible to see the man as he lived and breathed, to acknowledge his contradictions, which, like everything else about him, were on a gigantic scale. But increasingly, the man and therefore the artist is beginning to emerge. Detailed examination of his life, day to day, is producing a figure who at last resembles a member of the human race.
“On the occasion of his centenary, Orson Welles is, where he belongs, pretty much everywhere.” At RogerEbert.com, Patrick McGavin writes up an overview of festivals, conferences, books and releases on DVD and Blu-ray.
Jonathan Rosenbaum‘s just conducted an interview with Oja Kodar, the actress, screenwriter and director who was a partner to Welles for the last 24 years of his life. “Oja, as always, was passionate, candid, funny, lucid, informative, and perceptive about Welles, but I’ve never seen her in public speak with so much warmth and insight. The whole event was recorded, and I hope everyone will get a chance to watch it at some point.”
Update, 5/13: Brian Phillips, in a longish piece for Grantland on the story behind The Lady from Shanghai (1947):
This was an artist, after all, who was the voice of the Shadow in the late 1930s (“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”) and the voice of Unicron, the devouring planet from the animated Transformers movie, released in 1986. His course wasn’t set by some pre-worked narrative; it was set by contingency, by his attempt to live out the myth of himself through catastrophe and chance. (In American history, maybe no artist has been more devoted to his own myth or more diligent in generating events that would undermine it.) It was a performance that produced gorgeous, disturbing visions: faces lit from strange angles; shadowed backgrounds falling away into deep-focus, lushly saturated black and white. It also broke the border between life and art in a way that the official Welles legend tends to miss. Welles’s legacy isn’t a series of hermetically sealed masterpieces lost to studio meddling. It’s everything, all of it, the transfigured bedlam of his whole unsealed existence.
Updates, 5/15: Jonathan Rosenbaum‘s posted his 2009 review of Chris Welles Feder’s In My Father’s Shadow: A Daughter Remembers Orson Welles: “Because this story by Welles’s oldest daughter is about neglect and absence as well as about love and presence, one feels from the outset that her very moving cri de coeur was written out of psychic necessity rather than out of any academic or commercial impulse—a passionate and even somewhat desperate attempt to lay certain ghosts to rest. And part of this book’s uncommon strength is that it ends on a positive note with a lot of hard-won wisdom, in spite of all the grief it recounts.”
“Among the many misconceptions about Orson Welles—e.g., that none of his films made money, that all his protégés betrayed him—one that has garnered curious, unfounded support is that he was apolitical.” Writing for Film Comment, Steven Mears argues that “it’s a false assumption to make of the man who produced radical plays for the Federal Theatre Project, spoke fervidly in support of the New Deal and against racism, wrote a newspaper column on political affairs in the 1940s, and considered running for Senate on behalf of Wisconsin (a seat which instead went to Joseph McCarthy). Most intriguingly of all, he served as technical advisor on the first anti-nuke propaganda film on record.” The story follows.
Update, 5/25: For Film Comment, James Hughes reports on the three-week celebration in Woodstock, Illinois, where Jonathan Rosenbaum “stressed [Oja] Kodar’s importance to Welles’s literary legacy, tracing the lineage of several Welles films, completed or otherwise, to Kodar’s original short stories. ‘I’m not going to be like one of those people who get an Oscar and then starts thanking their grandmother, all the way up to Adam and Eve,’ Kodar said, self-effacingly. Yet for over an hour, she shared inspirations for her prose: fascinating scenarios of mistaken identity, exposed voyeurs, lost souls…. ‘When people ask me about Orson,’ Kodar continued, ‘I still think today of him as an element of nature. In a certain sense, he was more than human. He was wind. I know, of course, he was human and he had a mother and father and a brother, but when I looked at him that day [in Rome], I was thinking, “He’s the wind. Does the wind have a brother? What is the other side of wind? It’s something else.” This is how I came up with this title. Orson loved it.'”