Friday, May 6, 2016

Why Orson Welles Makes Me Sad

Orson Welles in Touch of Evil
Orson Welles is a genius.

It is a simple idea that many, myself included, believe to be true. Over the course of his career, he found exciting ways to captivate audiences and make you care about the magic of the arts. From his early days producing radio dramas like "The War of the Worlds" to Citizen Kane and beyond. The fact is that you can look at his body of work and find a treasure trove of art that, even if you don't like it, can appreciate its craft. However, there's a certain something that comes as a downside of being a curious cinephile like myself: you learn too much. For whatever reason, I see Welles' career more as a tragedy than a triumph, and it at times depresses me to think of what he inevitably became. While I respect the man's work, including and up through his untimely death shortly after F for Fake, I also have trouble thinking of him too much for a lot of other reasons. He was an artist, but also sort of a jerk.

If there's any embodiment of peaking early, it's likely Welles and Citizen Kane. The masterpiece was released when he was just 26. Having written, acted, and directed the film; it suggested that a new maestro of cinema was upon us. Of course, he wasn't necessarily new to the arts. By that point, he had been doing live theater and radio productions - often within minutes of each other thanks to his access to an ambulance. He was an ambitious young force whose part time appreciation for magic helped him to develop one of the most appetizing personas of the time. He liked to fool the audience, most notably in "The War of the Worlds" broadcast that solidified him as a talent to watch. A man with that confidence definitely had a large ego, but it was also about where things go from being pleasant to completely obnoxious.

Like all good artists, Welles was a divisive figure in real life. He was a man of the theater, so he tended to give traditional stage monologues with a structured voice, as if somehow being superior to the audience. He also tended to make powerful enemies, such as William Randolph Hearst, whose hold over the media in 1941 practically destroyed Citizen Kane's reputation and arguably kept it from sweeping The Oscars. Voters were scared for reasons that involved turning against Heart's unyielding power. The movie's worst kept secret was that Charles Foster Kane was Hearst and that "Rosebud" was slang for Hearst's wife's privates (thus making the film secretly about figuring out a woman's private area). Though one could easily notice Welles' downfall by his inability to receive any further Oscar nominations despite his lengthy career and impressive body of work.

Part of his downfall was that he was of an old school of acting that would be popular for much longer. This was evident in his adaptations of Shakespeare and his choice to add elegiac monologues over The Lady from Shanghai (in an Irish accent no less). Still, he was profoundly gifted at making deceptive stories and visuals that left the audience in awe. One could easily look to The Trial from 1961 and see that he still had a power over the viewers. His take on Franz Kafka was so dark and perverse that it's arguably some of his best work since Citizen Kane. Of course, that is in part because most of his films were either incomplete due to studio interference or he would eventually be exiled to Europe for his eccentricity, thus making a string of lower budgeted films that definitely showed some restraint. Even his return to studio work, Touch of Evil, would be short lived. He would return to independent film making because of his inability to make art that captivated as much as Citizen Kane.

So, why is this all depressing to me? The truth is that the work is largely genius and reflects a certain dedication to craft. However, even his role in Touch of Evil as Quinlan is hard to watch because it reminds me of what he became. His chocolate-addicted character may be portrayed thanks to a fat suit, but there's still no denying that the man who once seemed to have limited energy was now obese and losing his appeal both literally and physically. What was left of him was now a bitter artist, whose style was fading from relevance - but whose influence was greatly important. The fact that he made Citizen Kane at the age of 26 is still baffling. However, it must be really depressing that nobody respects his work after the fact, whether or not it is as good.

Scene from F for Fake
The weight to me is shorthand for a career that failed. It is in part due to his personal eating problems. However, it also in some ways feels like his way of dealing with defeat. He was once a handsome man who seemed to have the world on a string. By a decade later, he was the cocky artist who was being rejected left and right despite making great work. It may be the parable of the modern independent director, but one cannot help but feel sad learning about the lengths that the man who made, as many would suggest, "the greatest movie ever" went to be able to fund his own work. Maybe it gave him freedom, but knowing that the man who revolutionized cinema was editing adult films, making cheesy ads for companies, and ending his career with a voice-over role in The Transformers Movie has to strike some as being a huge fall from grace. While artists like Peter Bogdanovich helped to keep his reverence alive, the idea that not too many can name a second Orson Welles movie is tragic.

Maybe this is me simply thrusting too much sympathy on him. After all, he was defiant in all of the ways that some people would praise. People would look to later directors and admire their ability to defy studio standards with captivating art. However, Welles was someone who fell victim to his own craft, never really getting along with anyone enough to make art that could be seen by as many faces as Citizen Kane. True, The Third Man does have an almost equal reputation, but his later career is likely only remembered as having a cameo in The Muppet Movie (a masterpiece itself, but that's still a large gap between hits). Otherwise, he died with several uncompleted projects and health problems to spare. Maybe it is because he was 70 and that's how being old happens. Even then, there's a sense that there was some depression and wasted potential to his credit where he didn't even get an Honorary Oscar; which is typically given as an apology to overlooked artists.

The truth is that Welles isn't likely to ever be disregarded as a great. However, it does become harder to call him one of the greats because of his ego and legacy. Many could look at Francis Ford Coppola, Alfred Hitchcock, or Stanley Kubrick and understand immediately why they were great. They had more than a few films that struck the zeitgeist. Welles on the other hand had one. It was an amazing achievement for sure, but most people wouldn't know where to start with his later work. It's also a little sad that someone's best work is done before they are 30. It may not make sense at the time, but it does make for a bitter adulthood, where everything is compared to your youthful, "inexperienced" days. Welles may have grown as a director, but did anyone really care? By that time, he was no longer the handsome young deceiver. He was the man who made powerful enemies and had weight problems. It may not mean that his career as a whole should be disregarded, but it does make it hard to respect the man for at times being too foolish and sabotaging for his own good.

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