Thus we play the fools with the time; and the spirits of the wise sit in the clouds and mock us.
– Henry IV Part 2, Act II Scene 2
The recent publication of Joseph McBride’s new book, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? (University of Kentucky Press, 2006), a semi-intimate biography and critical reassessment of the great filmmaker’s later years, may or may not achieve its goal of fostering a serious reappraisal of Welles’ post-Citizen Kane (1941) career. At first glance, such an outcome appears highly unlikely. One of the few genuine prodigies of the cinema, Welles is likely to remain forever misunderstood and slightly out of step with the times – a condition that Welles himself coveted. His greatest fear, he once said, was that he might appear to be “with it”.
Of course, in the eyes of cinéphiles around the world, Welles has always been “with it” to one degree or another. Indeed, it has become banal to say that Citizen Kane launched more directorial careers than any film before or since. But, like most things banal, it is nonetheless impossible to deny. Welles, with his myriad forays into almost every medium of the performing arts, is not fully of cinema, even as he remains its most potent avatar.
A great deal of that formidable reputation rests, as everyone knows, on a single film. Even to speak the name of Citizen Kane is to invoke something like the cinematic equivalent of the Mona Lisa – a work of art everyone knows and understands to be an unqualified masterpiece. It is, perhaps, an unfortunate fate. More than a few visitors to the Louvre have been disappointed by the Giaconda’s tiny size and physical inaccessibility. In the same manner, Citizen Kane is everywhere adored and rarely enjoyed. When the film was released in Argentina, the not-yet-blind Jorge Luis Borges presciently remarked that it was a film more likely to be admired than seen. In this, he was mistaken. Citizen Kane remains widely attended. But the film is, unfortunately, so weighed down by its own reputation that it has become one of those ossified classics placed on a pedestal so high that it loses the magnificent immediacy that put it there in the first place.
The canonization of Kane as the great film has not only fossilized the film itself. It has fossilized its maker as well. Cast forever in cinematic amber, Welles is widely perceived as the great director of the greatest film of all time. After that, he ceases to exist. His memory is sealed in a gilded cage. With the exception, perhaps, of Touch of Evil (1958) and, to a lesser extent, The Lady From Shanghai (1948), there has been remarkably little appreciation of Welles’ other films or his œuvre as a whole. There is still less regard for Welles as an evolving stylist: i.e., as an artist who did not cease to exist when the credits rolled at the end of Citizen Kane. As a result, Welles is generally seen as a bizarre, outside force in the history of cinema. He is a brief, eruptive act of violence that stormed in, changed the world forever and then disappeared. Reverence, perhaps, is the only thing most critics can think of to do with him.
McBride’s book is to be commended for its attempt to break this impasse and to present a more consummate picture of Welles as an evolving filmmaker. Unfortunately, as in most appreciations of Welles, McBride’s passionate brief for the defence gets bogged down in the minutiæ of the various financial and artistic catastrophes that beset Welles’ career as an independent filmmaker. McBride, like most of Welles’ advocates, wants to convince us that Welles was not a profligate megalomaniac destroyed by his own excesses, but a casualty of the film industry and American culture in general. This is a worthy undertaking, but what gets lost in the revisionist scramble is, alas, the films themselves.
This is a regrettable tragedy, because in the years following the release of his last studio picture, Touch of Evil, Welles released three of the most extraordinary films of his career: The Trial (1962), Chimes at Midnight (1965), and F for Fake (1974). They remain among the least-seen and least-appreciated of all of Welles’ films, despite the fact that they contain both his most experimental and, in some respects, most visionary work. Nor can we ignore the fact that one of them, Chimes at Midnight, was Welles’ own personal favourite.
The Trial, based on Franz Kafka’s dystopian novel about a young clerk tried and executed by unnamed prosecutors for an unknown crime, is probably the least of the three. However, this in no way mitigates the force with which it confronts the viewer or the evidence it displays of Welles’ developing style. Despite being laden with classic “Wellesian” camerawork, the film also shows the obvious influence of the French New Wave. It makes use of mobile cameras, existing locations, deliberately disjointed editing, and available light. As a result, much of the cinematography resembles Raoul Coutard’s early work for François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. This initially bizarre synthesis gives The Trial a look that is both baroque and post-modern. It displays a Welles who is firmly aware of both his own past and the radical new techniques of 1960s French cinema, then only in its infancy.
In the same manner, Welles’ calculated deviations from Kafka’s novel push this dark tale firmly into the post-modern age. Kafka’s Trial is usually interpreted as a metaphor for totalitarianism, bureaucratic governance, industrial society and their isolating, atomising injustice. Welles’ film contains these elements but also stresses more personal forms of alienation and domination. This element is dramatically underlined by the casting of Anthony Perkins – a closeted homosexual – in the part of Kafka’s persecuted Josef K. It is a shame that the role of Norman Bates has become so central to the actor’s memory that his part in The Trial is now all but forgotten. Perkins’s nervous, angry, fretful, yet defiant victim of an omnipresent and omniscient system that he does not and can never understand is as close to perfect casting as any director could hope for.
Welles replaces Kafka’s nightmare vision of post-World War I Prague with a series of bizarre, interlocking architectural structures, replete with the steel and concrete monuments of the industrial era. But this post-modern jungle is rusting, collapsing and turning to wasteland. It is the ash can of history. Welles’ Trial, like Kafka’s, is firmly post-war. But unlike Kafka, it is post-World War II, post-atomic bomb, post-Holocaust, post-gulag. It exists in the shadow of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Even the phenomenon of mass propaganda, whose emergence Kafka missed by departing the world before fascism and communism could exploit its possibilities to the fullest, makes its appearance. In a marvellous little deviation, Kafka’s parable of the guarded door to the Truth is not told by a domineering priest but through an animated educational filmstrip operated, of course, by Welles himself.
The Trial is not without its missteps, however, most notably in its ending scene. Rather than being stabbed to death by his mysterious executioners, as he is in Kafka’s novel, Welles’ Josef K screams defiantly at his cowardly assailants until they blow him to pieces with several sticks of dynamite. Welles may, as Peter Bogdanovich once suggested, have been trying to evoke the atomic bomb. But the result is clumsy, ridiculous, and lacks the personalized horror of the brutal, face-to-face murder that ends Kafka’s dark fairytale. Welles would later claim that he changed Kafka’s ending because, in the post-Auschwitz era, a passive K being silently exterminated was simply impossible to portray. Welles may have failed to find an adequate substitute, but he deserves credit for instinctually realizing what many scholars of literature miss entirely: That it is impossible to understand either Kafka or his work without first understanding the intensity of Kafka’s unique and deeply conflicted Judaism.
Of all the films over which Welles had final cut to a greater or lesser extent, The Trial is the hardest to watch. This is not due solely to the film’s oppressive atmosphere – which is unavoidable considering its subject matter – but to the disjointed and often fragmentary style employed by Welles. Characters appear and disappear, the story meanders and careens in different directions, and the pacing changes almost scene by scene. One can assume that nearly all of this is intentional – though budget limitations and Welles’ vagabond lifestyle likely played a part – and, while not all of it works, it is fascinating to observe a filmmaker who, twenty years into his career, is more than willing to test the capacity of the audience to tolerate – and perhaps even embrace – such artful perversions of the basic language of cinema. With the possible exception of the brief fragments of The Other Side of the Wind which have been publicly released, The Trial remains, if not his best, certainly Welles’ most æsthetically courageous work.
Chimes at Midnight, on the other hand, is a masterpiece in the most conventional sense. That is to say, it is quite simply a very great film. This was the picture Welles considered his personal favourite and his finest work. In fact, it appears to have been Welles’ favourite project throughout his long and diverse career. As far back as his adolescence, Welles had been infatuated with the possibility of combining Shakespeare’s history plays into a single production concentrating on the Falstaff-Prince Hal relationship. He had already attempted it twice on stage – completely without success – by the time he committed it to film. By 1965, however, Welles had almost literally been both Prince Hal and Sir John, and as a result Chimes at Midnight is filled with the joyful pathos of an artist who has, at last, grown into his dream project.
The classic, stentorian Welles camera returns in Chimes at Midnight, and the film contains some of Welles’ most astounding images: a travelling shot which moves down a line of spears to reveal an army ready for battle; John Gielgud’s dying, pious King Henry sitting in his massive throne room, lit by a halo of seemingly-divine light; figures clad in white sheets darting among shadowy trees; and, of course, the haunting image of the ageing knight and his half-mad squire, forgotten by time itself, making their way across a snow-covered field to sit before a small campfire, at which the knight can only declaim the simple yet heartbreaking observation, “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.”
The visual splendour of Chimes at Midnight points to the most extraordinary aspect of the production: that despite its shoestring budget, it is a film of epic grandeur. Chimes at Midnight is a very small film that feels and looks enormous. In Kenneth Branagh’s far more celebrated – and higher budgeted – adaptation of Henry V, the tavern in which Falstaff and his cronies carouse is little more than a glorified shack. In Chimes at Midnight, it is an enormous, vaulting longhouse of bare timbers, allowing Welles ample space for his deep-focus alchemies. In the larger scenes, Welles’ talent for visual sleight of hand transforms handfuls of extras into crowds and armies, filling the screen with what must have been every last available warm body. What results is a film that looks like a great deal more than it actually is.
Without a doubt, the centrepiece of the film and its triumphant cinematic moment is its Eisensteinian depiction of the Battle of Shrewsbury. Eschewing the traditional Olympian sweep of Hollywood battle scenes, Welles hurls his camera (and his editing table) into the midst of the chaos, creating a collage of flying swords, screaming faces and thundering horses. By forsaking the god’s-eye-view in favour of the absolute anarchy of battle, Welles destroys the cinematic battle scene and remakes it anew. Imitated as recently as Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002), the scene has become so influential that the original is now largely forgotten, perhaps the highest honour any cinematic moment can hope to receive. And, even at this supreme moment, there is more than a bit of mischief going on, with Welles’ corpulent and cowardly Falstaff, made even more obese by his heavy battle armour, desperately trying to find somewhere, anywhere, to escape from the carnage around him. It is pure Welles and pure cinema: in the midst of a battle scene worthy of D.W. Griffith, there is a moment of comedy worthy of Buster Keaton.
Perhaps this is why Chimes at Midnight has the feel of a valedictory. Indeed, it was the last feature-length fiction film that Welles would complete and release in his lifetime. In the most primal, blistering moments of Chimes at Midnight, some of them large (the battle scene), some of them small (Falstaff’s tears following his rejection by Hal), we see Welles summoning up the ancient history of cinema – Griffith, Eisenstein, Keaton – and then leaving it behind. Welles is sometimes depicted as a filmmaker who emerged fully formed, without influences; but this is never true of any artist. The Welles myth of an absolute, elemental talent obscures the fact that Chimes at Midnight is ultimately a tribute and a final adieu to cinema primordial from the last of its practitioners.
F for Fake, on the other hand, enchants the viewer with its apparent smallness. This is a sleight of hand in its own right, because the film is about the biggest of themes: art, identity, truth, and even that ominous subject so clumsily termed “the meaning of life”. To even begin to talk about F for Fake in such rarefied language, however, seems inappropriate, because the film is so aggressively earthbound, irreverent and light-hearted. Welles called it an essay film, but in reality it is an artfully edited collage of images, characters, anecdotes and asides that interlock around the themes of art and fakery. F for Fake is, in other words, about meaning and the sometimes scurrilous creation of meaning. “This is a film”, says Welles at the beginning, “about … lies.”
It is also a film about liars. More specifically, it is about three liars. The first is legendary art forger Elmyr DeHory – a name that is, of course, an alias. The second is DeHory’s biographer, Clifford Irving, who later became notorious in his own right for forging what he claimed to be the autobiography of Howard Hughes. The third is, naturally, Welles himself, who cheerfully confesses to starting his career by lying himself onto the Dublin stage and later – by way of The War of the Worlds and its attendant mass panic – into Hollywood.
It is fitting that Welles’ last released film is so consciously autobiographical. Beyond its weighty metaphysical themes, F for Fake is the most aggressively personal of all Welles’ films. A great deal of its action consists of nothing more than Welles discoursing on the mad patchwork of frauds, liars and geniuses who pass across the screen. What it slowly becomes, however, is Welles’ look back across a life that was then and is now a battleground between precisely those experts, critics, admirers and artists that he eulogizes, praises and mercilessly skewers throughout the film. Despite its apparently cynical exterior, F for Fake is remarkably sentimental. But it is sentimental in the best sense: it is unafraid of the power of raw, ecstatic emotion. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sequence justly praised as one of Welles’ most moving performances: his reverie on the beauty of Chartres. This brief soliloquy is a stark, moving meditation on the brutalities of time and the necessity of creation as a noble yet futile – noble because it is futile – rebellion against death.
Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them for a few decades, or a millennium or two. But everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash: The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: We’re going to die. “Be of good heart”, cry the dead artists out of the living past. “Our songs will all be silenced […] But what of it? Go on singing.” Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.
Behind this rapture is the meaning of Welles’ own life: the work which will stand – or not, what of it? – as “a testimony to what we had it in us to accomplish”. And, as if to drive the point home, Welles ends his little essay on meaning with a tour de force of theatrical fakery: the Pablo Picasso sequence.
While many point to the Chartres reverie as F for Fake’s finest moment, it is the Picasso sequence that truly displays all of Welles’ prodigious talents to their utmost. His gift for sound and mimicry, his mastery of editing, his careful use of frame and atmosphere to advance his illusion, and, of course, his flair for the inevitable yet unexpected reveal – all of these are brought to bear on the Picasso sequence. It is the final, impossible illusion that the great magician keeps in store for his grand finale. Indeed, it is nothing less than magic to watch Welles conjure up the legendary Picasso out of thin air – literally out of nothing – and spin a tale so utterly unbelievable that we imagine to ourselves that it must be true, perhaps because we so want it to be true, until that final, smiling, smugly marvellous instant when the illusion is revealed. “We’ve been forging an art story”, says Welles in the film’s final moments. It is a fitting benediction from the ageing illusionist. It’s all fake, he seems to be saying to us, but it’s all true.
It is pointless to discuss Welles’ later years without attempting some kind of discussion of The Other Side of the Wind. Any such conversation is, of course, truncated by the fact that the film remains, as far as can be determined, as yet unfinished and unreleased; though there is apparently some hope that this injustice will be rectified in the near future. According to McBride, Welles’ rough-cut has been privately shown, most notably to filmmakers such as Clint Eastwood, George Lucas and Oliver Stone, but only a few short fragments are available to the public – most notably, the two sequences shown in the 1996 documentary One Man Band.
Judging by these clips alone it is clear that The Other Side of the Wind would have been – and may yet still be, should the movie gods at last take mercy on us poor, suffering cinéphiles – a major departure for Welles. It is equally clear, paradoxically, that it would have been Welles’ most obviously autobiographical work. The first clip, showing a battered John Huston as a thinly disguised portrait of Welles himself, is a cinéma vérité extravaganza of fast cuts and shaking cameras, with the montage pausing only long enough for Huston to growl out lacerating put-downs of the swarming reporters and film critics – including one obviously modelled on Welles’ nemesis, Pauline Kael – before exiting with the quintessentially Wellesian final line: “Dear lady, please don’t tell us what you mean by that.”
The other scene, apparently part of the film within a film that Huston’s ageing filmmaker is directing as his comeback movie, is nothing short of astounding. A thoroughly bizarre and garishly visceral sex scene, it is so utterly unexpected and, at first glance, so utterly un-Wellesian that the viewer can do little more than watch in aroused amazement as Oja Kodar – Welles’ long-time lover, collaborator and co-writer of the film’s screenplay – rides a young hippie in the passenger seat of a moving car while the driver – seemingly indifferent to the steamy commotion inches away from him – stares through the windshield into a blinding rainstorm lit by oncoming headlights. The entire sequence is so suffused with the raw energy of sex and the concomitant proximity of death, matched with the slowly maddening patter of rain and the slicing thud of the windshield wipers, that one is forced to lament that Welles and J. G. Ballard never crossed paths (pace David Cronenberg).
At second glance, however, the sequence is pure Welles. It is replete with low-angle shots, frenetic editing cued to the passing lights and sonorous background noises, and dark, wet shadows that engulf the characters. What is most fascinating about this sequence is not that all of Welles’ old tricks are present, but that they are directed towards a completely new subject: the erotic. The low-angle shots emphasize the dominating, sexually charged presence of Kodar; the editing signals both approaching orgasm and the ever-present possibility of a fiery crash; the shadows cut by the oncoming lights accentuate the dark, forbidding yet glamorous decadence of the writhing figures. On the basis of this scene alone one can conclude that The Other Side of the Wind represents something like an aborted stride past the valedictory of Chimes at Midnight and F for Fake, a cautious, or perhaps not so cautious, step into a new world. One senses that Welles was attempting the erasure of his own onerous history by acknowledging it (through Huston’s character) and then, by a metamorphosis of intentions, turning it into something else entirely. Unfortunately, until the film is released in something like its original form, this will have to remain little more than hopeful supposition.
The absence of The Other Side of the Wind makes broad conclusions about Welles’ later years inherently deficient. What we do have, however, presents us with something like the figure McBride attempts to sketch for us in his book: a remarkably vibrant and self-conscious artist who allowed his past to inform his work while paradoxically rejecting it outright. Welles, it appears, was always striving for an œuvre strong enough not to be utterly overshadowed by a single revolutionary moment.
McBride, unfortunately, boils this down to nothing more than the question of whether or not Orson Welles was a success or a failure. In truth, the question of whether Welles was a failure misses the point. The only important question is whether or not his films were failures.
The answer to this question is not entirely without its complications. The Trial, for instance, could be termed a failure, in that its attempt to create a fully integrated mélange of classic and modern styles is not wholly successful. The mere fact that The Other Side of the Wind remains unfinished and mostly unseen should be enough to deem it a failure. Nonetheless, to make such an easy declaration dismisses the authentic rewards of viewing The Trial, as onerous as that task may be. Nor can it hope to explain or interpret the primeval impact of those fragments of The Other Side of the Wind that we are fortunate enough to possess. Welles’ later films force us to dismiss such arbitrary notions as success or failure in favour of explicating the untainted experience of seeing them – an experience which must be something akin to what seeing Citizen Kane was like before the horrendous powers of canonization took hold. The debate over whether Welles did it to himself or they did it to him, whether he was a genius undone by uncaring philistines or a monument to hubris and narcissism, whether he was a triumph or a fraud, will go on forever. Sooner or later, however, these disputes ought to give way, must give way, to the protean elation of the films themselves.
For his entire life, Orson Welles was forging an art story, and it is to that story, and not to that life, that we will ultimately have to look for answers. That story is, in the end, all that we have. It is unfortunate, if perhaps inevitable, that in the case of Orson Welles it is necessary to make a plea on behalf of the work itself. But it is the very enormity of Welles in the eyes of both his detractors and his advocates that has made such a plea necessary. The viewer must attempt – as Welles himself, with his hatred of biography, may have preferred – to transcend the ultimately futile effort to find the measure of a single life. “I think there are only works”, said Welles to Peter Bogdanovich, perhaps anticipating the extent to which he would loom larger than his films in the collective cinematic unconscious. And, indeed, the debate over whether Welles was Josef K, Falstaff or Charles Foster Kane himself was never particularly important. If there is a hidden gift in Welles’ later films, it is that they allow us to realize that, as the creator recedes, the created emerges in full. They allow us, at last, to view the legacy of the artist as a legacy, and not as the artist.
In the final act of Orson Welles’ life – a life filled with final acts that always ended in another unexpected curtain call – three remarkable films appeared, and another remarkable film remains waiting to be seen. One of them, at least, is something like a masterpiece (Chimes at Midnight). The other two are fascinating experiments, one deeply problematic (The Trial), the other a giddy alchemy of entertainment and profundity (F for Fake). And, of course, there is that vast unknown (The Other Side of the Wind), from which we can draw only a few glimpses which are nonetheless something like revelations.
When and if The Other Side of the Wind is released, it may finally be possible for the past to let go of Orson Welles, and the artist may, at last, disappear into his œuvre. But this may prove to be another in a long line of illusions. The biographers will go on writing. The completists will keep digging. The uncut Magnificent Ambersons will likely forever remain the holy grail of lost films. Don Quixote demands a new reconstruction. There are The Deep, The Dreamers, The Merchant of Venice – all of them in various states of incompletion and restoration. The search for relics and fragments continues. The legacy of Orson Welles has become an archæology, as though it had somehow always existed, from a time when, as Welles might say, “the world was young.”
But the outcome of all this digging away at the dust of the past will not change the triumphs or the frauds, the treasures or the fakes. They will simply be “a new film by Orson Welles”, and thus they will be an occasion, perhaps even a phenomenon. But they will also be films. We may plead once again that they will, at last, be treated accordingly. That the critics and the admirers will both remember the old adage: maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.