Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tuesdays with MM, Orson Welles

"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, 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."

-Orson Welles, F for Fake

"Seth: It was the peak of my ass-getting career and it happened way, way too early.

Evan: You're like a young Orson Welles.

Seth: I honestly see now why Orson Welles ate himself to death."


Orson Welles' life-story is the stuff of heartbreak. It has often been noted that the bookends of his film-acting career are a poignant reflection of this. It begins with:

"It's the sled! It's the name of the sled he had as a kid! There, I just saved you two long, boobless hours." -Family Guy

and ends with:

I could not make this up if I tried.

As for his directing career, he was thwarted at every turn by every force imaginable. Money constantly ran in short supply, studios regularly re-edited his films, and distribution issues plagued him at every turn. His revolutionary noir film, Touch of Evil, considered to be one of the finest of the genre premiered on the second half of a double-bill at a drive-in. His skilled adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Chimes at Midnight, has yet to be distributed in the United States to this day and can only be acquired by special-order from Brazil.

Chimes at Midnight, the greatest film you will never see.

F for Fake was the last film Orson starred, directed, and (to an extent) wrote. It's a wandering, postmodern documentary about a real-life art-forger named Elmyr whose Mattise, Picasso, and Modigliani paintings hung in galleries for decades. Being consistently financially screwed by the businessmen who sold his artwork, I imagine Orson saw a bit of himself in Elmyr. Elmyr's biographer, Clifford Irving, is the other subject of the film, Irving himself being most famous for a forgery as well: an autobiography of Howard Hughes.

Irving being Edited. IT'S SO META

The movie is, in a word, brilliant. It is both a documentary and a commentary on documentaries. Orson's first appearance is as a stage magician, deceiving a crowd of spectators, paralleling his role as filmmaker. He constantly reminds us of film-as-deception by showing shots of himself editing the movie together, and of the movie as it is being editing. Additionally, he so regularly and actively takes fragments of footage out of context and repieces them together that the documentary might as well be of the Kuleshov Effect as much as it is of Elmyr and Irving (comically so, at one point he's alternating between shots of a beautiful woman walking and photographs of Picasso, who is supposed to be obsessed with her).

If ever there was a day to rue being a photograph. . .

The most powerful and moving part of the film has to be when Orson takes an intermission from the story of the forgers to talk about his own life and his own early career, all the way from lying about his being a famous performer to land a stage-role in The Gate Theater in Dublin at the age of 17 to making Kane. It is here he divulges a crucial piece of information, the thing linking him to Irving: an early draft of Kane based him off of Howard Hughes, not William Randolph Hearst (or so he claims, after all F for Fake is the title of the movie).

During the bit where he talks about War of the Worlds, there's a montage of horribly cheesy flying saucers destroying national landmarks in DC. It is, without a doubt, the greatest thing ever.

What would Welles' life have looked like if he'd made the movie about Hughes? Hughes, a notorious recluse, took weeks to respond to Irving's book, which wasn't a work of fiction but a complete lie claiming to be true. It seems unlikely he would've done much in response to a fictionalized representation loosely based off of himself.

Hearst, on the other hand, did everything in his power to sabotage Orson's career, and Hearst was a powerful man. The moment Welles turned down Hearst's offer to burn the prints of Kane for a large cash sum was the moment his career began its unending downward spiral.

Would he have gone on to be an even greater God of filmmaking? Would he have megalomania that spiraled out of control and burned him out after four or so films, like Francis Ford Coppola? Who knows. Either way he makes that first movie that revolutionized the way films would be made for the rest of cinematic history, and either way he ends up part of the ultimate and universal ash. "Maybe a man's name doesn't matter all that much" indeed. MM.


  1. Poignant and painful.

    It seems to me that many filmmakers are prone to this sort of decline; they do their best work early. Coppola, Lucas, Welles, Spielberg, Polanski.. are there counter-examples of those who have achieved their summit only in age?

    I'm intrigued by a meta-film in part about the illusion of veracity in film. Reminds me of Magritte.

    *bumps F up on the queue*