Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life

by Peter Conrad
ISBN: 0571209785

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A Review of: Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life
by Todd Swift

As unlikely as it would seem today, there was a time when an energetic American, bent on global domination, could be heralded by French and British intellectuals as a "god". This was in the late 40s, early 50s, and the American was Orson Welles. No less a critic than Kenneth Tynan called Citizen Kane, "the biggest cultural event of my early life." Cocteau and the French New Wave directors lionized him. Orson Welles is a myth that keeps on growing, not least in terms of the biography industry. Peter Conrad's new book follows on the heels of several other critically-acclaimed studies. At a time when younger filmgoers might think the best heavyset American liberal filmmaker is Michael Moore, it is useful to be reminded that Welles-who seriously entertained the thought of running for the Senate, on a Democratic ticket-was there first.
Welles holds a sort of patent on the early innovative days of three of the major art forms of the 20th century: theatre, radio, and cinema, as each began to intersect with technology. Before his 20th birthday, Welles revolutionized Broadway with his "All-Black" Macbeth, out-Brechting Brecht; his War of the Worlds broadcast redefined the benevolence of the disembodied voice, introducing its "shadow side", as did his Shadow radio-plays; and, in 1941, while still a very young man, he redirected Hollywood with the frenetic all-purpose vaudeville of Citizen Kane (voted Best Film by leading critics for its fifth decade in a recent Sight and Sound poll).
And, in the role of Harry Lime (in The Third Man) for which he wrote the unforgettable dialogue about Cuckoo clocks and mass-murder, Welles became the gritty post-war icon, serenaded by the film's catchy zither music whenever (which was often) he entered a restaurant or night club. Yet, after all these triumphs, in 1985, he died a pariah of the industries he momentarily diverted and redefined, infamous mainly for a series of tacky wine ads and rotund, otiose appearances on television.
This decline and fall of the Orson Empire is a powerful story. It is made doubly so by combining the best elements of comedy, and tragedy: Was Welles the self-wasting, over-indulging Falstaff, or the sinned-against Lear, an exile from the very media kingdoms he had helped make great? Like the shattered (body) doubles in the fun-house mirror at the end of The Lady From Shanghai, either figure seems a potential simulacrum of the auteur's own broken vision, and ultimate destiny.
It is no surprise that Conrad, a professor of English at Oxford for thirty years, should be drawn to presenting a version of the myriad "stories" of Welles's fragmented life, in terms of a number of literary and mythic personae (Peter Pan, Faust, Mercury, Kurtz, and so on). One is tempted to view this long, non-sequential (if not inconsequential) book as a sort of theatrical review, the kind with which Welles toured bombed-out post-war Germany: "Behold, the man and his many masks!"
Welles is tailor-made for this sort of outsized treatment (as if a normal narrative was not enough space), for, as Conrad repeatedly reminds us, Welles "like Whitman"-another enthusiastic mid-Westerner with universal, even megalomaniacal claims-contained multitudes. Welles, like some kind of permanent Sandwich Board Man, was himself the advertisement for the incredible multiplicity a human career can become. Jean-Luc Godard recalls one show where Welles introduced himself with the flamboyance of a trick just done as "author, composer, actor, designer, producer, director, scholar, financier, gourmet, ventriloquist, poet." So, it seems appropriate that Conrad should read the text of Welles's (self) obsessions, self-descriptions, films, and failed projects as a kind of Ur-pastiche waiting for its ideal reader.
In fact, Conrad's decision to take Welles at his word, and present 15 chapters (plus Preface and Introduction) as 15 Types of Orson is grandiose, tedious, and at times spectacularly fascinating, if only for a few paragraphs. Sometimes, when the semiotic links go haywire (the Martian broadcast, also known as "the panic broadcast" linked to Pan, the frenetic god, linked to Peter Pan, and so on), the resulting Marx Bros. zaniness achieves the giddy heights of Welles's directing style. The analysis of Kane's use of Coleridge's poem ("In Xanadu did Kubla Khan"), revealing Welles's purposeful inversion of the original fire-ice imagery, is original and convincing.
Too often Conrad indulges in sheer erudition, as when we are informed, for instance, that Orson's name "comes from a late-medieval French romance" about a kidnapped young prince. To then be told how this relates Welles to the character of Orsini ("giving him a personal stake in the Renaissance") well, Welles is already complex enough, without needing to be po-mo'd to death.
The fault of Conrad's book is ultimately in the structure, which is likely meant to pay homage to the ground-breaking fragmented narrative that was Kane's unique double-helix. Conrad describes Kane's newspapers-and by extension Welles-by saying "divergent stories jostle in the same space, rather than being sorted into a temporal sequence as traditional narrative ordained. Incoherence was a modernist virtue." Incoherence, however, is hardly the ideal form for what is, basically, a biography.
Conrad's decision to circle, return and repeat from many perspectives begets repetitiveness and becomes dull, which is hardly an acceptable form of homage. Welles was never dull or repetitive. His films and other projects are precursors of the roller-coaster ride we now think of as "event movies". Welles's life was, until its last years, as exciting as possible, representing the very modern image of the American as living madcap progress (his choice of Mercury as name of his Theatre Company suggests both the mercurial, and the immediate, aspects of this god), as Eugene Morgan in Ambersons does. So, it is hard to comprehend why Conrad has devised a series of air-tight chambers, like some weird box in one of Welles's magic shows, in which to saw his subject's life in half after half after half.
Conrad wilfully dispenses with a filmography in his book, requiring that every reference to a film gets the same explanation (The Trial, we are told in several places, is "based on the work by Kafka") again and again. And elements in Welles's life are, chapter by chapter, looked at from different angles, which is surely the point; but they are not illuminated in such uniquely altered circumstances as to reflect the refreshing perspective that Welles's cinematographers often achieved in his own masterworks.
It is odd how some of the most compelling "stories" get left out. Some of his marriages, and affairs, to remarkable, talented and beautiful women (such as Rita Hayworth) barely get a look-in; and his fraught homo-erotic creative partnership with John Houseman is almost all on the cutting room floor. There are, then, other books on Welles which all but the die-hard fan might want to read first. Rosebud, by David Thomson, and The Road to Xanadu, by Simon Callow, are both better at recreating the mystery, thrill and mayhem of working with Welles, or in his shadow. They do this with a beginning-middle-end narrative (for the most part) which, though it may seem less textually daring, may be more appropriate for a meteoric career: the reader gets to be dazzled, then depressed, as Welles was himself.
Still, Conrad has achieved something evocative and strange in his study: the picture of Orson Welles as major, even central, cultural, and literary figure of the 20th century, the American Picasso (if Picasso's paint had to be paid for by movie executives). He does this in two ways, which would have pleased Welles no end: by reminding us, anecdotally, of the inspiring cultural ubiquity of Welles during his heyday (30s-50s); and by embedding the gargantuan "hyphenate" (actor-director-writer-etcetera) in the Western literary canon (as apologist for, and adaptor of). We may, for instance, be surprised to learn that he co-edited a definitive series of Shakespeare's plays, for high school students; that in 1942, Welles went to Brazil to film a propaganda picture, was given the honorary title of Brigadier General by the US government; gambled with Churchill in Venice; or bickered with Hemingway over how to read a radio report on war.
We also learn that producer Alexander Korda had initiated a project of War and Peace, with Eisenstein to direct, Welles to star, and both to co-write the script-this collapsing under the weight of Welles's ego, as he demanded to co-direct as well. Conrad investigates his Heart of Darkness script, never filmed, but always influential in his later works. Conrad also tells us of Welles's aborted plan to book-end Western civilization by filming Homer's The Odyssey, and Joyce's Ulysses. Then there is the Quixote picture.
It is indicative of the legendary nature of such can-do genius, that one's heart instantly sinks at the news of these scuttled films, which if completed, would surely have been some of the finest cultural products of the last century. Indeed, Welles is perhaps unique among great artists for being as well-loved for the work undone, as done (and sometimes undone by others, as in the Touch of Evil fiasco). When Conrad relates the story of Welles weeping in a hotel room in 1972, after watching the cruelly-edited studio version of The Magnificent Ambersons, thirty years after the butchery, it is hard not to cry with him.

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