Orson Welles at 100

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Orson Welles was born 100 years ago.  I like this picture of him.  It shows him not as the bearded bear of his later years, when he was known for being a “personality” who used to make movies.  He is often shown as either the overweight, cigar-smoking oddity of his later years or as the young dervish who made the greatest American movie ever and then spent his life paying for it by a movie-making community that did not know how to incorporate what Welles had to say, which was: You can do ANYTHING with all this shit you’ve got, the cameras, the effects, the studio space.

Reading the many books about Welles can be a full-time hobby, but is immensely rewarding if you want to see how an artist worked. The newest examination of Welles, “The Making of The Other Side of the Wind: Orson Welles’s Last Movie” is very entertaining.  It explains a little more of how his forcefulness could be his biggest asset, but his inability to do what was necessary to get the money he needed to work would undo what his charm could put into motion.  I would tell any young person who is interested in making movies that are beyond “giving the public what it wants” to read what you can about Welles, because his story is a warning, maybe not so inspiring as the layout in Architectural Digest showing the new digs of a blockbuster director, but necessary.  It shows just what happens to an artist working in an industry that could not survive if it ignored changing tastes in entertainment.

It isn’t as simple as saying Hollywood abandoned Welles due to the controversy of Citizen Kane, or his mistakes in leaving the country before The Magnificent Ambersons was completed to shoot another film in South America, or because he had contempt for so much of what goes on in the business.  He made many problems for himself. He insisted on a level of control, then left when a dumber person would know he had to stay close to make sure his work wasn’t messed with.

But he never stopped making and trying to make films–THAT is one reason he is such a good case for young filmmakers to study. I see actors and directors bemoaning current movies while they help themselves to huge paydays.  They claim they want to do something different than the action or comedy genre exercises that made them famous.  Welles appeared in garbage movies, and took his payments and plowed them into…making movies, his own way, about things he found important.  We have stars who are worth tens of millions, who, if they really wanted to make an artistic statement, could finance their own, inexpensive movies.  They don’t.  The only exception I can think of off-hand is Al Pacino, who for years showed two movies he directed to small audiences, always while he was present.  (Chinese Coffee is a terrific small film co-starring Jerry Orbach, which I recommend.)  Why isn’t every actor and director of means doing this?  It’s almost like they don’t have the passion to make movies Welles had.

He didn’t just talk the talk. I think if he’d been able to find a great producer, someone who knew how to keep the money flowing, we would have had many more Welles movies to enjoy. But on his birthday, I’m just thinking about how alive, how strange his movies actually were. Without exception, everything from KANE to F FOR FAKE rewards a viewer looking for something more adult than space or superhero or young adult dystopian genre material.  I have nothing against those topics, I WRITE ’em, for Pete’s sake.  But film can be so much more.  Welles knew this, and right up to the end, when he was doing voice work for a Transformers cartoon, he tried to create something substantial and worthwhile in his art. 

That’s a good thing, right?

Reading the many books about OW can be a full-time hobby, but is immensely rewarding if you want to see how an artist worked. (The newest OW book, “The Making of The Other Side of the Wind: Orson Welles’s Last Movie” is very entertaining.) It isn’t as simple as saying Hollywood abandoned him; he made many problems for himself. But he never stopped making and trying to make films–THAT is one reason he is such a good case for young filmmakers to study. I see actors and directors bemoaning current movies while they help themselves to huge paydays–well, Orson appeared in garbage movies, and took HIS payments and plowed them into MAKING MOVIES. He didn’t just talk the talk. I think if he’d been able to find a great producer, someone who knew how to keep the money flowing, we would have had many more Welles movies to enjoy. But on his birthday, I’m just thinking about how alive, how strange his movies actually were. Without exception, his movies are rewarding. I just wish there were more of ’em.

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