Archive for the ‘Orson Welles’ Category

F for Fake

May 9, 2015

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Orson Welles called F for Fake a “film essay”. That is, while it isn’t a narrative film, it’s not a documentary, because it doesn’t claim to be entirely factual. Welles seemed to think that he invented this genre, but many film historians would disagree. For example, many view Vertov’s 1929 film, Man with a Movie Camera, as a film essay. Regardless of this, F for Fake is innovative in that it uses the medium of film to question the truthfulness of film itself.

F for Fake touches on a wide range of topics, but it is mainly concerned with the story of Elmyr de Hory, a French-Hungarian art forger, and the writer, Clifford Irving. Irving wrote a biography of de Hory, and then he committed a forgery of his own, writing a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. Handwriting experts declared the manuscript to be real. (Welles suggests that de Hory forged Hughes’s handwriting.) Both de Hory and Irving express a dismissive attitude towards “experts”. One gets the sense that this film may have been meant as a subtle dig at the critic, Pauline Kael, who wrote an essay about Citizen Kane, in which she claimed that Welles didn’t write any of the script.

F for Fake uses a variety of visual tricks. There are scenes in which Irving and de Hory seem to be talking to each other, but they are actually shots from two different interviews that have been spliced together. This film serves as a demonstration that we can take nothing at face value.

The Criterion Collection DVD of this film includes the documentary, Orson Welles: The One-Man Band, which was co-directed and co-written by Welles’s girlfriend, Oja Kodar. This film concentrates on Welles’s later years and includes scenes from many of the unfinished films he made, as well as from the unreleased film The Other Side of the Wind. (And the fact that this film remains unreleased is a scandal.) Among other things, we learn that Welles was obsessed with Moby Dick. Over the years he shot numerous scenes of himself reciting passages from this work, although it was unclear what he intended to do with these. Welles seemed to identify with the character of Ahab. Like Ahab, he spent much of his life pursuing something – in his case success – he could never quite achieve.

Welles also made this bizarre nine-minute trailer for F for Fake:

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Lunch with Orson Welles

April 15, 2015

Orson Welles

I just finished reading My Lunches with Orson, which is the most interesting and entertaining book that I have read in a while. From 1983 to 1985, Welles would sometimes have lunch with his friend, Henry Jaglom, at Ma Maison, which at that time was the most fashionable eatery in Los Angeles. Jaglom had Welles’s permission to tape record their conversations. Peter Biskind had these tapes transcribed and then edited them into this book. The result is a treasure. It would be hard to imagine a more ideal lunch companion than Welles, who was both a genius and a raconteur (a rare combination).

The conversations cover a wide range of topics, and Welles gives his opinions on various matters. Among other things we learn that he thought Hitchcock’s American films weren’t very good. (I can just hear the howls of outrage emanating from film schools across the country.) Just as he had strong opinions about films, he had strong opinions about people. (Among those he liked were Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, Erich von Stroheim, and Sam Goldwyn. Among those he didn’t like were Irving Thalberg, Woody Allen, Louis B. Mayer, David O. Selznick, Joan Rivers, and John Landis.) The conversations also touch upon Welles’s left-wing political views. One of the book’s more poignant moments occurs when Welles expresses regret over writing a negative review of Ivan the Terrible, because Eisenstein was subsequently persecuted by Stalin.

Welles also discusses his negotiations with producers over various proposed film projects of his. In the final conversations, he seems at wit’s end. His deals have all fallen through. He is in desperate financial straits. He can no longer get commercial work. One suspects that the stress he was under may have contributed to his fatal heart attack. A sad ending, but at least he led a full and rich life.

The Magnificent Ambersons

February 21, 2013

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The Magnificent Ambersons was Orson Welles’s second film. It is based on the novel by Booth Tarkington. RKO Radio Pictures drastically edited it, and, over Welles’s protests, they tacked on an unconvincing “happy” ending. Even in its mangled form, however, this film is fascinating to watch.

The story begins in a Midwestern town in the late nineteenth century. The Ambersons are a wealthy family whose mansion dominates the town. Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) marries Wilbur Minafer (Donald Dillaway). Their son, George (Tim Holt), is the heir to the Amberson fortune. Isabel’s former suitor, Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) shows up at a party one day. After Wilbur dies, Isabel and Eugene begin to strike up their former romance again. At the same time George becomes infatuated with Eugene’s daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter). When George learns of his mother’s affair with Eugene, he is adamantly opposed to it. While the Ambersons lose their money through bad investments, Eugene’s automobile company prospers.

Welles’s film is an exercise in nostalgia. It presents a vision of an America that was more elegant and humane before the rise of the automobile. This is, of course, based on a highly selective view of the past. There were a lot more people working twelve-hour days in factories than there were living in stately mansions. Welles was no doubt aware of this. He apparently saw the belief in an idealized past as expressing a human desire for goodness. Also, he does not portray the Ambersons as perfect. George is essentially a spoiled brat. It’s not until when the Ambersons lose their fortune that he begins to show a sense of responsibility and consideration towards others.

The Magnificent Ambersons was a labor of love for Welles. He put considerable effort into making it. For example, he filmed the winter scenes in an ice house near downtown Los Angeles, so the actors’ breaths could be seen. He was reportedly deeply bitter at the studio’s drastic editing of the film. These cuts are perhaps the reason why the second half of the movie feels a bit rushed. The Ambersons seeem to lose their money all at once. Still, The Magnificent Ambersons is a remarkable achievement.

Chimes at Midnight

February 12, 2013

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Orson Welles’s 1965 film, Chimes at Midnight, combines scenes and dialogue from five different Shakespeare plays to tell the story of Sir John Falstaff. This film was the result of a life-long fascination that Welles had with Shakespeare’s historical plays. Welles regarded Falstaff as a tragic figure, so it is not surprising that this film is more of a tragedy than a comedy.

Chimes at Midnight was a labor of love for Welles, so it is sad to note that he had difficulty getting funding for it. Welles had to work with a limited budget. One result of this is that the sound quality is poor. I often had difficulty making out what the actors were saying. (This is not a good film for someone who is unfamiliar with Shakespeare.) Despite such problems, though, this film is a remarkable achievement. The scene in which Harry (Keith Baxter), the newly crowned Henry V, coldly rejects his old friend, Falstaff, is disturbing to watch. It is, in a way, a comment on the corrupting effect of power, which can sever emotional ties between people. Overall, this film expresses a cynical view of political power. Henry IV (John Gielgud) comes across as a pompous hypocrite; he talks about honor and duty, when we know that he murdered his predecessor, Richard II. (He is so vain that he demands that his crown be placed on the pillow next to him on his deathbed.) Harry inherits his father’s hypocrisy along with his crown.

Chimes at Midnight is also notable for its depiction of the Battle of Shrewsbury. The scene begins with knights charging at each other on horseback, and it ends with soldiers grappling with one another in the mud. It is a visual metaphor for the dehumanizing effect of war.

Chimes at Midnight is one of Welle’s best films. Unfortunately, due to legal disputes over the film’s ownership, it has often been out of circulation. You can currently find it on YouTube. I recommend checking it out before it gets pulled.