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January 4, 2004 Orson Welles and my psychotherapist friend...

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Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life
by Peter Conrad
Farber - Released: October, 2003

384 pages - ISBN: 0571209785


A number of years ago I was dating a tall, redheaded psychotherapist from the UK who, when she first arrived in the United States, landed an interesting job.  She was personal assistant to Orson Welles.  Curious.  She had a few things to say about him, but had moved on, earned her degrees and was more concerned with the deep depression a number of executives at Warner Brothers were developing.  She didn't talk much about Welles, but to say he was an interesting man.


And my second father-in-law had been Welles' roommate at Cranbrook in Michigan in their pre-college days, or so he claimed.  Welles hired him to work on Citizen Kane, doing continuity or some such thing, and he claimed Welles showed him in the background of several group shots.  I've looked carefully at the film.  I never saw him.


And many of us have our copy of Pauline Kael's The Citizen Kane Book (1971) with her New Yorker essay "Raising Kane" and the shooting script and the cutting continuity of the film, and lots of photographs.  But that book was more a rant about how André Bazin and his auteur theory was all foolishness.  Kael was out to prove great films were not the product of a single vision, Bazins auteur, but rather a communal, collaborative effort.  She compared making a great film to building a gothic cathedral.  Whatever.


Now we have this Conrad book.  As Paula Marantz Cohen points out in this weeks Times Literary Supplement, there are all sorts of ways to think of Welles.  There are...


... industry insiders, such as André Bazin, Peter Bogdanovich and Barbara Leaming, who (mostly) portray Welles as a misunderstood genius, cast out of the movie-making temple by philistine Hollywood producers.


There is the more critical view, given by, for example, David Thomson's Rosebud: The story of Orson Welles, which places the blame for Welles's failure on tragic flaws in the man himself.


And there is the deconstructionist approach, embodied by Simon Callow's Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu (the first part of a projected two-volume work), an attempt to "question everything" and cut the man down to size.  Among Callow's revelations are that Welles was neither a natural writer nor a potential concert-level pianist, and that his father was not a charming inventor but an embarrassing drunk.  Ultimately, however, Callow does not topple the myths so much as recontextualize them.  The genius remains in clear view, but is made more psychologically and aesthetically understandable.


And now we have Conrad.

Avoiding all semblance of a life chronology or even of an analysis of the films ... Orson Welles is concerned with the myths themselves, which Conrad links to the great cultural texts that shaped Welles's imagination and his life.  In what could be called a postmodern example of criticism as imitation, Conrad's work suffers from many of the strengths and failings of its subject.  It reflects both a wide-ranging, sometimes brilliant allusiveness, and a slovenly, often pretentious exhibitionism.  A related problem is that the book provides no historical, psychological or social context for its points.  Without this scaffold, one is left in a muddle as to when, where and why things happened.


I'm not sure a "mythic" reading of Welles is useful.  There are events: staging and starring in Shakespeare plays while still at prep school, talking his way into a leading role at the Gate Theatre in Dublin while still in his teens, his founding of the Mercury Theater in New York (with John Houseman), his radio career, the highlight of which was that War of the Worlds broadcast.  When he got out here to Hollywood he was all of twenty-five, but already so famous that he was given carte blanche by RKO executives.  "This is the greatest train set a boy ever had", he is quoted as saying on arrival.  Paula Marantz Cohen adds that perhaps less well known is the remark of one of his bemused (and jealous) colleagues at the studio: "There, for the grace of God, goes God."


But what the hell happened after Citizen Kane?  The Magnificent Ambersons and A Touch of Evil the first with fine photography and the second rather boring.  And then?  Commercials for cheap wine.  Voiceover work.  He becomes a parody of himself.  Most real projects are left unfinished.

As for Conrad, he divides his book is divided into chapters which refer to "mythic" patterns that Conrad discerns in the "Wellesian persona and oeuvre": "So Many of Me", "Peter Pan", "Everybody", "Faust", "Mercury", "Kurtz", "Kubla Cain [sic]", etc. 


What to make of this?  Paula Marantz Cohen sums it up:


In each of the chapters, Conrad returns to the Manichaean struggle central to the writers in the Western canon who influenced Welles, most notably Shakespeare.  As Conrad points out, Welles had a profoundly Shakespearean imagination of kingship.  He saw it both as a mark of divinity and of base usurpation.  He felt himself born to play kings but was also drawn to the lord of misrule, Falstaff (a characterization he managed to get on screen in his tattered Henriad, Chimes at Midnight).  He actually played all the key characters at one time or another in Julius Caesar (simultaneously, it seems, on radio).  And when Marlene Dietrich, at the end of A Touch of Evil, says of Quinlan, "he was some kind of a man", Conrad notes that she evokes perhaps ironically, perhaps not Antony on Brutus: "Nature might stand up, / And say to all the world, 'This was a man!'". 


Well great art demands great ego, one supposes.  Curiously -


Welles's first intended project at RKO was a film of Heart of Darkness, in which he wanted to play both Marlowe and Kurtz.  In Citizen Kane, he sought to debunk Kane, the tyrannical newspaper mogul modelled on William Randolph Hearst, but he also identified with him.  The story is as much an autobiography as it is a piece of muckraking - and, of course, in the mythic realm, it enacts another fall of man.  Even when Welles played the morally abhorrent Harry Lime in The Third Man (a film he neither wrote nor directed, though showbiz legend has him taking a hand in both), he turns the character into an archetypal child: at once a charming boy and an egotistical monster.


Welles, according to Conrad, was both - in the tradition of Peter Pan.


Obviously I should get back in touch with my psychotherapist friend and see what she says about all this.  Perhaps she became a psychotherapist because she had to deal with this fellow.