[Author’s Note: I don’t make a habit of writing “open letters” and I don’t have a long history of participating in Blogathons. I certainly don’t have a truly substantive bone to pick with the sports journalist Craig Calcaterra, who, as near as I can figure, is a gentleman. But the half-thought of rebutting what I saw as an untidy corner in a recent column of his, combined with the three-quarters thought of finally contributing to my friend David Cairns’s annual Late Films Blogathon, produced the result of, uh let’s see now, carry the three… one and one quarters of a thought. What happened next unravels below. Please enjoy.]
Dear Mr. Calcaterra,
Hey. Hope this finds you well.
Quick context: I write to you from the realm of cinephilia – the love of cinema. People outside this realm might call me a film buff, or enthusiast. My parents call me, worried that I’m wasting my life. That one’s a joke. (Sort of.)
I was recently forwarded your NBC Sports article on Will Clark, “Hall of Fame Case for Will Clark”. Given that I don’t inhabit the world of baseball, I don’t know who Will Clark is. (Not that there’s a shortage of film buffs who love sports, it’s just not me. On nights when there’s a big game on TV, Film Twitter becomes a ghost town.) I inferred that he was a famous ball player.
When your article was shared, it was in the frame of “incoming hot take, everybody duck!” Not about your subject – once again, I don’t know Will Clark from Calvin Coolidge – but about your invocation of Orson Welles to bolster your argument.
The summary of said invocation:
- Orson Welles made his masterpiece right out of the gate: his 1941 directorial debut, Citizen Kane.
- Thereafter he was cursed to wander the wilderness, only occasionally – as if by accident or happenstance – making something great like Touch of Evil.
We film enthusiasts took exception to this take! As is the custom on social media, my reaction to your article – that is, the Orson Welles-explaining parts of it – was to become angry, instantly and uncontrollably. I must have done something churlish like screenshot it with a hearty “WTF??!!” You’re an old hand at Twitter, you get the idea.
Later the same day, I thought, “Why get mad at a civilian?” No offense in calling you a civilian but – well, let’s keep moving. If you overhear someone in the public square saying something non-factual about, I dunno, what color innings are (orange), or what year Ace “Cricket” McGee played Center Field for the Terra Haute Jackalopes (either 1917 or 1971), do you feel tempted to step in and right the wrong? Of course. Is there the temptation to get sore? Yeah, a little, why not? Unnecessary errors, especially concerning facts or, if not facts, firm beliefs, get us riled up. But logically, there’s got to be a measured approach. So I got to thinking, wouldn’t it benefit the greatest number of readers if I wrote an open letter to convey to you, without prejudice or bad faith, that I think you’ve got Orson Welles all wrong but…. on the other hand… I know where you’re coming from? Well sir, here goes.
To me, Welles remains one of the greatest American filmmakers, not just because of Citizen Kane, which, even today, when the film is more than 75 years old, still impresses with both its bold experimentation and emotional clarity.
In some circles, it’s perceived to have a homework patina, like the Declaration of Independence or Moby Dick. It’s taken on such a flood of “mandatory viewing” that, sadly, it’s damaged in the eyes of many viewers who might have been better off encountering the thing in the wild, bereft of history.
Too bad, so sad, etc. I’m not going to drain my energy trying to convince a handful of people that “the movie that you’ve heard is so great is, in fact, so great.” That’s one too many layers of bullshit.
I’d rather spread the good word about Orson Welles’s filmmaking brilliance as it covers the years 1942 to 2018. Yes, the end year is right, despite the fact that he passed away, literally while working, in 1985. I’ll return to that.
Being an open letter, I’ll try to shape my mode of address so that it’s legible not only to you but to the other folks who’ll read this: cinephiles, fellow Welles exponents, the occasional skeptic. If you’ll forgive me if I get too “inside baseball”, and my fellow travelers forgive me for being too rudimentary, I’ll quickly jog through my slides:
- Welles’s second film, at the same studio – was The Magnificent Ambersons, based on the Booth Tarkington novel, which had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1918. He’d turned in a rough cut of the movie that ran 135 minutes. I’ll skip the ensuing drama but after some dicey preview screenings, RKO insisted on putting it under the knife. The result was an 88-minute movie that weakens considerably in its final minutes, thanks to scenes and shots that were redone by directors of considerably diminished visual sense, compared to Welles. One can litigate whether or not Welles had legally forfeited his final cut to RKO, but when you look at what he made, and when you feel what’s missing like a phantom limb, right and wrong don’t really amount to much. Charitably you might say Welles – whose editorial agency was all but nonexistent at the time, because he was in South America shooting the documentary It’s All True for Franklin Roosevelt and Nelson Rockefeller – was victimized by equal parts neglect and outsized ambition. But did you know that there exists no possible way to see a “director’s cut” of The Magnificent Ambersons? What was lost is lost. Yet it remains one of the most beautiful and haunting of all films. Even in its butchered form. There’s not 10 other movies I wouldn’t hurl into a ravine to preserve it.
- Welles was already well-established as a bankable actor, as he was well-known from his many years on the radio. But while he had little trouble picking up acting gigs, it would be a few years before he got handed a directing job. What I’m referring to now is The Stranger, a postwar spy thriller about a Nazi hiding out in a small town in Connecticut. Following the bold, ambitious Kane and Ambersons, this 1946 film is pretty scaled-down: you can tell Welles is behaving himself. But, while you wouldn’t say The Stranger is one of the great masterpieces of the form, it’s quite good, and imaginatively filmed – and filled with images and sounds that resonate in one’s memory. And even as a scaled-down, not-so-ambitious thing, it’s a crackling entry into the genre.
I want to zoom out briefly here and mark what’s happening in Hollywood at this time. Very very short version: SCOTUS rules that studios can’t own theaters because that’s a monopoly. [Huge amount of nuance and legal-socio-economic detail excised] and then the studio system starts to die. It takes about 20 years for it to happen, during which time Hollywood faced an existential crisis brought on by the wide proliferation of television, which (as it continues to do today) siphoned off a huge percentage of the movie industry’s hold on the American entertainment dollar. Studios began spending more and more money and investing in large formats like CinemaScope, better-looking color photography, and stereophonic sound, all to give audiences a more immersive, you-are-in-it sensation they couldn’t very well reproduce in their living room. But the short version is, the expensive pictures got more expensive, and for every The Sound of Music, raking in unimaginable revenues, there were dozens of turkeys – strikeouts, you might say.
What else happened after the end of the Second World War was the birth and the rise of the independent film movement – in other words, the era of the independent producer. During this transition, even a former whiz kid who’d slipped on a banana peel in the eyes of the once-monolithic studio system could regain footing, either by raising funds (which is what most filmmakers did, and do – even the ones who’ve “made it”), or by having enough money that you don’t have to ask for squat (which is what you do when your name is James Cameron or George Lucas). This had a lot to do with technological advances making communication simpler, international travel faster and more affordable, and movie-making equipment lighter and more mobile.
This doesn’t mean the cessation of creative power struggles – far from it. In fact, in a lot of cases, it gets a lot more complicated, and a lot dirtier. This is a topic for a different letter, but suffice it to say, Welles found himself In It as often as not.
His next two pictures were The Lady from Shanghai, a twisty thriller starring Rita Hayworth, and Macbeth, of course from Shakespeare.
- The genesis and destiny of The Lady from Shanghai, which is now considered one of the preeminent film noirs, and one of the most visually evocative movies of any era, is not very unlike The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles, now no longer in his 20s, clashed with Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn. Long story short, the film lost an hour from what Welles had turned in. It’s easier to forget the meddling this time around, when one sees the film today: it’s singular and intoxicating, and it’s not as easy, as it is with some scenes in Ambersons, to spot the work of interlopers. If you didn’t know anything about the battle between Welles and Cohn behind the scenes, you could easily figure The Lady from Shanghai as one of his greatest films. You still can. Not a jury in the world would convict you.
- His next film was an inexpensive but deliriously spirited movie of Macbeth that he filmed on fog-filled Republic Pictures sets that were usually used for cut-rate westerns. Meddling from powerful individuals like Harry Cohn doesn’t figure into the story – Macbeth experienced a round of second-guessing and recutting and dubbing, but Welles himself was largely the impetus, after it premiered in Venice, in rather close proximity to Olivier’s Hamlet – the latter went on to win the Oscar. In that setting, everything about Welles’s movie that wasn’t Olivier’s movie felt wrong. This is like when there were two asteroid apocalypse movies in 1998.
Where are we, 1950? Okay. Nothing so far that says “Welles is cast out of paradise, shaking his cup for change outside the bus depot.” He continues to get cast in pictures. He does magic shows. He goes on I Love Lucy, as himself. He’s one of the only directors in the US who’s also a celebrity, next to Alfred Hitchcock.
As a public persona he’s like Brian Blessed: big figure, big voice, big personality. He’s nobody’s idea of macho, not like Clark Gable or John Wayne or Gary Cooper. He’s more like…. if a king walked among us, his charisma 10x his scientifically measurable mass. (We aren’t going to acknowledge the fat jokes that came later.)
Three pictures in this decade: Othello, Mr. Arkadin aka Confidential Report, Touch of Evil. Welles won two prizes at Cannes, arguably the most prestigious of festivals: the top prize for Othello, and the leading actor prize in 1959 for Compulsion (directed by Richard Fleischer), playing a lawyer (loosely modeled on Clarence Darrow) for two youth killers (loosely Leopold and Loeb; in those roles, Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman shared the award with Welles).
- Othello, which is a masterpiece, kickstarted an era in Welles’s creative endeavors that saw him making movies every which way but loose. The movie was filmed in catch-as-catch-can style over a number of years and across continents. A character would throw a punch in 1949, in Spain, and it would connect with his opponent’s face in 1951, in Morocco. When Welles ran out of money, he’d take some acting work, and start shooting again. There has been some interference on Othello but that came much later – after Welles died, in fact, and it’s a topic for another day. Suffice to say this was no case of studio butchery – the film can be enjoyed in a form reasonably close to what Welles intended.
- Producer meddling did affect the shape of Welles’s baroque 1955 thriller, Mr. Arkadin, alternately called Confidential Report. But while the producer (Louis Dolivet) rendered the film into a bowdlerized state that often ran contrary to Welles’s intentions, the clash produced many versions, not just one compromised one. The Criterion Collection released three cuts of the film in a large, multi-disc set, one of which is called “the comprehensive version”, assembled in 2005 by the Munich Film Museum. This cut ought to be viewed in the good-faith manner of “best guess”, since, of course, Welles could not possibly have overseen it. Having said all that, it is a masterpiece, one that both reflected and propagated the increasingly paranoia-juiced, fragmentary style of jet-travel-era suspense thrillers.
- Touch of Evil – yes, the not-Kane masterpiece that enough people agree on, its presumed greatness was a minor digression in the 1995 John Travolta caper comedy, Get Shorty. Was there meddling? Oh my yes. Is it as great as they say? Greater. Legacy of adhering to Welles’s original intent: without getting too in the weeds, roughly equivalent to Arkadin. In a word, complicated. But you can dig it.
Now we reach the 1960s. This open letter’s getting a little long in the tooth, so I’ll try to be brief: Welles is still landing acting gigs left and right, but getting acting jobs and making entire films, those are two different…. well, how about a sports metaphor?
- Acting in movies is like playing on a team, and trying to win the game, along with your teammates.
- Getting movies made is like inventing an entirely new sport, teaching brand new players the rules, and trying to persuade NBC to air it during primetime
I’m not saying acting is easy. But getting a film made is almost impossible.
Welles’s feature films during this era:
- The Trial, a masterpiece of nightmare paranoia, based on the Kafka novel
- Chimes at Midnight, another Shakespeare adaptation, fusing together large segments of several different plays, mostly concerning the tragic figure of raucous, profane Falstaff…
- Really I’ve been piling on the praise for these movies but Chimes is uncommonly beautiful and exciting; its Battle of Shrewsbury sequence is one of the most influential battle scenes in pictures, its influence is felt as recently as the “Battle of the Bastards” episode of Game of Thrones.
- Other projects include The Immortal Story, a short feature for European television, adapted from Isak Denisen; Welles also appeared in the Best Picture-winning A Man for All Seasons.
During these years, Welles did accrue some unfinished projects, or projects that were held short of completion by one misfortune or another: The Deep (based on a novel that would eventually be adapted into the 1989 Nicole Kidman thriller, Dead Calm); The Heroine (another Denisen: not much was shot, Welles walked away after one day of shooting after it became clear that he was being swindled); The Merchant of Venice; a variety of TV projects.
During the 1970s, he made two landmark films, the seminal nonfiction essay F for Fake, and the fictional (but highly metatextual) The Other Side of the Wind. F for Fake lives on – this incredible masterpiece was release by the Criterion Collection on DVD and Blu-ray.
I can’t tell the story behind The Other Side of the Wind much more succinctly than the Netflix documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which – not coincidentally – faces the “he drifted around doing projects, never living up to his early promise” myth head-on, within the first few minutes. Suffice to say, there’s bad luck, and there’s the Shah of Iran being deposed, fleeing the country, and the fate of your nearly-completed feature getting tied up in the ensuing chaos.
In 2017, after some funding efforts, including an Indiegogo campaign, several interested parties pushed The Other Side of the Wind to what we call “picture lock” – the state in which one can make a valid declaration that there’s nothing more to be done, tie a bow on it. In journalism, think of “picture lock” like, you had your back-and-forth with your editor, s/he sent it to the copy desk, the fact-checker, etc, they do their thing, and “picture lock” is when your article is finally ready to go up on the site.
The Other Side of the Wind was close to picture lock when Welles died – by some accounts, it was 98% finished. A concerted effort to best-guess his editing of the remaining 2%, plus a round of post-production, color correction, looping, scoring, so forth and so on, was done, and, finally, what was once considered a Holy Grail of cinema was a cup that everyone could drink from.
In 2018, The Other Side of the Wind was shown at the Venice Film Festival and premiered on Netflix, for everyone with a smartphone, tablet, or internet-capable home computer to enjoy. One ought to think of the film, in the form that we now have, as “finished” with the heaviest air quotes available. Welles, who is definitely dead, was very definitely not in a position to approve the work that was done on it. Having said that, it’s a thrilling picture, weirder and bolder in many ways than anything else he directed, and the “finished” film bears no evidence, that I can point to, that any of the parties that pushed it to “picture lock” are having one over on us, putting us on, or falling asleep at the switch. They even hired a living legend, Michel Legrand, who composed haunting scores for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Welles’s own F for Fake, to do the music. It’s the best we can reasonably expect the film is going to look in our lifetimes and… it’s terrific.
Film people – many film people, but fewer, I think, than before – still hold to the cliché that “Welles was a genius who kept fumbling the ball, and that was his whole life after Citizen Kane.” I think that’s chiefly the reason why I got so irritated that a sportswriter would use this as an assumed truth – and as the cornerstone of an argument to observe a player he thought warranted better treatment in the eyes of history. To me, using this thumbnail sketch to (in my view) misrepresent Welles’s life and work told me that, once you exited the orbit of cinephilia, only the hoariest of clichés have any currency. And it isn’t just cinephilia – many sets of teeth have been ground as a specialist overhears non-specialists talking, without full, factual correctness, about their specialty.
Plus it’s like, we already marched, metaphorically, in the streets to restore the widely held, unbalanced view of “Welles’s genius”. Must we march again? Our feet are tired.
What would it take to overturn the bad line about Welles, the fumbling, former whiz kid? In most places in America, the assumption is you succeed your way upward, and that you build on early successes. We love our young, upstart billionaires, disrupting and assuming the mantle of heroes. We love those that work hard, get promoted, move up the ladder to higher and higher rungs of success. In sports, there’s some of that, no?
I think some people look at Welles’s career, if they look at all, and decide there’s a half-life to upstart creativity, and that his wish to remain a free agent (I’m not bad with the sports metaphors, huh?) all his life, without ever packing it in and kissing the right rings and taking on the yes-sir, how-high-sir studio assignments that his contemporaries pursued, was just the right fit for a 26-year-old, but a few mile markers past demented for a 66-year-old.
But… isn’t that kind of a blinkered view? What is that our business?
I know that isn’t your thinking. I assume you know your baseball, your pitchers and RBIs, and your Hall of Fame, or you wouldn’t be where you are today. What occurred with Welles’s appearance in your Will Clark piece was that a thumbnail piece of cultural mythology was used where it would, in all likelihood, never get challenged. Who’s a big fan of Chimes at Midnight and reading about a retired ball player on NBC Sports?
And while I’ve outlined a frustrating state of affairs, to be honest, how can I get mad when the same myth is perpetuated by colleagues of mine who should really and truly know better. Do you know of sportswriters who just seem to be coasting on some SparksNotes version of the subject they’re supposed to be experts on? I’ll bet you do. They’re just everywhere, aren’t they?
The Other Side of the Wind, I should make clear…. I couldn’t really call it a “beginners” Orson Welles movie. It moves slightly faster than the viewer can keep up – much of the dialogue is delivered in such rapid-fire fashion that subtitles are highly recommended (luckily, Netflix provides) – and the story is, to put it bluntly, an unconventional one, an all-through-the-night-and-into-the-following-day story that’s intercut with a film-within-a-film that also doesn’t follow a straightforward, familiar story structure.
In brief: famous film director Jake Hannaford (played by John Huston) is celebrating his 70th birthday party, and has invited his cast, crew, and a throng of journalists and photographers to his palatial home to booze the night away. He’s struggling to finish his movie, which is called The Other Side of the Wind. He needs money. We learn later that his lead actor has walked off the picture after clashing with Jake. In the morning – this detail is revealed in the opening moments – Jake has died in a car crash on his way back from a screening of The Other Side of the Wind at a drive-in theater. It’s uncertain whether this was suicide or he was just plain drunk.
For a man who was boisterous, jovial, but never particularly macho, The Other Side of the Wind shows us a Welles who grasps all kinds of personality types, first and foremost the much-mythologized, two-fisted, hard-drinking Man’s Man, the kind who hunts and shoots and chases women. But his heart was so large that he could sympathize with these ogres, and find plenty of walking-around room for their tragically loyal disciples, razor-tongued critics, hangers-on, passers-by, and other oddballs. It’s incredibly funny and incredibly bleak, and, as a survey of its era – when the young upstarts were taking over Hollywood, it is withering in its glare.
No director in the American cinema edited with more musical precision than Welles. (Even the greatest directors are content to have the cutting done by a professional cutter – in fact, this was compulsory in the studio system. Of course, this is, you guessed it, a topic for another day.) The editing of later films, from Othello onward to F for Fake and unquestionably The Other Side of the Wind, makes the viewer feel as if they’ve been tossed into a blender. Despite how that may sometimes feel, he is not screwing around. These films are, in a visual sense, the most exciting music, mad symphonies by a man who – sitting at the Moviola (that’s the old-timey editing table) – knew exactly what he was doing at all times.
How can you call such a man a failure? A bright candle that melted away in a sea of unfinished projects and unfulfilled early promise? I cannot. The only way to do so is through the lens of the district manager, the Human Resources officer, or the traffic court judge. Ah, I see here, uhhhh, Mr. Welles…. that you started 30 pictures and only finished 15. What happened? It seems like you’re a man who can’t get things done, Mr. Welles, isn’t that right? Hm?
If we can reorient our attitude concerning success so that it has less to do with “made the sale” and “got the job” and “won the war” and whatnot, and more to do with a lived life, not of wandering the wilderness stupidly but blasting a trail that he alone can see, of a man who left behind so many incomplete projects (and honestly, them who are without sin, etc) not because he was a loopy fuck-up but because he just had to keep making things.
And if you conduct a thorough inventory of what Welles directed, whether it was finished or not, it’ll become clear that, from Citizen Kane through The Other Side of the Wind, this was not a life crippled by poor follow-through, or carelessness. His candle burned all the way down to the wick, alright, but it burned, and burned, and burned.
In closing, I would petition to change the official myth of Orson Welles, from
- His first film was Citizen Kane and, thereafter, he never lived up to his early promise.
- His first film was Citizen Kane, which many have called the greatest film ever made; after that, he improved.
Now, if we can just get him into the Baseball Hall of Fame, I can finally rest.