Monthly Archives: May 2015
I’ve got a lot going on over the next few weeks, so I’m going to take a break. I’ll be posting again toward the end of June.
A note to those of you who are into Orson Welles. You’ve probably heard that a number of Welles’ friends and fans are mounting an effort to finish his last movie, The Other Side of the Wind. You may not have heard that they’ve started an Indiegogo campaign to raise funding. Here’s the link.
If you’re as anxious to see this movie as I am, I recommend you throw a few bucks their way. The footage has been sitting in cans for decades. If this effort fails, who knows if we’ll ever see Welles’ final film.
Most of us know very little about the history of the American West. The realities of the westward expansion that started in the nineteenth century were overwhelmed by the fantasies from the very beginning. Looking to extend its reach across the continent, the US government encouraged settlers to make the trek with promises of fabulous wealth and unbounded freedom. Pulp novelists spun tall tales about heroic cowboys and bloodthirsty Indians. Later on movies took it even further by recreating these stories on a grand scale. Popular stars rode their horses across the screen, their epic battles for justice set against spectacular landscapes. The truth was overwhlemed by the myth.
Walter Hill’s Wild Bill is about the way myth and reality can become hopelessly tangled. Taking as his subject the soldier, sheriff, gambler, gunfighter James Butler Hickok, Hill shows us a man who can no longer separate himself from his legend. The film starts with Bill’s funeral, then takes us back to his arrival in the wild frontier town of Deadwood, and we follow him through his last few days on earth. Bill is a man adrift, passing the time by drinking and playing cards, haunted by his past, wondering where his life went wrong.
The film is a deliberate mix of fact and fiction. Hill based his script on Pete Dexter’s book Deadwood and Thomas Babe’s play Fathers and Sons. In recreating Bill’s past, the film relies on real accounts of the gunfighter’s life, showing us how he earned his reputation. But the story of the callow young man who haunts Bill’s final days is fiction. Jack McCall is an awkward, angry youth who announces to the world that he’s going to kill the famous gunfighter. No one takes him seriously. In spite of his bravado, it’s clear that he’s troubled and confused. Jack is angry not just because Bill seduced his mother, but also because he promised to be a father, and then abandoned both mother and son. The story has no basis in fact, but by framing it this way Hill takes us into the realm of primal poetry. The film becomes more than just a study of the distance between truth and fiction. It’s also about the distance between fathers and sons.
Bill’s whole life has been defined by violence. A soldier in the Civil War. A hunter fighting for his life on the plains. A lawman with a reputation as a crack shot. He’s survived in a violent world because he’s better at killing than his enemies. But after accidentally killing his own deputy in Abilene, he loses his sense of direction. He drifts from town to town, downing whisky and playing cards. Everywhere he goes, his reputation precedes him. He’s revered as a hero and reviled as a murderer. Bill goes on playing the part of the legendary gunslinger, but more and more he seems to be wondering why.
It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Jeff Bridges playing the role. Bridges has a presence that fills the screen, and he’s completely believable as a mythic figure, but he also has the skill to let us know what’s going on inside Bill’s head. He gives us a man who’s proud of his reputation and at the same time uncomfortable with it. A man who displays unflinching self-confidence and at the same time is filled with doubts. The cast in general is remarkable. John Hurt brings a world weary melancholy to the role of Charley Prince, Bill’s best friend. Ellen Barkin plays Calamity Jane with both toughness and tenderness. As Susannah Moore, the woman Bill loved and left behind, Diane Lane has a touching fragility. She knows he’s going to move on and tries to be strong, but inside she’s falling apart. As Jack, David Arquette is a tangle of conflicting emotions. It sometimes seems as though his repeated attempts to kill Bill are actually just his way of trying to get Bill’s attention. Even the small parts are well cast and well played. Karen Huie brings an interesting tension to her role as the proprietor of an opium den. Christina Applegate convincingly plays the hard as nails prostitute who finds herself drawn to the weak and indecisive Jack. And Pato Hoffman displays a fierce pride as the leader of a band of Cheyenne.
Visually the film is rich with shifting textures, moving seamlessly from past to present and back again. It’s easy to see why Hill has chosen to work with cinematographer Lloyd Aherne over and over again. Aherne seems less interested in capturing reality than in creating a visual landscape that grows out of the drama. The saloons are filled with rich, smoky color, Bill’s opium induced hallucinations are shot in stark black and white, and the frontier streets are often bleached into dusty sepia tones.
The score is by Van Dyke Parks, one of the great oddballs of American music. Parks has had a long, eccentric career, working with everyone from the Beach Boys to Grizzly Bear. Here he uses his considerable gifts as an arranger to weave together a tapestry of well worn traditionals, sometimes tapping into the raw vitality of the the Old West and at other times singing a lament for a time that may have only existed in our imagination. Paying close attention to mood and texture, Parks’ music complements the film’s shifting visual tone beautifully.
Wild Bill bombed at the box office and most critics wrote it off as a failure. This isn’t surprising. In fact, it’s happened over and over again to directors who stray from the standard formulas and try to do something unique. Since Wild Bill, Hill has continued to work, but he hasn’t attempted anything nearly as ambitious. Which is understandable. He put his heart and soul into this movie. Audiences and critics rejected it. Sometimes people ask why gifted filmmakers spend their time making routine thrillers. But what’s the point of knocking yourself out when you know you’ll probably get kicked in the teeth?
Orson Welles’ film of The Trial has never had a lot of fans. Many of his most ardent admirers have a hard time with it. Even Peter Bogdanovich, a champion of Welles’ work, has said he doesn’t like it. Aside from The Stranger, which the director himself dismissed, it’s the least popular of his movies.
Honestly, I’ve never understood why. The first time I saw The Trial I was completely drawn into it. It has a haunting, hypnotic quality. Watching the film gives me the feeling of being pulled slowly into another world, a strange, irrational world. No question the mood is oppressive, but to me this seems completely in keeping with the novel.
I disagree with the critics who say that Welles’ style is wrong for Kafka, but I understand what they’re talking about. Kafka’s prose is quiet, measured, precise. No matter what setting the stories took place in, to me his world always seemed small and claustrophobic. But in the film Welles’ creates vast, echoing spaces, and long, twisting corridors. The characters have a different presence, too. Kafka sketches the people who populate his world in a very few, deft strokes. Welles, on the other hand, draws them in vivid detail.
But while the two men’s styles are totally different, I think the film comes very close to capturing the essence of the novel. The writer and the director may seem like polar opposites, but they’re not. In Welles’ films the heroes are often brash and arrogant, fighting to impose their vision on the world. In Kafka’s stories we wouldn’t even use the word hero to describe the protagonists, because his anxious, insecure young men are constantly struggling just to keep moving forward. Still, if we look deeper, we might find that the two have a lot in common.
When I first read Welles’ comment that The Trial was his most autobiographical movie, I was surprised. How could this man, who seemed so much larger than life, identify with the weak, petty Joseph K.? But anyone familiar with Welles’ career knows that he worked very hard to create the magnificent mythology that defined his public persona. In fact, for the most part his work is about exposing the lies behind the myths, showing us that these “great” men are deeply flawed.
Behind all the bravado, Welles was terribly insecure. Ignored by the mainstream audience, frequently attacked by critics, begging for money from backers, acting in films he knew were beneath him, he must have often felt very lost and very lonely. And if we look at the comments he made throughout his life about the injustices perpetrated by our governments and the growing tyranny of bureaucracy, his concerns begin to seem much closer to Kafka’s. He begins to seem like a man who feels completely overwhelmed, living in a world that’s indifferent to his existence.
After the prologue that starts the movie, the first image we see is disorienting. Joseph K.’s face upside down as he lies asleep. Waking up, he finds strange men in his room. Angry and confused, he demands an explanation, which they give him. He’s been accused of a crime. They’ve come to investigate. K.’s anger and confusion turn to fear and anxiety. Welles thrusts us into this bizarre, uncomfortable situation at the very beginning, and for the rest of the movie he just keeps pulling us deeper and deeper.
The Trial sounds different from any other film I can think of. Much of it is very quiet. Sometimes the actors’ voices seem to sink into the silence. At other times they resonate in space, echoing off surfaces of concrete and metal. Welles often used post-synched sound, and while this could sometimes be a handicap, here it’s eerily right. It feels as though there’s a slight distance between the actors and their voices, adding to the sense of disorientation. Throughout the film, Welles uses sound to keep us on edge. From the deafening din of a thousand typewriters to the silence of an empty street at twilight. From the nasty chatter of a crowd of wild girls to the frantic clatter of footsteps careening down a corridor.
Anthony Perkins is perfectly cast in the leading role. K.’s rapid shifts from arrogance to anxiety could easily make the character tiresome, but Perkins brings a vulnerability to the role that makes him seem human. I guess a lot of people have trouble relating to the character, but I can totally identify. Is there anyone out there who hasn’t felt like they were battling to stay sane in a crazy world? Jeanne Moreau is stunning in the small role of Fräulein Bürstner, a world-weary bar hostess who shuts K. down with her icy indifference. As Leni, Romy Schneider vibrates with a kinky erotic charge. She’s both seductive and scary. With his usual consummate skill, Akim Tamiroff disappears completely into the role of Block, a pathetic, fawning businessman whose life has been consumed by pleading his case. Welles had a high regard for Tamiroff’s talent, putting him in key roles in four films. And, of course, there’s Welles himself as the Advocate. Apparently he only took the role because his first choice, Jackie Gleason, dropped out, and he couldn’t come up with a suitable replacement. I can’t imagine anyone else in the part. Welles plays the scenes in the Advocate’s bedroom for chilling comedy. Later, during the final dialogue in the cathedral, he’s just chilling.
I have to admit, the ending is a problem. The last exchange between K. and the Advocate in the cathedral was mostly written by Welles. This is where the director departs from Kakfa. In the film, K. rejects the idea of a world without meaning, without hope. He insists that he’s a member of society, and that implies responsibility. He won’t accept the madness imposed by the system. This is the complete opposite of Kafka’s world, where the author’s characters inevitably submit to their fate. In the book, K. dies at the hands of his executioners.
Welles couldn’t accept that. He said in interviews that he believed Kafka would not have written such an ending if the author had lived to see the Holocaust. After the death of six million Jews, Welles could not allow K. to surrender to the system. He felt it was necessary to make a more affirmative statement.
But that left him with a huge problem. Welles knew that he couldn’t give the film a “happy” ending. It wouldn’t have been true to Kafka, or to his own world view. Welles has K. take a stand against the system that’s working so hard to grind him down, but to end the film with some simple triumph would be too easy. And so he gives us an ambiguous conclusion, which doesn’t really work.
Even with my reservations about the end, I still think the film is pretty astonishing. Welles conjures up a frightening vision of the modern world, dominated by an endless bureaucratic maze. He follows K. through the grim landscape of Cold War era Europe, the arid modern apartment blocks and the voluptuous ruins of the past. It may be difficult to watch because it shows a side of the director we’re not used to, a side that maybe we’d rather not see. We’re used to seeing Welles play the supremely confident showman, a larger than life figure who dominates every situation. But if Welles was being honest when he called The Trial his most autobiographical film, then maybe he’s offering us a different, more candid, self-portrait. A portrait of a frightened, insecure little man who’s afraid the world will swallow him completely.
Orson Welles was born one hundred years ago today. Generally I’m not into making a big deal about birthdays, but this seems like an important one. Sure, it’s important to me because Welles had a huge impact on my life, but if you do a search on the net you’ll find that there are many others out there who think the day is worth celebrating.
Mostly these days Welles is remembered for The War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane, two early efforts that made him famous, and in some circles infamous. In reality, he had a long and varied career, starting on the stage, moving to radio, then to film and later to television.
Much of his work in radio survives, but it’s ignored or forgotten. Hardly anybody talks about his brief but impressive career in television. And sadly, of the many productions he directed for the stage, all we have are photographs, reviews and anecdotes. We can only imagine what the Black Macbeth, the modern-dress Julius Caesar and Around the World in Eighty Days were like. There’s very little information about the version of King Lear that Welles staged in New York in the fifties. It only lasted for twenty one performances. And though we do have the text of Moby Dick, Rehearsed, the performance of the play is lost to us forever.
Still, even if we just look at Welles’ career in film, there’s a lot to celebrate. Citizen Kane got only a limited release at the time it was made, but it influenced a generation of filmmakers. Even in its mutilated form, The Magnificent Ambersons is a heartbreaking account of the disintegration of an American family. The Lady from Shanghai, also mangled by the studio, is still a dazzling exploration of desire and corruption.
Much of the recognition Welles received for these early films was inspired by his innovative use of sound and image. But art isn’t just about technical flash. Sure, the early stuff is thrilling. But it’s the later work where he starts digging deeper into himself, and that’s where it really gets interesting. You’ll see some virtuoso camerawork in Touch of Evil, but the heart of the story is the relationship between Quinlan and Menzies. Chimes at Midnight is one of Welles’ most straightforward films in terms of technique, but in telling the story of Falstaff and Hal he seems to be revealing more of himself than ever before. And while many view Fake? as an entertaining trifle, the film offers some profound insights on the nature of art and authorship.
When I was younger, I used to see Welles’ career as a tragedy. Back then I tended to focus on the fact that the studios wouldn’t touch him, and it pained me to see him doing awful movies and silly commercials to finance his films. But as I’ve gotten older, my perspective has changed. Now I can’t believe what an incredible life he had. In his early twenties he was a star on the stage and on radio. At twenty five he finished his first feature. The thing that really impresses me, though, is the perseverance he showed later on in life. Things quickly went bad for him in Hollywood. Working in Europe in the fifties he was always scrambling to find money to make films. When he returned to LA in the sixties, the studios were even less interested than they had been twenty years before. But he kept working. And he kept making movies. And that’s why, in spite of his faults, in spite of his failures, he seems absolutely heroic to me.
Happy birthday, Orson.
If you live in the LA area, you have a couple options for celebrating Welles’ birthday over the next few days. Tonight and tomorrow the New Beverly is showcasing his work as an actor, screening Treasure Island and The Long, Hot Summer. On Thursday and Friday they’ll be showing Orson Welles and Me along with The Cat’s Meow. Not exactly sure why they’re showing The Cat’s Meow, since the connection to Welles’ career is pretty tenuous. But I recommend Orson Welles and Me very highly. In this moving coming of age story from Richard Linklater, a young man goes to work for the Mercury Theatre in its heyday. Christian McKay is fabulous as the young Orson Welles, a brilliant, arrogant, charming monster, alternately seducing and terrorizing his company.
At its Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, the American Cinematheque kicks off its Welles celebration on Thursday with The Lady from Shanghai, and wraps it up on Sunday with Touch of Evil. Every night is worth checking out, but on Saturday they’re screening a couple of films that don’t show up in theatres very often. Many of Welles’ admirers, including me, think Chimes at Midnight is his most personal and most powerful film. His reworking of the story of Prince Hal and Falstaff is both beautiful and heartbreaking. On the same bill is the director’s version of Othello from the fifties. It may not be up there with Welles’ best work, but it’s breathtakingly beautiful, both in terms of image and sound.
Links for both theatres are below. Have fun.