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.
The Other Side of the Wind on Indiegogo
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.
The Trial (1962)
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 at One Hundred
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.
The Other Side of the Wind
Citizen Kane was one of the movies that made me aware of movies. I’d seen hundreds of them, but I’d never really thought about who made them. I’d never really thought about what those words “directed by” meant. Suddenly all that mattered was the director. And Orson Welles was the director that mattered most to me.
Not too long after watching Kane, I was talking to a friend and mentioned that I’d seen it. She said she had a book on Welles, and offered to give it to me. I was thrilled. I hope I thanked her profusely. It was Joseph McBride’s critical study, simply titled Orson Welles. I took it home and started reading it immediately.
One of the most interesting chapters in McBride’s book is the one where he describes his first encounter with Welles. They met for lunch one day, and the next thing McBride knew he was acting in the director’s latest project, a film called The Other Side of the Wind. The details were sparse, but I was thrilled to know that Welles had something in the works. I couldn’t wait til the day when The Other Side of the Wind would be released.
That was around 1972. Welles died in 1985. At the time of his death, The Other Side of the Wind was still unfinished.
I’ve been dying to see this movie for decades. Every so often something would happen to raise my hopes, but nothing ever materialized. Welles recieved an award from the AFI in 1975, and it seemed like his luck might be turning. During the program they actually screened clips from The Other Side of the Wind. I was knocked out. A few years later I saw Welles in person at the DGA, and he showed some more footage. I’m sure he was hoping that one of the industry insiders in the audience would come forward with financing. Didn’t happen. Then after Welles’ death, I’d read things from time to time about how someone was trying to rescue the film, about the bizarre legal tangle that it was ensnared in, conflicting accounts about how much of the footage Welles had actually assembled before his death. It was all very discouraging.
Finally, earlier this year, it was announced that a deal had been made. Royal Road Entertainment had obtained the rights to the footage. Peter Bogdanovich and Frank Marshall would be involved in producing a final cut. Initially, I was ecstatic. My enthusiasm dissipated as I read more, because I realized that Welles had only managed to complete about forty five minutes of a work print. Bogdanovich and Marshall were going to try to assemble the rest.
I don’t mean to say that I don’t trust these guys. They’re both intelligent men with years of experience in the industry, and they both worked with Welles during the filming of The Other Side of the Wind. In fact, Bogdanovich plays a leading role. They’ve also shown their dedication to this project by pursuing the footage for years.
But Welles had an extremely individual approach to editing. In fact, there’s no one else you can even compare him to. The cutting in Citizen Kane looks pretty sophisticated for 1941, but it was only the beginning. If you look at Fake?, which the director made toward the end of his career, you’ll see that Welles had developed an extremely intricate approach to editing. In bringing together footage from a number of different sources, he gleefully plays with space and time, creating a vivid and witty collage. In the clips I’ve seen from The Other Side of the Wind, Welles seems to be continuing in a similar vein, a style you might call fluid fragmentation.
My point being, Welles had a totally unique approach to editing. To make it even more challenging, there was no final shooting script for The Other Side of the Wind. McBride quotes Welles saying that he had written a script that would run for nine hours. He ended up discarding it, and decided to improvise based on what he knew about the characters, This doesn’t mean he had no idea where he was going. I’m sure Welles had the arc of the story clearly laid out in his own mind. But, as close as they were to the director, Bogdanovich and Marshall don’t know what was going on in his head. And while they apparently have access to a script Welles wrote, it’s apparently not the kind of shooting script that would give specific guidance.
And even if they had something that specific to guide them in dealing with the visual side of the film, there’s still the aural dimension. Welles was unique among filmmakers, because before he ever set foot in Hollywood, he’d spent years in radio. In terms of sound, Citizen Kane was by far the most intricate and innovative film Hollywood had made at that time. In later films like Touch of Evil, The Trial, and (even with it’s technical deficiencies) Chimes at Midnight, the use of sound is incredibly subtle and expressive. Approximating a Welles soundtrack would be difficult enough under the best circumstances. But the director relied heavily on looping during post-production, and this requires having actors available for re-recording dialogue. Many of the actors who appear in The Other Side of the Wind, including the star, John Huston, are dead.
I realize now that I’m never going to see the film that Welles envisioned. At best, I’m going to see an approximation. While I know that Bogdanovich and Marshall will do everything they can to honor the director’s conception, whatever they come up with will be their best guess. This isn’t meant to be a criticism. I’m really grateful to them both. It’s just a fact. As talented as they are, they’re not Orson Welles.
I read that Royal Road is planning to have the film ready by the one hundredth anniversary of Welles’ birth, which will be in May, 2015. This sounds like a nice idea, but honestly, I think it’s completely unrealistic. Lacking a shooting script, it could take months for them just to construct an outline to guide their work. Editing the footage in a style that approximates Welles’ approach will be a daunting, time-consuming task. And assembling a soundtrack that comes anywhere near the richness and complexity of the director’s work will be incredibly challenging. We have to remember that Welles usually spent months, sometimes years, editing his work. With all respect to Bogdanovich and Marshall, the idea that they could complete their work by next May seems difficult to believe. While I can certainly understand the desire to have the film ready by Welles’ one hundredth birthday, it seems like it might be better to let them take whatever time is needed to get it right.
I was also wondering if anyone had spoken to Walter Murch. Having worked on the reconstruction of Touch of Evil, Murch has had hands-on experience in assembling Welles’ work. He not only understands images, he understands sound. As an editor with decades of experience, it seems to me his assistance would be invaluable.
Even with all my reservations about this project, I don’t mean to be cynical, and I wish everyone involved all the best as they undertake this monumental task. I’m sure everybody agrees that the most important thing here is to honor Welles’ intentions. I’m really glad this is moving forward, and I know there a thousands of people like me who were rejoicing at the news that a deal had been signed. Here’s a link to the New York Times article that appeared just after the announcement was made.
Orson Welles’ Last Film May Finally Be Released
Profuse thanks to Royal Road, Peter Bogdanovich, Frank Marshall and everyone else involved in the long, difficult struggle to bring The Other Side of the Wind to the Screen. Whatever they come up with, I will be standing in line to see it.
Too Much Johnson (1938)
I just got back from seeing Too Much Johnson at LACMA, and I’m not sure if I can describe the way I feel right now. Excited and grateful are two words that come to mind, but that’s just scratching the surface. I feel like I’ve been allowed to look through a window on the past. I feel like I’ve travelled back in time and caught a glimpse of a brash young man who was crazy enough to think he could conquer the world.
No doubt my reaction has a lot to do with the tremendous respect I have for Orson Welles. It’s not just that I think he’s a great director. I feel closer to Welles than any other filmmaker. His work literally changed my life. So to have this footage surface out of the blue when everybody thought it was long gone is pretty amazing.
It’s important to say at the outset that Too Much Johnson was never intended to be released as a feature. Welles wanted to present William Gillette’s play on the stage, and the production he envisioned included film segments that would introduce each act. He shot four hours of footage and began to edit it, but the play didn’t survive out of town tryouts and the partially completed fragments were never shown. Apparently the reels sat in a warehouse for decades until they were recently rediscovered.
The surviving material is over sixty minutes of film that was partially edited by Welles. Of those sixty minutes, only about the first third approaches anything like a coherent narrative. The rest is comprised of disconnected scenes in some kind of sequential order, but remember that this was never meant to be a complete narrative anyway. What we’re seeing are fragments of fragments. In some cases we see multiple takes of a single shot, and at times it’s hard to make any sense of what’s happening onscreen. Many people would probably see this stuff as an incoherent mess. Apparently some audience members who have viewed the footage were disappointed. I guess it depends on what you’re looking for.
I was thrilled. Not because it’s up there with Welles’ best work. It’s certainly not. But it’s a glimpse of one of film’s great artists at a time when he was first getting a grip on the medium. And in spite of the incomplete and chaotic nature of what remains, it clearly points toward the work Welles would do when he came to Hollywood.
To this day, many people look at Welles’ career and see a failure. They complain that he worked intermittently as a director, couldn’t adjust to the demands of the studio system and left many projects unfinished. No doubt the appearance of one more unfinished film will be seen by many as further evidence of his “lack of discipline”. What rubbish. The idea that somebody who completed thirteen features, often using his own money, could be called undisciplined is ridiculous. Obviously Welles’ critics have absolutely no idea how difficult it is to make a movie, much less how incredibly difficult it is to make a movie on your own terms. These people also ignore the fact that Welles staged several plays, created a small but startling body of work for television, and produced a staggering number of broadcasts for radio.
He didn’t finish everything he started. That’s true. Welles had a restless mind and was constantly looking for new challenges. Sometimes he took on more than he could handle and found himself running short of time or money or stamina, and yes, he had his share of colossal failures. So what. I’m way more interested in somebody who shoots for the moon and fails than I am in somebody who plays it safe and “succeeds”. Welles liked to take chances. He liked to test the boundaries. He liked to experiment.
Too Much Johnson is an experiment. Watching the footage it was as though I could feel Welles’ excitement in discovering film. In the early scenes especially I got the sense that Welles was playing with the medium, trying to see how far he could go. A couple of the people who spoke at the screening I attended said that Welles was trying to recreate the look of the films made between nineteen ten and nineteen twelve. I couldn’t disagree more. In movies from that period scenes were almost invariably shot from a single angle, usually frontal, and cutting within a scene was rare. Close-ups were almost non-existent.
Too Much Johnson, on the other hand, is strikingly dynamic. Welles’ forceful compositions anticipate Citizen Kane, and the only silent film directors you’ll find who take the same liberties in framing a shot are the guys who made avant-garde shorts in Europe during the twenties. Even before he got to Hollywood, Welles already had a strong visual sense. He was always looking for ways to create space. And in the sequences that are most fully shaped, there is a good deal of cutting, some of it so bold and so rapid that you might compare it to Eisenstein.
Apparently Welles watched a lot of silent comedy to prepare for shooting, and no doubt Mack Sennett was an inspiration. But the complexity of the best gags and the imaginative imagery are way beyond the crude, knockabout antics of the Keystone Cops. Too Much Johnson is closer to the inspired surrealism of the films Buster Keaton made in the twenties.
Seeing Too Much Johnson is a reminder of how much Welles loved comedy. Because our view of him today is based mostly on the features he made, I think that’s an aspect of his work that tends to be forgotten. While most of his films have comic moments, the context is often so dark that I rarely laugh out loud. But look at the plays he staged on Broadway, like Horse Eats Hat and Shoemaker’s Holiday. Listen to his radio adaptations of Life with Father and Around the World in 80 Days, or the variety shows he did in the forties. Check out The Fountain of Youth, a witty and inventive TV pilot he made in the fifties. Welles loved a good laugh, and Too Much Johnson reminds us that he spent a lot of time trying to make audiences laugh, too.
I think one of the reasons that Welles left a number of projects unfinished is that he expected a lot of himself. When you look at the time he invested in preparing his films, the energy he expended in shooting his films, and then the obsessive care that he took in editing his films, it’s clear that he had extremely high standards. Those of us who value his work can’t help but feel frustrated that we never got to see Don Quixote or The Deep. But my feeling is that he didn’t finish them because he wasn’t satisfied with them. In his mind, they weren’t good enough.
If that’s true, he’s probably rolling over in his grave now that this footage from Too Much Johnson has been discovered. It’s rough, it’s raw, it’s messy. But for those of us who love Welles, it’s a reminder of how talented, how daring, how creative the guy was. It’s exhilarating to see the way he threw himself into shooting this footage, back when it probably seemed like anything was possible. Back when he was still a brash young man who was crazy enough to think he could conquer the world.
There were many people involved in bringing Too Much Johnson to the screen. One of the most important players was the National Film Preservation Foundation. They’ve been responsible for the rescue and restoration of many movies thought to be lost, and if you care about film history, you might want to think about making a contribution. Just click on the link below.
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
The first image we see in My Own Private Idaho is a young guy standing by a lonely road waiting for a ride. We hear crickets chirping. Birds chattering. The landscape is huge and beautiful and rolls all the way back to the horizon where it meets the sky. The guy, Mike, starts speaking to no one in particular. He talks about how he recognizes this road. He’s been on it before. He says it looks like a fucked-up face. Then he starts to tremble, and within seconds he has fallen down in the middle of the road, fast asleep.
Mike is a narcoleptic, which means he can fall asleep at any time with little warning. He’s also a hustler. He wanders around the northwest, hitting the cities, turning tricks at night and hanging out with friends during the day. Obviously, it could cause problems for a hustler if he’s prone to passing out when he’s with a client. At one point he has a seizure when he’s with an older woman. It seems she reminds him of his mother….
This rootless wanderer, a hustler in search of a home, is at the center of My Own Private Idaho. Mike is the classic Van Sant character. He wants to connect with the people around him, but he’s too innocent and too fragile to play their games. He sells his body for money, but he doesn’t know the facts of life. Van Sant builds this complex, rambling film around a young man who’s searching for some kind of perfect love. Mike hangs out with the hustlers in Portland, rides a motorcycle to see his brother in Idaho, and even takes a plane to Italy looking for that warm, nurturing embrace. But he’s looking for love in all the wrong places. He’s chasing a fantasy that only exists in his mind.
Mike thinks about his mom a lot. He has visions of her holding him, speaking to him softly, reassuring him. In his memory she’s an idealized figure, gentle, sweet, loving. From what we learn about Mike’s childhood, though, it was anything but ideal. Apparently his mother spent some time in an institution. He hasn’t seen her for years. Throughout the film Mike talks about wanting a home, a family. He feels lonely and lost. Really he just wants to be loved. Unfortunately, he ends up falling in love with Scott.
Scott is also a hustler, but not because he needs the money. His dad is a bigshot in Portland. The family is loaded. Scott could be living in the lap of luxury, but he likes living on the street, drifting around, doing drugs and pulling petty scams. He also likes the fact that his lifestyle is a slap in the face to his father’s straight world. When a city official shows up with a legion of cops to fetch the wayward youth home, Scott pretends to be having sex with Mike. He just wants to see the embarrassed looks on the squares’ faces. Scott revels in the crazy, messy world of the misfits who scrape to get by on the streets of Portland. He especially enjoys the company of an aging vagabond named Bob Pigeon, who he calls his true father. But this lowlife prince knows he’s slumming. He knows that in the end he’ll cut Bob loose, along with all his other hustler friends.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because Van Sant has lifted this part of the story from Shakespeare’s Henry IV. But there’s another layer here, because the relationship between Scott and Bob is actually based on Orson Welles’ adaptation of the play, Chimes at Midnight. Welles’ film essentially follows the structure of Henry IV, but there is a major change in emphasis. Where Shakespeare focussed on the prince’s transformation from roustabout to ruler, Welles’ drama is about the prince’s betrayal of his best friend, his “true father”, Falstaff. And this is the heart of Van Sant’s film, too. Mike and Bob both love Scott. They’re innocent enough to believe that he loves them, too. And he does, but only up to a point. When the time comes for him to take over his father’s role, he does it without hesitating. And there’s no place for his old friends in his new world.
There’s another thread running through the film, so subtle that it’s almost subliminal until the very end. A few of the characters, including Mike’s mother and brother, are seen wearing crosses. At first I wondered what this was about, because I couldn’t see anything explicitly Christian about the movie. But it all becomes clear at the funeral for Scott’s father. We see a group of people gathered in a cemetery, everyone dressed in their Sunday best, and the minister reading from the Gospel. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” There’s an accordion playing softly in the background, but it’s not part of the service for Scott’s father. We see that another funeral is taking place just a few hundred feet away, or maybe not so much a funeral as a wake. A group of Scott’s former friends are gathered around Bob’s casket, getting ready to lay him to rest. Their gathering starts out quietly, but soon becomes loud and raucous, with everybody screaming Bob’s name. The formal service for Scott’s rich father, one of those who laid up his treasures on earth, is dull, dreary, dead. The mad gathering to mourn Bob is made up of misfits and outcasts, loners and losers. The people Christ spoke for.
Van Sant knew exactly what he was doing when he cast River Phoenix as Mike, the young, clueless, drifter hustler. He seems to just be living in the moment, a pretty boy with innocent eyes, hanging on a street corner, waiting for a trick or a friend to come along. Keanu Reeves is excellent as Scott, a suave, smug rich kid who knows from the start that he’ll eventually cut all these people loose. And then there’s the great Udo Kier. As Hans he has an awkward charm, a winsome vulnerability, and he provides some of the film’s best comic moments. Kier is in a category all by himself. There’s no one else like him.
My Own Private Idaho has so many different layers that it’s hard to grasp them all. I get the sense that this was a very personal project for Van Sant, and that he poured everything he was thinking and feeling into it. It’s not a neat, tidy, linear film. It’s a sprawling, rambling epic. A poem in sounds and images. Van Sant shows us hustlers hanging in coffee shops, houses falling out of the sky, and the vast grandeur of the American northwest. The soundtrack is a lovely patchwork that weaves together America, the Beautiful, music from the Renaissance, and the Pogues. It also includes original material by Bill Stafford that echoes the melancholy beauty of decaying hotels and lonely roads. Van Sant is trying to say a lot in this film, and I really don’t care if it all fits together. This isn’t a movie you understand with your head. It’s a movie you feel in your heart.
F for Fake (1973)
In France in the fifties, Orson Welles was a hero. Citizen Kane was a key film for the young French critics of that era, the generation that formulated the auteur theory. When the auteur theory made its way over to the US it mutated into something different, and became the basis for a cult that worshipped the director as a god. Welles became an icon, a genius who was banished from Hollywood after bringing fire to the mortals.
Welles seems to have been uncomfortable with the attention he was getting from his acolytes. Beginning in the sixties, the man who used to represent the director as hero began minimizing the role of the director. In interviews with Peter Bogdanovich and others, Welles repeatedly maintained that critics overstated the role he and his colleagues played behind the camera. The brash young egotist who at twenty needed to be the center of attention now seemed frustrated by the extravagant amount of attention focussed on directors.
F for Fake seems to be his argument against worshipping the author. Though the film begins as a story about forgers, it is really about something very different. The tone is mostly lighthearted, but Welles is actually asking some fundamental questions about the nature of art. What is it? What makes it valuable? And what the hell do critics know, anyway?
Welles begins with art forger Elmyr de Hory, who for years produced magnificent fakes that were sold as Modiglianis, Matisses and Derains. We are also introduced to author Clifford Irving who wrote a book chronicling de Hory’s career. Unfortunately, Irving later found himself in jail for faking a relationship with Howard Hughes in order to land a book deal. The adventures of these two swindlers make a great story, and Welles has a great time telling it. But as he relates the details of the scandal, he begins to weave in other threads. One thread has to do with “the experts”, and the control they exercise over the art market. Another thread has to do with fakery, which could also be construed as creating an illusion. Welles reminds us of his own efforts as an illusionist, not only as a director, but as an actor and magician.
Welles’ role as the “author” of F for Fake raises some interesting questions. The footage of Elmyr de Hory was largely shot by Francois Reichenbach for an altogether different film. The director also incorporates a good deal of archival footage. And even some of the material shot by Welles himself was intended for other projects. So the bulk of Welles’ work was done in the editing room, appropriating existing footage and shaping it to suit his own ends. Certainly this does not fit the standard definition of what a director does, but there is no question that the finished product expresses Welles’ point of view.
What is art? And what does art have to do with its author? Welles seems to be telling us to shift our attention away from the man behind the camera. After sweeping us along in a frenetic quest that has taken us to Ibiza and London, Vegas and Hollywood, we suddenly find ourselves in front of the cathedral at Chartres. The pace slows and we enjoy a moment of meditative calm. Welles stands in front of the cathedral, calling it possibly the greatest achievement in Western culture, and reminds us that we do not know who built it. We do not know the names of the people responsible for the towering spires or the radiant stained glass. Its authors are anonymous, yet centuries later we are still moved by its beauty. Nearing the end of his career, Welles seems to be arguing that we should be less interested in who’s speaking than in what’s being said.