Thursday, October 04, 2012
Busy day and a late night, so not really much time to put anything substantial together. Just thought then that I'd share this image with you, a period ad for Citizen Kane, featuring a guy who looks nothing like Orson Welles, even at his thinnest. And how about that subtle headline? Anyway, about a month ago I was down in San Diego and was rummaging through my favorite antiques store. Not that I go to enough antiques stores to have an informed opinion about what makes one good or bad. But it's big. And it has a lot of cool stuff I like to look at and I can literally get lost in there for hours. And they have boxes and boxes of movie stills, lobby cards, old print ads, etc. I found a copy of this. (Not the exact one you see here; I stole this image from the internet.) It was cut out from a Life magazine from the period and was being sold for $20. So I grabbed it and I have it and I'm just waiting to find an appropriate frame for it.
And while I'm on the subject of hanging Orson Welles related images on my walls, a belated public thanks to my friend Larry Reynosa who gave me a framed copy of this poster for The Third Man. Larry's loss was my gain and I'm paying it the proper reverence. Thanks again, Larry.
Reassessing The Trial
Wednesday, October 03, 2012
This above clip is the introduction to Orson Welles’ film adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. That's Welles' unmistakable voice doing the narration, of course, and the images were created by Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker using the pinscreen animation process.
In the past week or so, my opinion on this film has turned around pretty radically. I never understood the praise some heaped upon it, finding it not only muddled and disjointed, but also hampered by the budgetary constraints that seem to plague most of Welles’ post-Hollywood projects. I always found it something of a chore to watch. One of my main problems with Welles' films of this era is the sound. He almost always dubbed in dialogue later, and often when editing the films months and sometimes years after he shot them, he was unable to bring many of the actors back to do their own voices. As a result, smaller roles would be voiced by Welles himself, who had among his many talents, a remarkable ability to mimic and create many different voices. (I was able to identify his voice in at least a half dozen speaking parts in this particular film; I've read that he did even more than that.) The end result was almost always that Welles' European films played like badly dubbed foreign film, even though they were shot in English. The Trial is no different.
Yet after recently reading a glowing essay about the film, I decided to give it another chance. And for reasons I can’t explain myself, the whole thing suddenly clicked for me. In fact, I ended up watching it twice in a matter of days. I actually now find it to be a pretty remarkable achievement and it is currently my favorite Welles’ film after Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil.
Why? Well, what once seemed disjointed and convoluted to me now seems complex and richly textured. The low budget aspect, which I once saw as a detriment, I now see as something of an asset. Faced with inadequate funding, Welles was quite ingenius at using found locations and lighting them in dramatic fashion to create arresting compositions. Welles shot the film in various locations throughout Europe and Ssome of the vast and decaying spaces he choose to shoot in only underscore the film’s themes of alienation and disorientation. There's a stylistic consistency that belies the film's gypsy-lie production. (Something Welles experienced on an even greater scale a decade earlier when he made Othello.) The introduction talks about the story’s similarity to a dream or a nightmare and the locations and camera work only reinforce this. The constantly moving camera and at times dizzying cutting style also feel ahead of their time and work to keep the viewer disoriented. It’s as disturbingly surreal as anything David Lynch has done.
Yet in spite of this, there’s a wonderful sense of humor running through what may seem to be on the surface a very dark and grim film. Coming off of his career-defining role in Hitchcock’s Psycho only a couple of years later, Anthony Perkins is perfectly cast as a jittery Joseph K, the protagonist of the story. The cast in general is wonderful and Welles’ even seems to have paid great care and attention to even the extras who have no speaking parts. There are odd and unusual faces in many scenes that are somewhat reminiscent of the kind of people Eisenstein would cast in his films, not for how they could act but for how they looked on camera. Many of these visual and narrative elements are in evidence in this wonderful, extended clip from about midway through the film.
I really cannot stop thinking about this film lately.
Unfortunately, Welles’ The Trial slipped into public domain some time ago, meaning just about anyone with the ability to do so can release the film on DVD. And, as you might expect, the quality of the version you might buy is something of a crapshoot, though just about all of them tend to be crappy. Studio Canal has just released a high quality remastered version of the film on Blu ray. Canal may be only second to the Criterion Collection in terms of the care and attention it brings to their DVD releases. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, it only seems to be available in Europe and the UK with no announced plans for a U.S. release. But you can read the details about this edition here. Needless to say, I'd love to own this.
Orson's First Film?
Tuesday, October 02, 2012
Most people know that Orson Welles’ first film was Citizen Kane, made in 1941. However, if you do a little digging into his history, you might find some filmographies that list a 1934 project called The Hearts of Age as the first item on his resume. (IMDB lists it, for example) It’s also turned up on a couple of DVD anthologies as if it were a serious entry in the history of avant garde filmmaking. But to call this short piece his first film would be like including a high school essay in the bibliography of a great author. It’s an exercise in filmmaking that 19 year old Orson engaged in with a group of friends, including his future first wife. It’s a student film made with crude equipment from the era and was quite likely never intended to be widely shown.
The project was forgotten and presumably lost for decades and when it resurfaced in the 1960s, Welles himself dismissed it as something of no significance. Indeed, how much of it was his work and how much credit can be given to his high school friend William Vance we’ll never know. Welles said that they were spoofing the work of Jean Cocteau, though it could also be seen as an amateur homage to German expressionism, Eisenstein, and the works of Buñuel.
At best, it’s an amusing curiosity for diehard Welles aficionados. I personally find efforts to draw parallels to the themes and visual style of his later, legitimate films to be strained. Yes, Welles was a prodigy already deeply immersed in theatre at this early age and certainly had a lot more talent than most nineteen year olds, so it is possible to convince oneself that there is evidence of a nascent auteur at work here. But one still gets the sense that no one was taking themselves all that seriously when they were making this. What is amazing about watching The Hearts of Age is the realization afterwards that one of the creators of this piece went on to make arguably the greatest film of all time a mere six years later.
A more positive assessment of the film and a more detailed history of its making can be found here.
(By the way, it's not really clear in the image above, but that is the actual film, embedded into this post. Click on the image and it should give you the option to play it.)
A Month of Orson Welles
Monday, October 01, 2012
October is always Orson Welles month for me. The 30th of the month is obviously the anniversary of the infamous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast. And on October 10, 1985, Welles died at the age of 70. Those are both valid enough reasons, but neither is the main one that explains why I am doing this.
October 1985 was the month I became a major Orson Welles fan. But my interest in Welles was not prompted by his death. Instead, it was put into motion by the publication of a semi-authorized biography of Welles at around this same time. A college professor of mine named Barbara Leaming wrote a biography of Welles with the subject's full cooperation. It was more out of curiosity over a favorite professor's work rather than any sort of driving interest in Welles that led me to pick up the book. (A lengthy preview in the New York Time Sunday Magazine tipped me to its forthcoming publication.) Sure, I knew Welles from Citizen Kane, his TV commercials, and his appearances as a famous celebrity on various Dean Martin roasts and the Merv Griffin show, as well as the perpetrator of the aforementioned War of the Worlds broadcast, but not really much else. Leaming's book proved to be the gateway drug that quickly turned me into a Welles obsessive. (Leaming went on to carve out a career as a celebrity biographer, though I remember her as an enthusiastic and somewhat eccentric film professor from my days at Hunter College, who passion for film was very infectious.)
By a stange coincidence, it was around the time of the Leaming's book's release that Welles passed away. And the media attention brought a bit of a focus on Welles' past work that was not so readily available in those pre-Internet, pre-Amazon days. I was living in Philadelphia at the time and the local PBS station broadcast Touch of Evil. I recorded it and watched that VHS tape over and over again, until the point where I almost wore it out. That fall, a local University screened Mr. Arkadin. I also saw Welles' version of Macbeth around that time, though I don't recall how I came upon it. At any rate, it was the fall of Orson Welles for me those 27 years ago.
And since then, October and Orson Welles have gone hand-in-hand.
I should also mention here that I first heard a recording of the Welles' radio production of War of the Worlds when I was 15 years old, and have listened to it on around Halloween every year since--my first Welles' related October tradition.
So, with October upon us, I have decided to dedicate the blog to Mr. Welles for the next 31 days. I am going to try to post at least one item every day, though it may prove to be a challenge next week when I am traveling to New York for four days. We'll see. The entries may be in the form of a single image or film clip, or some link to an article or maybe even just a quote. I'm not going to put too many demands on myself with this project or it will never get done.
And there you have it. The opening shot of a month long project. We'll see where this goes.