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The Comedy of Errors

Why Orson Welles Matters

27 June 15 words: Ashley Carter
With a re-release of The Third Man this week and a documentary out about him next week, we talk about the man who would have been 100 this year
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Welles in The Third Man

It’s hard to know where to start writing about a man for whom question marks hover above almost every aspect of his life. The source of this mystery is most often found to be Welles himself, who in 1962 said to Jean Clay; “If you try to probe, I’ll lie to you. Seventy-five percent of what I say in interviews is false.” Five years later, in an interview with Kenneth Tynan, Welles further described his nature, claiming; “I don’t want any description of me to be accurate; I want it to be flattering. Everything about me is a contradiction, and so is everything about everybody else.”

For the director who has had more written about him than any other, Orson Welles remains amongst the most enigmatic figures in film history. The idea of his true nature, if he even knew himself, died with him in 1985. To the public, there were many faces of Orson Welles. Some label him the finest director in history; few doubt that he created the greatest film of all time in Citizen Kane. He was the prodigious young theatrical genius of a voodoo Macbeth and Caesar on Broadway in his earlier twenties; the man whose radio broadcast of H.G Wells’ War of the Worlds apparently caused nationwide panic (it didn’t); the respected Shakespearean actor; the charismatic raconteur of late night chat shows and roasts; the revolutionary film maker whom Hollywood robbed of fulfilling his true potential; the possessor of an encyclopedic knowledge of film, theatre and literature; the liar; the skilled magician; the presenter of several ground breaking television projects; the waster of his God-given gift; the morbidly obese, washed up former prodigy; the hack that claimed credit for the ideas and hard work of others; the drunken fool of Findus and Paul Mason adverts; the genius.

Reading about any of these characteristics is fascinating in their own right, but trying to pick through them all to find the true sense of who Orson Welles was is practically impossible. It’s indisputable that Welles remains the most fascinating figure in the story of film, both as an artist and as man. In that same 1962 interview with Jean Clay, Welles stated that; “Like certain oriental and Christian mystics, I think the ‘self’ is a kind of enemy. My work is what enables me to come out of myself. I like what I do, not what I am…Do you know the best service anyone could render to art? Destroy all biographies.  Only art can explain the life of a man – and not the contrary.”

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The intriguing contradiction found in these words is that there is very little separation between the man and his work. The more you try and understand Welles, the less you know him as a man. Everything was a work; the magician in him mastered verbal sleight of hand at a young age and his audience rarely found themselves going in a direction he did not wish to take them. His documentary works, It’s All True and F is for Fake are the best examples of this. Particularly the latter, a meandering odyssey through the world of authorship, authenticity and art forgery presented by a fictionalized version of Welles himself. It’s at times confusing and incoherent, at others spellbinding and remarkably kinetic. But over forty years since its release, no one knows how much of it is authentic, and whether Welles himself even directed it. Writer Robert Anton Wilson argues that it was an intentional effort at fakery by Welles as a conceptual support for the film itself. Welles himself stated, “Everything in the film was fake.” Aside from understanding what was and wasn’t real, much less is known of Welles’ intentions and motivations for it being so. Did he set out to make an intentionally fake film? Or, like many accusations leveled at him during his life, was he caught out presenting fiction as fact?

The mind of Orson Welles undoubtedly contained a level of indisputable genius, as well as the manic energy and consuming ambition that both assisted his remarkable cinematic, radio and theatrical achievements at such a young age, and hindered his later progress, where countless projects remained unfinished, consuming him entirely for brief periods before either external or internal forces took them out of his grasp. His recent resurgence in popular culture, which coincides with his centenary this year, has been partly fuelled by the campaign to finish one such project, The Other Side of the Wind. A semi-autobiographical tale, it was supposed to be his comeback film after years spent working in Europe. Starring John Huston, friend and regular collaborator Peter Bogdanovitch, his later-life muse Oja Kodar and Dennis Hopper, it became known for its disastrous production, encountering legal, financial and casting problems during its initial six year shooting period. It’s fitting that a creative force that spent his life striving for independence should find his last, great-unfinished film the subject of an Indiegogo campaign, which is currently over a quarter of the way funded for its $1million goal.

He also remains amongst the most accessible filmmakers to a modern audience unfamiliar with his legacy. BFI recently published a ‘Fast-track to fandom’ article with advice on where to start with his films (Touch of EvilCitizen KaneMagnificent Ambersons for those too lazy to Google) and YouTube is host to hundreds of remarkable interview clips, particularly his appearances with Dick Cavett. For reading material, there are no better biographies (on Welles or any other film subject) that Simon Callow’s two books (soon to be three) The Road to Xanadu and Hello Americans. Rosebud by David Thompson, In My Father’s Shadow written by his daughter Chris Welles Feder, and This Is Orson Welles, a transcript of interviews with Welles and Peter Bogdanovich are also well worthy of note.

But no matter how often you view his work, how many biographies you read or how much you study his interviews, you will never be any closer to seeing the man behind the curtain. He was, in the most delightful way possible, a born liar. We would do well in following Maxwell Scott’s wonderful quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in assessing his legacy; “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  Rather than struggling to understand who Orson Welles was, we should revel in what he appeared to be: an enigmatic, fascinating genius.  

The Third Man is showing at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 2 July 2015. Magician: The Astonishing Life & Works of Orson Welles will be showing at Broadway Cinema from Friday 3 July to Thursday 9 July 2015.

Broadway Cinema Website
Finish Orson Welles' Last Film - Indiegogo






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