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I don't think people like Orson Welles's films

Tuesday 5/23/23

Not something I'm fond of stating, but it's been my experience, and I have some explanations.

Welles as a director often appeals to people conceptually than he does in actuality. The idea of the genius renegade entices people, but then they encounter works that are experimental in some part, or less concerned with the tucked-in niceties of what those same people view as proper filmmaking.

Citizen Kane is a picture preceded by its reputation, which is more like a title; "Best Picture Ever Made." People feel, as viewers, that they themselves have a standard to live up to, as those who are properly beholding the masterwork.

A lot of what makes Kane what it is is technical, and people don't pick up on the technical side of things. Kane has extreme emotion and energy--consider the sequence when Welles trashes the bedroom, cutting his hand in the process and tucking it behind his back so that the camera didn't pick up the blood.

People are cowed by Kane, though, and they feel that if they don't enjoy it to an outsized degree--and "get it," by which I mean what is meant by the aforementioned title--that it's some nock on them and the movie almost functions as built-in negation. Insecure people--and that's most people--tend to cower before Kane and just the prospect of watching it.

Welles himself said that he was more interested in a given film as an experiment as to what he could do, rather than as finished project. He's providing a sop to himself with the statement; Welles was gutted when he was his past films and knew that he couldn't go back and fix certain things. They don't have the level of craftsmanship--in terms of the care to get things right--that Welles was capable of. They have care in moments; but not in an overall schema.

That's not always true. Take Chimes at Midnight. Welles took that time to get most of it right. But then we're dealing with Shakespeare, as we are, of course, with Othello and Macbeth. It's tough for audiences to go hard--as in really liking something--that is steeped in the Bard. People can't understand the most basic sentence. A sentence has to get through to people--succeed in reaching them--despite them. That's a huge component of writing and writing well. Especially as time goes on, and society and culture devolve.

I'm going to write a book about Chimes at Midnight. Welles's works are such that people often like to talk about them more than they like to partake of them. Welles has flawless works of art, but they're not where one might expect to find them. He wasn't ever in a more natural and fitting environment for him than he was on the radio. He was the right fish in the right body of water. There's also a disconnect between Welles the artist-talker and Welles the official art-maker. Part of his genius was his mind in whatever state one encountered it. On a talk show, for instance. But that didn't always translate to masterful filmmaking. For a host of reasons, some of which we just covered.

I'm in these film noir and classic Hollywood Facebook groups, so I see people citing Welles a lot. Do you know what film most of these people--and they're older, and really into these earlier films--almost always cite as their favorite? The Stranger. Which isn't a very good film. It's hack work from Welles.

He did it because his options were limited and he wanted to show that he could make a "regular" film. He didn't like it. It's the Welles film that someone else could have made, or had the best chance of making. I don't mean some top-level talent. I mean a serviceable director who made a certain kind of picture with the expected tropes.

Welles wasn't even good at the tropes. That's why when he tries for a trope--to simply fit in with a system--he's awkward. Doesn't match. He can't get it down. Then he overplays. You'll see him overplay throughout The Lady from Shanghai. Fascinating movie, but you have to come to it in a way that you wouldn't come to another movie. It's not just a watching experience. It is part of the overall diorama that is Orson Welles more than an individual picture self-contained bountiful--and pleasurable--work. Pleasurable doesn't mean happy and light; something in art is pleasurable to us in how much it absorbs us, pulls us in.

Touch of Evil is one of his more effective pictures, but people don't know what to make of it. If you watch it in the theater with an audience, you'll see what I mean. There's a strange sensation in the air after the movie ends, as if people aren't sure what to do or how to behave or if they should look at the ground and walk out or give someone else a nod as they leave.

I think people feel relief with the likes of The Stranger, which they don't with, say, The Magnificent Ambersons. That it's for someone like them and they can just sit back and watch it. I'm not suggesting that you can't do something unique which no else could do and which is an amazing work of art with real popular appeal; I'm saying that Welles didn't master doing that in some ways. When he came closer, as with Chimes at Midnight, he was working with Shakespeare, in effect. That's hard for people. They think it takes work from them.

The films of Welles offer so much. To learn about them, study them, partake of them, is massively rewarding, but you have to know your stuff in some ways, or go with someone, as if they were your guide, who knows their stuff. I can't think of another director who has this kind of relationship with their own body of work.


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