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Orson Welles, career waster?

Friday 10/25/19

One of the most inaccurate statements in the history of American artistic judgments is that Orson Welles was a genius who wasted his career after his big break, which most people view as him going to Hollywood in the early 1940s and making Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. What they should be saying is that this was his bigger break, for Welles had already broken big. He was a radio giant, with no interest in making pictures, which is why he kept turning down the studios and the offers they dangled. Said studios continued to up their price, he finally couldn't say no, and so he signed with RKO.


A lot of armchair historians and parrots still talk about Welles--when they throw out the one nugget they will say--as profligate, unfocused, when he was perhaps the most focused artist America has known. His focus simply encapsulated a lot. We are talking someone smarter than everyone else. Not a little. A much more complicated and capable mind. A lot smarter.


The above is a very lazy way of thinking, and it's not even thinking--it's regurgitating. The upshot was that this idea became a leash of sorts--it limited people in what they would check out, and, worse, curbed their minds from thinking that there could be more, when it fact, there were other worlds.


Earlier this week, I talked about Welles on the radio, as I have many times. I find that with everything I write and speak on now, when it is not fiction--that is, not my fiction--I can make this same claim, and I endure a worse version of what Welles did. People--especially publishing people--will see me do something, and I do it so thoroughly, so deeply, so well, that they are apt to assume--it comforts them, when they measure themselves against me, a fool's errand--that that must be the extent of what I do. The idea that the world's leading expert on Welles would be the leading expert on the Beatles would be the world's leading expert on hockey--we don't need to play this game, and extend the exercise as far as we can extend it--is disturbing to them. That it is not mere memorization and restatement of facts--even millions of them, which are clearly at that person's disposal, dropped casually, as easily as another person can tell you what their name is--but rather applied knowledge, renders this more disturbing, less plausible, beyond someone else's limits of understanding or acceptance--the latter idea being the trickier sticking point--and yet, there it is. Maybe one person is the ultimate expert on, well, everything, or a lot of things, certainly. What then? What if their work proves it? You have to accept it at that point, don't you? Can't fake the work. Of course, what often happens with this kind of person--who is insecure and ignorant to begin with, clinging to the idea of where they went to college, which is meaningless--is that they shut that other person, the knowing party, down entirely. They will strew their path with boulders, when they can, from behind scenes.


I'm a lot different from Welles, but I understand, on a very human level, how that felt for him, albeit while he was still being compensated lavishly and living a fine life of ease, balanced by his hard work--which I think he enjoyed. Or it did not bother him at least. So it's interesting after I do a talk like this that someone goes on Twitter and states this very remark about Welles being a genius who wasted his entire career after those first two films. This puts me in a tough spot. The host introduced me by saying something like here's the world's leading Orson Welles expert. That is true. I am that. And again, I would direct anyone to the work. As I would do with anything I write and talk on, and would also make the exact same claim and challenge you to gainsay it. An inability to do so might frustrate you, it might completely overturn your sense of what is natural and/or possible that one human can know, but cold as this sounds, that is not my problem. Except it is my problem, because one result is that envy rears its head--I am talking in terms of publishing now, but you get it often enough elsewhere, especially during these past few years--and people will try to pull me down to their level by not letting me advance, while they make sure that people much more like they are, do.


But as far as cliched statements go, this is like getting in touch with me to say that the Beatles are from Liverpool. Only, that statement is accurate, and this one about Welles could not be more incorrect. I wonder what a person is trying to accomplish with the trotting out of the tired trope. What I expect is they just wish to participate. But it's not like anyone else is. I publish where I publish. I have fifty Twitter followers. That should tell you all you need to know about Twitter, a total invalidation of what it is. What it suggests to me is the greater and more definitive the work, the more people are not going to get involved in back-and-forth and openly following the creator of that work, because the preferred Twitter currency of the mindless two-bit opinion is less germane here and possesses less utility, though I would argue that it has no utility anywhere. The fear, the overriding apprehension, what keeps fingers from pecking away at keys, is that the tossed out "take" will be seen through, shot down, and people like to pit themselves against people of their strength and weight class or lower. Until, that is, in my case, the numbers are already huge, then people will jump in, get lost in the sea of voices. But when they are out there on their own? No.


Or, maybe this person thought they were educating me, though I don't know how you could have thought that after the segment. And if you didn't hear the segment but had heard others, it's a pretty safe bet that the content would be definitive. The track record stretches on and on and on. Gold road is sure a long road, as the Stone Roses sang. Find me a segment or piece that comes across as less than that, regardless of subject. I know that bothers people in my industry, but I am sorry, that is the person we're talking about here. Me, I'd try to make a lot of money getting behind that, them, a force of nature, and a historically unique one at that. But that is not how they look at things. Often times they can't. It pains them too much about themselves. Then a friend said that people like to have a go, that it's like when Mike Tyson was coming up, destroying other boxers, and someone would think it was proving time, and end up eating their teeth. I don't know. I only do what I do if it has a purpose. Otherwise, I will do something else that does. That is how I measure everything, big or small.


What happens is I can't really do a lot in response, or I seem like a bully and/or dick. Another friend once told me that when I respond, it's like Superman chucking someone through a building. Superman gives a little push, but the person ends up crashing through four skyscrapers and Superman is like, "What did I do?" But I really do not like to let something about Welles, of all artists, hang out there like this, it even feels disloyal, it feels like enabling a false narrative that has done actual harm and kept people away, if not just from Welles' work, then his large human spirit. And someone can say, "It's just someone trying to interact with you," which is fine, but why not do it smartly? Just because we can say the first thing that pops into our brains doesn't mean we should, or that we couldn't express it in a more open-ended fashion, a way that is not, "I'm going to tell you this, basic, wrong, reductive thing as your educator, dolt."


Orson Welles wrote one of the finest pieces of American theater in Moby Dick--Rehearsed. Now, I would bet that this person has never heard of that, let alone read it, seen it performed. Maybe I'm wrong. But I really doubt it. Orson Welles was responsible, in the late 1950s, for Fountain of Youth, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, work of television art this country has seen. 1965's Chimes at Midnight is, I would maintain, a better film than Citizen Kane, the so-called best movie ever. Lady From Shanghai, The Trial, Mr. Arkadin, Macbeth, are stunning works, albeit flawed. The Third Man is as powerful a mid-century acting performance as you will see, with the greatest entrance in cinema. F for Fake is not flawed at all and invents a kind of genre unto itself. Orson Welles' Sketch Book, which he did for the BBC, is more top-drawer, not very-classifiable art. Othello is an all-timer of a picture. I could go on and on. We could go back to 1937 with Les Miserables. 1968's The Immortal Story. This person did mention Touch of Evil as his comeback, but it was not a commercial comeback--Kane and Ambersons did terribly anyway. Ambersons was written by Booth Tarkington. And now you're talking to a guy who publishes regularly on Tarkington. There was just a piece in the TLS. Same guy. It goes on and on and on, it just keep going deeper. That's just how it is here. My legs have legs. Legs legs legs. You'll never find a bottom of anything.


The thing with Welles is in terms of a corpus, a body of work of art, I would say we are talking about the largest corpus there has been, before I came along. I despair that there will not be enough time for even the most devoted fans and scholars, when I get them, to go through everything I have already created, and my life is conceivably not very close to halfway over. Welles had two decades of making radio art alone. When you start getting into what he did, it's hard to know where to start, where to go next, how you will keep it all straight. I produce a lot more than he did, and my quality ends up at a different place--I'm not saying every episode of The Adventures of Harry Lime was great art, but it's tough to claim anything more inaccurate than he was a guy who wasted his career. He was also blackballed. Not to the extent that I am, but a lot of his time went to finding funds for his own projects. People would pay him to act. They would not let him do what he was the best at. So he acted. He was Ben Franklin like three times in movies. (He jokingly remarked that his Franklin also looked like a pervy old man--people familiar with Musings with Franklin may delight in that tidbit.) Was it degrading? To a degree, mitigated only by his insistence on doing a good job every time, no matter the job. But that was a lot of hustle. He was a fine writer. He was a columnist. He did a lot in terms of what we call social justice now, but it was actual justice, not this virtue signaling whoring that so many broken frauds devote the appearances of their lives to. Then there is all of the theater. So much theatrical art. In his way, he dominated multiple fields. He directed a ballet. And he was a damn good visual artist and painter.