Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Happy 100th Birthday, Orson Welles

"I discovered at the age of six that everything was a phony, worked with mirrors. Since then, I've always wanted to be a magician."

I had a lot to say about Orson Welles. I wrote a long dissertation about genius and discipline. About magic and illusion. Brilliance and bullshit (but really good bullshit). But a lot of what I had to say was said in “Anytime Movies : Citizen Kane”—I just said it differently.

Sufficient to say that, for me, every new Welles film opened up the world to a new, more wondrous interpretation. I would, literally, walk out of any Welles film that I hadn't previously seen before with "new" eyes. The world had changed, looking different from the experience. For me, that is the pinnacle of a movie-going experience, and a film directed by Welles does that to me every single time. Without fail.

But…there are damned few Welles films. We will never see his unexpurgated version of The Magnificent Ambersons. Nor his modern dress version of Don Quixote.* Nor his suspense film The Deep (taken from the same source novel as Philip Noyce’s Dead Calm) which starred Laurence Harvey, Jeanne Moreau and Welles. There are tantalizing glimpses of his London documentary in the DVD of F for Fake. Then there’s the film he was working on when he died The Other Side of the WindPeter Bogdanovich is trying to get it finished for cable. But it won’t be the same. Every so often, bits and pieces of these projects appear to tantalize and disappoint. I guess the way I feel about Welles is like the diner who is promised a sumptuous meal but gets a maddeningly small portion—there’s never enough. It’s frustrating.

Like this story.

I was going on vacation once when I was working at
KIRO radio, and it was a much-needed vacation. A couple of days before it would begin one of the sales-sharks approached me. “Are you really going on vacation?” she asked. “What!” I said, suspecting a trap. “Are you going somewhere?” “Why do you ask?” “Well, I was wondering...if you wanted to record Orson Welles…” I would! Would I! Apparently, Welles was booked to appear with the Seattle Symphony to read
Ogden Nash’s “Carnival of the Animals” to the specific Saint-Saëns piece. He was going to phone in a promotional commercial, and I’d have the chance to record him. Well, being that I idolized Welles, it did not matter if he was in the studio or I was recording him down the phone-line…it was Orson Welles! And, as a bonus, they’d give me a ticket to the concert. Yes!! Any nebulous plans I had for traveling someplace to relax went away—I was going to have a chance to record….Orson flippin' Welles! I made sure that I would be home all day and available at a moment’s notice to head down to the studio when the call came in that he was ready.

"The enemy of art is the absence of limitations."

That call came on Tuesday. Great! I’d get to record Orson (I was calling him “Orson” now) AND have the bulk of my vacation. I went down to Broadcast House and met the Symphony folks there—extraordinarily nice people who I subsequently had a long relationship doing ads promoting the Symphony (through them, I got some free passes to performances like the one where I saw the perfect version of the “New World Symphony,” my favorite piece of “classical” music). Welles was supposed to call at a designated time, and I showed up early—so excited I was to record my hero.

We had a speaker-phone arrangement in the studio, so there was no way to record the conversation when it was off. The way it’d work was we’d set up the call, put Orson on the speaker-phone and through that, then and only then, record him. Remember that. It’ll be important later.

The appointed time came and Orson hadn’t called. We checked with the switchboard and no, if Orson Welles had called, they’d know it—plus, he had the direct line to the studio. But he hadn’t called. An hour and a half later, the symphony rep called the number she had** and talked to someone at his house who said that Orson was “out” and he was supposed to be back two hours ago, and no, she didn’t know when he’d be back.

Okay, it wasn’t going to happen that day. We’d regroup, set up another time and get it done then. The Symphony ad wasn’t supposed to start airing until that Saturday, so we had time.

"The director is simply the audience. So the terrible burden of the director is to take the place of that yawning vacuum, to be the audience and to select from what happens during the day which movement shall be a disaster and which a gala night. His job is to preside over accidents."

Well, let me telescope this story and just say that we had a scheduled time almost every day that week, and I trudged down to the studio to record each time, and, each time, the same scenario played out, including the phone call to Orson’s house and the excuses—and the apologies. Still, I thought it was worth it if I could get him on tape and the Symphony folks, though wearying of it all, still were enthusiastic about the prospect.

As was I.

Friday was our “make or break” day. We had to record something—anything—to air over the weekend to promote the concert. All the usual suspects joined in the studio for the appointed time. True to form, the time passed with no phone call. He was supposed to call us. We’d been assured he’d be home. Nothing was going to interfere. An hour went by, a phone call was made, and we were assured he’d be home by 3pm. Okay, we said, we’ll call him at 3.

By this time, I was skeptical, so I started writing an alternative in case we couldn’t record Orson. I dashed it off and it was approved by the Symphony crew on the spot. 3pm rolled around. We all looked at each other—give him ten minutes, then call. As I remember, nobody spoke. We just sort of watched the clock. 3:05
. This was going to be our last shot at recording Orson. 3:06. I checked the equipment to make sure everything was working, because after all, (3:07), it’d be really embarrassing to finally get him after all this time, and then (3:08) have something fall apart on us. Everything was fine. Tape was ready to roll. 3:09. We called. The Symphony rep dialed Orson’s number and we waited. She and I exchanged glances every time the phone buzzed down the line. I couldn’t hear anything, and I wouldn’t until the speaker-phone was engaged.

Then her eyes widened. A huge smile spread across her face. “Mr. Welles…” she started. But that’s all she said. The smile disappeared and turned into an expression of shock. I couldn’t hear any of it, but she blinked a couple of times and made the impression she was going to start to speak, but she never got the chance. After about 30 seconds, her mouth closed, never managing to say another word.

“What happened?”

“He yelled at me!”


“He said to stop calling and bothering him”

“But…was it really him?”

“He called me a pest!”

“Yeah, that was Orson, all right,” I said. That was a particularly memorable word he used in the out-takes from a commercial session that had been floating around studios around the country (and which you can hear below).
Damn! Orson in a tirade and because of that damned speaker-phone, I didn’t get to hear it, let alone record it.

Well, I set about to get my alternative recorded, and the symphony folks went back to headquarters to lick their wounds and wait for my phone-call to play the advertisement down the line for approval. It was given the okay. But, face it, it wasn't like having Orson Welles on it.

Ultimately, I was told that Orson stewed about the “pests” and, in the evening, finally figured out that maybe it wasn’t a French interviewer who had been hounding him around that time, but it was actually the Symphony, and he called and profusely apologized—it was a huge misunderstanding, please forgive him.

Yeah, yeah. But it was too late to record the commercial. I made the best I could of a nice weekend to try to turn it into a vacation, and returned to work Monday morning, having learned a lesson to never do anything like that again. At least, there was still the concert to look forward to.

A little while later. A phone call. “Orson’s not coming!” “Oh? What’s the matter?” “Doctor’s orders. He’s too ill to travel. We have to go with a substitute.” That would turn out to be Seattle actor John Gilbert, who did a superb job (if feeling somewhat out of his depth standing in for Orson Welles). And the program was great—witty and energetic and expertly played. A wonderful show.

But it wasn’t Orson Welles. But then again, it was all too much like Orson Welles. The potential for great things. The magic. And the frustration when things fall short. The disappointment. The lost chances. That is also Orson Welles. 

So much of his career was out of his control. But quite a bit of it was.***

To have the brilliance of the completed projects that do open up a new way of looking at the world, you have to take with it the disappointments, like the ugly re-bar of an architectural marvel unrealized, tantalizing and frustrating—a marker for what might have been.

One could use that to diminish Welles' career of record (there were so many brilliant stage productions we'll never see, either, lost in memory) if it weren't for that which survives—testaments to that extraordinary talent that could not quite be captured or contained, but provide a lesson to all who watch and absorb what the possibilities of film and story-telling are, and, by the showing, renewing the world, opening it up, expanding it, like watching flowers open up in Spring, reborn.

What an extraordinary, unassailable, gift that is.
"I think I made essentially a mistake in staying in movies, because I--but it's a mistake I can't regret, because it's like saying ''I shouldn't have stayed married to that woman, but I did because I love her.'' I would have been more successful if I'd left movies immediately, stayed in the theater, gone into politics, written, anything. I have--I have wasted the greater part of my life looking for money and trying to get along, trying to make my work from this terribly expensive paint-box, which is a movie. And I've spent too much energy on things that have nothing to do with making a movie. It's about two percent movie-making and ninety-eight percent hustling. It's no way to spend a life."   ORSON WELLES: [1982]

Orson Welles is a poet
through his violence
and through his grace.
Never does he tumble
from the tightrope
on which he crosses cities
and their dramas.

He is a poet too in the
Loyal friendship he bears
our dreams and our struggles.

Others will know better than I
how to praise his work

I content myself with sending him
my fraternal greeting.

His handshake is as firm as he is
and I think of it each time my work
obliges me to leap over an obstacle.

Jean Cocteau

"If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story."

Orson, at his best.

"The movie director must always remain a slightly ambiguous figure, after all, because so much of what he signs his name to came from elsewhere, so many of his best things are merely accidents over which he presides. Or the good fortune he receives. Or the grace."
"This is Orson Welles" p. 259 Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich; ©1998 Da Capo Press

Wellesnet - an Orson Welles blog
Orson Welles at IMDB
Orson Welles at Wikipedia
Orson Welles: a Man and his Genius - another tribute site
An article on "The War of the Worlds" broadcast
A rather definitive site on "The Mercury Theater"
Welles FBI Files
The infamous Orson Welles "outtakes"
Ace editor/film-maker Chuck Workman's biography of Welles is highly recommended.
* Well, we get to see some of itthere are scattered remnants on YouTube from various sources of unknown origin.  Welles' work habits—working in Europe, whenever money was available, sometimes months between shots, put emphasis on the immediacy of making the film and not the archiving.  Even his Hollywood films have suffered from slip-shod studio-archiving or even space management (Oh, by the way, screw you, RKO!) It's one more element of the ephemeral nature of Welles' work, existing but not existing, sometimes popping up like a magician's entrance to enthrall, then leaving in a puff of nitrate smoke..

** I made a note of the number and wrote it down into my phone-ledger. I found that ledger the other day, and inside it was Orson Welles' home phone number...still there.

*** Post-script: Reading this, you'd think I had the opinion that Orson Welles was a failure. Far from it. If anything, Welles can only be said to have not lived up to his potential, which seemed limitless. He could make amazing films and images out of limited resources and binding constraints—an escape-artist film-maker. As it stands, he is merely more human, more approachable. For all his foibles and falterings, his accomplishments, as they stand (and we are privy to so few of them!), are (to be annoyingly alliterative) formidable. We should all aspire to be such "failures."

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