Welles well

Pub date January 14, 2009
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

Many years before the word got sullied on the campaign trail, Orson Welles took up the maverick badge during his acceptance speech for the 1975 AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. Welles used the platform to show clips from The Other Side of the Wind, his comic portrait of an old-time director (played by John Huston) making the rounds in the "New Hollywood" of the 1960s and ’70s. Auteur-worship, Hemingway machismo, and Pauline Kael all come under fire in Wind, a radical film deceptively clothed in shaky handheld camera. The project was in chronic need of funding, and Welles surely hoped that some dues-paying member of the American film society that had recouped Citizen Kane (1941) as a Hollywood classic might step forward to support his new work. They did not, and the film remains unreleased.

For all the fantastic myths that still circulate about Welles, his annotated filmography is the single most intriguing evocation of his career. To be sure, there has been progress since Charles Hingham’s willfully reductive 1985 biography, Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius. Touch of Evil (1958) and The Lady from Shanghai (1948) are widely admired today despite existing in compromised cuts, and the tragic story of RKO’s knee-jerk butchering of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) has passed through generations of cinephiles.

And yet, a full appreciation of Welles’ career continues to be hampered by the notion that it ended with Touch of Evil. Criterion’s stellar edition of F for Fake (1974) helps correct this view, but with even a masterwork like Chimes at Midnight (1965) still unavailable in America, Welles’ late period remains mired in obscurity. Every time a critical appraisal trots out the tired tropes of Rosebuds and wunderkinds, we lose sight of the indefatigable productivity of Welles’ wilderness, etched in the fragmented traces of The Dreamers, Don Quixote, and The Deep, the forays into television and video, the unproduced scripts (The Big Brass Ring) and monologue performances (Moby Dick).

Munich Filmmuseum director Stefan Drössler’s traveling program "Unknown Orson Welles" offers a rare chance to glimpse this material, much of it locked up in legal contestation. It’s an especially invaluable assemblage for a new generation of Welles scholars, a group who will not feel obliged to reconcile Welles’ degraded performance of his personality (the wine commercials and bit parts that financed his work) with his tremendous record of creative freedom. Following the breadcrumb trails of his genius, we find a wellspring of possibility — and little use for regret.

"UNKNOWN ORSON WELLES." Sat/17, 5 p.m.; Sun/18, 2 p.m. $5.50–$9.50. Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berkley. www.bampfa.berkeley.edu