Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A Crime Against Art

In 1941, Orson Welles released his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, to the world.  It was to be the last movie he would have full creative control of, following by a career of studio meddling and diminished opportunities.  All this because of his abrasive personality.

I think this is a crime against art.  While it can't be argued that he never again made meaningful contributions to film, Welles should have been held up as the very pinnacle of Hollywood's early legacy.  For years Citizen Kane was the standard by which critics judged American film, and regularly topped their lists of the best movies ever made.  Just imagine if the filmmaker responsible for it had been encouraged to fulfill his potential, had been allowed to make films unobstructed the rest of his life...

Welles had a considerable ego, the product of an upbringing in which he was repeatedly told of the greatness that was ahead of him.  He literally thought he could do no wrong, that naysayers only got in the way, and that anyone who wasn't with him was against him.  There's always room for contradiction, and in fact is necessary for personalities like that, to help keep them in check, but what happened to Welles was a willful destruction, just as if someone had tucked Shakespeare out of the way, and thus deprived us of his later genius (there is in fact a clear distinction to be found between his Elizabethan years and the plays written under the rule of King James) and rich legacy. 

Because he was difficult to work with?  Because he was difficult to work with.  Sure, some of it was because he struck a blow against the powerful media tycoon William Randolph Hearst (you'd have to know now that this satire exists in Citizen Kane, because no one really cares about that anymore, except as intellectual curiosity), but Welles's idiosyncratic approach to his work was used against him just as impressively. 

It's true that hindsight often gives better perspective on the events of history, but sometimes the present speaks for itself, too.  Welles garnered Oscar nominations for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Actor while winning for Best Original Screenplay.  You'd think that was proof enough of his talent.  It's also true that Citizen Kane wasn't a box office draw, and studios then as now considered this a primary factor in their continuing creative decisions.

Was that good enough?  I'd like to think not.  Today, that wouldn't be the case.  Young directors making a big splash with a small production today usually are given bigger opportunities the next film, and their future opportunities are defined by those results.  Welles, he was simply buried, and his every decision second-guessed.  Again, that's the nature of filmmaking, but with Welles, this instinct was particularly vindictive.  It makes no sense, but again, ego had everything to do with it.  Other people wanted to prove he wasn't as good as he, or anyone else, thought he was, and worked hard to prove it.  Numerous completed films were taken out of his control and violently recut (The Magnificent Ambersons is the most famous example), with the excised material callously discarded.

Some of this may sound worse from a modern standpoint.  Early Doctor Who was lost to history, too, because film preservation as we know it simply didn't exist in years past.  But my basic argument, that what happened to Orson Welles can be summed up as embarrassing to the history of art, stands.

Because people didn't like him.  Really?  One the great creative visionaries of the past hundred years, stymied because people didn't like him?  It's like saying Pope Julius II would have had the right to end Michelangelo because of their complicated relationship.  Thankfully, that one ultimately resolved itself (see: The Agony and the Ecstasy). 

To be a fan of Orson Welles is to be entangled in the debate of what could have been, following restoration efforts, comparing competing cuts (I own a set of the film Mr. Arkadin in which there are several versions to be considered).  Nowadays directors release their own competing versions (Ridley Scott and Peter Jackson routinely provide extended cuts, for instance), but that's not what I'm talking about with Welles (Terry Gilliam is a more recent example of this phenomenon, and as such his Brazil has a similar fate and collection).

What I'm saying here is that, within reason, stay out of a true artist's way.  It benefits everyone.  The best of art of timeless.  History understands that.  Cultures are made on the backbones of art.  When countries fade away, only the art remains.  I wish Orson Welles could have benefited from his peers thinking that way.  Because we all would have, in turn.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Miss Simon's Dime Novel now available!

This summer I've been hitting the books pretty hard...writing novellas, anyway, and Miss Simon's Dime Novel is the last of them.  Rounding out the Americana Trilogy, Miss Simon and her lover Jim Herbert have a discussion about that most hallowed of geek debates: whether or not it was cool for George Lucas to monkey around with the notion that Han Solo shot first.  To do so, Jim proposes examining a different story, a fictionalized account of early cowboy actors Jack and Al Hoxie (they stopped making movies roughly the same time John Wayne was making a name for himself), and a rivalry that results in another shootout (which, historically, never happened).  Does Jack Hoxie, the more successful of the two, shoot first, or his half-brother Al, who in real life was honored by the state of California for his role in ending a hostage crisis?
Jack's life was a crossroads of popular entertainment, straddling the line between the traveling Wild West shows of the 19th century and the dawn of Hollywood in the 20th.  He starred in numerous rodeos and circuses before and after his years making movies.  The closest you'd come to knowing anything about him now is Three Godfathers, a 1916 film featuring Harry Carey, a fact history remembers with the second remake from 1948 featuring John Wayne and Carey's son, Harry Carey, Jr., and later echoed by the smash 1987 comedy Three Men and a Baby; if Wikipedia, for instance, were properly edited, all of these connections would be so much easier to make.
Dime Novel plays fast and loose with the facts, but they're all present, from the fact that Jack's father was commonly known as Doc Hoxie, to his mother's name being Matilda Quick (seriously, the guy's parents had the best names), to his stepfather being accused of murder, to his early first marriage to a woman named Pearl and the second daughter he later had being named Pearl, too, to...It's a dime novel version of history, from a modern perspective, as close to Quentin Tarantino as I'll ever get.  This is the Western for modern times, with the myth ratcheted way up and the humanity even higher (if that makes any sense to you, then you're exactly my target audience).
Writing it was the perfect way to end the summer for me, building on everything else I'd worked on, pushing the word count a little upward (it's the longest story of the four I've written this year), and because it's a drama about two specific characters, the focus remains tighter than what I've done lately, too (actually, it's the first time I've ever done a long-form story with only two main characters, unless you count Leopold's Concentration). 
As always, available in paperback and ebook formats. 

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