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.

1 comment:

  1. It was a different time back then. Besides challenging the Hearst empire, it also challenged the power of the studio system. One young guy directing, writing, producing, and starring in a movie like that would have really dealt a blow to the studio heads had the movie been phenomenally successful. But then a lot of great art is only successful after the fact.


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