The Transnational Orson Welles: A report on the Yale Symposium
Many thanks to Wellesnet correspondent Leslie Weisman for sending along this comprehensive report on the Yale University ORSON WELLES Symposium, that occurred in New Haven, Conn. a few weeks ago.
THE TRANSNATIONAL ORSON WELLES
By LESLIE WEISMAN
The weekend of November 30 to December 2 was a rare opportunity for Wellesians who were able to get to Yale Universitys Whitney Humanities Center, which hosted a free, open to the public Orson Welles symposium for a small but knowledgeable audience of students, scholars, film professionals, and, given its nature, presumably a sprinkling of interested or curious spectators. A cooperative venture under the auspices of the Whitney in coordination with Ron Gregg, Senior Lecturer and Programing Director in the Film Studies Program at Yale, Whitney students, and a number of corporate and private sponsors, the conference was a convivial event; the attendees were treated with warmth and solicitude, with pastries and coffee to start each day, and elegant dinners to end them.
The program began with an introduction by Dudley Andrew, Director of Graduate Studies in Yales Film Studies Program, who recounted how Orson Welles changed my life as a sophomore at Notre Dame four decades ago, when he was recruited as an usher at a Wellesian film series. Welles subsequently became a key figure in the European sensibility that was to inform his filmic and intellectual weltanschauung.
Scott Newstok, the Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at Yale, proposed Shakespeare as Welless "transnational bridge across the Atlantic," with Othello his first transnational production and and Filming Othello his last.Newstoks remarks drew partly upon his engrossing 2005 monograph: "Touch of Shakespeare: Welles Unmoors Othello," which appeared in the Spring 2005 Shakespeare Bulletin: A Journal of Performance Criticism and Scholarship.
Newstok observed a bit of borrowing in Welless Othello, from the narrative introduction, which takes from both Cinthios 16th century tale and Shakespeares Othello,to the film score, whose composer, Antonio Francesco Lavagnino, had arguably borrowed, appropriately enough, from Verdi. (Disclaiming musical expertise, Newstok amicably invited musicians in the audience to challenge or correct him on this point.) Newstok concluded his remarks with an incisive analysis of corresponding shots in Touch of Evil and Othello.
Newstok was then joined by Marguerite Rippy, Associate Professor of English at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, for reminiscences about their meeting over the storied Welles boxes at the Lilly Library in Bloomington, and the singular attraction of Welless First Person Singular (better known as Mercury Theatre on the Air) series. Also recalled was a Welles conference in Spain, where tourists swarmed around his grave in Ronda, taking photos of the site.
Welles in Europe: Two Periods and a Postscript was François Thomas enlightening presentation on Welless 25-year exile, from November 1947 through October 1955, and from January 1958 to May 1970the two periodsand the postscript, from 1971 to 1974. The first period was preceded by the shooting of Lady from Shanghai in Mexico, beginning in the fall of 1946; a series of films under Welless contract with Alexander Korda was to follow.
Why did Welles then go to Italy? For Black Magic, which had the additional advantage of allowing Welles to approach producer Edward Small about doing Othello, while maintaining contact with Korda. During this time, Welles turned down a few Hollywood offers, either because they didnt interest him or because of tax problems (an estimated $24,000 debt, according to Joseph McBride, subsequently reduced to $6,000, per Thomas). Thomas took issue on two counts with McBrides assertion that Welles was blacklisted: it lacks proof, and the time line doesnt jibe. Not only did Welles have many contacts and receive many offers during that time, said Thomas, the fact that he was able to negotiate down his tax liability suggests that the government was not completely hostile to him. Indeed, Welles hoped to return to the U.S. when he left in 1947, hoping that the money hed earn in Europe would allow him to thumb his nose at the banks.
Why, then, did he stay? For one thing, the world as he knew it had changed. No longer the leader of a group of skilled craftsmen and artists, he now was essentially on his own. It was at this time that he began his association with Louis Dolivet and Filmorsa, which initially appeared promising but soon became more than he could manage; the deals he struck would have required him to finish three feature films in a single year. Meanwhile, Welles found himself alternately resented in Europe because of his Hollywood connections, and used as a convenient weapon against Hollywood. It was not until 1953 that he worked in his first wholly European film. (His contract for the Around the World with Orson Welles series called for him to produce 26 shows in a yearone every two weeks. Few were completed.)
Why did he return to the U.S.? By 1955, his partnership with Dolivet was going nowhere fast (although they remained friends, at least until the Mr. Arkadin debacle); offers from Hollywood were coming in; and he had been largely cut out of the editing process vis-à-vis the Around the World shows hed done for ITV. (The company inserted shots into the shows, seemingly at will, some of which had been stolen from unknown sources; e.g., the clips of celebrities in Paris After Dark, adding insult to injury.) His second U.S. stay was short-lived, ending with Touch of Evil, whose style, Thomas said, was identical to the one Welles wanted Lady from Shanghai to have, before Harry Cohn butchered it.
Welless second European period found him in France, Italy, Spain, and England, working in TV and film, but not on stage. Did he behave as an American there, or as a European? The question could be answered either way, Thomas concluded; the evidence supports both readings.
The postscript resembles a ping-pong game. In 1970, Welles went to Hollywood to work with Gary Graver on The Other Side of the Wind (a film with dual production citizenship). The following year, he was off to Europe after the U.S. government prohibited him from using his production company. Welles did an equal number of U.S. and European films during the next four years, said Thomas, going back to Europe briefly before returning to the U.S. in 1974, there to remain after receiving the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1975.
Thomas declined to characterize Welless films as European or American: I would say he directed stateless films. Welles did not deal in nationalities, Thomas added; he dealt with human beings, often with people who were stranded, who themselves did not feel at home; or with historical subjects. Where did Welles himself feel more comfortable; where was he more at home? The evidence, said Thomas, yields no definitive answer, adding that Welles did not attempt to correspond actors nationalities to the roles they played.
In comments following the presentation, Aleksandra Jovicevic, a Research Affiliate at Yale, noted that Welles also did not insist on experienced actors for minor roles; in fact, she said, when it came to Shakespeare, Welles insisted that they have no prior experience with the Bard. Recalling The Blessed and the Damned, Welless early-fifties evening of theater consisting of two sketches: The Unthinking Lobster, and Time Runs, the second based on the Faust legend, Jovicevic asserted the validity and justifiability of reinventing classic tales, noting that it has been done through the centuries by playwrights and authors. (As Jake Hannaford famously contends: It is perfectly all right to borrow from each otherwhat we must never do is borrow from ourselves.)
An interesting, brief exchange among three distinguished Wellesians occurred when François Thomas stated that among Europeans, both The Trial and Mr. Arkadin are considered American films. Jonathan Rosenbaum said that Welles himself never made his view of The Trials perceived or intended nationality explicit, although he touched on it in his conversations with Bogdanovich. James Naremore opined that its not perceived as a U.S. film in the U.S., whereupon Jonathan Rosenbaum noted that while Welles may have seen it as an art film, he took care not to market it that way.
James Naremore presented a thought-provoking paper on Forms of Exile: Welles and Kubrick, which quickly got our attention with a list of commonalities connecting the two filmic giants: Both were child prodigies, both were auteur icons (who each made the same number of feature films), both were famous for using deep focus and long takes, both encouraged theatrical acting styles, both were attracted to non-realist narrative forms, both were artists of the grotesque, both had difficulties working in Hollywood and so worked abroad. Their similarities have often been noted; Welles and Kubrick have occasionally been compared. Indeed, Kubrick admired and even emulated Welles; in their respective times, they were, said Naremore, the two most sophisticated representatives of modernism in Hollywood.
Their differences, of course, were significant, not least among them the difference in their personalities: Welles was generous with his actors, Kubrick colder and more distant. Welless failure in Hollywood was due to several factors, said Naremore, which individually spelled trouble; together, they more or less constituted a deal-breaker: his films didnt make much money, he was a political leftist who stirred the pot, and his entire persona provoke resentment and Schadenfreude in the movie colony. While he was not blacklisted, said Naremore, the FBI at one point designated him a threat to the security of the U.S. because of his liberal leanings and tendency to associate with persons of the far-left (read communist) persuasion. Kubrick, on the other hand, managed to have it both ways: in both Hollywood and Europe, he played the game by his own rules.
Did either of them lose anything as artists by leaving the U.S.? Welles was deeply American, said Naremore, citing his moving recording of Walt Whitmans Leaves of Grass, whose lament for the death of an age in the face of progress found echo in Welless European films. And, too, Welles wanted to remain a Hollywood playerthats where the action isand especially missed the technical expertise available in the U.S. His European films, said Naremore, tend to lack the contemporary edge, focusing more on literary adaptations.
Welles pretty much shot himself in the foot with his comments at the AFI tribute, Naremore declared, when he called himself a maverick... your neighborhood grocery storeneither of which Hollywood has any use for.
In a conversation with Naremore following the presentation, Michael Denning, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American Studies at Yale, suggested that one cost of Welless European exile was the loss of a potential part three of his American trilogy, beginning with Kane and Ambersons. A discussion arose regarding the terminology suggested earlier in the daywere Welless films stateless, or were they world films (i.e., transnational)? The subject remained open to interpretation.
Stefan Drössler of the Munich Film Museum stepped up to the podium to present an illustrated commentary on The Unfinished European Films of Orson Welles. Recounting the history of its Welles archive, Drössler said that the film museum, known internationally for its great reconstructions, had been given over a ton of material from the Welles estate. The materials came in all forms, and were given to the museum by Oja Kodar on the condition that they be shown. The condition of the materials varied: Many pieces were hard to put into sequence; black-and-white and color segments were mixed; filmic segments were found that had no corresponding dialogue in the screenplay; different work prints of the same filmic sequence were found, all edited differently. All of this made reconstruction problematic at best, and a long-term project in any case. Then more materials were found in Los Angeles and Paris (in the same lab where the Other Side of the Wind materials are stored), while others were destroyed by Customs because Welles had not paid the requisite fees; still others are deteriorating, and in various states of disrepair. The reconstruction process continues.
For example, The Deep was shot with Welless camera, said Drössler, and was not blimped; the whirr of the camera is audible. There are portions without sound; while Jeanne Moreau could re-dub her lines, the sound might be significantly different, as voices age. An interview of Oja Kodar was found to be a compilation of five different interviews, some of which contradict each other. Interestingly, 70 percent of the film has some sound elementsonly one voice, or original sound with camera noise, etc.most of it done by Welles for other characters. Unfortunately, it seems that he didnt get around to dubbing his own lines; those are still missing. Welles acted in a Yugoslav film, Drössler said, for a unique payment: the use of the locations for The Deep. The shooting of that film was tense, with rivalry between the two women (Kodar and Moreau) creating problems on the set. Drössler has a dupe of a trailer sold to German television that needs further restoration. The saga continues...
As for Other Side of the Wind, Drössler expressed great fears about it, saying there is no way to make the disparate pieces fit together. He even spoke with one of Welless editors, who told him that Welles sometimes cut the scenes so short, they had to be spliced together to make them understandable.
For Swinging London, part of Orsons Bag, made for British television in 1970, the Film Museum staff blew up the 16mm segments to equalize it as much as possible, said Drössler, and took a page out of Welless book by trimming a bit from each shot to make it smoother, and a bit shorter than the first screening at the first Welles conference (Munich, October 1999). While the Four Clubmen sequence still lacks sound (except for the CRASH! when the attendant drops the tray of glasses), Welless distinctive characterization brings each of the four vividly to life. This sequence is the only one of the Swinging London programs that is missing a dialogue track.
The Moby Dick clip is mesmerizing, with Orsons head filling the screen as he intones Melvilles words, framed in an almost ethereal light as shot by Gary Graver. Christopher Lee reportedly has the screenplay, but was unable to meet with Drössler (no time). The 10-12 cans of Moby Dick 16mm reels are so fragile that they remain closed; if you open them, he said, the film will be destroyed.
The Merchant of Venices Shylock speech was shot several times, each one different from the others in virtually every respect. An important question is how, or if, to combine them? (Caveat: The following summary is based on notes taken in the dark. Corrections from anyone who was there are welcome). In September 1967, Welles did a seven-minute spot on the Dean Martin show, dressed in a tuxedo and employing a heavy Yiddish accent. His eyes are angry and piercing; his voice slices like a scythe.
In 1969, Welles shot a complete Merchant. It was screened in Rome, attended by Welles, Oja Kodar, and Kodars mother. Two reels of the soundtrack disappeared (or were stolen) there.
In 1971, the Shylock speech was shot in France by Gary Graver during the filming of Claude Chabrols La décade prodigieuse (Ten Days Wonder). We see repeated retakes of the same few lines, Orson insistently directing and correcting Gary as the sky behind the plain-clothed Welles, speaking in more or less regular voice as Shylock, slowly darkens as evening falls. (Graver later was to recall this experience somewhat ruefully, before a rapt Locarno audience in the summer of 2005. The Film Museum has a full half hour of the nighttime shooting, and another 50 minutes of Shylock shot in Spain.)
In 1973, while checking out locations for The Other Side of the Wind, Welles woke Graver at dawn to shoot Shylock again. Finally, in 1977, Welles shot the speech in costume, robed in black and with a black stovepipe hat, a long white beard and mustache, and long side-curls. In an interesting contrast to the strong accent he used a decade before, when formally garbed in the very un-Shylock tuxedo and silk vest, in this version, when the careful attention to costume detail might lead one to expect a correspondingly prototypical accent, he speaks with barely a trace of one.
The evening screening of F for Fake was very popular; the full house laughed appreciatively at key points throughout the film, and applauded enthusiastically at the end.
The third and final days unscheduled early-morning screening of the Film Museums footage from The Dreamers was preceded by a historical and technical overview. Drössler, stating that this is everything we have, noted that as with Shylock, here too Welles combines two speeches into onethis time, Marcus Kleeks. Drössler also quoted Jonathan Rosenbaum as praising this reconstruction highly and calling it the Film Museums best.
Included in The Dreamers footage are:
Welless voice-over recollection of his aborted (out of a combination of self-doubt and pride) pilgrimage to visit Isak Dinesen, which begins the screenplay: Welles recorded it in the last year of his life.
Narration by Welles, shot in black and white, as Kleek, dressed in black cape and top hat and sporting forked white whiskers.
Oja Kodar, in a beautifully shot and delicately choreographed scene, dressed in white turban, scarf and gown and carrying pink roses, set against white venetian blinds, the whole scene illuminated with an angelic glow.
Kodar again in a golden room, the lighting giving a burnished sheen to the decor, this time with Welless voice rough and out of character.
Welless voice, against a black screen, reading more of the screenplay with a he says... then she says framing device.
The rights, we were told, have returned to the Dinesen estate; they had been with Oja Kodar for the previous 10 years. There is a potential film in the works based on Welles and Kodars screenplay; Jean-Claude Carrière has been asked to rewrite it toward that end.
Next came Portrait of Gina, Welless quirky valentine to Gina Lollobrigida, which has had a checkered history. After seeing it, Lollobrigida reportedly hated it, and forbade its showing. A Frenchman bought it and sold it to German TV; Drössler got a transfer, and has been showing it at conferences.
Musically framed by The Third Mans zither, its a wonderful collage of things Italian: communication via dramatic hand gesture and facial expression by citizens caught in the act of being themselves; Welless interviews with Vittorio de Sica and a childhood friend of Lollobrigidas, and, above all, with the star herself, whose prickly responses may have held a clue to her subsequent actions. When asked whether a DVD might be contemplated, Drössler said it would be legally prohibited, as the rights havent been cleared, and there is no view to obtaining them in the future.
The next topic, Orson Welles: True or False, brought Santos Zunzunegui, País Vasco (Basque country, Spain) and Catherine Benamou, University of Michigan to the podium to present their respective papers: F for Fake: A Portrait of the Artist as a Magician, and Mendacity and Marginality from Its All True to F for Fake.
Taking his cue from Martin Scorseses definition of the young Orson Welles as a young magician enchanted with his own magic, Zunzunegui also added to the (or at least my) Wellesian vocabulary with his characterization of the early-forties Welles as a daring young bricoleur. In his paper, distributed at the symposium, Zunzunegui postulated the validity of the concept of bricolage for Welless work as a whole, supported by the adaptations of pre-existing works that make up virtually all his artistic career that can be seen as translations... or... transmutations... of an original work into another, as exercises in bricolage where a work is adapted, reduced, simplified, augmented, illustrated and altered (all at the same time), as much as is required for it to respond to new expressive designs. The territory in which Welles was really at home, and for which F for Fake marks the conceptual boundaries, is precisely the one where the converging forces of bricolage and transmutation are combined.
Calling F for Fake a companion film to Immortal Story; the other side of the coin, Zunzunegui asked whether the differences between the two films might serve as a linchpin for delineating the entire Wellesian oeuvreWelles 1" (truth) and Welles 2" (fakeryrecalling for this listener Truffauts famous right hand... snow; left-hand... gunshots epigram. Zunzunegui concisely summed up his view of the differences: F for Fake deals with transforming reality into fiction; Immortal Story, with transforming fiction into reality.
Catherine Benamou, whose latest Welles volume Its All True: Orson Welless Pan-American Odyssey is due out from University of California Press in the Spring - see link here:
dedicated her presentation to her former professor William Simon (see below), whom she credited with inspiring her devotion to Welles.
(Note: since we wish to include the most complete report possible on Prof. Benamou's presentation about "It's All True," we will be posting more about this fascinating lecture at a later date).
In a conversation with Michael Anderegg, professor of English at the University of North Dakota, Benamou and Zunzunegui deliberated the ways in which truth and falsity, reality and fiction are manifested both in Welless films and historically, and the strategies that might be employed to better understand these concepts, and how they inform Welless films and our reactions to them. Anderegg proposed an increasingly popular neologism, the brainchild of satirist/commentator Stephen Corbert, to handle the prickly predicament: neither truth nor falsity, neither reality nor fiction, but truthiness, which is less reductive. To illustrate the concepts potential plausibility here, Anderegg suggested a construct based on a truism: the films of Méliès are generally fictional, while those of the Lumière brothers are more in the documentary mode. But the fantasy of Méliès Voyage dans la lune now, almost four decades post-Apollo, looks more like truth, while the ostensible reality of the Lumières Repas de bébé may now strike us as Leave-it-to-Beaver fiction.
Applying this to Welles, Anderegg set his convincing portrayals of fictional characters against his more theatrical ones, then drew an even finer line to separate Welless convincing portrayals of Orson Welles from his more theatrical portrayals of the Welles persona. F for Fake, concluded Anderegg, contains examples of both.
Segueing from films to books, Zunzunegui singled out Simon Callows as the best of the bios, especially as it relates to Welless childhood, and how his relationship to Roger Hill informed his love of magic and make-believe.
A member of the audience asked Benamou about what he had taken to be a service for Jacaré among the clips screened. There was never a funeral for Jacaré, Benamou said, because his body was never found, thus rendering a funeral impossible under law or religious code, or both. What the film depicted was a memorial service for another young man, but in the eyes of Jacarés family, and for those who knew and loved him, it had the emotional significance of a memorial service for him; it was, in a way, a metaphorical memorial. Benamou added that Orson Welles paid every member of the community to take part in the service, as a way of honoring the lost jangadeiros leader. There is still 100,000 feet of Its All True footage that needs to be preservedas there was when Benamou spoke at the first Orson Welles conference, in October 1999.
When Willand How CanWe Finish Orson Welless Don Quixote? asked the quasi-rhetorical title of Jonathan Rosenbaums presentation, which was preceded by the Munich Film Museums copy of scenes from the workprint, held by the Cinémathèque Française, representing the last version of the film.(Jonathan Rosenbaums Discovering Orson Welles a collection of his Welles writings will be published next year by the Univ. of Calif. Press:
No two Welles films are alike, Rosenbaum began, although their histories may reflect similar unhappy circumstances. But while many of them suffered at the hands of the studios, the infamous Franco reconstruction of Don Quixote did more damage to a Welles film than any studio ever did.
Why did Welles never finish the film? Don Quixote remained unfinished by choice, Rosenbaum asserted. There are four extant versions; the thirdthe one he couldnt finishleft him in tears on the last day of shooting, Audrey Stainton told Rosenbaum. (Her extraordinary reminiscence appeared in Sight and Sound in 1988. It can be accessed at Wellesnet's June 3rd entry here:
In a catch-22 worthy of Welless own worst experiences, Rosenbaum said Venice filmfest director Marco Müller told him that Mauro Bonanni refuses to turn over the Quixote materials he holds until Oja Kodar ceases her suit, and Kodar likewise told him that she will not withdraw her suit until Bonanni turns over the film. But is this really cause for hand-wringing and outrage? Perhaps not: Rosenbaum suggested that Welles, consciously or unconsciously, may not have wanted to finish the film, which became so personalwith one of the saddest endingsthat he may have had neither the wish nor the will to finish it. What is cause for outrage, is that Bonanni wasnt even invited to participate in the Franco reconstruction. But that, said Rosenbaum, is characteristic of the way the business has been handled.
In his presentation, Welles scholar and Yale professor Roberto González Echevarría added that there may have been insurmountable challenges to filming the book, recalling Terry Gilliams similarly ill-fated attempt, portrayed in the film Lost in La Mancha. There is no real plot, no victory over danger; what draws the reader in, is Quixotes progressive realization that he cannot impose his chivalric ideals on the present world. But the process through which he comes to this realization approaches the grotesque or allegorical, not conducive to representational or narrative film: in a painful irony, it is difficult to portray irony filmically, and (a double irony?) the making of the film becomes itself a quixotic quest. González Echevarría added that American directors tend to see Spain as a Hemingwayesque...tourist mecca, something he wished Welles had avoided, but I guess he couldnt. The richest, deepest part of Welless film, he declared, is the concept of improvisation, which is true to Cervantes concept of the unreachable, the imperfect.
In the weekends final session, New York University professor William Simon presented his paper, Notes Around Orson Welless Speaking of the Word ...dead in Chimes at Midnight, which explores the concept of time, seen by Wellesians as the central theme of Welless work, with a particular focus on sound and orality and what Simon called Welless obsessive pursuit of the issue. Simon was particularly struck by Welless extraordinary speaking of the line What! Is the old king dead? and by his moving of the line We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow from Act III to the beginning, proposing them as signifiers of Welless obsession. To these, Simon added Welless speaking on the off-beat, in contrast to the usual iambic pentameter of classic readings, and the way in which Falstaffs body fills the frame as he speaks the old king dead line, photographed from an extreme low angle to emphasize the lines significance.
Simon contended that orality holds a central place in Welless films, manifested by the expressive power of his and others voices, and suggested that we viscerally experience the emotive quality of the word dead when Welles speaks the word. Simon also proposed a connection between it and another of Welless key words, Rosebud, a key difference being that Welles respires the latter but utters the former as if he is dying. The speaking of the word dead is given an ambivalent cast in Chimes, Simon said, as Welles follows his exclamation with a dash off screen, which could be read as joy and anticipation, or as dread: One can hear both in the same syllable, both simultaneously and sequentially.
Dudley Andrew joined Simon onstage to discuss, among other things, Welless improvisation, and the way in which themes in his work echoed across works and periods. Jim Naremore observed that Welless work always reminds you that the film youre watching is perpetually changing. Welles always cuts, he added, before you want him to.
Raising a critical point, Catherine Benamou noted, with regard to the importance of time in Chimes, that there are two kinds of temporality: the existential and the historical. Both are key in Chimes, as is the problem of bringing them together. The eveningand the symposiumconcluded with the screening of the film, which the Whitney had obtained the rights to show just in time for the screening. Unfortunately, as Dudley Andrew would regretfully tell us, we were to see but the last two reels of a glorious visual print; the rest was snowbound in Chicago. Our disappointment was tempered by good, or at least hopeful news: producer Harry Saltzmans widow expects to obtain the rights this winter in court in Paris.
Leslie Weisman would like to thank ROGER RYAN for his invaluable assistance in reviewing the draft of this article and offering extremely helpful questions, suggestions, and corrections.