Ken Russell on Pauline Kael and “The Citizen Kane Book”
Given the recent discussion surrounding the New Yorker magazine's attacks against Orson Welles, whether in 1945, or most famously in 1971, by Pauline Kael, it's somewhat bizarre that today I should stumble across the May, 1972 issue of Films and Filming, right outside my house, at the Alamo Square flea market where I saw an article by the iconoclastic director Ken Russell, giving us a spirited defense of Orson Welles!
Since, at that time, Ms. Kael welded considerable power with her reviews, it's quite understandable that not many directors were willing to rush to Welles's defense, except, of course, Peter Bogdanovich, who allowed Welles to write a detailed rebuttal to Ms. Kael's charges, "The Kane Mutiny," under his own name. But, until today, I had never heard anything about Ken Russell's "tell it like it is" piece, so without any further ado, here it is:
KEN RUSSELL writes on RAISING KANE
Films and Filming - May, 1972
GET HOLD OF THIS BOOK—it's dynamite. Within its pages are all the good bits of every film made up till 1941 and all the good bits of every film made after 1941.
'IT'S A SHALLOW MASTERPIECE', shrills Miss P. Kael, New Yorker columnist. OK Miss Kael, but these are the only masterpieces that work on celluloid. Something to do with silver nitrate molecules, pop-corn and necking in the back row, perhaps—it's a mystery that will never be solved but it's a fact nevertheless. And this annoying, unfathomable fact explains why Godard is relegated to the half-empty Art Houses and why On the Waterfront packs them in at the Odeon.
I never knew until last night that Sir Michael Tippett was a film fan. He was on TV delving into that hoary old topic of the role of the artist in society and, to his credit, saying something fresh, illuminating and profound. The moment of truth for him—the moment his conscience awoke and his musical aspirations became clear—occurred at a screening of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse over 40 years ago. There followed the inevitable 'clip', the stilted acting of Valentino, shots of a very rustic French plaster village being blown to pieces on a Hollywood lot and shots of four Hollywood stunt men riding up a ramp through cardboard clouds and dry ice.
What is it that can move both a sensitive intellectual artist like Tippett and the very unsophisticated masses? It's certainly not art—so forget art: whatever it is let's have more of it. It is the very quality we have in abundance in Citizen Kane. So half the book is wonderful—the script and stills part. The other part, Miss Kael's part—now that Plcturegoer and Picture Show are defunct—provides a gossipy Hedda Hopperish, Louella Parsonsish background to the film itself. She devotes at least 30 pages of shallow surmise in attempting to prove that a washed-up, drunken Hollywood bum was wholly responsible for the script but was blackmailed into sharing the credit with Welles. All directors are the same, she screams, they always steal the poor screenwriter's credit. The only Hollywood writer I ever worked with, in fact, stole my credit. When the script came back from the printers with his name, and his alone, emblazoned all over the place I naturally objected. 'But I did write it, Ken' he protested. 'OK, so you dictated it, but who was the guy who typed it all out.'
Too much of Welles is in the film for it not to have been largely by his hand. Compare the shooting script with the release script—very little difference.
All directors change scripts: Welles always changed everything, Shakespeare included. He would certainly have changed the work of a Hollywood assembly line hack completely out of recognition. No—it's all Orson. So let's celebrate. It's been long overdue. Close down the Film Schools (they only film each other fucking—if a Royal College Student is to be believed—and the Unions won't let fresh blood into the industry anyway); give everyone a roll of film, a 16mm camera, a copy of the Kane script, turn him loose on the world and stand back.
Truffaut started that way—so did I. OK I know, Miss Kael, we're both phonies. But according to you Welles is the biggest phoney of us all. So we're in good company.