Here's an attempt at a precis of the "Last Man" chapter of Peter Conrad's book ORSON WELLES: THE STORIES OF HIS LIFE, which cleverly ties in THE TRIAL with several other projects Welles was involved in around that time:
Allegorical to the end, Welles at the AFI speech compared himself to a driver on a side road, content to move more slowly then others on the freeway. When he looked at the conformist society whose values he continued to flout, he often wondered if we weren't on the road to the extinction of humanism and humanity. The end comes when machines appropriate the creative and destructive capacities that once belonged to the gods..dismissing the idea of the individual - that proud Rennaissance invention - and seeing only dots, like Kindler or Harry Lime looking down from on high. A stark choice is proposed for humans: either mutation into machines or regression into beasts. Welles showed us the new world that came into existence when machines trampled nature...like the oil derricks in Touch of Evil, as insatiable as the blood-sucking Martians...pumping up money.
Society had outlawed the spirit of idiosyncracy. Now Ionesco's Rhinocerous, like a herd of armoured vehicles, symbolized the herded conformity of the masses. Tynan criticized Ionesco for ushering in 'a bleak new world from which the humanist heresies of faith in logic and belief in man will be banished forever.' To comment on the 'collective psychosis' of a mass society, Rhinocerous alludes to Welles's War of the Worlds broadcast when the first rhino sightings are dismissed as 'a myth - like flying saucers'. Berenger, a bueaucrat who refuses to follow fashion and become a rhinocerous, becomes instead the last man hanging on to his individuality. His argument near the end with his friend Jean is similar to the conversation between Proffessor Pierson and the national guardsmen in the War of the Worlds. Jean favors capitulating to the mob and, like the guardsmen, replacing moral laws with the imparative of the jungle. "Humanism is all washed up", he says.
One critic said Ionesco's play was like a cartoonish enlargement of Kafka's cockroach in Metamorphosis, and Joseph K. is another version of the last man, surrendering to his arresting officers in yet another suburban junkyard. K. also defends humanism, to the advocate, trying to assert the rational nature of man and the universe only a few years after the Holocaust had revealed the depths of man's inhumaneness. But to the Advocate, the universe is absurd, and therefore protest (and humanism itself) is pointless. Welles changed Kafka's ending to give K. some of Berenger's defiance. But he also chided Ionesco in a letter for his political nuetrality, and noted how such ivory tower defeatism had helped lead to the concentration camps, and a world where privacy is a crime, and the sovereign individual is outlawed. Welles complained that, by showing the incapacities of language, Ionesco was trying to show the incapacities of man himself, and he condemned Ionesco's political apathy, as well as his advice to the rest of the world to abandon liberal values just because they had been suppressed in his native Roumania.
In The Trial, the abolition of private space is explicit...there can be no escape from survellience. In Psycho, Perkins had peeked through a crevice in the wall to look at a woman. In The Trial, he is the one in a cage, being studied by a pack of lewd schoolgirls. He is the last of his species and of his gender: what further use does this gynocracy have for a man? Men had become expendable in a society run by machines, and equally expendable in a world of liberated women. An alliance between woman and machine doubly alarmed Welles. In F For Fake he assailed technocrats and their priestly prestige: “Experts are the new oracles. They speak to us with the absolute authority of the computer, and we bow down before them. The scientist in the cut scene from The Trial, with her fortune-telling computer, is an oracle like Tanya, the fortune-telling madame from Touch of Evil. When K asks her whether computers will one day make legal decisions, she replies, “You don’t think we’re going to start telling fortunes, do you?” All the females in The Trial are manifestations of the White Goddess. The goddess, according to Graves, directs the progress of men from one stage to the next, and constructs subterranean labyrinths like those Graves identified in Wales or Ireland - in which these mysterious changes take place.
In the novel, K laments to the priest how the lie has become fundamental to world order, the dirty game of politicians. But the film’s implication is not political; the outburst Welles wrote for Perkins is aimed at the insanity of modernism and it’s desire, as Andre Bretton wrote in his famous surrealist manifesto, to “escape from the human species”. Welles, imagining himself inside Kafka’s bad dream, wanted to show how a modern vision warps and disfigures the world we recognize. Picasso wracked bodies into new shapes, Dali caused them to melt…Both, like Welles, were specialists in metamorphosis, the Kafkaesque magic that can turn a man into a beetle. Looking through the camera, Welles saw a world deformed by the lens, like Grisby using a spyglass to spy on Elsa, or Sancho Panza trying to look through the telescope, or the proprietor of the flea circus and his magnifying glass in Arkadin.
Tynan lamented modern art’s abandonment of our visible, habitable world…the end of that line, being action painting, which staged an event rather then replicating a scene. Welles’s action paintings were made with light, like the Hall of Mirrors, where there is no way of telling the real person from his or her simulacrum. Those mirrors, like the camera, reproduce people and multiply them indefinitely. In the Trial, the seductive nurse breaks the mirror and K, like Orphee entering the underworld in Cocteau’s film, steps through it to join her, just as Don Quixote in the movie theatre attempts to join the action on the screen by slashing it to ribbons. When Berenger in Rhinocerous refuses to join the pack, he is compared to Don Quixote, although he is actually more like Falstaff, whose liberal, humanist vices were transformed into weapons of the mind.
Cubism showed objects from a succession of jarring inconsistent angles. This is how Welles wanted to show his characters, and for the soundtrack for The Trial, he presents a similar cubist pileup of music…a clash of idioms and ages. Albinoni’s Adagio funereally announces that a solemn, implacable ritual is underway, conducting men from one world to the next…it represents K’s acceptance of determinism…but whenever he tries to amend or outrun his fate…the syncopation of jazz expresses a slangy American liberty, a refusal to accept hallowed, customary rules.
After the slideshow, K wakes up from this dream and his bedroom door, like all the other doors in the film, becomes a port of reverie, granting entry to the unconscious mind. K, like Michael O’Hara in the funhouse, is groping for an exit (from modernism?). K wants to ‘reject everything but facts’, but what reassuring facts are there in a crazy house? O’Hara reels through a room that looks like Caligari, as if it were controlled by the same mad diety. K’s landlady tells him his arrest is something abstract. Modern Art abstracts us from ourselves and from a reality that owed it’s appearance of rationality to the conscientious lies told by art. (Art’s lies helped create the illusion of rationality in life). “It happens” Camus said in describing the advent of truth, “that the stage sets collapse”, and a man awakens to find his daily routines absurd and his existence pointless. Welles’s original designs for The Trial acted out this vastation. The sets were to gradually disappear…as if everything had dissolved away. At the end of the Advocate’s slideshow, a white screen expresses the final destination of modern art…as bleakly averse to human feeling as the whiteness of Moby Dick. Enlightenment is the absence of images: a white canvas, a blank screen…
In I’ll Never Forget What’s His Name, Welles’s Johnathon Lute is a Faust devoid of human feeling, like Harry Lime, and keeps society going by telling lies in commercials. Like Lime he is an authority on the lower depths where an affluent society’s excess is flushed away. He knows the true end of consumption is excretion…”In the twentieth century, the main product of human endeavour is waste…in two centuries there will be a great mountain of garbage. It’s up to you and me to see that we’re standing on top of it rather then under it”. That line recurs in a subversive commercial filmed by his acolyte, over images of corpses being shoveled into a trench at a concentration camp. “Ours, the scientists keep telling us,” Welles said as he looked up at Chartres cathedral in F For Fake, “is a universe which is disposable”. He contrasts this monument to God’s glory and the dignity of man, with the contemporary worldview that resulted from the loss of faith in both. This conglomerated world of ours, and the economic system of mass production, indiscriminate consumption and waste, had caused man to be superceded by machines and a technological society that compressed individuals like Joseph K into interchangeable, anonymous units.