Grasping at cultural straws

Orson Welles
December 19, 2003

Poor old Orson Welles. As if it were not bad enough to be rewarded for making one of Tinseltown's greatest films with exile from the Hollywood studio system. And then after meandering around Europe for decades, succeeding against all odds in conjuring cinematic brilliance from paltry resources, to end up exhausted, fat and old, legendary but financially untouchable, appearing on the telly to advertise wine and cheap lager. But there was more in store: the final posthumous indignity was to have his blighted life held up as a Promethean fable, reassuringly affirming to the mediocre that people who are too clever by half get their comeuppance, to have his films all but ignored and his life the subject of endless schadenfreude-soaked sifting, and to be written about in silly books such as this one by Peter Conrad.

"Rather than telling the story of his life, I have set out to investigate the stories he told about that life," announces Conrad, but by "stories" Conrad seems to mean not those autobiographical scraps Welles left behind - misremembered, mendacious and unreliable as they sometimes were - but everything Welles ever said or did. Every time he penned a book preface for a friend, endorsed a beverage, made a political speech, took a part in a play or movie, performed a magic trick, appeared in a television show, gave an interview or made a film - the idea goes - he was really just offering a commentary on that most absorbing of subjects: himself. Or rather himselves. For as Conrad insists ad infinitum, "there were so many Welleses".

And who were these Welleses? According to Conrad, Welles was just about everybody: including such archetypes as Peter Pan, the god Pan, Jesus Christ, the Devil, a dictator, an anarchist, a nihilist, Faust, Prospero, Mercury, Kurtz (from Heart of Darkness ), a Lord of Misrule, Renaissance Man, Don Quixote - you name it. Conrad digs around inside his capacious carpetbag of cultural reference to suggest how such and such a fragment of Welles' professional life revealed him as a Faust figure, or a Falstaff, or whatever it is. His method is a sort of cultural anorakism mixed with something one could term compulsive associative disorder, often based on nothing more than a shared word: Herman Melville's novel The Confidence-Man gets dragged into the whole circus because its author refers to a "Hairy Orson".

In a Citizen Kane chapter titled "Kubla Cain", great play is made of Coleridge's hot-cold duality, "That sunny dome! those caves of ice!", and we get the following passage that is not untypical of the whole: "At the farewell party in the newspaper office, the three volatile partners sit in front of tributes to themselves carved in ice. The heads of Bernstein and Leland are white, clear, translucent, like Platonic ideas; the cigar poking from Leland's mouth is frozen, unlightable and therefore not a symbol of the heat that drains from our bodies as we careen towards death like Byron's lava or Shelley's coal..." and so on.

Conrad's theorising often leads him to make curiously dubious statements. When he asserts that President Kennedy was assassinated "in the autumn of 1964" just as shooting on Chimes at Midnight was getting under way, it is only the most obvious of several false claims: that Welles left movies unfinished because he had lost interest in finishing them; or that "in 1942... his career, to all intents and purposes, was already over"; or that Welles "allowed himself to be photographed. But only if he couldn't help it: he preferred the story-teller's invisibility on the radio, or the director's unseen vantage-point behind the camera" - this despite Welles' casting himself, usually as the lead, in almost all of his films.

Conrad rams home certain points until we begin to suspect his motives. He is adamant, for example, that as a "self-invented being", Welles resented those living proofs of his human descendancy - his parents: "Conveniently, Welles lost both parents while still a boy"; "Welles may have relished his orphaned state"; his parents made a "tactful disappearance"; "Welles' mother and father died on cue". In the end it is Conrad, not Welles, who sounds obsessive and callous. Neither is he above self-contradiction when it suits some greater purpose: "Welles, like Kane, grieved, perhaps too tenderly, for his lost mother" - the purpose here being to slot in a bit of Freud and stuff on the "Oedipal neurotic".

For all the talk of protean Welles and his many selves, Orson Welles is really less about Welles than about Conrad himself - about all the things he has read and can recall with such facility, the reflections he sees when he gazes into the deep pool of Welles, and the arbitrary way his mind shoots off to pay a visit to some dim star of the academic cultural galaxy.

Reference to the hall of mirrors scene in The Lady from Shanghai , for example, prompts a compulsive leap to a 1929 essay by Mikhail Bakhtin on Dostoevsky, which happens to mention "an entire system of crooked mirrors, elongating, diminishing, distorting in various directions and to various degrees".

There is plenty of distortion in Orson Welles , and not only in a chapter on bullfighting is there a great deal of bull. Two quotes from Welles himself might afford a commentary on this latest outpouring he has inadvertently spawned. First, from an interview in 1967: "When I try to do something serious, something I care about, a great many critics don't review that particular work, but me in general." And from 1958: "I strongly believe that the critic always knows more about an artist's work than the artist himself; but at the same time he knows less."

Conrad certainly knows more than Welles could possibly have remembered about his own working life, and gives copious examples of what an excitable imagination might try to make of it all. But the results are in the end dispensable; about art, and what can make films rewarding and vital, about what it is useful to say about artists, and about a man's life, he knows so much less.

Christopher Wood is a freelance writer on the arts.

Orson Welles: The Stories of his Life

Author - Peter Conrad
Publisher - Faber
Pages - 384
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 571 20978 5

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