Committing Masterpieces: 100 Years of Orson Welles

“Do you think I should confess?  To what?  Committing masterpieces?”

– Elmyr de Hory

“I started at the top, and have been working my way down ever since.”

– Orson Welles

A BFI Theatrical Release

A BFI Theatrical Release

Wednesday marked the one-hundredth birthday of Orson Welles, the man famous the world over for directing Citizen Kane (1941), widely considered the greatest film ever made.  In his lifetime, Welles gained a reputation not only as a wunderkind (he directed Kane, his first film, at twenty-five), but as a difficult, extravagant, temperamental maverick who was impossible to work with and left his projects unfinished.  Maverick he may have been, but in truth Welles was hardly uncontrollable; studio documents show that several of his films came in ahead of schedule and under budget.  Nevertheless, of the nine films Welles made between 1940 and 1960, four were recut by the studios without his consent or participation, and one, It’s All True, was simply dumped by RKO, who preferred to write it off as a tax loss than allow Welles to complete it.  Welles’ former colleague John Houseman once snarkily remarked “There was nothing stopping him from making more Citizen Kanes.” On the contrary, there seemed to be all manner of obstacles stopping him.  But Houseman is wrong  on another count: Welles did keep making Citizen Kanes. He just didn’t make them in Hollywood.

As it became obvious to Welles that he couldn’t make his films within the Hollywood system, he ventured out on his own, living in Europe and subsidizing his own films out of the money he made from his acting jobs, traveling the continent with a fold-up 60mm editing machine.  When his own funds were insufficient to complete these projects, he often turned to independent backers, who frequently turned out to be less that trustworthy, leading to a number of films from this period being unreleased or incomplete.   Despite all of these odds, Welles was still able to complete Othello (1952), Chimes at Midnight (1965), and his final completed film F for Fake (1973), a movie that, true to his boast, is unlike any other before or since.

Orson Welles

F for Fake has been described as an essay film and as a documentary.  Neither label is quite accurate.  Perhaps it would best be described as a magic trick.  The film begins ostensibly as a documentary on the world-famous art forger Elmyr de Hory and his biographer, Clifford Irving, who after meeting de Hory went on to forge the autobiography of Howard Hughes.  The film then begins a stream-of-conscious journey involving Welles’ famous War of the Worlds radio scare, the current state of Howard Hughes, a lost love of Picasso’s, and nature of art and authenticity.  Fake is like a cinematic journey through Welles’ mind, rocketing along at a fast clip that can be disorienting but is constantly mesmerizing.  Welles structures the film like a magic show and includes a number of illusions, and he continually finds bold new ways of storytelling through editing and staging, as in the famous sequence where Picasso, depicted via a still photograph, ogles Oja Kodar through his window, or when Kodar’s father and Picasso have a heated confrontation, played out by Welles and Kodar in a deserted, foggy train station.  Like all great art, and every Orson Welles movie, it’s endlessly compelling.  Right up to the end, Welles was pushing the medium as far as he could, and he did it truly independently, with only a traveling editing machine and a few loyal crew members to help him, an inspiration to regional and DIY artists everywhere even thirty years after his death.

-Hank Curry

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