Sunday, May 10, 2015

Report from the Welles Centennial Festival

There are two master narratives about Orson Welles. The first holds that he was a boy genius who made the Greatest Movie Of All Time and then went into a precipitous decline that lasted the rest of his life. In this view, he was a man undone by his passions and his personal failings.

The second narrative holds that Welles was a boy genius who made a great movie that so unsettled the fickle company town of Hollywood that he was driven out, forced to make his increasingly brilliant art as an independent producer. In this view, Welles isn't just the guy who made CITIZEN KANE. He's the author a body of work that includes pivotal contributions to film noir (THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, TOUCH OF EVIL), European cinema (THE TRIAL, THE IMMORTAL STORY), and the documentary (F FOR FAKE). In this view Welles' greatest film wasn't the masterpiece he made in 1941, it was the one (FALSTAFF) that he made in 1965.

The second view (and, by my lights, the correct one) was well on display in Woodstock, Illinois the last few days. The town is playing host to the Orson Welles Centennial Festival because it is the place that Welles himself regarded as his hometown. Though he was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and lived much of his early life in Chicago, and lived all of his adult years as a continent-hopping nomad--Welles reserved a special love for Woodstock because it was home to Todd Seminary for Boys, where he was sent as a child after the death of his parents. The school's headmaster, Roger Hill, was Welles's oldest and dearest friend.

I made the trip from Chicago to Woodstock this weekend. On Friday, I attended a screening of MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING LIFE & CAREER OF ORSON WELLES, a new documentary by director Chuck Workman. Pardon the pun, but the film is best described as workmanlike. Moving lockstep through Welles's life and career, following a basic chronological style, it's unlikely to turn the heads of people who aren't already interested in its subject. Instead, it does admirable recovery work on the legacy of Welles, moving his later films like THE TRIAL and FALSTAFF and F FOR FAKE back into focus after decades of neglect. It's a partisan film, and thank god for that. Welles has been hammered enough over the years under the guise of objectivity. It's nice to see a movie that actively wants to debunk the "boy genius gone sour" myth of a supposedly objective piece of business like THE BATTLE OVER CITIZEN KANE, the American Experience documentary that is regrettably included in DVD packages with CITIZEN KANE. That film is slicker and more dramatically-focused, but MAGICIAN is far more nuanced view of Welles and his work. It is, in the best sense, a movielover's movie. No Welles fan will want to miss it.

Saturday, I got to see Jonathan Rosenbaum interview Oja Kodar. For the last twenty years of Welles' life, Kodar was his partner and artistic collaborator. Her talk with Rosenbaum was wide ranging. She explained the origin of the title of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (in short: she regarded Welles himself as an elemental force, like the wind, and the film sought to explore the other side of that kind of larger than life figure). She explained why she wasn't intimidated by him when then first met. ("Yes, he was this world famous legendary genius...but I knew he was just a man and I was a very pretty girl.")

She also dished on behind the scenes drama, including why she is no longer friends with some of Welles' old confidants, including Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom. (Her disdain for Jaglom is particularly palpable.) Rosenbaum didn't take the conversation into any uncomfortable areas such as the Kodar's feelings about Welles' wife or daughter, nor he did touch on any controversy involving THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. No mention was made of the claim in Josh Karp's new book ORSON WELLES'S LAST MOVIE, that Kodar has been the main obstacle in getting the film released.

All in all, though, it was a fascinating experience to get to hear Oja Kodar (who looms large for any Wellesian) talk about her life and career with such intelligence and good humor. And, of course, it was an honor to hear her talk about the man she loved, a man she still talks about with joy and passion.

Wellestock, as I hope someone is calling it, will continue for the next two weekends. Check here for details.

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