Monday, August 1, 2011

Orson Welles: A Crash Course

(cross-posted from The VHive, from a thread seeking a three-movie crash course in a genre, body of work, etc.)

Orson Welles

I suspect many could use a crash course on Welles' work - CITIZEN KANE looms in the minds of many as his greatest and sole contribution to cinema, but it's only a part of a much larger (and still evolving) story. Welles remains one of our most notorious and least understood artists, and though footage survives of many of his thwarted/incomplete projects, a string of bad luck and bad choices kept Welles from realizing most of them.

The crash course, then, is but a place to start, a solid first step compiled from the works of his that are most readily available.

CITIZEN KANE - A movie that many are tired of hearing about, but Welles' cinema (and much else) begins with it. Less a Hollywood movie than an independent realized with studio resources, the film was considered an expansive, expensive misfire upon its release. It was, of course ahead of its time. As remarkable as Welles' technique was for his first time out - some scenes look filmed in a magic box, others in a stadium, and all of it coheres so damn well - his touch with his actors is as assured (not surprising, given his expansive theatrical experience). Also impressive from a 25-year-old storyteller is his empathy for any number of characters, his understanding of the toll of age, his eloquent grasp of human suffering.

Bonus added here: Welles' own, crazy, essayistic trailer for this film, a compelling piece of filmmaking in its own right:

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI - Like many Welles projects, a compromised work, taken out of his hands during the editing process, and greatly reduced from its now-lost original form. What remains, however, is an essential noir, complete with doomed protagonist, alluring femme fatale, a world in chaos, and some gorgeous, shadowy photography. A true work of pulp art, and, compromises notwithstanding, a wholly satisfying Welles film.

MacBETH - Welles returned to the well of Shakespeare many times over his career, and this film (made for Poverty Row studio Republic Pictures) shows what Welles could do given free reign (if minimal budget). Though lambasted by critics who preferred Olivier's more stately, "respectable" take on the classic text, MacBETH serves the text gloriously, and finds within it a nourish heart of darkness that colors everything within BLACK. The film exists in two versions (both cut by Welles) - seek out the longer (107 minutes) version, which contains thick (but completely intelligible) brogue accents and the first-ever, ten-minute take in a released film (predating Hitchcock's ROPE by a year).

Most of Welles' stylistic tropes can be found here - his overlapping dialogue, his psychologically-oriented camera work, his theatrical mise-en-scene - as well as his keen grasp of tragedy (which informs all of his films, as well as, sadly, his own life and process off camera). And, most importantly, they're all insanely entertaining.

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