A Book Review by Tony Williams.
During and since the time of Welles’s Centenary, many fine books and articles have appeared re-evaluating the work of a director once popularly regarded as a failure since making Citizen Kane, for one reason or another. Over the past few decades a dedicated group of defenders have fought against the distortions and misrepresentations perpetuated by lesser talents such as Pauline Kael and Charles Higham who now ironically appear destined to disappear into that cinematic dustbin of history into which they hoped to consign Welles. In addition to critics such as Joseph McBride, James Naremore, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, a new generation of scholars has emerged whether in the ranks of academia or celebrated internet sources such as the indispensable Wellesnet.com. This current collection of essays (Indiana UP, 2018) derives from a centenary academic conference held at Indiana University. home of the first academic library to welcome a collection of Welles archive material. Other material has since found a home in the University of Michigan, and other venues will surely receive their own special collections. This conference displayed new findings from recently donated archive collections by new and well-known scholars, to move into new directions from those taken by their predecessors.
This can be a mixed blessing, especially when material is transmitted by defined running times in conference settings and later often edited, according to publishing word limits in a more frugal and sparse world of printing. Thus, listeners and readers often hear or receive an edited version of material interpreted according to the requirements of the mode of presentation that really needs a much more extensive form of dissemination.
Following an editorial introduction emphasizing the goal of “calling attention to important but previously neglected and in some cases, literally unknown elements of and contexts for his work” (1), the first essay by Marguerite Rippy, “The Death of the Auteur: Orson Welles, Asadata Dafora, and the 1936 Macbeth” would seem to fit into that goal. However, while recognizing the value of this chapter in drawing attention to the hitherto neglected influence of dancer/choreographer Asadata Dafora to this production, the value of this contribution is overshadowed by the author’s desire to undermine the central contribution of Welles as author of the production, hence the reference to that hoary concept from the heyday of Screen. It should be noted that not only did Welles critique the individualist aspect of auteurism but also promoted the role of collaboration in the artistic process with the director playing a key role. (1) One wonders why the editors did not draw Rippy’s attention to Welles’ well known ideas rather than allow a slanted interpretation of Welles’s authorship, complete with a biased quotation from Simon Callow’s now highly questionable The Road to Xanadu (18). Granted that, like D.W.Griffith, Welles did not invent everything that was once ascribed to him, a more nuanced interpretation of authorship along the lines of Tom Gunning’s work on Griffith could have been expected. (2) It is to Rippy’s credit that she draws attention to this neglected figure but to suggest that Welles deliberately ignored two figures, Dafora reluctance to give interviews or keep a chronicle of his work, and even less remaining of Assen’s work (27, 28), is no excuse for the slanted interpretation of Welles’s role that appears in this essay. Rippy recognizes Welles’s progressive racial politics but blames him for “participation in practices like racially biased pay scales” (28) and not recognizing the role of collaborators properly. However, Rippy does not allow for the fact that the first may have been due to union practices that Welles may have been unable to control, and the second influenced by production circumstances that allow little time for participants to get to know each other thoroughly (as Ingrid Pitt once correctly took me to task for, during an interview) let alone a contemporary media often hostile to African-American performers. Despite the valuable excavation work in this chapter, it is marred by a biased approach very similar to those earlier ones of Higham and Kael as well as the final sentence which, in view of Welles’s recorded comments in This is Orson Welles, is simply ludicrous: “Each act of reinterpretation expands rather than challenges Welles’ legacy if one is willing to trade the notion of solo authorship for communal creativity.” (29) However, Welles often acknowledged his collaborators. Also what would these films be like without Welles at the center creatively mingling all these creative collaborations into something more unique?
In “Revisiting `War of the Worlds’: First Person Narration in Golden Age Radio Drama,” Shawn Vancouver delivers a plausible argument for considering the neglected importance of the program’s second act. Rather than being an aesthetic failure, the first person singular narration in the second part reveals seemingly “prosaic and unremarkable” (41) features as situating Mercury “within the broader production culture of Golden Age Radio drama” (41). Based on diligent archive research Vancouver reveals that Welles’s practice of first person shifting between past and present was part of a developing trend in contemporary radio and part of the larger production in which he operated; thus, the author provides an important complementary context to his work. “Production studies in this sense offer an important complement to author studies, placing the actions of individual creators in relation to the broader industrial contexts of which they were a part and into which they sought to actively intervene” (48).
After Matthew Solomon’s chapter on the influence of silent movies on Welles, Catherine L. Benamou continues her epochal research on It’s All True with a chapter whose sub-title “From `Lived Topography’ to Pan-American Transculturation” sees the film not only in its cultural and historical context but also as a “practical preparation, unbeknownst to Welles at the time. For his semi-exilic, peripatetic existence on location around the globe after 1947” (82-83). Beamon’s recognition of Welles’s sincere desire to represent the diversity of the Brazilian community rather than contribute to its exotic exploitation contrasts markedly with Rippy’s approach, since it relates the author more appropriately to a collaborative context (see 93, 100-101). Sidney Gottlieb contributes another informative essay on Welles’s journalism for The New York Post that should, hopefully, lead to a future edited collection, not least for Welles’ pro-labor sympathies and recognition of media bias (120). Welles was also a public intellectual using his writing, plays, radio broadcasts, and films to combat issues of antisemitism and racism in various ways, as James N. Gilmore points out in his valuable contribution, “Progressivism and the Struggles Against Racism and AntiSemitism: Welles’s Correspondences in 1946.” Using recently acquired archival resources donated to the University of Michigan, Vincent Longo supplies an interesting essay on Welles’s ill-fated stage production Around the World in 80 Days suggesting that this supposed failure may have been as equally important as Welles’s other ventures and not something conveniently used for predictable Welles-bashing comments. Noting its claim to be a “Film-and-Theater Hybrid” (150), a combination not unknown to this talent’s creative universe, Longo’s “Multimedia Magic in Around the World” is one of the most stimulating contributions to this volume which reveals the work to be one of Welles’ “most magical displays of stagecraft and multimedia” in contrast to previous productions such as Too Much Johnson (1938) and The Green Goddess (1939) with stage actors interacting “with characters and images in the projected films” not only seamlessly staging transitions between film sequences and live theater, but also making the live action onstage “cinematic” by “creating an illusion that the film sequences were being projected, not onto the screen, but onto the entire stage” (152-153). As with Solomon, Longo notes the importance of silent film comedy to Welles’s work here (156-157). Welles may have been less interested in taking his audience on a theatrical magical mystery tour but more in using “spectatorial assumptions to trick viewers into questioning the very medium they were watching” (169) to create “a vanishing act that dematerialized many distinctions between film and theater” (170). A very informative footnote on p. 174, n.48 addresses the precedent of film techniques used in Eisenstein’s Glumov’s Diary (1923) and the possible existence of correspondence between these two figures remaining to be discovered.
The collection ends with French Welles scholar Francois Thomas’s essay on the dysfunctional collaboration between Welles and producer Louis Dolivet during 1953-1956, aptly titled “The Worst Possible Partners for Movie Production,” and the challenges and achievements Lilly Library Manuscripts Archivist Craig S. Simpson faced in staging his January-May 2015 exhibit “100 Years of Orson Welles: Master of Stage, Sound, and Screen” at Indiana University’s Lilly Library. Referring to key writers on Welles, Simpson’s methodology was divided into six key sections – “No One Collection Can Explain a Man’s Life”; “The Importance of Balancing Chronological and Thematic Organization”; “The Tenuous Role of Regionalism”, “The Significance of Shakespeare”;” The Centrality of Politics and Civil Rights” and “The Value of Fragments”, all of which contribute to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s conception of Welles as an “ideological challenge” (219).
This, is, of course, a fascinating collection, several of the contributions making the reader wish for more. Hopefully, several of the contributors, such as Longo, will go on to write book-length developments of their essays while others will continue their creative critical trajectories. Yet, what is of crucial importance in this particular era is the recognition of past achievements, offered by Welles, Bela Tarr, and others, that challenge the dominant forms of representation and the monolithic “cinematic apparatus” tediously in operation today. These past achievements will form future inspirations for those who wish to challenge the monolithic nature of mediocre representations assaulting us today. The value of this collection with its new research from archive sources offers one such possibility.
1. See Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, This is Orson Welles. New York: Da Capo Press, 1992, p.8.
2. Tom Gunning, D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph. Reprint Edition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and Contributing Editor to Film International.