"Discovering Orson Welles"

Max Goldberg September 4, 2007

“During my almost thirty years as a professional film critic, I’ve developed something of a sideline — not so much by design as through a combination of passionate interest and particular opportunities — devoted to researching the work and career of Orson Welles. Though I wouldn’t necessarily call him my favorite filmmaker, he remains the most fascinating for me, both due to the sheer size of his talent, and the ideological force of his work and his working methods.”
So Jonathan Rosenbaum begins “Orson Welles as Ideological Challenge,” an essay originally included in his book “Movie Wars,” and now anthologized in “Discovering Orson Welles.” Rosenbaum, a regular critic for the Chicago Reader, is probably the most resolutely analytical and, unfashionable though the word may be, serious film critic we have, and Welles, in the historical, economic, and artistic convolutions of his unwieldy oeuvre, demands colossal dedication.

Indeed, pages and pages here are spent simply clarifying the misinformation which festers about the director’s “phantom filmography” (the alternate versions, the unfinished work, the missing reels). This, it ought to be emphasized, is an entirely radical endeavor for an American film critic: that is, not to just take the “official” history and released versions of films at face value, but to actually follow the nitrate tails and personal testimonies, to keep digging.

After all, it’s much easier to simply recycle the myth — the “boy genius” director who, because of ambition and ego, was his own worst enemy — than it is owning up to a complex career. From “Citizen Kane” to “Filming Othello,” Orson Welles was an always an independent filmmaker, though his work outside the studio infrastructure is still generally slighted by comparison. This has begun to change — in no small part, due to the work of critics like Rosenbaum — with, for example, Criterion Collection releases of “F for Fake” and “Mr. Arkadin.” With his penchant for revision and overlapping projects, Welles, it must be said, doesn’t make things easy for the critic. In his introduction to the book, Rosenbaum cautiously offers that, “Most of this book is specifically designed to follow the labyrinths, and to give some impression of what it means to follow them.”

The essays included here then record a 30-year slog of engaged criticism (the antithesis of armchair criticism, which many of Welles’s critics are all too happy to indulge). Rosenbaum writes on meeting Welles, the screenplays for “The Big Brass Ring” and “Cradle Will Rock,” a problematic “restoration” of “Othello,” consulting on a new edit of “Touch of Evil,” and the complicated production history of “It’s All True,” always circling key contentions and concerns. Welles is the type of artist whose life and work can seem to get more and more opaque the deeper one submerges into his oeuvre (In 2000: “Fifteen years after his death, we are still years away from being able to grasp the breadth of Welles’s film work, much less evaluate it”), but Rosenbaum leaves no doubt that the difficulties and frustrations are worth it — not just for what this research tells us about Welles, but also, more generally, for what it reveals about the “incompatibility of art and commerce,” the way market forces can distort a career, and perhaps more damningly, a legacy.

The first essay included in “Discovering Orson Welles” is “I Missed it at the Movies,” a blistering critique of Pauline Kael’s celebrated “Raising Kane,” itself an attack on auteurism (not entirely undeserved) posing as a refutation of Welles’s specific authorship of “Citizen Kane.” Sufficient historical evidence has surfaced to wholly dismantle Kael’s claims since Rosenbaum wrote the piece in 1971 — the critic sheepishly acknowledges some of his own research gaffes in his introduction to the piece — though the original article is still a valuable, even thrilling demonstration of what might be called a philosophy of film criticism. Kael is a great generalizer; sensibility is everything, so much so that it often seems as if she cannot be bothered by mere faces. Rosenbaum, on the other hand, is uniquely concerned with getting things right; he contextualizes films in terms of their productions, politics, and aesthetics, and clearly has no patience for the kind of blasé assessments Kael trots out.

Besides offering a pointed critique (“a refusal or inability to respond to self-proclaiming art on its own terms, an impulse to cut the work down to size — or chop it up into bite-size tidbits — before even attempting to assimilate it”), Rosenbaum is here establishing his defining critical integrity, which, above all, comes down to a deep distrust for a critical establishment which accepts, and, in effect, consecrates narrowing, for-profit mythologies. In his novel “Pale Fire” (a work Rosenbaum connects to Welles’s “It’s All True”), Vladimir Nabokov writes, “For better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.” Unless, that is, they engage the work to the extent Rosenbaum has, processing the work over decades, foregoing a “final word” for ongoing discoveries. Welles couldn’t have hoped for anything more from a critic.