He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?
–Tana (Marlene Dietrich), Touch of Evil
A few months ago, I saw a theater production called Mr. Burns: a Post-Electric Play. Mr. Burns is three snapshots in three acts of life in the United States after a catastrophe that causes the nation’s electric grid to shut down. We see society rebuilding itself from the detritus of our contemporary world through the lens of performance art, specifically the survival and evolution of The Simpsons episode “Cape Feare.” As the timeline progresses two, ten, then eighty years out from the disaster, “Cape Feare” evolves from a Simpsons episode being recounted by two fans to fellow survivors around a campfire, to a highly stylized opera in which characters and stories have synthesized various aspects of culture, such as Mr. Burns in Joker makeup giving a version of Robert Mitchum’s speech about the battle between love and hate from Night of the Hunter.
I bring this up not to brag about the best play I’ve ever seen (okay, maybe a little bragging), but because it’s such a vibrant illustration of how pieces of history and culture survive through being contained within newer works. For instance, I will be watching Cape Fear for the first time this week in preparation for a Director’s Club bonus episode, but I have a basic understanding of the plot and characters thanks to “Cape Feare,” which was probably in turn the most exposure some of my Simpsons-watching peers who didn’t have classical music as a presence in their lives had of Gilbert & Sullivan.
I bring all this up as a precursor to my experience of Orson Welles, who was born May 6, 1915. I was 1 when Welles died, so I have no memories of him as a living person. My first exposure to Welles was caricatures of him in later life, as in 1994-1995’s the Critic:
I knew him as an glowering old man who embodied fat stereotypes. I’m sure a lot of my memories of this images of Welles are mixed up with similar jokes about Marlon Brando. I found out somewhere along the way that he had created the War of the Worlds radio play, but it was difficult enough to wrap my brain around a play that was limited to sound and had the power to drive people to hysteria, let alone the man behind it. (This was before Welcome to Nightvale, kids.)
My image of Orson Welles was changed as a teenager when I saw Cradle Will Rock, featuring Angus MacFayden’s portrayal of Welles as a leonine artistic genius on the vanguard of modern theater, and again as an inspirational vision in Ed Wood (played by Vincent D’Onofrio and voice by Maurice LaMarche, who also provided the voice acting for Welles in The Critic):
Two seemingly disparate images of a dynamo and a has-been, both large but the latter cartoonishly fat, and neither quite adding up to a full, real artist and human being. Welles is, of course, best known for his association with Citizen Kane, usually found at the top of best-of lists. But this often feels perfunctory, especially being so chronologically removed from Citizen Kane that its reputation far proceeded my viewing of it. Welles feels like the cinematic equivalent of Shakespeare in this respect.
I started watching other films that Welles directed about a week ago, hoping to find something to write about for CPBS and not realizing it was almost the 100 year anniversary of his birth. (I like to think this is a sign that I am part of a brilliant fat person hive mind that transcends the limits of death.) I’m not usually automatically enraptured by well-regarded classic films, so hopefully this comes across as more than a cliche reaction: I was completely blown away by Welles’ mastery of the camera in The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil.
WOW. (This clip is violent, be forewarned.)
At the end of Touch of Evil, Welles’ character Captain Quinlan is proven to be right in his hunch about the perpetrator of a crime, although the other characters have been disregarding him because of his reputation as a corrupt drunk. It’s nearly impossible to eclipse one’s reputation. It may be foolishly idealistic, but given the sheer brilliance of his work, I hope that Welles’ legacy as a great director and writer will live on at least as much as the fat jokes about him.