“It has no boundary… It is a ribbon of dream.”
– On the Movies
“Everyone will always owe him everything.” – Godard
In Ray Kurzweil’s fantasia, Orson Welles is with us today at on his centennial. But the great ones remain regardless – nanobots or no, and Orson Welles’s work keeps unfolding, keeps revealing itself, keeps offering new surprises and fresh discoveries. How much he accomplished in how many spheres remains Herculean. There were some six thousand productions in radio, theater, film and television. No other artist can claim numbers within even an order of magnitude of that achievement.
What’s more, this summer we’ll have a great deal to say on this blog and elsewhere about his civil rights work – he was the first director in history to stage an all African and African American version of Shakespeare, sometimes called ‘The Voodoo Macbeth” – a massive success during the Harlem Renaissance. He directed Raisin in the Sun a year later – both shows are recounted by James Baldwin in his indispensable book on our national divide as seen through the theater and cinema: “The Devil Finds Work”. His final radio program through the summer of 1946 centered around the brutal beating in South Carolina of a black soldier, Isaac Woodard, and led directly to a federal investigation and finally to President Truman’s integration of the federal work force and shortly afterward the entire armed services.
Still, while his political work remains largely uncelebrated, the artistry continues to gain notice, and I have learned as much from Welles as from any other artist, including Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Wordsworth, Dali, Nabokov, Page – thinker or craftsman. The catalogue of insights he’s inspired for me fills several notebooks, so I’ll mention just two of the indispensable lessons I’ve learned studying Welles’s films these last twenty odd years.
First, it’s possible for narrative arts to be baroque and commonplace at the same time – in both character and conceit. It’s a rare sensitivity that can marry the majestic and the mundane and find in each characteristics of the other. The dynamic is abundant in Shakespeare and Dickens; otherwise it’s a rarity, and it showed diminishing returns with the fade of romanticism toward the end of the Victorian era. Welles was the first (was he the only?), to show us that these extremes could live comfortably even among the various austere and internal modernist idioms of the twentieth century. Kafka’s particularly intricate banality, to point to one example, was called and raised in Welles cubist masterworld rendering of ‘The Trial’ – it’s an intuitive adaptation to set beside Kubrick’s Lolita.
Second, having spent his formative years in the theater, Welles always understood that the camera wasn’t a single perspective, or a single viewer, but that inside the theater of that black box, in row after row behind the ground glass, sat eight or nine hundred people. He used the camera accordingly, and in every shot Welles ever made he maintained that pronounced and affectionate awareness of his audience.
Both of these intuitive capacities go to the Power of Scale, one of the most potent tools in the Conceptual Screenwriting box.
Happy Birthday, Orson.
Tom Swift V