Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Balloon that is Welles: MR. ARKADIN and His Versions

 "I've spent years inflating the balloon that is Welles. Please do not puncture it."
- Orson Welles (guest-hosting The Jack Benny Show)
Orson Welles styles his hair and beard like a roiling Van Gogh postman for MR ARKADIN (1955), which recently screened on TCM and at least trippy enough with its mismatched sound rhythms that you can feel Orson Welles playing around all through post-production, alone in the dead of night but for a whiskey bottle and whomever's still conscious, having a high old time. It's just too bad the ARKADINs come couched in a luxuriant 3-DVD + novel set on Criterion and not floating in on the late late night/ early dawn on UHF, bridging the late-late-movie and the local kiddie show, for that strikes me as the best way to discover it, and to marvel at the way its Brecht/Godardian deconstruction masks its choppy poverty of funds, just as old Monogram movies might be deconstructed and adored by Godard, the way PLAN NINE was for early-rising kids like me. Instead ARKADIN moves in a reverse direction --it's artistic merit will established due to the Welles name ostentatious Criterion couching. Still, as long as it can be reconstructed in the mind as a Monogram horror film that's gone off the rails and run off to Europe, rather than 'Art,' it's a four-alarm gas.

The cheap budget means most of the more complicated action is discussed rather than seen, in rooms where people lurch about as if in the stateroom of a heaving yacht; they drink champagne, they method act in waves around a plot that folds back on itself like two old radio shows playing at once with bizarre synchronicity. The connections with narcotics, rings of East German female stasi, Nazi money laundering, and other captain of industry psychedelia can't disguise the feeling that maybe it's all still just old Welles talking to himself, all lonesome in hall of mirrors (he supplies 8/10 of all the actor voices). As the past comes catching up with his elusive Arkadin, the film--whichever version--flitters by in crowded European relic-filled chiaroscuro table angles, narrow stone streets, boats, card games, and Jess Franco-ish reflective zooms. You can smell the stale booze and the perfume of the girl you were with still lingering, tangy underneath the ocean breeze; cigar smoke, the hyacinths from some passing Ibiza flower wagon, tourist suntan lotion; the ghostly laughter of passing mistresses adheres to the sticky resin of whiskey spills along the strips of celluloid taped to every available surface; snatches of great dialogue that seem to be a kind of journal of witty things Welles has said and heard in his European exile, when the girl playing his daughter (Welles' then girlfriend, Paola Mori) approaches Mischa Auer's table and asks "do you remember me?" he answers gayly, "I can never remember a pretty woman, it's too expensive." That one was so good I had to write it down, but in doing so I missed twelve more.

Like internet dating, this film is the story of trying to unmask someone while keeping your own mask on, trying to open up a dangerous candy egg as it in turn is trying to open you. Inside the normal, competent, witty candy shell could be anything, from a saintly cream to the bitter yoke of a bi-polar psycho with can opener fingers, or just an endless solid candy shell opening up with flytrap lips. You can't let the fact it might be poison bother you. It's your duty as a man to plunge ahead, tongue extended in the French fashion. As the night moves on the girl who came off so polished and nice becomes bossy and mirthless. You struggle to face your encroaching sobriety with less wild-eyed panic, even as you take mental inventory of where your socks wound up should you have to grab your shit and bolt (if her husband comes home early). Meanwhile a churlish demon sulks within your own egg, scratching at your insides like they were his dream journal until your French-fashioned tongue slips and reveals a screaming multitude of convicted hellions writhing (and writing) below your smooth surface. Nice going, Eisenstein!

It takes a great director to tap into that hellish core energy. It takes an even greater energy to tap in a whole layer further to find the black comic heart within that hellish core, for evil too has an inner yolk, a deep, well-earned sense of wit and good humor. Such a yolk is Welles, who rules in the Hell of his B-movie international erudite jet trash dinner guests rather than serve in Hollywood's regimented, joyless 'A' heaven.

To get back to the internet date analogy: consider the date is a success and they are married and even then, for a few months, the candy shells are undamaged by the demon yolks within. But now the stress of daily grind, of each others' messes, have made hairline fractures and your yolk demons have figured out how to short wave radio to each other with special code words that crack shells like high pitched arias. This fighting is the great expression of love between demons. It is something foreign, alas, to someone like Welles, a towering genius who preferred women at a distance, to be loomed over as they cringe with their jigsaw puzzles or to be seen only in passing, in the shadows of sharks ala LADY FROM SHANGHAI. Rather than show his true core demon to his daughter (played by his much younger fiancee at the time), Arkadin would prefer to just disappear into the ether.

But a 'towering' (the adjective seems built for him) genius like Welles must inevitable embrace loneliness like he embraces alcohol, tobacco, and hashish, and all other eggshell removers, until the last vestige of phony candy shell is gone, and the whole social sphere-- wherein friends bring friends over all day and all night--seems dull and inane. He'd rather be alone in his editing suite than at a party or in bed with a gorgeous Italian. In proto-nouvelle vague fashion, there's the sense that while you're watching any version of ARKADIN (Criterion includes three), Welles is giving you his notes on it, fusing his commentary track half a century early into the essence of the dialogue, overdubbed by himself for nearly every male character. You get the sense meanwhile that the female actresses could be dubbed by whomever wakes up first in Welles' chateau, before whiskey and sycophants render her incoherent.

Note that Welles never made a movie about an actor or artist struggling with their art, tending rather towards rogues and captains of industry. Not for him the sanctimonious glum piety of something like QUILLS, which mistakes the addiction of writing flagellant smut as some noble calling; not for him either the dry classical polish of actors like Laurence Olivier or Kevin Kline who sometimes mistake Shakespeare for bourgeois highbrow Art as opposed to merely the pinnacle of charlatanism. Welles made a career laughing at the titanic absurdity of his own persona, especially as a guest on radio shows like Jack Benny and Fred Allen. He always preferred to play the devil rather than the angel, and the one time he wasn't the heavy--in LADY FROM SHANGHAI--he wasn't much good at it. He couldn't even make eye contact with his own ex-wife, turning away to pontificate in his high whispered Irish brogue instead while Mr. Bernstein ran away with the loathsome ogre lawyer showman, the plumb part designed clearly for the balloon that is Welles.

To Welles, and to Don Birnim, and to Ben in LEAVING LAS VEGAS, and to myself of course, whiskey is a far more noble addiction than writing. We'd rather be remembered as being able to hold our liquor rather than getting a Pulitzer. Drinking leaves only empty bottles, and maybe broken glass, while writing leaves mistakes and presumptions and arrogance that can gestate for centuries until your original meaning has been torn out and the zombie husk of your words used to champion any old egg-crushing cause.

Or worse, they can be forgotten altogether.

I know from my own work in film, TV, and radio how seductive it is when you're the star of your own show. I love to edit myself on screen. There's something quite magical about it, the chance to study how you look and sound to other people, frame by frame. Welles never lived long enough to see the age of affordable digital video, alas. I wish he'd made a dozen ARKADIN sequels instead of making the same film three times. Such is the life of a vagabond obsessive, mayhap. Indecision reigns with Welles but at least glum sanctimony has been kicked out the window. Welles makes any other egotistical tyrant genius look shabby by comparison, and he makes himself perhaps shabbiest of all. That is why we love him: he's cinema's one true prodigal, and his own best company.

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