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Showmanship Instead of Genius

Believe it or not, I do actually manage to do something other than play WoW, work, and watch movies! To illustrate it, here's a bit on a couple of books I've read as of late.


Orson Welles: Hello Americans

Stacie was kind enough to get this for me, knowing that I am a longtime Welles fan, and it does not disappoint. Simon Callow, the British writer/actor (go read his IMDB filmograhy; some interesting stuff including a role as Charles Dickens on Dr. Who) has set out to write a three volume biography of Welles. This is the second installment which covers the years between the premiere of Citizen Kane and his extended exile in Europe from 1947 onward (I find it interesting that two of the directors I am most interested in both ended up in self-imposed "exile" in Europe). Even though I knew something of this period and had seen the films he directed/acted in, I had no idea how much activity this guy was engaged in during this time. The films he worked on almost seem trivial compared to the flurry of political activity (he was a popular public voice, due to his radio career, of the Left and knew members of FDR's administration), theater projects (which included a titanic staging of Around the World in Eighty Days), and radio work (he seriously attempted to become a comedian). Then there was his marriage to Rita Hayworth...

A lot of space is devoted to the year or so in which he spent shooting the film, It's All True, which pretty much tanked his relationship with RKO (the studio he made Kane for) and was never even completed. He and his crew spent month after month in Brazil either haphazzardly shooting and partying. Take another look at the book's cover; this photo is a great example of this time (apparently he was quite popular with the locals!). The fallout from this South American project was, as is usually noted, the butchering of The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles left for South America before post production could be completed and the end result was the mutilation of what could have been a fantastic film. This time has been documented before of course, but never (as far as I know) to this level of detail. As Callow notes in the book, the years he covers in the book are actually very well documented. So much so that it's possible to tell what Welles was doing virtually every day during this time.

It's easy to read this and come to the conclusion that Welles was a man of many appetites (the chapters on South America illustrate this clearly), but he was also constantly attempting to reinvent himself. He was never content to merely be a film actor or director, he wanted to do many other things. However, it seems that in the end, film was what he came back to. His need for change and experimentation was ultimately what made it impossible for him to work within the industry. The fact that he allowed multiple film projects to be ruined by others is telling. There were numerous times when he could have intervened and prevented this from happening, but his very nature seemed to preclude this. It's not that he didn't care about it; just reading his many memos documenting the problems with the completed films indicates he was not happy about how they came out. He just wasn't able to stay with a project long enough to see it through, particularly the sometimes tedious post production process and when another project came along (of which there were many at this time), he plunged ahead with full enthusiasm to the next thing. This is important since it helps explain the often frustrating way in which he approached his work. Callow is obviously a fan of Welles, but is not timid about analyzing him, even if it is negative at times. I appreciate this since it makes Welles a more complete person as an artist. This well rounded analysis really hits the mark and still allows me to appreciate the many amazing things he did (I would love to hear some the political speeches he did on radio; it sounds like they were truly spellbinding.). I am going to get a copy of the first volume, which covers his career up through Kane and look forward to the final volume. Highly recommended.


2010: Odyssey Two

And now, something quite different. I first read this in 1983 or so and really liked it. I was also a fan of the 1984 film. In retrospect, Clarke's book holds up slightly better than the film, which comes across as more dated (anyone remember Roy Scheider sitting on the beach with his trusty Apple IIc?!). This is mainly due to the fact that they opted for more cold war "contemporary" political issues. One of the better parts of the book concerns the expedition of Chinese who land on Europa and encounter life there. Alas, this whole subplot was excised from the screenplay. Granted, it is not necessary to the overall plot, but it tended to add an unanticipated element of suspense where the story needed it. The other interesting thing I noted from the book was how the character of Dr. Chandra (creator of HAL) was Indian in the book and played Bob Balaban, who is obviously not Indian!

On its own, the book held my interest with its good science fiction ideas and details about space travel (Clarke has always been good at this). The narrative is a bit uneven and the characters a bit two dimensional. This book really doesn't grapple well with all the issues raised by the original Kubrick film. There are so many underlying ideas in 2001 that could have been explored here, but I suppose it's all a matter of how you want to read the ideas presented in the original book and film. The original is so complex in a way, that two completely different sequels (or maybe more) could have been written/filmed (provided you felt that 2001 needed a sequel; Kubrick clearly didn't). This was Clarke's way of going about it. For a great interpretation of the 1968 film, go check out this article by Micheal Berube. It's a fascinating read.

So, I got a kick out of reading this blast from the past (ha!) which really held up OK as long as you take it in the right context.