Rediscovering Orson Welles

By Benamou, Catherine | Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview
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Rediscovering Orson Welles


Benamou, Catherine, Michigan Quarterly Review


Orson Welles, Shakespeare, and Popular Culture. By Michael Anderegg. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Pp. 213. $42.50 hb; $16.50 pb.

One of the most heartening developments in the study of individual filmmakers (as Orson Welles preferred to call them) over the past decade has been the emergence of an international community of Orson Welles scholars dedicated to serious inquiry into the full trajectory and many dimensions of a career that lasted nearly sixty years and bridged four continents.1 The synthetic yield of this scholarship-epitomized by some of the premises and research tacks adopted by Michael Anderegg in his new book-has been threefold. First, it has posthumously refurbished Welles's public image in a manner that refutes his trite reduction to a spendthrift, flamboyant, and unpredictable genius who shocked the multitudes with his 1938 Halloween "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast and his controversial film Citizen Kane (1941). Recent, more carefully researched accounts of Welles-at-work have pointed to his erudition, versatility, humanism, and perseverance as an artist and activist; his particular skill and inspiration as an orchestrator of talent and collaborator, as well as maverick auteur; his passion for improvisation; and his propensity for recycling script ideas and strategies from previous projects, both completed and unfinished, in an effort to understand the creative process linking his works.2

Second, in making a critical and historical reassessment of Welles's oeuvre and its periodic disruptions, this scholarship has ventured through and beyond the expressionist/realist, romantic/ modernist, vanguard/industrial dichotomies so frequently applied to his films, to consider the complex relationship between different phases of his work and broader sociopolitical, technical, and stylistic formations in the twentieth century. Here the assumption is that Welles's projects are necessarily differentiated not only according to the various media in which he worked (radio, theater, film), but by the specific historical and cultural circumstances in which they were produced. The "high" points and "low" points that have customarily been invoked to configure his ski-slope shaped career have become subject to reevaluation as a result.

At the same time, a new recognition of the transhistorical and poly-philosophical currents within his work (Welles was a creature of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance, as well as FDR's New Deal) has brought into relief the nature of Welles's ambivalence toward modernity, and his ongoing concern with the great responsibilities and difficulties (financial, discursive, logistical) associated with using audiovisual media simultaneously as a form of personal expression and social communication. This concern was only intensified. by his cosmopolitan approach to projects undertaken in disparate settings, from Harlem, Acapulco, and Belfast to Fortaleza, Madrid, and Hollywood. Moreover, the shared assumption that, to quote Anderegg, "the gaps, omissions, and quirks of Welles's texts call for some kind of answering intelligence" has led to an identification of the plural, rather than singular factors behind Welles's customary difficulty in securing support from producers and the press. Paradoxically, this has all had the effect of removing Welles from the pedestal and the historical master control panel, of seeing the extent to which, his individual flaws and talents notwithstanding, he faced, together with other nonconformist yet commercially viable filmmakers, a host of external constraints and pressures, not the least of which were the vertical integration of the Hollywood studio system and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Third, the added attention to the less visible-and often underestimated-portions of Welles's output has permitted a more intricate analysis of its intertextual dimensions, and thus, a less fractured understanding of its ideological and aesthetic turns.

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