30 August 2018

No, No, No

An article online today at The Washington Post brings the welcome news that Orson Welles’s final film will at least reach an audience.

My quarrel is with a purely parenthetical element of that article:

By 1970, Welles had spent decades trying — and failing — to replicate the artistic success of his debut, “Citizen Kane.”

What the author may really have meant is perhaps something on the lines of “Welles’s work never emerged from the shadow cast by Citizen Kane”;  it is a thesis which could be reasonably supported.  The author’s statement as printed, in my view, is wrong at several points.

The critical (and perhaps social) success of Citizen Kane is irreplicable:  other successes will be of their own kind.  The film as a work, I do not believe for an instant that Welles was trying to replicate:  he was far too excellent for that – no great artist is content merely to repeat himself, even in the case of an outstanding success.  (Witness Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps.)

As to (as Kyle Swenson wrote) the artistic success, two points.  The first is the artistic rejection of carbon-copying, above.  The second is, perhaps Welles did in fact achieve comparably great artistic success in later projects – but the critics were obsessed with Kane (in the first place) and with congratulating themselves on how astute they are by preferring “the obviously superior” Kane (as an unnecessary consequence).

Once when Welles asked someone which of his films the questionee preferred, the answer came back, Touch of Evil.  Welles responded with, “Thank God you didn’t say Kane.”  Because – great film as it is – it had already become a tedious commonplace to tag onto Citizen Kane the ‘Greatest Thing He Ever Done’ label.

The fact is that we should have reason to think less highly of Welles, if all he did afterwards was try to re-tread Kane, protean achievement though it undeniably is.  It is because he was so great an artist that he sought to do other things, to expand his repertory, afterwards.  Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight are great films, marvelously wrought, and they are not “inferior” simply by virtue of not being KaneOthello is at the least a good film.  If Kane is, arguably, perfection, any ‘imperfections’ in Chimes or Othello arise (at least, insofar as they do not result from the logistics of dancing with the studio) from a great artist, taking risks.

If you never make mistakes as an artist, you just may be playing it too safe.

The article as a whole, I completely enjoyed and found interesting.  I am only saying that this one remark is signally inartistic (and possibly pretentious).

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