02
Dec
14

When Peter Met Orson: This Is Orson Welles by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich

This Is Orson WellesThis Is Orson Welles by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich

Kind of a messy biography, This Is Orson Welles is either a treasure of first-hand information on the life and works of Welles and a rambling conversation with a pompous liar. I think its probably both, usually at the same time, which makes it alternately amusing and frustrating.

A little back story on this book: in the early 70s, Peter Bogdanovich and Welles hit on the idea of a book of interviews, kind of like Francois Truffaut’s book with Alfred Hitchcock. They hung out a bunch, served drinks and rolled tape. After a while, life got in the way: Welles had an offer to write his memoirs, Bogdanovich’s career floundered and the tapes ended up in storage. When Welles died in 1985, the project did, too.

After a few years, it sprung back to life thanks to Oja Kodar and Jonathan Rosenbaum. The tapes were found, transcribed and worked against the written notes Welles and Bogdanovich exchanged with each other. There was a lot of work: hours of tapes, a manuscript that ran over a thousand pages. Eventually, Rosenbaum trimmed it all down into a tidy volume. Finally, Welles fans could read about what Welles thought about his own movies!

The catch: Welles had little to say about his own work. And even that was dragged out of him.

Throughout these transcripts, Welles is tricky and obtuse. He tells tall tales about his career, about dashing between radio appearances in a chartered ambulance, befriending gangsters and staying awake for days on end. He talks at length about his more obscure movies like The Trial while barely touching on classics like Touch of Evil. Some aren’t even mentioned at all: if there’s anything about F for Fake, it’s slipped my mind. He recalls events in different ways than other parties (which is where Rosenbaum’s notes come in handy) and sometimes claims he can’t remember others at all.

It’s frustrating reading at times. Welles will say something one moment, only to be contradicted by Bogdanovich reading from his notes. It could be about something Welles said in the past or put in a movie, but Welles has a stubborn contrarian streak and insists on saying he doesn’t like to use symbols in his movies; the famous mirror scene in Citizen Kane, for example, is apparently just because Welles liked mirrors or something, I guess.

But of course, Welles fibs his way through this. He downplays himself one moment, then upsells his legend a second later. His stories are hard to take at face value, but it’s hard to shake the idea that Welles did himself. He comes off as a guy who likes to fib for his own amusement. It’s amusing in small doses, but after a while it grated on me: why bother listen to someone’s life story when they don’t seem interested in telling it?

At the same time, Welles is a charming conversationalist (indeed, this isn’t the only book where Welles and a friend chat over drinks!). As annoying as he gets, it’s also not hard to see why Welles and Bogdanovich got along so well: they enjoyed talking to each other. Nearly every time Welles seems annoyed with answering questions, there’s another where he starts laughing or makes a joke. As he says, “I can see this is going to be endless – let’s get another drink.”

It’s also worth noting that Welles only backed out when he got an offer to write his own book and edited early versions of transcripts, too: he was clearly a man who enjoyed creating his mystique. Rosenbaum had his work cut out for him and he worked magic, cutting the interviews into something engaging and readable, while annotating them when Welles started to fib a bit.

Speaking of magic, it’s worth noting how Welles loved the stuff. Not just illusions he could make on stage or on-screen, but even the traditional kind with sawing people in half or making them float. Not only are there magic sequences in his later movies, but I’m sure I remember him discussing magic a lot in the documentary One Man Band (which I can’t recommend enough). It even comes up here more than a few times! He delighted in illusions and obfuscation, so it’s not hard to see that attitude carrying over when discussing his own work.

The big drawback is how short this is: the interview runs maybe two-thirds of this book and even then, there’s excerpts from other writers and photos interspersed in the text. It’s followed by a lengthy list of Welles appearances in everything from talk shows to film appearances and the script to The Magnificent Ambersons. It’s all interesting for the fanatic, but for the only-at-Easter-and-Christmas types, it comes across as padding, stretching the book out by more than a third.

Rating: 5/10. Charming if you’re a Welles diehard, frustrating if you’re the kind the fan who’s only seen Citizen Kane (and maybe Touch of Evil) and maybe a little redundant in parts these days, This Is Orson Welles is an fun collection of conversations, but I really wished there was more of them instead of scripts, memos and lengthy career descriptions. I think there’s an audiobook of the actual conversations; I don’t often say this, but I think that’s the version I’d rather have.

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