So what ultimately was it about Welles that is so worth talking about that he keeps coming up here?
I'll take it on faith that people know about the broadcast production of War of the Worlds that made Welles internationally famous because many people thought it was an invasion of actual aliens. The point of playing that clip is not to show that the War of the Worlds broadcast was so good, the point is that Orson Welles so innately understood the America of his time that he seemed to tap directly into a mainframe of exactly what the American mind would find most provocative. Whether it was a nationally toured Macb*th with an African-American cast, or a Julius Caesar seemingly set at something like the Nuremberg Rally. And all of this in his early twenties.
What we must remember is that Welles was already world-famous when he made Citizen Kane, catapulted to fame as a 23-year-old wunderkind for whom all futures were possible. In the next series of podcasts, we're going to trace Welles to the point of his prime achievement so that we can understand what arrived him at this point when he seemed like he would become the Michelangelo of the 20th Century, and also trace the forces ensuring that would never happen.
Francois Truffaut, himself one of the great film directors of history and even before he became a director a young genius of a film critic, wrote what's surely one of the most insightful lines ever written about Welles's achievement:
..(Citizen Kane) is only the 'first' film directed by a famous man. Welles was forced to make not a film which permitted him to get started in the industry, but THE film, the one which sums up and prefigures all the others. And, my God, this mad gamble was very nearly won.Anything less than the world's greatest film ever made would have been a disappointment relative to expectations, and Welles fulfilled those expectations to the cross of every t, but the price was the whole of his life thereon.
The twentieth century was both a wonderful and terrible time for the arts. There were a lot of great achievements in the arts, but very few figures who have the kind of consistent and always evolving greatness over the course of a lifetime one gets from Michelangelo, Beethoven, Goethe...: perhaps there are a few, the most obvious being Picasso, but perhaps also Stravinsky, or Yeats, or Joyce, or Matisse, or Neruda. And there are artists you can make arguments for like Thomas Mann, or Shostakovich, or Henry James, or W. H. Auden, or Philip Roth, or perhaps untold numbers we'll still sorting through from places in the world that don't get much publicity or artists who simply when their lives long without becoming known for what they did. But there is one artform in the 20th century where you really get an astonishing proliferation of creators who do interesting and varied work over the course of an entire lifetime: Ingmar Bergman, Luis Bunuel, Kurosawa, Werner Herzog, Ozu, Bresson, Kubrick, De Sica, Fellini, Dryer, Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang, Satayajit Ray, or even Scorsese and Robert Altman. Some, like Francois Truffaut or Kenji Mizoguchi or Andre Tarkovsky or Max Ophuls, dropped off in their fifties, in the case of the latter three, just as they seemed to many as though they might have hit the very peak of their powers. If you consider artfilm, or 'ceen-eh-maaa' a high art, which, believe it or not, some critics, usually of an older generation, still don't, then it's easily the best art the world produced in the 20th century.
So perhaps these pronouncement is completely premature. But even if there's plenty of great paintings, great music, great books, great poems from the 20th century, there aren't too many cosmic creators from the 'old arts', creators who were made revelatory things when they were young and completely different kinds of revelatory things when they were old with a line of evolution all the way that Rembrandt did, or Turner, or Bach, or Wagner, or Milton, or Monet, or Haydn, or Titian, or Verdi, or arguably Shakespeare and Tolstoy if you make some allowances, but completely different kinds of: the way there are, rather, a thousand or two extremely talented artists briefly inflamed by the muse of fire before it moved on to its next vessel. Maybe there were these kinds of geniuses in the more popular world: Alfred Hitchcock is the first that comes to mind to me, but no matter what point in Hitch's career and how ingenious his productions became, was pretty much stuck on humiliating women his entire career, though the variety of ways he found to do it was undeniably impressive. John Ford never really got over his macho gunslingers even if his position on them seemed to evolve somewhat over the period from Stagecoach to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. It's even harder to see an evolutionary trajectory in Howard Hawks, who was like a chameleon who perfectly adapted himself to every major Hollywood genre. Keaton's evolution was cut short by the introduction of sound into pictures, Chaplin made a few very successful ones in the new era but couldn't sustain the achievement. Ernst Lubitsch evolved, but he died at 55, and one had the sense he had a lot more left in his tank to say. Others, like Frank Capra and Billy Wilder, lived to the ripest old age, but were shut out of the new Hollywood and unable to show us any potential new insights. Maybe John Houston was, but to be perfectly honest, I don't think all that much of his movies to begin with. And then there's Woody Allen... conveniently, he hasn't made an indisputably great movie in more than 20 years at this point, so it's clear that whether it's old age or the salaciousness of the headlines about him, something made him decline pretty badly in his dotage.
On the other hand, Steven Spielberg has certainly evolved and matured over the course of his career, and even if the trademark tics of sentimentality never left him, you look at his movies from Schindler's List onward and it's immediately perceivable, at least to me, that there is a maturity to his later work that was unreachable by the creator of Jaws, Closer Encounters, Raiders, and ET. There are days in my life when I look at certain movies of his and I say to myself that the real depth in Spielberg is so overlooked that if he were mentioned as the cinematic Shakespeare in 2500, my reincarnated self wouldn't be surprised at all. And then, i look at the same movies the next day, and I wonder how the hell I could be so stupid (or how Spielberg could). So many artfilm snobs of a certain age hated Spielberg like anything because they rightly saw the death of their lifestyle in his work, perhaps even the death of art in movies. Lots of relatively early critics saw the death of various kinds of literature in what they took to be the influence of Shakespeare's barbarism too. In that sense, both Shakespeare and Spielberg are larger than art itself. I'm still inclined to think this doesn't make Spielberg the cinematic Shakespeare. Even at his imposing best, there are still so many gears that show, so much that feels like superficial manipulation rather than real feeling, that I would imagine he will be an unforgotten sidenote in the history of art - appreciated for all those qualities which will always make him watchable, even if future watchers looking to him for real poetic truth will seldom find it. Readers who are gluttons for punishment still pick up Les Miserables or Notre-Dame de Paris, but neither book can ever hope to have the colossal impact on them that Victor Hugo once had on his contemporary French readers. Even if Victor Hugo doesn't speak to later readers anymore in a way that changes the curvature of the earth the way Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Dickens or Balzac or Flaubert do, stretches of his writing can still be pretty great. There are a lot of once-colossal artists like that, we all know that they're not nearly as colossal as we once thought they were, but so long as you make allowances, what they are is still pretty great. A lot of genre fiction may turn out like that because it's so specifically self-limiting, placing arbitrary limitations on itself in an era when our imaginations ostensibly have the freedom to do anything at all. I would make another list of this kind of work but you'd be listening for twelve hours. Even so, the sheer inescapability of Spielberg in our time is, in many ways, an indicator that his impact on the life of the entire world from now until the end of humanity itself could be very very lasting, and that art itself might be something completely different before him, and after him. As hard as it is to believe, he may perhaps be closer to Shakespeare than we know...
Duke Ellington might be the best musical candidate in the popular canon for that kind of cosmic creator, he certainly evolved enormously as his career went on from the 3 minute sides that made his name. Many of his longer form pieces could only be written by a musical genius: like Creole Rhapsody, Reminiscing in Tempo, Harlem, Black Brown and Beige, Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, The Perfume Suite, The Deep South Suite, Tattooed Bride. Others, like A Drum is a Woman or certain parts of the Sacred Services, are kind of embarrassing because Ellington sometimes fancied himself a writer as well as a musician, and when his writing became part of the music, the results were often not nearly as good. Of course Ellington wasn't as important to the life of 1960 or 70 as he was to 1940, but he hardly disappeared, he just had to keep playing old hits to make a living, but he was evolving the whole time - a completely different composer at 65 than he was at 45 who was completely different than he was at 25. Had he the freedom to composer more new pieces, who knows? Maybe he could have improved his writing too.
The Louis Armstrong of his twenties was perhaps the most influential musician America ever produced, perhaps both as a composer and a performer, player, and singer, but by after the Wars, Armstrong had completely reinvented himself as a pure performer by the force of his personality. It's difficult to know with Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven which were his compositions and which were just unrecorded songs floating around New Orleans basically in an oral tradition. His latter-day evolution makes it seem as though he was always much more of a performer than a composer - one of the greatest performers the world has ever seen, but nevertheless, much less a creative musician than Ellington.
Beginning with Charlie Parker, later jazz is clearly not a populist entertainment but a full highbrow art in its own right. But so many of the most creative jazz musicians never made it to a full lifespan, the lifestyle being both so difficult and so substance-ridden. Miles Davis at least made it to sixty-five. He certainly never stopped changing, and perhaps he'll be reevaluated and later generations will understand all those things about the bizarre and drug-addled albums of his last twenty-five years that baffle us. Charles Mingus, dead from ALS at fifty-six, with all his horrible suffering both psychological and physical, kept trying to push ever new boundaries in spite of many periods when he could not compose at all. Maybe our new consciousness of underregarded female contributions to the arts and every other walk of life will cause us to re-evaluate Mary Lou Williams and rate her as one of the absolute giants of the field alongside Duke and Miles and Satchmo and Bird. Some already think Nina Simone is, but such was her temperament that she will always be a controversial artist no matter how good, and her style was always rather conservative and slow to evolve. Thelonious Monk also made it to sixty-five, but in truth, he probably maintained the same radical style all through his career until the jazz world caught up with him. Keith Jarrett has kept evolving for many decades now, picking up influences everywhere and may yet be remembered as a great American composer, in spite of the fact that many of his compositions are simply recorded improvisations recorded in real time. John Zorn is now sixty-five and his music is so bizarre that it's difficult to say that he is truly a great artist, but it's impossible to say that he hasn't evolved enormously over the course of his career. Ornette Coleman made it to the ripe old age of eighty-five, and no matter how bizarre his music, it seemed to be a different kind of bizarre every year. Perhaps the most bizarre of all was Cecil Taylor, who just passed at eighty-nine, and just when you thought he'd reached the outer limit, he found a new way to shock the audience with something still stranger - poetry, chanting, primal screaming. Like so much that is avant-garde, perhaps this is music meant to be absorbed by a new generation who's had time to live with it, but I still doubt that generation is one I'm a part of.
Music theater, to which Jazz owes so much, hasn't done much to recommend it in the time between Stephen Sondheim and Linn Manuel Miranda - I have my doubts about Miranda's staying power, the expectations after Hamilton are just too high to fulfill, and well-made as Hamilton is, we'll see what comes next. The hip-hop on which it draws is still in its beginning generations, and no hip-hop artist has lived an entire lifetime yet where we get to appreciate the whole output for whatever it becomes, but we'll see where LMM and his many extremely white fans, and the giants of Hip-Hop, go next.
In the early nineties Stephen Sondheim might have seemed an easy candidate, but for a quarter century he slowed his productivity to something nearly a crawl. Perhaps some older Broadway composers might qualify - Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, or Cole Porter - their star has certainly dimmed in recent generations to the point, that you have to be an expert to at all evaluate lifetimes of work, but all it would take is one enterprising performer or director to bring them back.
A lot of people suggest certain great singer-songwriters, beginning and ending with Bob Dylan, but even if Dylan still writes some pretty damn good songs, I doubt anybody will say that the many good songs of his last twenty years are anything to match the earthshaking output of his majority's first twenty - and honestly, Bob Dylan is always Bob Dylan - folkish, gnomic, unknowable, so metaphorical that you never really know if it's as deep as it seems even if it sometimes seems revelatory. Perhaps Leonard Cohen is a better candidate - the evolution from Suzanne to You Want It Darker is a stunningly long journey - even if except for Hallelujah, nothing by Cohen penetrated the world's consciousness in the way a couple dozen Dylan or Beatles songs did. I'm sure many people would hear the criteria and immediately say David Bowie - and his personas certainly speak to a certain kind of quirky genius for performing and fashion, but I'd be hard put out to say that Bowie's music had much genius in it. I love Randy Newman even if I'm the only one, but it's hard to say that Newman has evolved at all - he's pretty much been the same satirical nerd his entire career. Maybe if John Lennon had lived longer, but we can only, ahem, imagine... It's tough to say that aside from the sound of the voice, there's much difference between the irony of Tom Waits or the earnestness of Neil Young of forty years ago and of today. And as far as Bruce Springsteen can go, it's certainly a kind of evolution to do the paired down arrangements of Nebraska and then the electronics of Born in the USA, but has he truly evolved in the three and a half decades since then?
I suppose I could do the same kind of cabinet rummaging for various standup comics or comic book and graphic artists, but this podcast, as always, is already going to be much longer than I'd anticipated. Ultimately, it's much too early to make any kind of definite pronouncements, even if I were a hundred times the authority I am. But it's hard to escape the idea that if that kind of genius was there, we'd have known because he or she would have made their work impossible to miss. And by that metric, Spielberg outpaces any competitor since The Beatles by a factor of n.
Genius, true genius, comes from a place so deep that nothing is any longer what it seems. We call many people geniuses who are 'merely' brilliant. Brilliance suggests illumination. A brilliant person can suggest possibilities we've never thought of in our lives, open our minds and hearts and souls to possibilities undreamt. Such a gift should never be dismissed and always celebrated, but genius doesn't just suggest possibilities, it brings those possibilities into reality, fully formed and totally plausible. A genius doesn't just open us up to places, but to entire worlds and universes. The root of the word 'genius' antedates Latin and even Greek, it comes from the ancient Arabic concept of the al-Jinn, familiar of course to anyone who's dabbled in the Arabian Nights (and distantly to anyone who's seen the Disney version...), it has the same linguistic root as words like genie and genesis and gene. It suggests not just illumination, but the very fabric of creation itself. Given how hard it is to peak through, I'd imagine that there are maybe a dozen artistic creators of genius in every century - who are not just brilliant, but create universes of meaning so entirely different from anything before them that the world is simply a different place after they arrive. And in the twentieth century, when there were so many brilliant artists yet so few who could distinguish themselves over everybody else, how do we even know yet whom they were? Maybe there were only a half-dozen, or maybe there were five dozen.
But movies are clearly the dominant artform of the last century, and at the very nexus of the place they were made, the director with the vision to make his oeuvre the crowning achievement of art in our century was denied every opportunity to fulfill his potential - and jesus, doesn't oeuvre just sound so incredibly un-Hollywood, un-American even? And among all those great filmmakers of genius there was only a single one who had the ability to make movies that take in the entirety of the American experience in the most American artform at the zenith of American power and ingenuity; and he only got to do it once.
Whether or not Welles ultimately saw his life as a tragedy, and there is no real way of knowing exactly how Welles saw himself because he went to such great lengths to conceal his real self behind any number of fabrications and myths; there is little getting around that in proportion to the talent he demonstrated, his inability to make more movies is the single greatest tragedy of the arts in America, such a great tragedy that perhaps it's an indication that movies, with all their commercial compromises, now more than ever, are not meant to be art in the manner of older, more venerable arts. Or maybe that's just a patina of sophistication that seems to fall over artforms as they achieve more critical veneration and less hold on daily life. I recently began reading Henry James's Art of Fiction and there was the same complaint about novels that all popular artists seem to have in our day; that nobody takes this art seriously enough and that Dickens and Balzac are relegated to the status of popular entertainers - the Kendrick Lamarrs or Drakes of their day while dead poets like Shakespeare and Milton and Keats were at the top of the pantheon - even though the first was thought in his own day by so many a popular entertainer.
Furthermore, since with Henry James came the sense that the novel was high art rather than popular entertainment, with James also came the sense that the novel was not for everybody. Balzac, Stendahl, Flaubert, Hugo, Dumas, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Turgenev, Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Thackery, George Eliot, Melville, Hawthorne, all come from that period before roughly before the 1880s when the novel was both thought a popular entertainment and something much more ambitious than it often became later - grappling very earnestly with problems of existence without thinking very much about the formal coherence of the thing - though clearly there are exceptions to that rule like Flaubert and Jane Austen who clearly write something much smaller-scaled that anticipate where the novel goes next. God knows, it's not that meganovelists Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Hugo or Melville were trying to create entertainment, but they were trying to say something much more essential even than what they took to be art. Whether it was political as Hugo was, or religious, as Dostoevsky was, or historical, as Tolstoy was, or... whatever, as Melville was. They regarded their fiction almost didactically, as an extension of the existential problems on which they tried to give light.
From the very beginning of his career, Henry James began his career of writing a kind of self-consciously exquisite micro-fiction whose point is to savor and magnify the significance of every last detail. Starting around 1880 when Dostoevsky died and Tolstoy abandoned novels to write eccentric religious philosophy, the novel became both a higher pursuit than ever before, and something much smaller in its ambition.
Popular entertainment can sometimes be the place where the greatest art of all is created. The rules of commercial limitations are pretty ironclad, but the rules of why this is an art are as yet unwritten. The burdensome heaviness of later work which is self-consciously trying to be lofty. So what you get is the serious examinations of art, but couched in the lightness of entertainment. This is how we got the plays of Shakespeare, the operas of Mozart, and the novels of Dickens.
But even so, it's too facile to say that every popular artist might be a second Shakespeare so how dare you say anything critical about my favorite band..., there are so many thousands artists over the centuries from every genre whom somebody made that claim about only to find that nobody except for people from demographics or geographical locations close to theirs shared their enthusiasm.
This is the brutal process of the arts everywhere, where you are not just up against your imagination, but against the practical considerations of what your imagination is allowed to render in reality, but there's no guarantee that your unfettered imagination will create something good. Sometimes, limitations are quite helpful. I recently read an interview with Harvey Pekar, the writer of the American Splendor comics and a jazz reviewer for fifty years, in which he bemoaned that America had no passion for the avant-garde and that some artistic thought leader had to guide America to be more passionate about the personal projects of artists when they go in strange directions.
On the one hand, that's absolutely true and we need educators to get Americans acquainted with all manner of things outside their seemingly impenetrable comfort zone. But past a certain extent, that strikes me as self-defeating. If it's taken up by a large public, it's no longer avant-garde. The avant-garde, by definition, is daring, it dares those things that less brave artists would never dare. But ultimately, it would only make a small bit of difference and won't create more than a minimally wider public for them. Risks are not risks if they don't risk failure, so while avant-garde artists deserve a greater public for their bravery, they will, by definition, never get all that much more appreciators than they already have. But a few avant-garde artists, perhaps just by accident or because they're really that brilliant, create things of world-expanding sublimity.
So how much harder then is it to push into unknown boundaries in the world of filmmaking upon which so much of the world economy depends? How many great filmmaking talents have been so severely curtailed by the limitations imposed by producers because of the risks involved? Producers streamline the product, and while I'm sure their presence prevents a lot of disasters, they also prevent a lot of magnificence. When every release needs giant commercial success rather than a product for a smaller but more passionate, knowledgable, and guaranteed audience, we have a major problem; because there will always be artists trying to make art for a more passionate, knowledgeable, and guaranteed audience, but if they can't find distribution for what they make, they have much less idea what works artistically and what doesn't. The critical opinions of this audience, not just Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris but box office receipts from educated doctors and lawyers and teachers and businessmen, is how the great artfilm directors of the 50's and 60's and the great American auteurs of the 70s knew what worked in their films and what didn't. Without the help of that larger public, these cinematic artists might have languished in the video artist obscurity of the art gallery where few people watch it for more than a few minutes at a time, if that, or might have gone into extremely different artistic fields where they had far less chance to make a world-shaking impact.
Unfortunately, in the brutal world that is the arts, the most avant-garde artists are the singular artists who find it hardest to accrue rewards for their product - either in the quality of their work or in the appreciation of an audience or in artistic remuneration. Occasionally, avant garde artists of a certain genre get a real public, but it only lasts for a couple of years before the audience tires of the demands placed on them, and the average audience member is not perceptive enough to appreciate it as more than a novelty, which is all that much of the avant-garde is, though certainly not all. Maybe, with the internet, it's more possible now for daring avant-garde artists to get a real public than ever before, but even if that's true, it's still hard as hell for such artists, and the more recognition they get, the more chance there also is for a larger public to meet them with hostility and ridicule.
Hostility to what you create cuts deeply, and anybody who says it doesn't is lying. A lot of artists counter the hostility and ridicule against them by claiming that they make art only to please themselves - when bad artists say that, they mean it, when good artists say that, they're full of shit. That's where disaster lies. At best, they risk making work that only pleases people from niches who are exactly like them, so rather than an audience of educated, critical, individualists, each of whom brings a their own, often wholly different, perspective, you have tiny artistic scene after tiny scene of like-minded individuals whom an artist cannot try new things for, because he or she has to cater and pander to the monolithic prejudices of the couple hundred people upon the future of their career depends. Every artist is trying to say something with the work they make, however elusive or complex their message, there is some essence they are trying to communicate, and that communication needs a vessel to whom we're conveying what we wish to say. Whether or not an artist is working to please him or herself, there has to be an ideal listener and watcher to whom we're trying to tell what's essential about our ideas, and the more appreciative audience members we have - not audience members who lap up whatever we give them, but who are able to form their own unique meanings and associations, either in the moment they see it or later when contemplating what they've seen, and whether through a chance meeting or observing their reactions or reading their comments about it, they communicate the meanings they derived from our work to us, the more our imaginations can be taken into new and exciting directions by hearing perspectives on it that we, as the creator, would never think of ourselves - which can then inform the next work.
There was so much great art in the twentieth century and so few great artists because the public was so enormous. It was so brutal in how it made gifted artists heroes one minute and villains the next. The relationship of artist to audience is a marriage in which both spouses continually sue for divorce. Artists are not artists without a public, the public shapes the artist just as the artist shapes the public. No matter how large or small the public before the twentieth century, there were always patrons and aristocrats to whom the artist had to particularly appeal in order to make a living. But art in a democracy has only a public in which nearly every spectator is quantitatively and qualitatively equal, voting with their time and money. In the twentieth century, when the possibilities of what could be art were nearly infinite, there also became infinite room for failure.
Art is one of the toughest things in the world to get right. It is not a livable career for anybody who is not utterly obsessed with it. When you're young, your parents and teachers can discourage you and tell you that it's a difficult life, but you have no idea how difficult this life is until you experience it for yourself. The process winnows out the non-obsessives, because anybody capable of living a different life than an artist will have jumped ship by middle age. Even the successful live a stressful existence in which fame and fortune are accompanied by constant scrutiny and pressure to live up to your last success, and because their success is so rare, they earn the resentment of thousands of colleagues who think that given their opportunities, we could have done it better.
The mental pressure it takes to create even adequate art in a constant stream does not usually come from people whose brains are well-regulated. Welles himself hated this kind of psychologizing about what makes artists feel the need to make art, and I'm a little ambivalent about it too, but there are so many myths surrounding Welles that he's one of the few for whom a little bit of armchair psychoanalysis might shed light rather than obscure it with darkness.
Artists don't need to be crazy or depressed to make art, but only an idiot wouldn't see at least a moderate correlation. I recently went to a conference of composers in Boston and went to a talk on depression in music. The clearly depressed composer giving the talk spent a significant portion of it railing against the stereotype of the crazy artist and how dangerous it is to place artists in such a destructive box - and such an angry mob did he inspire in the classroom about it that I came away under the conclusion that that lecture was the best evidence against its own thesis. I can't do better than this quote from the science-fiction writer Yevgeny Zamyatin:
Real literature can be created only by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics, not by diligent and trustworthy functionaries.Of course it's not as simple as that straw man, and taking Kafka and Chaucer into account, the second part of that statement is obviously disprovable - on the other hand: Kafka was also a madman, a hermit, a heretic, and everything else listed in that quote. The problem is not that artists suffering mental illness is a dangerous stereotype, the problem is that mental illness itself is a dangerous stereotype. A condition which the World Health Organization estimates that one in four people suffer from at some point in their lives is not an illness, it is a fact of life which all people in the world encounter, either from suffering it directly or watching loved ones. The presence of mental illness in one's life is nearly as inescapable as death, but death is very brief, mental illness often lasts an entire lifetime. Mental illness, rather, is part of the life cycle of any community, and the strength of a community's moral fitness and emotional bonds is ultimately measured by how well they can integrate the differences of those who do not conform to their norms. Those which find room for people who are different, whether emotionally or in an infinity of other manners, have an evolutionary advantage, and their ability to adapt to the next era is greater because of it. If such communities historically die, it is usually because those communities which cannot abide their difference kill them off, along with themselves. But inevitably, it is the vision these tolerant, forward thinking communities, which carries over to the next era, while the worldview of the intolerant dies with them.
So think of the world after 1945, what did fascists win? In every generation, reactionaries want to recapture a world that can never again be, and we should doubt it ever was. Hitler shot himself in a Berlin bunker, Mussolini hung upside down in Milan, but the Communists they wanted to stop inherited half the globe. Jews thrived in America and Israel became a highly prosperous nation of its own. Gay rights took a generation to begin, but while their rights may soon be sorely tested again, the march of their progress is undeniable. Nazi Germany gave special awards and recognition to German women who birthed large numbers of children. Fourteen years after their defeat, the birth control pill was invented, and for an enormous segment of the world population, sex is an almost completely separate activity from procreation. While the forces of right-wing reaction in Germany are more powerful than they've been in seventy years, their conservative Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has fought them tooth and nail with every trick in the book she has. She may have had to change her immigration polity this week, but she put up a magnificent, multi-year fight, and the fight is by no means over.
One could of course make a similar list of how greatly the aims of Communists were thwarted, but the point is that the world is both predictable and in constant flux. In every generation there are ever new versions of reactionary hatred, and yes, many of them can be found on the left in addition to the right, and occasionally, when things are particularly dire, in the center too. I generally oppose views which I find excessively progressive rather than liberal because of the instability which they inevitably bring, but even I can't deny that eventually, it is the world which progressives long to see which becomes a reality. The difference between them and me is that I would like, if at all possible, to spare us the inevitable seeming price-tag.
The point of this ultra-long digression is to illustrate just how difficult it is to create art, let alone great art. Artists live in a world that roots for our failure. Many artists come directly from the conservative or reactionary sort of background that roots for their failure out loud, because for them to succeed would contradict everything which their communities believe is true about life. It is the divided self which this background creates that necessitates working in the arts for so many people: between love and affection for these people who do truly love them back and the knowledge that these people who raise them hate everything they represent - the irresponsibility of choosing such an insecure career, their hostility to predictable norms, the winds of change their ideas seem to promise is imminent. So when some artists work through the conflicts of their origin years through the arts, however abstractly, it causes further levels of guilt, which necessitates the creation of more art.
While it's not the dominant element, there is no question that this stability is part of the Welles makeup, and you see it particularly in The Magnificent Ambersons, in which George Amberson - and Welles's full name was George Orson Welles - was, like how Welles probably viewed himself, the spoiled brat son of an immensely prosperous midwestern family of suburban industrialists for whom all change is viewed as a threat. Booth Tarkington, the writer of the novel on which the movie was based, was a family friend who would come to stay in the Welles family mansion. Welles claimed, though it's not proven, to be descended from Gideon Welles, famous abolitionist and Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy.
The Welles mansion was in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a very small city bordering Lake Michigan situated right near the Illinois border, across which grew perhaps the boy starring the antithetical American story of their generation to Welles, Ronald Reagan. Kenosha was a midwestern town founded in the 1830s and seemingly grew into a city because a railroad needed a stop there. Simon Callow notes in his biography that:
Every country has its joke towns, good for an easy laugh, and if Kenosha is not quite in the league of Oshkosh, Wisconsin and Normal, Illinois, it is still sufficiently redolent of boondockery to seem to mock the very idea of aspiration in its sons and daughters.An article about Welles appeared in 1947 which remarked that Welles:
...is annoyed at his parents to this day because he sprang yelling into the world in prosaic Kenosha, Wisconsin.'Welles replied in the article:
I never blamed my folks for Kenosha - Kenosha has always blamed my folks for me.Welles himself was not from the kind of background which Kenosha, Wisconsin would seem to denote, but his parents decidedly were and made sure to move out of Kenosha before he was four, and so were many relatives of Welles's father whom they left behind.
And yet the stability of certain kinds of families is also its own kind of myth. It's not usually the people who find great happiness in the usual kinds of family and community stability who lash out at those who pursue a different path, if that kind of life gives them genuine fulfillment, it would give them fulfillment to make sure that those family members they love who suffer under domestic expectations have the wings to become the kind of person that would give those oddball family members fulfillment, because for those family misfits to walk around unfulfilled would be a threat to their domestic bliss.
It's those people who do not feel domestic bliss that don't understand why others who do not fit soundly in the rubric of Normal, USA or Normal, Anywhere Else, need another kind of life than theirs; because they feel threatened by those who pursue a different kind of life, precisely because if such people succeed, it might invalidate their own choices, or still worse, endanger the security of their position which makes their unfulfilling life just slightly bearable. Stockholm Syndrome is real, and far wider spread than anybody imagines. After a certain age, the real threat to people's self-worth is not the people who place limitations on their options in life. After such limitations are internalized, the real threat to people's self-worth are those who succeed in creating a different kind of life for themselves after we ourselves failed, because they show that we didn't have to make the compromises we made, and we could have been happier.
And this is, in many different ways, the story of Orson Welles's paternal grandmother, Mary Head Welles Gottfredson, who probably would have been much happier and caused much less turmoil in others if people like her could have lived a life like Orson Welles's. She was the daughter of the similarly temperamental and apparently quite powerful Orson Head, described as 'one of Kenosha's pioneer attorneys' who accumulated great wealth and helped to establish Kenosha society. Don't let that term 'Kenosha Society' fool you, once upon a time there were high societies and sharply defined social castes in every small town in America.
Mary Head seemingly travelled without chaperone to St. Joseph, Missouri so she could compel a freight clerk named Richard Wells to marry her, brought Richard back to her parents, who were horrified, and defied her parents by marrying him. She was fourteen at the time, so perhaps this is where Orson Welles inherited his precocity. After Mr. Head signaled his harsh disapproval, they returned to St. Joseph, where it wasn't a long time before they'd spent her entire dowry. They returned to Kenosha with their son Richard in tow, and after her notoriously temperamental father passed, she moved into his mansion along with the family members who were hostile to her life choices.
Less than ten years later, Richard Wells was so tired of Mary and her family that he fled Kenosha for an existence somewhere between an existence somewhere between a cad and a hobo. He was declared dead in 1885 so that Mary could collect the patrimony her father made generously conditional on her husband's demise, but was sighted as late as 1901.
In the meantime Mary went about scandalizing her family a second time by marrying a Danish immigrant brewer whose last name was Gottfredson. She became a society hostess whose gatherings were actively meant to scandalize her family's elegant manners, with such wonderful innovations as charging admissions to her parties. Richard Head Welles was so embarrassed by his mother that he added an extra 'e' to his name so that it was less likely people would associate him with his mother.
Some of the next events are better described by Welles in two autobiographical pieces he wrote for Paris Vogue - they are the closest he ever came to writing an autobiography. Like everything about Welles, we have no idea how much if any of it is true. But they do testify to the fact that his grandmother was both mentally unsound and a kind of tyrant who could probably have benefitted from a different kind of life than the family life which was ultimately her only option:
We'll come back later to the startling claim we just heard, but let's start with the first, ever so slightly less, startling claim, that Welles's grandmother put a curse on her son's marriage. Even if she did, the kind of person who puts a curse on her son's marriage is liable to be the kind of person who will do everything in her power to break it up in more corporeal ways. No doubt, Welles did his grandmother a bit dirty in his descriptions of her, but Mary Head Welles Gottfredson sounds like the kind of person who was not well equipped for the situation in which life stationed her, however secure her station, and if she was interested in witchcraft, which is, of course, just a few spells away from the magic which her grandson practiced his whole life, perhaps, had she been a man, she'd have had the chance for the kind of peripatetic existence lived by her first husband, her son, and her grandson, but as a woman in the 19th century, was most certainly not allowed to her.A strange marriage all the same. My paternal grandmother put a curse on it.The ballroom on the top floor of the old woman’s house had, at some remote period, been mysteriously converted into an enormous indoor miniature golf course full of wooden hills and nasty little sand traps, still partly covered with rotting green paper. Crowning the highest of the hills there had been erected, at a later date, what was unmistakably an altar. Representing some more recent epoch in Grandmother’s spiritual progress, it was no place for Christian sacraments. The feathers of many birds long dead lay all about the golf course, and the altar itself was deeply stained with blood. This dreadful woman – dwarfish, obese and evil-smelling – was a practicing witch.On the occasion of her son’s funeral, celebrated in that huge house of hers this hellish creature managed to sandwich some obscure passages into the ordinary protestant service, so that the wretched, weak-willed minister was confused enough to read out during the ceremony several of the more bizarre invocations employed by Madame Blavatsky, and great, reeking dollops of Aleister Crowley.I was in no condition to interfere, being convinced – as I am now – that I had killed my father.
When her son came home with Beatrice Ives, a woman of immense education and passion, she probably thought her new potential daughter-in-law looked upon her as a hick, and perhaps she was correct. It's difficult to believe that Welles's mother, Beatrice Ives, would ever bend to the will of a woman who decorated her mansion's dance floor with a miniature golf course, and by the way, whose mansion's facade was also decorated by giant beer steins. Furthermore, in the difference of education level probably also came political differences. Beatrice Ives Welles was a progressive and a feminist, and few people are more anti-radical than someone who who has the temperament for more radical beliefs but must repress them. Mary Head Welles Gottfredson ran away from home when she was fourteen, she scandalized her family twice in her marriages, only to become her family's dowager ruler in old age. Many people are bonded to their families and communities precisely because of how the communities made them suffer, because to admit for other possibilities is to admit that the suffering they'd incurred might not have been worth its price. Such people often are not only conservatives, but reactionaries. They don't want to keep things as they are, but actively change things back to the way they thought things were. A person whose notions of high society include charging admission, miniature golf, and giant beer steins is not someone who thinks highly of elites, no matter how much money she has; and a rich 19th century dowager interested in pagan mysticism is not a proto-hippy but usually in thrall to the kind of mysticism that in a generation would suffuse the ideology of any number of fascist political parties.
So let's now read how Simon Callow's biography of Welles vividly describes the period around Richard Welles's funeral when Welles was fifteen:
But what of Welles's self-accusation? What matters here is not proof one way or the other (quite obviously he did not physically kill his father) but the fact that he felt that he was, at the deepest level, responsible for his father's death. He was already riven with guilt about him. He had favored his mother over his father, was her emissary in the world, living out her hopes and dreams. He had perhaps wished his father out of the way. Often, in the years to come, he would frighten himself with the destructive power of his will; perhaps he had used it here, with apparently direct results. Above all, however, Orson had, at the behest of others, abandoned his father. Six months is an awfully long time in the relationship of a fifteen-year-old boy to his father. He had never let more than a couple weeks go by before without seeing Dick. And now he could never see him again. The loss of his mother occurred when he was nine, a child; and besides, he had never really lost her. Now he was a man. The loss of his father was irredeemable, a shattering blow. Having never really had him, he searched for him all his days, sometimes trying to be him, sometimes trying to create an image of him that would absolve the disappointment of the past. He remained an absence, a void, a gap deep within Orson which nothing could fill.
For the immediate future, there was more pain to endure. It was decreed, inevitably, that the funeral must take place in Kenosha; arrangements were in the hands of Dick's - 'unknown' - mother, Mary Head Welles Gottfredson. Orson's relationship with her had never been a success. Despising Richard Junior (who for obvious reasons was not at his father's funeral), she was permanently incened by Orson, whom she regarded as unmanly. Orson fiercely defended his right to aestheticism. Their occasional encounters after the family had left Kenosha were fraught, with Orson defiant - not something to which Mrs Gottfredson was accustomed. Her other grandson Edward recalled that 'Orson once tried to scare Grandma with a rubber dagger and when Grandma refused to become frightened, he dramatically plunged the dagger into his own heart, and died as horribly as his youthful histrionic powers would permit.' 'He was always emoting all over the place' explained Mrs Gottfredson Junior. 'And egotistical as hell,' added her husband. When Orson arrived, explaining that his father must be buried at sea or cremated, he was brushed aside. He persisted, frantic and tearful, and was ignored. his brimming cup of guilt must have overflowed. The final betrayal, to break a solemn oath given to a dying man.The desire to create art can also come from familial stability and broken homes. That kind of artistic background is so commented upon that I don't feel the need to add to it - you can find explanations of that virtually everywhere. But by having such august grandparents and great-grandparents, Welles himself had both in his background, perhaps you need both in order to feel the urgency of why a different kind of life than either might be necessary to both endow you with the desperation to fall back upon your own wits, and also the hope that a better kind of life is possible.
Welles's mother, Beatrice Ives, was, apparently among many other things, a suffragette, a champion rifle shot, the first woman in Kenosha to hold public office, later becoming Chair of the Board of Education, a great beauty, and a lecturer for all manner of women's groups who would enrapture audiences about Eastern religions, impressionist music, modern poetry, current events. Like her family, she grew up in Springfield, Illinois. Abraham Lincoln was her grandparents' longtime neighbor and friend. But for illness, stomach cancer, she may yet have found room for a wider career as a concert pianist. Frederick Stock, the longtime music director of the Chicago Symphony, called Beatrice Welles the greatest woman pianist he knew. At the time, it was considered de rigeur for society hostesses to feed the famous touring musicians who came into town. So by the time Welles mother died, he may have met, according to differing accounts in various biographies, Stravinsky, Ravel, Prokofiev, Artur Schnabel, Pablo Casals, Mischa Elman, Alfred Wallenstein, and Jascha Heifetz. Mrs. Ives-Welles homeschooled her son and taught him to recite Shakespeare aloud along with Swinburne, Rossetti, Keats, Tennyson, and Whitman. "Why" she apparently said, "should a person be at his most impressionable age be shoveled into the sordid company of Auntie's Nice Kit Kat or Little Sister's Silly Red Ball"? In the same Paris Vogue articles, Welles wrote that "Children could be treated as adults as long as they were amusing. The moment you became boring, it was off to the nursery."
Welles's school was the artists and intellectuals he met, and Welles convinced himself form the earliest age that he was one of them - drinking wine at five as though it were the most natural thing, declaiming speeches in King Lear by the time he was eight, the same age when he would start mixing drinks and write a paper entitled "The Universal History of The Drama", producing a drawing room version of King Lear with himself in the title role by the time he was nine, and at nine, he started drawing lines on his face so that people would think he was older. This was also the age when he ran away with a girl named Marjorie Watson, telling her they would support themselves as traveling actors - at the beginning of their journey he flung his money into a river and told her they would live by their talent or die trying. They were found in a small town four days later. He apparently was smoking cigars at ten, at which age he wrote a critique of Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra. We'll talk more in far more depth about this precocious childhood next week.
When Dr. Maurice Bernstein first came on a house call, which, depending on the biographer was either to examine Beatrice Ives's mother or to examine a head injury from a fall of Orson's older brother, he was told by a one-and-a-half year old baby that "the desire to take medicine is one of the greatest features which distinguishes men from the animals."
Dr. Bernstein would recall thirty years later to an interviewer:
I was astounded by the extraordinary mental maturity of the boy. He was talking remarkably sound sense at the age of two, and I felt sure, from his appearance, demeanour and receptivity to paintings and sculptures that he was destined to become some kind of artist.Dr. Bernstein was a better father figure than Dick Welles, but he was no role model either. He something of a drunk himself whom Welles would have to give money in adulthood so Bernstein could spend it in some bar. On the one hand, he was an amateur cellist and composer of some ability who also knew many of the great classical musicians personally. Together, Dr. Bernstein and Beatrice Welles saw to it that Orson would become the boy extra of the Chicago Opera Company. Welles of course became so heavy that he could no longer be lifted, which was often part of the choreography, and his career ended when Giovanni Martinelli, one of the great tenors of the age, said that Welles was too heavy to pick up.
On the other hand, the reason Dr. Bernstein was in Kenosha rather than Chicago was because of an incident in which he was charged with attacking, beating, and leaving for injured a clinic supervisor. Earlier in the same year Dr. Bernstein met the Welleses, he'd been married to the sister of the famed violin virtuoso, Mischa Elman, but the marriage broke up after four months amid accusations of infidelity and dishonesty. After the death of Beatrice Ives's mother, come up to Kenosha so Beatrice could look after her while she was dying in searing pain, the Welles's moved to Chicago. Dick and Beatrice, Dickie, Orson, and Dr. Bernstein, whom Orson had apparently started calling 'Dadda.' Dick Welles had relapsed into alcoholism.