Welles at 100

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Orson Welles: A First Biography (1946) by Roy Alexander Fowler.

Happy birthday, Orson. The premature celebrity biography is nothing new, as this small volume from the Coulthart library demonstrates. Welles was only 31 in 1946 but was already the director of three feature films. If I’m less of a Welles obsessive today it’s because many of the films and radio plays that were once inaccessible can now be easily seen and heard, although a handful of unfinished projects still wait in the wings. The following is a selection of some favourite Wellesiana, old and new.

• The Mercury Theatre On The Air: Recordings of Welles’ theatre troupe at the Internet Archive and at the dedicated website. The Mercury production of The War of the Worlds is the essential one, of course, but I’m also partial to their production of Dracula which featured Agnes Moorehead playing Mina Harker, Welles as the Count, and a suitably spooky score by Bernard Herrmann. The production of Around the World in 80 Days was later expanded by Welles into an ambitious (and expensive) stage musical in collaboration with Cole Porter.

The Night America Trembled (1957) is a TV dramatisation of the alarmed reaction of some Americans to the War of the Worlds broadcast. Presented live by Ed Murrow, the drama features Warren Beatty, James Coburn, Warren Oates, and Ed Asner (who later presented the BBC’s RKO Story). Closer to Welles is The Night That Panicked America (1975) a TV movie recreation of the original broadcast with Paul Shenar as the director.

Newsreel footage of the final scenes of the so-called Voodoo Macbeth from 1936. As part of the WPA program to return Americans to work, Welles directed an all-black cast with the action of the play moved to Haiti. As usual, Welles wasn’t afraid of rearranging the Bard’s words, and this staging ends with the same lines as his 1948 film version: “Peace! The charm’s wound up.”

• My favourite Welles book is still This is Orson Welles (1992), a collection of Peter Bogdanovich’s interviews edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Bogdanovich’s interview tapes can be heard at the Internet Archive.

Orson Welles’ Horrorshow: Colin Fleming on Welles’ Macbeth, “the horror film no one likes to call a horror film”.

Peter Bradshaw on Citizen Kane and the meaning of “Rosebud”.

Six actors who have played Orson Welles onscreen

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Fountain of Youth
The Complete Citizen Kane
Return to Glennascaul, a film by Hilton Edwards
Screening Kafka
The Panic Broadcast

Weekend links 194

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Untitled glass sculpture by Richard Roberts.

Lord Horror: Reverbstorm, my collaboration with David Britton, makes The Quietus list of Literary Highlights of 2013. At the same site there’s Russell Cuzner talking to English Heretic. “His methodology takes in magick, psychogeography and horror film geekdom, along with firm roots in Britain’s industrial music culture of the early 1980s, to form potent, novel topographies of an otherwise unconnected world of occultists and psychopaths.”

• A slew of London links this week: Geoff Manaugh on how the capital was redesigned to survive wartime blackouts, a piece which inadvertently explains why you see so much black-and-white street furniture in post-war films | Bob Mazzer’s photos of the London Underground in the 1970s and 1980s | Philipp Ebeling’s photos of the capital and its inhabitants today.

• “Science has become an international bully. Nowhere is its bullying more outrageous than in its assault on the phenomenon known as subjectivity.” David Gelernter on “The Closing of the Scientific Mind”. Related: “When Science Becomes Scientism” by Stanislav Grof.

• My favourite book about Orson Welles is This is Orson Welles (1992), a collection of Peter Bogdanovich’s interviews with Welles edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Bogdanovich’s interview tapes can now be heard at the Internet Archive.

• Brian Dillon on Dada collagist Hannah Höch who he calls “art’s original punk”, and Sean O’Hagan talking to another collage artist, Linder Sterling, who says “Lady Gaga didn’t acknowledge I wore a meat dress first”.

• One Hundred Years Of Weird Fear: Daniel José Older on HP Lovecraft’s literature of genealogical terror. More fear (and Lovecraft): Will Wiles on the growth of Creepypasta.

The Last Alan Moore Interview? A lengthy discussion with Pádraig Ó Méalóid. Shunning interviews hasn’t done Cormac McCarthy any harm so if I was Alan I wouldn’t worry.

• And speaking of Cormac McCarthy, the headline of the week: “Cormac McCarthy’s ex-wife busted after pulling gun from vagina during alien argument“.

• Where the bodies are buried: Mick Brown presents a potted biography of Kenneth Anger who offers a few reluctant quotes.

• A short animation for gore-obsessed kids: Pingu’s The Thing by Lee Hardcastle.

Helen Yentus designs a 3D-printed slipcase for a novel by Chang-rae Lee.

Ralph Steadman‘s illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

• Mix of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 103 by Lustmord.

Collage art at Pinterest.

No Escape (1966) by The Seeds | Pushin’ Too Hard (1966) by The Seeds | No Escape (1979) by Cabaret Voltaire | Pushin’ Too Hard (1982) by Paul Parker

Screening Kafka

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Kafka (1991).

This week I completed the interior design for a new anthology from Tachyon, Kafkaesque, edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly. It’s a collection of short stories either inspired by Franz Kafka, or with a Kafka-like atmosphere, and features a high calibre of contributions from writers including JG Ballard, Jorge Luis Borges, Carol Emshwiller, Jeffrey Ford, Jonathan Lethem and Philip Roth, and also the comic strip adaptation of The Hunger Artist by Robert Crumb. When I knew this was incoming I rewatched a few favourite Kafka-inspired film and TV works, and belatedly realised I have something of a predilection for these things. What follows is a list of some favourites from the Kafkaesque dramas I’ve seen to date. IMDB lists 72 titles crediting Kafka as the original writer so there’s still a lot more to see.

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The Trial (1962), dir: Orson Welles.

Orson Welles in one of his Peter Bogdanovich interviews describes how producer Alexander Salkind gave him a list of literary classics to which he owned the rights and asked him to pick one. Given a choice of Kafka titles Welles says he would have chosen The Castle but The Trial was the only one on the list so it’s this which became the first major adaptation of a Kafka novel. Welles always took some liberties with adaptations—even Shakespeare wasn’t sacred—and he does so here. I’m not really concerned whether this is completely faithful to the book, however, it’s a first-class work of cinema which shows Welles’ genius for improvisation in the use of the semi-derelict Gare d’Orsay in Paris as the main setting. (Welles had commissioned set designs but the money to pay for those disappeared at the last minute.) As well as scenes in Paris the film mixes other scenes shot in Rome and Zagreb with Anthony Perkins’ Josef K frequently jumping across Europe in a single cut. The resulting blend of 19th-century architecture, industrial ruin and Modernist offices which Welles called “Jules Verne modernism” continues to be a big inspiration for me when thinking about invented cities. Kafka has been fortunate in having many great actors drawn to his work; here with Perkins there’s Welles himself as the booming and hilarious Advocate, together with Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider and Akim Tamiroff.

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