Sunday, July 5, 2015

Lunch with Orson

"A typical few hours-- in short-- some stories, some hopefulness, some creative ideas, some anecdotes, some sadness, some old memories, much shared understanding, many communicative smiles."
-- Henry Jaglom regarding his last lunch with Orson Welles

Of the many larger than life personalities to come out of Hollywood over the last century, there is no one quite so substantial perhaps as Orson Welles. The maker of Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil,  F for Fake, and his legendary Shakesperean adaptations of Macbeth and Othello, lived out his life as an unreconstructed genius, which is to say he was too smart for his own good. At one point or another he had probably antagonized everyone in Hollywood, most especially the suits who could afford to produce a picture. After his wunderkind debut, he had trouble financing his projects, and some of his best films were destroyed in the editing room by antagonistic studio heads. An actor with presence and an incredible voice, his voracious appetite for life led him to becoming a legendary gourmand, with the terrible consequences of obesity and its attendant diseases. The last ten years of his life he struggled to get funding for his numerous unfinished projects, an amazing development when you consider how integral Welles was to moviemaking.

Like Welles, Henry Jaglom is an independent filmmaker who idolized Welles. They became buddies and met weekly at a restaurant called Ma Maison (where Wolfgang Puck got his culinary start in California). The last few years of Welles' life, Jaglom (with Orson's consent) had begun tape-recording their conversations. Two years worth of lunch conversations are collected in My Lunches with Orson (edited by Peter Biskind). A lot of the conversations are Jaglom and Orson talking shop: the travails of financing for Welles' films. They also gossip about the sex lives of stars in Hollywood's golden era and Orson relishes in pontification. The conversations, though freeform rambling are often thematically unique enough for provocative chapter titles ("Everyone should be bigoted" to "It was my one moment of being a traffic-stopping superstar.") 

Throughout, Orson is engaging and eminently quotable. He chastises the chastisers ("Irene Dunne was so dry-toothed and such a good fucking Catholic that I wanted to kick her in the crotch."). He impugns aesthetes with wide-ranging tastes ("I say there's a point where somebody can't really dig that other fellow if they dig this one. Our eyes, our sensibilities, are only so wide.") And ironically, he condemns the film industry (sneaking in a smear on ballet while he's at it): "You know, I'm not interested in other filmmakers-- and that's a terribly arrogant thing to say-- or in the medium. It's the least interesting art medium for me to watch that there is. Except ballet-- that's the only thing less interesting." Orson has a bombastic personality and perhaps a penchant for exaggeration, often  inserting himself Zelig-like into the lives of many an icon, but he peppers his relevance with an anecdote suggesting some truthfulness. While Jaglom does adore Welles, they're tight enough for Jaglom to call "Bullshit," when Welles really winds himself up.

But Welles can be something of a philosopher too. In one conversation, Jaglom is feeling guilty about failing to give up his film career to do good work in Africa. Their talk evolves into free will and the nature of good and evil. Orson, guilty as anyone of living for himself rather than the dying stranger is nevertheless cognizant of his shared culpability: "Even if there is nothing out there except a random movement of untold gases and objects, sin still exists. You don't need a devil with horns. It's a social definition of sin. Everything we do that is self-indulgent, and that is selfish, and that turns us away from our dignity as human beings is a sin against what we were born with, the capacities we have, what we could make of this planet."

Orson Welles and Henry Jaglom

Later in the conversation he acknowledges that a number of people depend on him-- not just family, but actors and technicians for work, and of course there was his audience. He can do much more collective good as a filmmaker than as another body distributing foodstuffs in Ethiopia. But this isn't arrogance, this is truth. Most of the talks between Jaglom and Welles are humorous but there is an underlying current of sadness in that by the 1980s, Orson had become a has-been. If he could have walked away he might have found closure with his past. He couldn't-- not just because he needed the work to pay off his debts, but a certain indelible pride precluded him from retiring from what he did best. The man never stopped plotting, scheming, dreaming. Welles died the night of October 10th, 1985, with a typewriter on his lap.

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