Some kind of a puppet

life backwards from David Cairns on Vimeo.

I’ve been looking for this sketch since forever. Easily, for me, the most memorable thing the satirical puppet show Spitting Image ever did.

The modus operandi of the show was snark, but this posthumous piece on Orson Welles can be processed in other ways. At the time, I remember finding it not so much funny as thought-provoking.

The year was 1986. Welles died in October the previous year. It was kind of odd for a topical show to pick up on something not really in the news. “Don’t you think right after his death -?” as a guy named Thompson once attempted to ask. This little scene riffs on some of the commonplace bits of snark about Welles — “from CITIZEN KANE to sherry commercials” but offers a different spin.

American satires of Welles come with a not-so-hidden subtext: he started big and ended small. He made the greatest film ever, and look what happened to him. Beware, all of you, of artistic ambition. Hubris! No good can come of it. Very reassuring to those with regular work making run-of-the-mill multiplex fodder.

The authors of this piece are still prone to underrating later Welles achievements, as far as we can tell in its rather incomplete summary of his career. But by flipping Welles’ biography around, this little spoof raises two points ~

  1. Does it matter what order Welles made things in? The fact is, he made CITIZEN KANE. A career with that in it is a triumphant career. Nothing that comes after it can invalidate it, any more than anything before it could invalidate it.
  2. What does it matter what you say about people?
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8 Responses to “Some kind of a puppet”

  1. Someone said to Joseph Heller: “You’ve never written anything as good since Catch-22.”
    “Who has?” said Heller.

    Welles could say the same thing about Citizen Kane.

  2. It’s a good answer. Welles would probably have defended his later work, and I’d agree with him.

  3. I admire Welles’s later work enormously too. Even without Kane he’d be up near the top.

  4. I’m working on a first novel that, by sheer bulk, will be my magnum opus. My plan is to follow it with something far simpler, and end with promising short stories.

  5. revelator60 Says:

    A compilation of Orson Welles’s “appearances” on “The Critic” is relatively typical of American satire of Welles: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6i7ycxiog40
    Those satires are likely less common today, when much of later Welles is easily available on high quality Blu-Ray. But in previous decades the mass audience’s primary exposure to Welles would have through his commercials and appearances on Johnny Carson and junk like Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roasts. The chances of seeing F For Fake on TV (before the rise of TCM) was small, whereas Citizen Kane, an anointed Hollywood classic, received far more exposure. Since Welles’s later work was non-Hollywood and independent, it was off the radar for the American mainstream. And Americans also love to see great talent degraded—Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley were derided as fat saddos and John Barrymore was reduced to playing a frazzled self-parody.

  6. Yes, that’s part of the same phenomenon.

    Welles’ frozen peas VO out-takes are a masterclass in how not to direct an actor, but a lot of people seem to miss the point and think it’s OW being unreasonable, or just enjoy the “how are the mighty fallen” aspect.

  7. I seem to remember a story Roger Ebert told, about how, in the early days of Laserdisc, he and a group of critics tried to persuade Welles to record that new dazzling piece of technology… an audio commentary.
    According to Ebert, Welles refused, because he felt he had made many other fine films, and that Kane was now overshadowing them.

    I have to agree.
    Chimes at Midnight, at least, is Kane’s equal

    Having recently read his screenplays for The Dreamers (which you can find online) and The Cradle Will Rock (the book of which you can buy on Amazon) Films he wanted to make in the late 70s & early 80s. He still had some brilliant ideas left in him

  8. I would certainly have loved to see any of those projects completed. Cradle Will Rock had the disadvantage of a very hard-to-cast lead: young Orson himself. He apparently met with Rupert Everett to discuss it…

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