Archive for Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles

Get thee behind me, Thetan

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2015 by dcairns

GOING CLEAR, Alex Gibney’s exposé of the Church of Scientology (Scientology: literally, “science science”), is a proper documentary. I wish MAGICIAN had those chops. Welles deserves masterpieces and arguably the Scientologists deserve to be lost in the dust of history. But they also deserve to be exposed for what they are.

The model for Gibney’s approach is probably Errol Morris — tightly-honed interviews, carefully chosen archive, and dramatic images — a flung chair in extreme slomo makes an impression here. It’s not hugely ground-breaking but it’s meaningful, earnest, compelling, and very well made. Maybe they reuse their drone shot of the Scientology building too often, but it’s a super image, like a building opening its arms to give you a great, big, crushing hug.

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It has a few really amazing figures at its centre. L. Ron Hubbard, seen in archive material, has the voice of John Huston’s Noah Cross (Paul Thomas Anderson missed a trick when he used that in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, thereby ruling it out for THE MASTER) and the smile of Uncle Milty, but is an immediately alarming creature, visibly calculating fresh perfidies in every frame of celluloid that passes. As with many cult nasties, you wonder why anyone would be taken in, but he does have a certain repulsive charisma and a free-flowing glibness.

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Was the Bond villain pose really the best way to go?

David Miscavige resembles a sort of callow Ray Walston — my favourite Thetan? — nerdy in his absurd naval uniform. The leadership of cults tends to break down into two distinct types. The boss usually believes his own bullshit — he may have some kind of criminal past but his philosophy becomes holy writ even to him and so he’s totally wrapped up in the cult of himself. The second-in-commands, like high-ranking Nazis, are more of the gangster type. It’s not so relevant to them whether the faith they follow is genuine, it’s more about keeping it going and getting what they can out of it.

Then there’s Travolta and Cruise (seen in some of the really damaging maniacal interview stuff the Church never intended us to see). A lot of grinning. A sincere grin, we’re told, comes on fast and fades slowly. Hubbard is like an identikit, his eyes have no relationship to his mouth so his grin is frankly terrifying. I was never able to judge the sincerity of a Scientological smile because they DON’T FADE. They come of fast and then just FIX in position, as if the wind changed. Is it true that any Scientologist who smiles must then keep smiling for the rest of their life?

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The two things missing from the documentary are not flaws, just things it occurred to me I’d like to see.

1) An interview with the former head of the IRS explaining why he granted the organisation tax-exempt status. The film lays out a pretty convincing case that he was pressured into it, but it’d be nice to hear him say so, if he’s alive. Personally, I don’t think they should reclassify Scientology as not a religion — it’s no crazier or fakier than Catholicism — I think they should just cancel tax exemption for all religions. You might allow exemption for actual charities administered by religions, if they proved they were engaged in beneficial work.

2) Analysis by an expert in micro-body language of what is going on with Hubbard, Miscavige, and ESPECIALLY Cruise in that remarkable interview. I think this could be very revealing and entertaining, in a morbid way. WHAT is Cruise laughing at? We ideally need a ticker-tape going across his forehead on which we can read all his crazy thoughts, his internal conversation/argument male voice choir. Some massive violation of the inside/outside dichotomy seems to be going on. I’m reminded of the Gentleman with Thistle-Down Hair in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, who, upon having a brilliant idea, will immediately attribute it to his interlocutor. Cruise seems like he’ll be constantly delighted/angry/terrified by all the wonderful ideas everyone around him is having and not telling him about but that he knows anyway.

It’s striking to look at this astonishing interview with Robert Blake, which Fiona discovered and watched until YouTube wore out,  and realize that Blake, convicted in a civil suit of killing his wife, and obviously out where the buses don’t run in all manner of ways, is entirely and clinically sane compared to Cruise. Blake is persistently furious (and with good reason — everyone thinks he killed his wife – -and HE DID), oppressively FORCEFUL and EXPLOSIVE, and also peppers his dialogue with 1930s newsboy expressions commingled with beat poetry and the lost language of angels: “I am FLAT BROKE! I couldn’t buy SPATS for a HUMMINGBIRD!” Interviewer Piers Morgan, he of the inflamed, evil face, doesn’t even blink at this, because he has no poetry in the place where his soul should be.

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Robert Blake doesn’t NEED Scientology because any Thetans foolhardy enough to clamp themselves onto him die of toxic shock or run gibbering into the night. Or turn up riddled with bullets from an antique Walther.

Piers Morgan doesn’t need Scientology (literally, “the science of science”) because he has no personality, he’s just a vaguely malevolent vacuum packed in pink meat.

 

God Send the Prince a Better Companion

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2015 by dcairns

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MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING LIFE AND WORK OR ORSON WELLES has one decisive thing in its favour — it’s on the side of its subject. American documentaries about Welles have tended to take an antagonistic view — there’s something about seeing Welles as, ultimately, a failure, which is immensely comforting to mediocrities. It’s wrong to aspire to greatness, you’ll never make it, so Three Cheers for the Ordinary! Showmanship instead of Genius.

But Chuck Workman is a really terrible name to have if you’re setting out to make a film celebrating genius, I have to say. God, it’s really unfair to pick on a guy for his name, isn’t it? Forget I said it.

The problem with the documentary… no, I can’t make it that simple. First among the documentary’s problems is that it tries to cram too much in. This was always going to be tough, when you look at the number of books and documentaries and fictional representations of Welles — such Simon Callow’s still-unfinished trilogy of biographies. How do you do justice to all that, if you’re tackling the plays as well as the films, the incomplete, unreleased works as well as the known classics? You don’t.

The decision to include everything, or a bit of everything, looks heroic at first but is possibly the result of indecision. What else can explain the fleeting reference to the controversial restoration of OTHELLO — “It has a few problems,” — a subject dropped as soon as it’s raised, with absolutely no exposition of what the problems are. Even getting into this subject takes us out of chronology and into Welles’ posthumous reputation, so it derails the narrative. This is a movie that insists on touching upon every point but is in too much of a hurry to elucidate anything.

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The most egregious effect of the need for speed is the treatment of the film clips, all of which are recut, compressed, turned into edited highlights — Workman even plays music underneath to further condense, distort. His idea of the kind of edit you can get away with is also hopelessly optimistic, so that he chops lines together as in a movie trailer, resulting in bizarre non-sequiturs, making blurting blipverts out of some of the best-known scenes in American cinema. When the expected line doesn’t follow, or follows five seconds too soon, the audience member familiar with the clip is thrown for a loop. The audience member new to all this is in an even worse position, force-fed a bowdlerized, mangled version of LADY FROM SHANGHAI or THE THIRD MAN. It’s hugely ironic that a movie which takes Welles’ part should re-edit his films as viciously as ever Columbia or RKO could manage.

Added to this, quality control is low: an early montage of framed photos of Welles features one shot with a Magnum watermark pasted across it — stolen from the internet, defaced, not paid for, thrown out there in the hopes that we won’t notice the very thing we’re being shown. Music choices are hackneyed, anachronistic, inappropriate (L’Apres-Midi  d’un Faun for THE TRIAL??) and rather than bolstering the emotion of the clips they play under — the presumed purpose — they frequently undermine it. Clips are sourced from all over, some of them seemingly from YouTube, so the resolution fluctuates like crazy.

Most of the best stuff comes from Welles’ giant BBC interview, broadcast as Orson Welles: Stories from a Life in Film, but this is hacked up too. There’s nothing as egregious as the ending of The Battle for Citizen Kane, which has Welles saying “I think I made essentially a mistake staying in motion pictures,” but leaves off what he said next — “but it’s a mistake I can’t regret,” which is followed by a heartbreaking, inspiring speech about his love of film. But Workman does use the interview as a source for random pull-quotes, so that some lines do duty for subjects they originally had nothing to do with. It’s a very insidious form of misquotation. Sometimes, people whose big mouths have gotten them in trouble complain of being “quoted out of context” (all quotes are, by their nature, somewhat out of context) — Welles is being quoted in contexts he never knew anything about, contexts devised thirty years after his death by a bloke called Chuck whose day job is editing the Oscars.

The compassion for Welles is admirable, and I think the section on his love of food was skillfully done — affectionate without degenerating into fat jokes. and there’s a nice bit where different Welles interviews are cut together to show how he would vary a story each time he told it. Where the movie has a strong idea, it’s on solid ground, but this rarely happens.

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Of the critical thinkers on display, James Naremore makes the best contribution. I would have liked more of Christopher Welles and even the dreaded Beatrice. Oja Kodar’s bit comes across like unedited rushes, jumping from subject to subject which may well be the way she talks, but the filmmaker is supposed to supply shape. She says some lovely stuff, and announces her willingness to be shamelessly indiscrete — I wish she was allowed to be.

Still, this could be an important moment even if the film is mainly a missed opportunity — a film from America which is resoundingly pro-Welles, which sees the truncated and unfinished films as the fault of a system rather than of the man, which debunks “fear of completion” and admits that the Philistinism of the film industry is the more serious problem — this is a new development, and worthy of celebration in this centennial year.