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What Would Orson Think?

I often catch myself wondering what my old friend Orson Welles would think about the state of cinema today. Seeing the legendary Kirk Douglas take the stage during last night’s Academy Awards Ceremony, as difficult as it was to watch at times, reminded me of another era, long ago. Orson’s era.

I know for a fact he would agree with the majority of folks who have grown impressed with the state of television today. The quality and quantity of the content available to us on the idiot box would probably have kept him from leaving his sofa. I’m confident he would have loved the wit and intellect on display in Mad Men. And Hugh Laurie’s crusty but somewhat loveable ‘Dr. House’ would have delighted the irritable director.

I once asked him about a program I had seen and liked – and I’ll never forget his response.

“I hate television! I hate it as much as peanuts.” And then. “But I can’t stop eating peanuts.”

That was Orson. He could simultaneously condemn and worship. But he loved words and the way they could be assembled to tell stories. He was on record for “not being very fond of movies,” but on that point I can tell you he was full of beans. He was selective for sure, and very difficult to impress, but he loved a good film.

My father was in town this past week and we did what we often do, sit and watch films. Some times we will go on Billy Wilder marathons (my dad’s favorite director), other visits we have watched back-to-back-to-back war epics (my boys love watching WWII flicks with Grandpa). This time we settled in to a couple of the more notable films from 2010, “A great year in film, ” I told him.

Things have a changed a bit, however. Age has caught up with the old man – my old man. He is now legally blind after years of suffering from glaucoma. So “watching” films has become “listening” to films for him. He loves it, he insists. And I find it fascinating, knowing all to well from my time behind the camera and in the editing room just how significant the auditory aspect of film is. We sit together and if I feel it necessary to pause and explain a plot point or visual moment, then I do. But you’d be surprised how a good film can be followed through its sound alone. Or, for that matter, through only its visuals.

Three nights ago we watched The Social Network. My dad is not on facebook (shocker, I know). He emails, but that’s about the extent of his computer interaction. But Fincher’s film was a good choice because it is wall-to-wall dialogue. And not just any dialogue, but Aaron Sorkin dialogue. Much to hear and much to enjoy.

When the film reached its final moments, Jesse Eisenberg’s ‘Mark Zuckerberg’ sitting alone in the legal conference room, I explained to my dad that he was staring at his laptop and repeatedly sending a facebook “friend request” to ‘Erica Albright.’ He thought for just a moment (my dad is an excellent writer and storyteller himself) and said “Oh, so she was his ‘Rosebud.'”

Damn. He nailed it. I’d seen the film a half-dozen times before sitting with my dad and not once made that connection. But he’s right.

Orson would have liked The Social Network. Not just because of the ‘Rosebud’ story structure, but because of its intellect. Go back and watch The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and you’ll see what I mean. Language inspired him and he knew the value of a good script.

For the same reason I’m pretty certain he would have enjoyed The King’s Speech as well. He would have admired the momentum of the script, but he would have really appreciated (and maybe self-indulgently chuckled) at the power of radio. For many, Orson Welles is not remembered for Citizen Kane (1941) or Touch of Evil (1958), but for his 1938 “The War of the Worlds” – meant as merely a Halloween radio prank he orchestrated with his Mercury Theatre on the Air cohorts. I wonder how many folks are still walking around today who will own up to the fact that they fell for that prank and actually believed a Martian invasion was happening right here on planet earth. Hard to fathom such a hoax today with all the instantaneous media available to us all. Not to mention all of the natural born cynics we’ve created.

I first met Orson Welles at the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, in 1927 (don’t bother doing math on how old this makes my father, it will only leave you questioning your diet). I was a music student, while he was devoted to literature (“I marinated in poetry” he said) and the theatre. What we initially shared in common was a love and admiration for the Grand Detour Players, a legendary theatre troupe of charismatic and dastardly thespians who delighted us to no end. We would stay up late into the night reciting their monologues and asides, alternately cackling like hens and weeping like women.

But if the Todd School taught us anything it was “Life is not a matter of reciting things. It is a  matter of thinking things and doing things.”

And boy did Orson go on to do things.

I cannot tell you how many times over the years I have nudged my wife or one of my sons while watching a film and said “They lifted that from Citizen Kane.”  Or “That camera angle was inspired by the opening of Touch of Evil.

Storytelling was one of Orson’s great gifts. I can’t watch a film now without wondering if the filmmaker was either inspired by him or motivated to try to outdo him.

As for “Rosebud” – merely the best thematic setup moment in the history of the medium.

I came away from The Town (another film I watched with my dad) feeling as though the ending were tacked on as an afterthought. Surely in one of the scripts there must have been a more ironic or abrupt – even tragic ending? The script was otherwise so smart and relatively honest. Orson would have just shrugged at such a quibble. “If you want a happy ending, it only depends on where you stop your story.”

 

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