Friday, August 25, 2006

The Genesis and Progress of Genius or Orson Welles on the Road to Xanadu

By Lance Mannion

Genius has a shelf life.

In the arts, at any rate, geniuses blossom and thrive for a set number of years and then their powers begin to decline, gradually and over decades for the lucky, sharply and precipitously for the unlucky or those, like Hemingway, who wasted their energies and gifts.

For some, that period of genius in bloom lasts for a short time, ten years at most. Others are granted twenty years or more. The greatest geniuses seem to last longest, producing masterpiece upon masterpiece up until the brink of old age. A few, mostly composers and painters, have managed even in their old age to turn out work every bit as good and even better than things they did in their prime.

Artistic genius seems to come into its own later than scientific genius. Artists tend to find their way in their late twenties or early thirties, with a few not hitting their stride until their forties. If you were to graph the periods of artistic fecundity of the "average" genius, you'd get a parabola that begins climbing somewhere around the age of twenty-five and rises up to forty or fifty before beginning its downward arc.

Orson Welles' period of genius seems to have lasted about thirty years. Unfortunately for him, it began when he was ten.

If he'd begun to blossom in his mid to late twenties, he'd have been done when he was closing on sixty and would have had less time to turn himself into a joke and a self-parody.

Instead he was finished at about the time most great geniuses are just beginning to produce their best work.

It didn't help that Welles lost his ability to discipline himself at exactly the moment he most needed to focus, during the production of The Magnificent Ambersons.

Reviewing Orson Welles: Hello Americans, the second volume of Simon Callow's ambitious biography of Welles, in this month's Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz writes that Welles' tragic error was his "fateful decision to leave Ambersons without finishing the film’s all-important postproduction work, in order to fly to Rio to film the Carnival for a wartime documentary the government had asked him to direct in support of inter-American unity."

For Welles, the South America trip was equal parts patriotic gesture, serious attempt to make something like an anthropological art film, and sybaritic boondoggle. Indisputably, though, his adventure there destroyed his already-fragile relationship with RKO (the company was footing the bill) and led to the studio’s evisceration of Ambersons—RKO cut nearly an hour from the film, diminishing it from 131 minutes to eighty-eight, and the studio inserted new material that was neither written nor directed by Welles.

At the time, the “giant boy,” as Welles was often called, seems to have been too absorbed in his pleasures and projects to apprehend fully the ramifications of the destruction of Ambersons—and his own role in that destruction. Four decades later he would recognize, as his film archivist recounted, that it “was the worst thing that had happened to him in his life.”

(Sorry to report that the whole article appears to be available only to subsribers. I'll look for a way around that.)

The Magnificent Ambersons as Welles filmed it is thought to be the greatest film never seen.

A superhuman ability to focus and maintain self-discipline, at least while working, are as important qualities to genius as actual talent. Once they go the talent is practically useless.

Welles' talent continued to flicker and flare for many years---Touch of Evil, The Lady From Shanghai, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, not a bad tail-off---but after The Magnificent Ambersons he could never get the right people to take him seriously again, and one of those people was, apparently, himself.

Geniuses often seem to spring out of nowhere. They appear in the most average families like changelings. Welles, however, was born into a family of, if not geniuses, then exceptional and idiosyncratic talent. His father was an exceptionally talented accountant and business executive (althought not a particularly good man of business; his uncle, that is, Orson's great-uncle had that distinction, having founded two successful companies) who was also something of an inventor. His intellectual mother was a musician, a brilliant public speaker, a political activist, and a champion shot with a rifle.

But he was also born into a family of "characters." Selfish and self-indulgent characters, at that.

His father led a double-life, going back and forth between his respectable, upper-middle class life and the Chicago demimonde where he was a regular at the best whorehouses and "theaters" and notorious for his way with chorus girls and actresses.

His mother, Orson's grandmother, was smart, talented, and self-willed. In deifiance of her father, the local District Attorney, she left her home in Kenosha, Wisconsin one day, made her way to Missouri, apparently with the intention of finding a husband for herself, which she did, choosing a fellow best suited to give her father the most heartburn and herself the least trouble.

She was fourteen at the time.

She did not grow less independent or idiosyncratic, or self-centered, as she aged.

That husband, Orson's grandfather, did his bit and did not cause her trouble, drifting quietly out of her life after a few years of marriage. She had him declared legally dead and married again, this time choosing a steadier but just as self-effacing a husband.

In case you're wondering, I've been reading the first volume of Callow's biography, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu. I started it last night and ate it up with a spoon. I read late into the night. I was furious with myself when I grew too tired to keep reading. I can't remember the last book I read that I just didn't want to put down.

Maud Newton can. It was Rupert Thomson's Air & Fire and Maud got so caught up while reading it at a bus stop that she let buses go by in order to finish: God, is it a page-turner. You suspect early-on that a Frenchman’s efforts to build a metal church in the tropics will lead to disaster for everyone, but the characters and their desires are so fully-realized that you’re desperate to see exactly what form their tragedies will take. Or I was, anyway.

I had about fifty pages left to go when I met a friend for drinks on Thursday night. She and I parted ways at midnight, and I rushed over to the bus stop near Greenpoint Ave. It’s at most a ten-minute walk to my house from there. I couldn’t wait. I leaned against a pole, let the buses pass, and read until I finished.

Alone at a bus stop. At midnight. In New York City. Lost in a book.

That must be some book.

Ok, your turn again. What was the last book you read that you'd have kept reading alone at a bus stop at midnight while letting the buses go by?

Also, name some geniuses who were productive into their old age and others who burned out early.

Cross-posted at my place.


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