Monday, February 04, 2013

Orson W., Josef K. and Joseph C.

(This blog usually publishes non-political posts on the weekends. So I'm a few hours late. Sue me.) 

Throughout this blog's existence, I've never shown my monstrous mug -- until now. The above video was excerpted from roughly 90 minutes of footage shot in 1981, when Orson Welles appeared at USC to do a Q-and-A session after a screening of his 1962 adaptation of Kafka's The Trial. The great director had hoped to create a documentary or "filmed essay" about the making of that earlier work. He never finished the essay and the raw footage remained unseen until it popped up on the internet last year.

You really ought to watch the whole thing. Welles is in excellent form, especially in the second half. (The audience loved his jabs at Reagan.) For more information on Filming "The Trial," see here and here.

Although it carries a rather high humiliation factor, this excerpt won't injure my incognito, because I no longer resemble the youth seen here. Few physiognomies can withstand the wallop of three decades.

Why is the video humiliating? Because, within the space of about five seconds, I managed to tick off one of my heroes. You can actually see the moment when thoughts of suicide took hold. Those thoughts were familiar companions; 1981 was -- for many reasons which you will never learn -- a true annus horribilis. (Fortunately, things improved quite a bit by the time of my next -- and final -- appearance on film, which occurred the next year, and which remains un-YouTubed.)

So why embed this cringe-worthy clip? Because, as embarrassing as the whole encounter then seemed, the young jackass may have been on to something. Yes, The Trial is a terrific movie -- but it manages to be terrific despite the fact that Orson Welles was not the man for the job.

In his reply to the jackass, Welles avoided the real issue. The most important differences between Orson Welles and Franz Kafka had nothing to do with chronology, geography, ethnicity, nationality or culture. The division was psychological.

In answer to an earlier question, Welles disparaged the undertones of "look how prettily I bleed" in Kafka's story, even though "look how prettily I bleed" pretty much sums up that writer's whole act. Franz Kafka is the great poet of defeatism. His genius transformed a less-than-admirable trait into the stuff of art.

Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1915. I'm sure that there were other infants born in that time and place who grew up to be first-rank self-loathers, but Orson Welles was never among their number. Even though his protagonists (especially Kane) are often their own worst enemies, they never give up on themselves. Granted, Falstaff admits defeat, but he does so only at the very end, and only after Hal delivers the blow from which there is no recovery.

My first exposure to Kafka came via Welles' film. Some years earlier, a small repertory theater called the Nuart (near UCLA) had screened a beautiful print, much better than any print you're likely to see these days. I loved the movie more than my better-read friends did; they complained that the Welles version differed markedly from the novel. Due to their recommendations (or taunts), I immersed myself in Kafka's writings and read the short stories many times -- in fact, I carried a paperback compendium of his work throughout much of that annus horribilis. Kafka offers fitting, though dangerous, literary companionship to anyone staggering through tough times.

Before the Q-and-A session, USC's Norris theater screened the film. On this, my second viewing, I felt bewildered -- even angered -- by Welles' controversial re-imagining of Josef K. The problem had nothing to do with Anthony Perkins, who does superb work, but with the director, who insisted on turning K. into a fighter. In the Welles retelling, K's arrest transforms the ladder-climbing corporate toady into something like a revolutionary. At the very end, Perkins insults and defies the men sent to kill him, whereas the book has K. aiding and abetting in his own demise. In fact, Kafka's "hit men" expect K. to stab himself; his inability to work up the courage constitutes his final and most terrible failure.

Too many people -- Welles may have been one of them -- insist on seeing The Trial as a political prophecy, as a foretaste of Nazi and Stalinist horrors. All such interpretations miss the point. Josef K.'s great offense is no mystery: He committed the crime of being born. He exists. Kafka the masochist understands the indefensibility of his position. True, there is a small non-masochist within Kafka who offers a few squeaks of protest at the unfairness of it all; you can hear the same squeaks if you give a close reading to Metamorphosis and The Judgment. For the most part, though, Kafka accepts that the charges brought against K. are a fair cop.

To Welles, they're anything but a fair cop.

And yet The Trial is a fine film. That's the mystery. How does such an unlikely success happen, given the psychological distance between these two minds? Where did these two men meet?

Over the years, I've come to the conclusion that the answer has something to do with the link between sex and guilt. Both Welles and Kafka recognized this linkage, although Welles usually kept his sense of shame well-hidden. The Lady From Shanghai may be Welles' most entertaining film, but it's also a guilt concerto; as this incisive essay points out, the script contains passages which foreshadow the failure of his marriage to Rita Hayworth, a marriage that ended only a few weeks after filming completed. His philandering was the problem. Even the director's greatest admirers must admit that Welles had to be pretty stupid to think he could better-deal Rita Hayworth, who was very beautiful, very talented and very fragile. But that's an awfully small word, "stupid" -- "condemnable" is more like it.

In Welles' film of The Trial, the protagonist's crime seems to be sexual. As the story progresses, absurdly gorgeous women keep throwing themselves at Anthony Perkins, and you're never quite sure if his guilt stems from his desire to sleep with them or from his refusal to do so.

You can't blame Orson Welles for not wanting to discuss these personal matters with the creepy kid who showed up at USC.
I think I was outside the auditorium that day, complaining that a guy from UCLA got the last ticket.
Well, it's all about his murder of Elizabeth Short, isn't it?

I once spent untold years -- decades, even -- hitting ever online reference to 'The Trial' I could find, looking for (of all things) information on the "assistant to the director of production," Paul Laffargue. As it happened, his wife, Ritta, was a cousin-something-removed from a friend of mine, and Ritta and her sister had been separated from the rest of the family during the Holocaust. At the time of my search, I was pretty cocky about my ability to track down *anyone* or *anything* online. Well, this showed me. I think I actually *did* get as far as the house where Paul and Rita had lived until 10 months prior, but from there the trail grew cold.

I have to assume he and Welles developed some sort of relationship during the filming of 'The Trial,' though, as Paul and Ritta later produced Harry Kumel's odd little 'Malpertuis,' which starred Welles...
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The idea that Orson Welles had any connection to the death of the Black Dahlia strikes me as ludicrous.
maz, are you Mary Pacios?
I think it was a totally fair question and you were very nice not to express your real thought about whether the character had been distorted from the author's portrayal to express a more palatable American value.

Welles himself was a real weenie at the same age.
Go back into hiding JoJo. your face is the real anus horriblis.
The funniest bit is the headshake and exhalation at 1.14, suggesting "You bloody idiot, Welles, don't you understand what I'm saying?"

I was angry at myself.

He did have trouble hearing questions, and claimed to be a bit hard of hearing. This becomes clear in the full video.
Not Mary Pacios, but I love saying (typing) shit like that with a straight face. Always reminds me of the scene in 'Illuminatus!' where Hagbard's folks have slipped Aum into the punch at some creakingly conservative function -- and the Biblical literalist suddenly comes up with the notion, 'you know, all of Christ's miracles would make sense if the Earth is shaped like a carrot.' Similarly, toss in drawing A from the Welles archives and peculiarly phrased Speech B from his collected writings, skim through a list of his contemporaries, and -- voila! (or as the Internet would have it, woyla!) Orson Welles murdered the Black Dahlia.
But at 1.14 you look as though you think he's a fool. I think his being hard of hearing is clear even from the excerpt.

There was once an idea of asking Orson Welles to narrate Society of the Spectacle, or was it another of Guy Debord's films? I think he may have been approached and may even have said he was willing to do it.
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