Interview with a dead Orson Welles
by Jon Rappoport
January 29, 2014
I made up this interview to correct widespread misconceptions about art, imagination, creation, universes, ego, addiction, power, freedom, improvisation, joy, cosmic jokes, and several other matters I can’t recall at the moment.
Oh yes. I also wanted to illustrate how timid, in many respects, art has become, how careful, precise, how wedded to “reality,” how it has forgotten about wildness and exploding adventure.
Someone somewhere will surely think this is “channeling,” so allow me to set the record straight. This is reverse-channeling. If anything comes through to me from the other side, I carefully place it on my work table and then—suddenly—pound it with a hammer until it breaks. Like a coconut. Then I put the chips in a pot, add water, and make soup for the cat.
In this interview with the dead Orson Welles, we consider matters he’s been keeping bottled up for a long time, ever since Hollywood more or less cast him aside. For some reason, he seems to agree with my views on many points.
Q (Rappoport): I’m not interested in talking about your work as a stage magician or your appearances on Johnny Carson or the documentaries or your wives, or why you put on so much weight or the possibility that Randolph Hearst had you exiled from Hollywood because you made Citizen Kane and portrayed Marion Davies in an unflattering light. I’m not interested in your views on history, either.
A (Welles): Thank God.
Q: So you make Citizen Kane and you’re 26 years old.
A: It was a gargantuan act of ego.
Q: That’s why it’s endured.
A: Yes, I would say so.
Q: So in your case, it’s beneficent ego.
A: Well, not all the time. I once threw a man off a bridge.
Q: That’s a new one.
A: It was at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. He attacked me. He said The Magnificent Ambersons was a drawing-room drama. In retrospect, he probably had been briefed by an idiot. He didn’t speak English, and he was reading from a sheet phonetically. But still.
Q: Did he die?
A: Oh no. The bridge was four feet above a narrow river. They fished him out and we all went and had a drink. People have the wrong idea about ego. Big is not a problem. Small is the problem. And if you stay in the middle ground, you experience the worst case. Then you’re torn to pieces. Attrition and gnawing from all quarters. Beyond a certain point, big ego is a balloon and you float up off the ground. If you can hold on and allow the ride, you develop spontaneous resources. It’s happiness. It isn’t “I want to take something from someone else.” It isn’t the kind of ego a monopolist has. It’s big, but it’s really just knowing what you want.
Q: Ego is a medium, like paint or film?
A: But there is no such thing as ego in art. It’s impossible. When you’re creating, you’re just creating.
Q: But people then assume art means humility.
A: People assume God is waiting for them in a city built on clouds, where they’ll melt like butter into a piece of cosmic toast. Humility is a delusion. An ideal of sheer pretension. Amateur’s role in a doomed play.
Q: Ego as a social behavior is buffoonery?
A: That’s why Citizen Kane is a comedy.
Q: And the reason why it’s not seen as that?
A: Large looming sets, and camera angles slanted upward from low positions. You can have a gloomy comedy. I may have invented the form.
Q: Your film, A Touch of Evil—they say, every frame a galvanizing photograph.
A: Why else make a movie? I was like the poet who realizes languageis the flight from the ground into the air, or the descent below the surface. In film, you build the architecture to photograph it, and you choose the angles that make the photo. Frankly, If I can’t invent every frame so it has original architecture, then I’m lazy. I’m letting the extraordinary slip by. I may as well be home getting drunk. But you see, I forced the issue. I didn’t sit back and hope. I didn’t wait for every marvelous accident. I was up on the beat, up on one, and I stayed there. Before Keats, you had poets who would ride on their ideas for a few lines or stanzas, and then they would rivet you in place with the words themselves, the sound and the metaphor—the real stuff. Well, I didn’t stall. I hit you with image after image. That was the point.
Q: You were the troll under the bridge.
A: The troll waits for years, for even centuries. But once he starts to move, he doesn’t stop.
Q: At what point did you realize the plot of Citizen Kane was a throwaway?
A: Oh, I knew that from the beginning. Stories are everywhere. Grab one. Think of one. Don’t give it much concern. One understands, of course, the audience is a sucker for stories, so that’s what they’ll focus on. You can’t help that. But the Rosebud business, the whole career of Kane, his whole life, drawn in episodes…who cares? It’s just the occasion for doing what I wanted to do. I never put stock in it. I may have said I did, but that was a lie or a momentary fascination. I wanted big space, so I chose a big man. Stories are a rank addiction. How will things turn out? Who will prove to be the winner? What’s the missing clue? It’s religion. The whole business is religion. Find the right story that touches all the bases, and you can sell it. But I was destroying stories. Understand? If my films had a theme, that was it. Story disintegrates. It has no foundation.
Q: Take the caste system.
A: You mean in Hollywood, or India?
Q: Either one.
A: India. Drivel. People see through it, of course, and they think they’re smarter than the Hindus, but meanwhile, every country has its own caste system. It’s based on obligation. You must be a messenger for theprevailing story. That’s the beginning and end of it. Wisdom is supposedly choosing the right story, but that’s sheer nonsense. Crap. Every story is a lie. You come to the end of it, and you feel unhappy. I knew that when I was 16. That’s why I had a hard time with studio executives. They’re sucking on the teat of their own religion. They see themselves as priests. They’re selling story to the public. A to B. You begin the fairy tale at A and wind up at B. No switchbacks. No irony.
Concealing and toying with story and plot never made sense to me. I’m not trying to hide the weapon in the desk drawer until the last scene. I’m injecting invention in every frame, so it spills over the edges. The foam shooting over the rim of the glass. That’s what I want. It’s the same with any world. You want to bring sheer abundance to it. Even in the desert, you have an abundance, an over-abundance of space. That’s what I’m aiming for. Over-abundance. On Earth, you have ridiculous, ludicrous jungles. They just keep on twisting toward the horizon.. They lean over the banks of the rivers, trying to swallow up the water, and the water won’t be stopped, either. You have black jaguars, some of the greatest hunting machines anyone could devise. They’re bursting at the seams. Look at their modeling. And lions. And if that gets to be a bit much, you scale back and invent cloudy leopards, pure and sufficient and heartbreaking beauty. You make many types. Let’s not diddle around. The people who made this place, Earth, do you think they held back? Art should be relentless and proliferating.
Q: Joseph Calleia in Touch of Evil. A wonderful actor.
A: Poor old Joe. He could make that sadness sing. He was quite good at comedy, you know. But he pulled on the cloak of sadness, and his elevator would take you down three or four levels, and there would be a bottom. He would die at the bottom. You knew he had to. There was a collection of caricatures in that film. Not exactly caricatures, because I was inventing, how do I say it, a special kind of type. Not a cartoon. Not tripping falling farce. Not quite naturalism. Perhaps a mixture. They call it grim noir, but that was a comedy, too, that film. You had Ray Collins doing his special brand of flapdoodle. The DA. Coat and hat, barking like a dog. One second he’s three dimensions, the next second he’s flat. And Akim Tamiroff. Farce. But he’ll shoot you. Entrances and exits. The characters appear, flare, flatten out, and disappear. Cardboard town. Cardboard and oil. A collapsible universe.
Q: It has different rules and regs.
A: Yes, the rules of, say, GK Chesterton. Reality as facade. But in Touch of Evil, if you put your hand through a wall, you feel you might get bit by something on the other side. The characters aren’t trapped by their natures. Not really. I trap them. That’s part of letting the audience see I’m doing the inventing. They see it going on. Just enough. Same with Citizen Kane.
Q: Reminds me a little of Pablo in Steppenwolf.
A: Yes. He can fold up the bar and the people in it into a toy and put it all in his pocket. He doesn’t do it. Maybe once, to drive home a point. But he could. So could I. Obviously, I don’t. But the fact that I could is part of the overall atmosphere.
Q: Collapsible universe.
A: Magic Theater. It’s a decision you make, and the earlier the better. Will you labor to copy reality? Is that your main thrust? Or will you punch holes in it, fingers into balls of clay and find velocity and manufacture the worlds you want?
Q: People think they know artists, but they’re only seeing snapshots of artists.
A: Caught, for an instant, on the run. So the story of the artist becomes the watchword. His tribulations. The fact that he’s a fool in his personal life or he’s desperate or he’s rich or he’s this or that. Maybe 20 years out of millions of his incarnations are captured in a highly suspect snapshot. He’s somewhere else now, still working. He’s exponentially increasing his power. As an incidental effect, his impact on reality, any already-existing reality, is growing. Somewhere out on the rim of a place we’ve never seen, he’s made vanish a few square parsecs of space and invented his own territory to replace it.
Q: Maybe casting a film.
A: Casting comes last. He’s drawing up camera angles, building sets.
Q: Huge houses?
A: Maybe. Maybe pillars and towers and looming sky. Maybe a cardboard town sinking in leftover oil.
Q: Just out of curiosity—everything you’re saying here, did you know it at the time or only now?
A: Oh, I knew it all along. But people want to hear about other things. And I was willing to give them what they wanted, except in my work. In intelligence operations, why would you blow your cover stories? The world of humans is built on cover stories, one after another, in stratified layers.
Q: The Third Man. You and Joseph Cotten.
A: Well, that was all atmosphere. We didn’t have anything else. Atmosphere wrapping a mystery. And when the plot is solved, it’s a throwaway, of course. Who cares? But with the crooked streets and lighting and pace, you make your own continuum.
If you play your cards right, it could be exciting. You worm your way through the mystery and you find it all folds up in your pocket and you walk away laughing. You leave that sadness behind, a hat blowing across the street. I used to stumble out of the theater after watching Ingmar Bergman, and I’d be choking on laughter. The Seventh Seal. One of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. Wild Strawberries. Hysterical. Gunnar Bjornstrand, a man at the end of his tether, staring nothing in the face. Do you remember the scene where he’s sitting in the car talking to Ingrid Thulin? Well, tragedy for me has always had a tinge of laughter about to break out. You move over one inch from where you are, and the tears magically dry up and you’re feeling wonderful, as if you’ve just had a good breakfast. You look around and wonder what happened.
Q: Improvisation helps.
A: You can always throw a howling cat into a funeral. As people approach the open coffin, the cat runs in chasing a rat. Emotions are mercurial. Of course, in a film, you can saddle them with iron weights, if you want to. But I never thought that was necessary. Why bother with it? It’s a waste of time. Something else is going to happen next, anyway. You have the noble, beautiful, suffering widow standing at the coffin, where her husband is lying in his suit with a flower in his buttonhole, and she glances to her left and sees a man staring down her dress. And she starts to smile. Just a little. Of course, what is she doing with cleavage at the funeral?
Q: Is that a metaphysical question?
A: Well, it could be. You’re waiting for some particular emotion to lay its card on the table, the emotion that will sum up your experience and existence and confirm the absolute and final significance of it in the overall scheme of things…and then a leaf blows in the window and it doesn’t really matter. Now you have that emotion and the leaf, and as a director, what are you going to do with it? You begin to discover that improvisation is one of the great stable centers behind any universe.
Q: The planning department will hate that.
A: Sure. They pretend they’re working out all the details. They’re going to launch Universe X-B tomorrow, and they’re putting the final touches on the last few sub-sub-sub anomalies. Meanwhile, they’re just the front office. What’s going on behind the scenes is the real main event. Somebody like me is back there, and I’m talking to the tiger. The tiger with wings. I want to see whether he’s ready to burn bright in the forests of the night. Whether he cares about me, the man who made him. I want him to forget all about me and go on his way. He and I, the two of us, are back there. And yes, I can see, his ferocity is intact. He’s his own man. And just as he brushes by me, padding out the door, he gives me a little smile. Just for a second. That’s all I want. That’s all I need.
Q: The thing is, when you make a film [universe], the audience can see you’re doing it. You’re not hiding somewhere behind the scenes.
A: Right. And as I said, that’s on purpose. I want people to notice I’m cooking the bread. It’s interesting that way. I want them to experience many things, and one of them is: “there he is, he’s building one frame after another, he’s the cook, he’s the magician, he’s having a glorious time, he may be telling a gloomy story, but it’s really a comedy, because, if he wanted to, he could disassemble the whole thing and let it fall to pieces.”
Q: Why do you like that so much?
A: Because I believe life can be that way. There is that potential, let’s call it. If enough people existed in a certain state of mind, life could go on, and yet it could also fall apart, the misery and the inevitable plot, the suffering, the pain, that could all shake and rattle and disintegrate.
Q: There are people who don’t want that consciousness to spread. They want to control everything.
A: Sure. Well, you see what I did to Charles Kane. He was one of those people. I burned him up like cardboard.
Q: And at the end of Citizen Kane, you were also saying, “You see, this wasn’t really one of those addictive stories with a beginning, middle, and end, one of those stories that traps people. It was a magic show.”
A: Magic blows apart beginning, middle, and end. It plays with time and cause and effect. It revolutionizes them. This space-time container we live in. It’s a illusion. And my kind of magic, along the way, reveals and discloses the illusion. I’m a magician who breaks the code of secrecy of magicians.
The author of two explosive collections, THE MATRIX REVEALED and EXIT FROM THE MATRIX, Jon was a candidate for a US Congressional seat in the 29th District of California. He maintains a consulting practice for private clients, the purpose of which is the expansion of personal creative power. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, he has worked as an investigative reporter for 30 years, writing articles on politics, medicine, and health for CBS Healthwatch, LA Weekly, Spin Magazine, Stern, and other newspapers and magazines in the US and Europe. Jon has delivered lectures and seminars on global politics, health, logic, and creative power to audiences around the world. You can sign up for his free emails at www.nomorefakenews.com