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Not so Welles

An undeserving edition on the famous auteur



While it is encouraging to note the expanding catalog of latter-day reappraisals of Orson Welles' extraordinary history, Clinton Heylin's Despite the System is a quite unwelcome entry. The amateurish and reactionary attempt to vindicate the film director's rejection by the Hollywood studios is a gesture predicated largely on a spiteful and redundant dismissal of Simon Callow's discerning Orson Welles: Road to Xanadu (1995).

The author's premise -- that Hollywood felt threatened by Welles' prodigious talent and potential -- is amply justified by the artistry that his restored films reveal. Yet Heylin, ever-so-wise in his own conceit, lacks the evenhandedness necessary to point out Welles' undeniable self-destructiveness throughout his career. For instance, Welles would leave a provocative and unedited feature in the hands of a skeptical studio while absent from the country, only to profess astonishment at its inevitable mutilation.

Welles' landmark achievements notwithstanding, Heylin's bête noir, Simon Callow, remains the one biographer who can acknowledge the director's failure to recognize that business is business without denigrating his artistic integrity. Traditionally this lesson is learned the hard way (for example Sam Peckinpah, Michael Cimino and Terry Gilliam). Rather than accepting this as an indication of Welles' complexity, Heylin offers little more than defensive whining over the industry's entrenched philistinism. The atomization of memos between Welles and the "Grand Philistines" who bankrolled and then butchered his films is hardly necessary at this stage in this auteur's revival.

The author's tin-eared phraseology is British journalistic criticism at its parochial worst: denunciations so self-conscious they turn into hype. Amid frequent witless turns, such as repeated references to Shakespeare as "Bill," metaphors collide and modifiers dangle helplessly. When Heylin is not gainfully occupied with script summary and the reiteration of the more viable critical work of others, he traipses through his environment like a perverse King Midas, trivializing everything he touches.

Unafraid to solicit the system he had spent years provoking, the graybeard Welles became a sonorant image in his later years. And viewing his youthful heyday of radio reveals a living and instructive emblem of undisciplined genius, of the need to suffer for one's art. It is as much for this reason as for the sheer merit of his greatest work that, as Welles himself prophesied, he would become posthumously exalted. Thankfully, he will not need a presumptuous advocate like Clinton Heylin to continue that rise to prominence.

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