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June 20-26, 2007

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'Discovering Orson Welles'

Discovering Orson Welles
(By Jonathan Rosenbaum; UC Press; 336 pages; $24.95 cloth)

Everyone knows about Citizen Kane, but after that our image of America's greatest filmmaker begins to break apart, like the shattered mirrors in the funhouse scene at the end of The Lady From Shanghai. There is no shortage of Wellesiana, but as Jonathan Rosenbaum, the insightful film critic for the Chicago Reader, has pointed out again and again, far too much of it misses the mark with factual and interpretive errors. Rosenbaum has spent decades trying to untangle the myths about Welles. Discovering Orson Welles brings together essays, reviews and other pieces he has written over the last 35 years or so about the director, actor and raconteur. The anthology nature of the project accounts for some of the overlapping and duplicative material, but any film fan will appreciate having these seminal articles in one place. The selections include Rosenbaum's trenchant counterattack on Pauline Kael's Raising Kane, which promoted Herman J. Mankiewicz and demoted Welles; a scolding for wrong-headed Welles biographers Charles Higham, David Thomson and Simon Callow; a definitive sorting out of the seven different versions of Mr. Arkadin; and a cataloging of what survives—and is available on DVD or VHS—of Welles' film projects. Rosenbaum is especially good on running down the various incarnations of Othello and the unfinished Don Quixote, as well as illuminating the complex politics behind It's All True, Welles' venture to Brazil. Cutting against the usual argument that Welles was his own worst enemy, who self-destructed after Kane without the benefits of a studio, Rosenbaum writes that Welles wasn't a failed Hollywood director but a pioneer independent filmmaker, who valued process as much as product. What fascinates us about "the unruly genius of Welles, seven years after his death, is how much it confounds the norms of commercial movies and conventional artistic careers on every conceivable level." (This volume is nicely supplemented by another recent UC Press publication: Catherine L. Benamou's in-depth study It's All True: Orson Welles's Pan-American Odyssey.)

Review by Michael S. Gant


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