Early success can be a double-edged sword. This was decidedly true for 25-year-old Orson Welles, who wrote, directed and starred in Citizen Kane (1941), championed throughout the world as the greatest film ever made. A Hollywood art film and a politically incorrect satire of a contemporary media giant, it also raised the ire of the industry and prompted its distributor to take over the editing of Welles' next masterwork, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), shut down his projects in development and taint him as a "difficult" artist.
But more than a stymied Hollywood director (prone to cameos in bad movies and wine commercials before his death in 1985), Welles was a lifelong innovator whose trailblazing — and still rarely screened — independent and studio films will screen Saturdays from May 3 to June 7 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of a new Academy @ LACMA weekend program courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
The series begins May 3 with Welles' playfully surreal short The Hearts of Age (1934) and the Los Angeles premiere of the recently discovered Too Much Johnson (1938), an incomplete but ambitious film Welles planned to use in one of his Mercury Theatre stage productions. Norman Lloyd, 99-year-old screen legend and Mercury Theatre actor, will be in attendance.
However, it was with the bombastic Citizen Kane (screening May 10) and the elegiac The Magnificent Ambersons (May 17) that established Welles' visual style, a spellbinding display of acute, wide-angled images, low-key lighting and deep compositions that utilize foregrounds and backgrounds with an immersive gravity.
The celebrated radio director's films also showcase a bold sound design; overlapping voices and effects register in rich, evocative timbres.
When financing films in Hollywood became difficult in the late 1940s, Welles began making films independently in Europe. Long before crowdfunding and social media offered infrastructure to indie filmmakers, Welles financed his films in stages (partly from his acting appearances), shot them piecemeal whenever and wherever he could, and stitched them together in the editing room. Fast cutting and imprecise dubbing often testify to their vagabond creation, but Welles enjoyed more creative control than in his studio days, and the films boast exceptional visual flair and thematic resonance. His brooding 1952 adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello (screening at Cinefamily May 17-23 alongside the series) was three years in the making, but it won the Cannes Film Festival's Grand Prix.
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Welles' international escapades are reflected in the freewheeling Mr. Arkadin (1955), screening May 24, which strings a mystery-thriller plot through Italy, Spain, France, Germany and Mexico. Its story about the unmasking of a billionaire capitalist searching for his youth shares some affinity with Citizen Kane, but mostly it fits snugly into Welles' long fascination with power and corruption (see also 1958's Touch of Evil, screening May 31). Multiple versions of Mr. Arkadin exist, none finalized by Welles; the Academy will screen the 2006 reconstruction by the Munich Film Museum.
Welles' 1962 adaptation of Kafka's The Trial, screening May 31, may be his most visually impressive work, with Anthony Perkins in nervous-repressed mode wandering through looming cathedrals and train stations, which give way to cramped rooms and sinister closets. The absurdist dialogue and black humor — not to mention the cavernous office filled with hundreds of workers — prefigure Terry Gilliam's Brazil by two decades, and its haunting sense of paranoia and surveillance, along with images of forlorn citizens standing in silence, bears unmistakable echoes of the Holocaust.
The best is saved for last: 1965's rare Chimes at Midnight (screening June 7 with Welles' brilliant 1973 essay film, F for Fake). Drawing from several plays by Shakespeare, the film portrays the friendship between the jovial knight Falstaff, whose boisterous personality and portly frame Welles was born to inhabit, and Prince Hal, the son of Henry IV. It's Welles' most poignant and heartfelt film since Ambersons, bursting with humor and pathos, and rendered with striking visual precision. The Battle of Shrewsbury midway through the film is its tour de force set-piece, a ferocious ballet of metal, horses and mud, full of sound and fury rarely equaled in the cinema. Sadly, tangled rights keep this masterpiece from being screened very often, so it's not one to miss.