The Robert Garis book did get lost in the shuffle last year, but here's a review of it that appeared in Cineaste magazine-
"Orson Welles was a highly literate and literary filmmaker, an artist of the word and the story as well as the image, cut, sequence, and sound. Somewhat less than a scholar but far more than a dilettante—critics often take him to task for not being the former and accuse him of being the latter—he was deeply saturated in and respectful of literature, and was a dedicated reader and prolific writer throughout his life. These habits and interests substantively shaped his approach to cinema. Most of his films are adaptations of literary texts, including old and new classics and contemporary thrillers of uneven quality. He modified extensively and his adaptations were thoroughly cinematic, but he did not share the antiliterary bias of many auteurs, perhaps summarized best by Hitchcock’s well-known statement that pure cinema above all else must distance itself from “photographs of people talking.” On the contrary, much of Welles’s career revolved around creating an innovative cinema of people talking, and literature helped him enormously in this effort. The two books under review in this essay illustrate some of the limitations of a ‘literary’ approach to Welles, but also confirm that the ideal critic of Welles must be, as it were, a close reader as well as a close watcher, attuned to the literary contexts and complex legacy of literature embedded in the thick detail and deep structure of the films.
Robert Garis was exactly that kind of critic, exceptionally knowledgeable about and attentive to not only literature but also theater, dance, and film, and these qualities help account for the deeply personal and finely articulated analyses in his posthumously published study, The Films of Orson Welles. The book is highly selective: we do not hear much about Welles’s life (although the broad contours are sketched in the introductory chapter), his important work outside of filmmaking, or his critical reputation. Undistracted by “background,” Garis aims to give a comprehensive overview of and introduction to Welles by detailed examinations of seven of his films. Although he takes these up singly, there are several recurrent emphases and topics of concern that link otherwise separable chapters. For example, he is remarkably sensitive to tone in the films, and comments frequently on Welles’s careful attention to and modulation of voice as an index of character and state of mind; and although it may seem like a backhanded compliment, he has a deep respect for and cites numerous examples of Welles’s “sheer know-how and competence,” his often unacknowledged mastery of the practical skills (e.g., set design, casting, blocking, camera positioning) that turn imaginative and conceptual brilliance into tangible artifacts.
Perhaps most important is Garis’s repeated examination of what he calls “performance,” a term that takes on expanding meaning as the book proceeds. For Garis, the best and worst aspects of Welles revolve around “his lifelong addiction to the performance of self,” a phrase that applies to (without fully explaining) his well-chronicled selfish and egotistical displays, broken friendships, and implosions and explosions, as well as his remarkable creative energy and uncanny insight in bringing to life galvanizing characters (Kane, Quinlan, Macbeth, and Falstaff among others) who try to fulfill their limitless desires, strain against their circumstances, and struggle to create and sustain a self made up of words, air, and appearances.
In a brief space I can’t do justice to the richness of Garis’s book, but I can at least survey some of his fine impressions and analytical comments as well as some of what I feel are the limitations of his critical approach and signs of his fundamental uneasiness with Welles. (It is this latter, as much as the demonstrable unevenness of Welles’s work, that accounts for a continual oscillation throughout the book between blame and praise, sometimes snooty dismissiveness and grudging admiration.) While in general he is not a great admirer of Welles’s characteristic stylization, Garis concedes that at least in Citizen Kane flamboyance and attention-grabbing techniques add “vividness and strength” to the film’s “serious effects and serious meanings” and do not distract from its subtlety and depth. Garis carefully exposes the “dialectic of contrast” at the heart of the film’s structure and theme, and convincingly demonstrates how this makes Kane a profound dramatization of aging (of both Kane and Welles) as well as a “rich, tight, and unified work of art.”
The Magnificent Ambersons too is a study in aging and transformation, but it works less by displays of cinematic bravura than by carefully integrated theatrical acting, “opulently and lovingly executed” sets, and what Garis rightly calls “choreography,” the arrangement and movement of characters (a skill Welles of course took with him from his years in the theater but which, I think, is also one of the key lessons of his repeated screenings of John Ford’s Stagecoach). Garis praises Ambersons very highly, especially for its overall orchestration and the “fullness and depth” of its portrait of Fanny rather than its broader commentary on an entire society in transition. This is an early hint of a key critical slant—and blind spot—that becomes more and more prominent as the book progresses: Garis’s (although not necessarily Welles’s) primary interest in individuals and interpersonal relations rather than groups and social dynamics. More on this in a moment.
Garis introduces his discussions of The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil with a personal minihistory of film noir, indicating that when he first saw such films he was interested in them primarily insofar as they showed the intervention of “trouble” in the “ordinary, everyday life of ordinary people” and “recorded the look of everyday American people and landscapes in an attentive and respectful way.” While this may outline what is for some a laudable esthetic of filmmaking, it is a curiously idiosyncratic description of film noir, which typically has radical stylization and defamiliarization at its core. And while there is certainly disagreement about the extent to which film noir is tied to socio-political circumstances, “scanting” the ways that these films are about systemic dimensions of “crime and betrayal,” to which Garis pleads guilty, does not predispose one to appreciate much of what Welles’s two films aspire to and accomplish. Still, Garis admits a grudging attraction to these films, and his comments are often judicious and revealing. His criticisms of the often ineffective extravagance of The Lady from Shanghai and Welles’s deficiencies as an actor in the role of O’Hara are not only convincing but serve as take-off points for his much more appreciative discussion of Touch of Evil, where he rightly applauds Quinlan as “one of Welles’s masterworks” and insightfully analyzes the roots of the film’s “dark atmosphere of corruption.” And if he is not particularly concerned with the political elements of the film, he is far more attentive than any critic I know of to the ways that Touch of Evil is a love story, hinging on the fascinating interplay between Welles and Marlene Dietrich.
The book ends with Garis’s examination of “Welles’s Shakespeare,” which one would expect to be a highpoint but turns out to be somewhat anticlimactic. His comments on Othello (as a film that has lost its initial charm for him and now seems to be only “a series of intelligent and tasteful effects” rather than “interesting art”) and Chimes at Midnight (which he admires as “a beautiful and admirable achievement” but discusses for only a few pages) are sketchy and were perhaps unfinished when the book was assembled after his death. I will therefore concentrate on his detailed discussion of Macbeth for one last look at the strengths and weaknesses of his belletristic critical approach and ambivalence toward Welles. In this section Garis becomes a bit of a performer himself, and gives a kind of tour-de-force demonstration of his own literary sensibility in analyzing—and bemoaning—some of Welles’s cuts from and rearrangements of the text of Macbeth, concluding with the startlingly dismissive judgment (one of many throughout the book) that Welles’s “arrangement can’t have come from any considerable thinking about the play.” Despite this claim, he goes on to praise the “special excellence” of the film, evident particularly in the “depth and power” of the way Welles “brilliantly” captures “what is going on between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, which is of course what we want most to see.” To each his own, I suppose, but it seems to me that a critical reading of Macbeth as essentially a failed romance rather than an examination of power, kingship, political domination, and the dynamics of violence misses too much in a great play and an ambitious (though tremendously flawed) film.
This diminution, even in the context of a perceptive appreciation of some aspects of Macbeth, exemplifies what I feel is Garis’s overly narrow approach to Welles. Throughout the book he either avoids or dismisses Welles’s social and political interests and activities, which are highly visible and more than occasionally central in his art and life, especially during his most creative period. A picture of him addressing the American League for Peace and Democracy and one paragraph alluding to It’s All True, his newspaper columns, and his radio work, concluding curtly and somewhat condescendingly that he was for this short time one of many politically naive liberals, doesn’t adequately address a crucial part of Welles as an artist, person, and citizen. We should of course allow Garis his preferences, and appreciate the often stunning critical insights that his close readings yield. But his definition of film is strikingly out of synch with Welles’s. He holds firmly to the prescriptive (and restrictive) premise that film is “a medium ideally, idiomatically, equipped to convey immediate intuitive knowledge of the identities and relationships of human beings and to bring us into the most painful and valuable closeness with them.” To put it most simply, Welles’s notion and use of the film medium expand far beyond that.
Serendipitously, I have recently been listening to an interview with Jean Renoir on the DVD of The Rules of the Game, where he offers some important advice that is relevant here: in choosing a “master,” he says, we should look for someone who is “plump.” I take this as Renoir’s shorthand way of celebrating ambitious and multifaceted artists who, among other qualities, embrace and try to capture and comment on the totality of life, the social and political as well as the interpersonal and domestic. There is a great need to restore Welles to his full “plumpness.” Garis’s Welles is often brilliantly creative but also surprisingly—and unnecessarily—thin".