One hundred years after his birth, it’s easy to take Orson Welles for granted. Sure, Citizen Kane is anyone’s easy pick for Greatest Film of All Time (despite being recently unseated from its fifty-year run at the top of the Sight and Sound poll), but that ubiquity has made it nearly impossible to take on its own merits; calling Citizen Kane your favorite film feels as uninspired as saying your favorite album is Sgt. Pepper, or your favorite Stooge is Curly. This problem is compounded by the fact that, due to the legal wrath of its not-so-secret subject, that film marked the beginning of the end of Welles’ reign as King of All Media. By the time our parents came of age, Orson Welles was seen as the consummate has-been, the butt of fat jokes and the star of not one, but two of the greatest blooper reels of all time. To our generation, Welles is known primarily as a name in a textbook, or possibly, to know-it-alls, as the inspiration for The Brain.
But make no mistake: in his day, Orson Welles was the shit. While he wasn’t quite the first superstar of the twentieth century — that title probably goes to Houdini, along with the first wave of silent film stars — Welles was the first real world-conqueror, effortlessly mastering and shaping the nascent media of film and radio, as well as a series of legendary stage productions. What’s more, Welles knew he was the greatest — imagine a hyper-literate Kanye West, or perhaps Captain Kirk’s artistic cousin — and it’s that flagrant ego which facilitated his downfall in the public eye. The harder they come, the more Americans love to watch them fall.
Yet the traditional Welles narrative ignores the fact that he never really stopped making interesting work. To start with, two of his most vital projects came after Kane: his less-heralded Touch of Evil is really just as good (with the added bonus of being unburdened with impossible expectations), and his performance as Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s The Third Man should be on anyone’s list of great cinematic villains. Yet even his lesser projects are fascinating, from Criterion-revived artifacts like F for Fake and Mr. Arkadin to legendarily unfinished films, like his adaptation of Don Quixote and the semi-autobiographical The Other Side of the Wind. There’s a reason Welles is the stereotypical film school subject: there’s a lot to unpack.
It is in this interest that the local underground film curators at Channel Zero present The Orson Welles Show, a talk show pilot Welles shot in the late 1970s. Unaired and unreleased (with only fleeting clips available online), the show was to be Welles’ “reimagining” of the late night gab show as it existed at the time. The guests are of quintessentially late-’70s vintage — Burt Reynolds, Angie Dickinson, and Jim Henson and Frank Oz (with the Muppets!) — but Welles tried to turn the format into something more open and old-fashioned, with anecdotes, magic tricks, and (staged) interactions with the audience. Channel Zero also promises additional Wellesian surprises; it is a testament to the man’s career that that could be pretty much anything.
The Orson Welles Show
dir. Orson Welles
Presented by Channel Zero
In the Somerville Theatre MicroCinema (downstairs)