Over the last two weeks, I read My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles. The book’s conversational structure between Welles and a young admirer from the 1960s and 1970s American film revolution recalls, in theory, This is Orson Welles the scholarly conversation book from conversations between Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum. It turns out, though, that the two books bear little in common. True, fans of Welles may feel that they are in his presence, once again, and it’s hard to read his words and not hear that booming voice in your head.
But that’s where the similarities end. The book doesn’t have any of the in-depth analysis, scene-by-scene, film-by-film deconstruction that This is has. I don’t and can’t fault it for that. To my knowledge, his conversations with Bogdanovich were meant to be documents that would become an (auto)biography. The book never came to fruition in Welles’ lifetime, and Bogdanovich wanted to share the conversations with the world. This is a different book, from several years later and the end of Welles’ life.
Jaglom and Welles’ conversations are much more free-wheeling. The smallest things set Orson off. It’s a bit discouraging to read his nasty words about peers, not necessarily because they aren’t true, but because Welles knows better than anyone that words hurt. In a section of This Is Orson Welles, he specifically asks Bogdanovich to strike from the record the names of directors/actors he disparages, because as he says (and I’m paraphrasing now), “Words do hurt. It’s nice to think they don’t, but they do. Every time I read a bad thing about myself, it hurts…” you get the point. Ten years prior, Welles had no desire to go on the record bad-mouthing other directors. But his ire, in these conversations, is not reserved for merely Pauline Kael and John Houseman, he tears apart dozens of other performers, peers, producers, etc. etc.
In general, the book is often not a fun read. You’d think it would be, based on the conversational nature…but it’s not. Welles often gets incredibly indignant and rude. He’s resentful in a way that just has me thinking that he was cranky and impatient like many senior citizens, and that’s sad. It’s sad to try to reconcile a childish impatience with the fact that he was one of
the hardest working people in showbiz, who died with a typewriter in his hand, working on something until the bitter end. I had trouble ploughing through the book, as long-winded rants about films/theatrical productions/other people just didn’t captivate me at all. But when I got to the second to last chapter, the weight of the book hit me. Orson is pitching a story to Susan Smith from HBO:
OW: In one sentence, it’s a miniseries set in Majorca or San Tropez, where the richest people in the world go. Or better, a dictatorship in a Central American country that is overthrown by a coup d’etat, and there is a revolution.”
As a Welles fan, and perhaps more importantly, promoter, I feel there’s a timeless quality to his films. His work pre-dates the noir era, but that movement in many ways owes so much to his style. His Touch of Evil is one of the finest films of the genre. Shakespeare and tales about the fall of once great families and peoples are timeless motifs. But the threats of fascism and the days of revolution just don’t seem to fit in the 1980s the way they did in the 1960s. This is totally subjective, but I found myself wondering during that passage: who makes a film about a Latin American coup d’etat in 1984? Even Welles’ last films were incredibly modern, with F for Fake and what we know about The Other Side of the Wind. That doesn’t sound like what he was pitching, though. Even compared to his other unfinished/unrealized projects of that time…it doesn’t quite fit in.
Time passed Welles by. Not everything he had to say was interesting, witty, intelligent, or decent in nature. I love Orson Welles dearly, and though his life is over, I find that when I read about his trials and tribulations, I still root for him, though I know he doesn’t win many of his battles. But even Welles was prone to banality and bitchiness. You do not need to read My Lunches With Orson. It’s just too sad.