How to start reading that rich book that is Marx’s Capital, of which an immense, even monstrous, accumulation of commentary on the Marxist mode of literary production appears to have already shaped its elementary forms?
For all the interest in Marx, in the past and renewed today, it is at least worth attempting at first to read anew. Yet this vast accumulation of commentary stands before us. While it would be possible, and even plausible, to insist on a Dead Poets’ Society moment and rip out the spurious introductions, for example that of the Secretary of the Fourth International, Trotskyite Ernest Mandel, in the Penguin Edition, there is not much to be gained from this merely theatrical gesture.
Instead, I would like to turn to cinema. And another accumulation that seems a dull dead half-life of narrative. That which surrounds the film Citizen Kane. Orson Welles might be a good choice for this illustration because he is both actor and director, at the same time working to a script and writing that script. Marx of course is famous for saying something similar in the 18th Brumaire – we make our own history but not in conditions that we have chosen (Marx 1852/202:19). Welles is also interesting as an overexamined, already known, and yet little understood, figure – famous and notorious in advance, myths and rumours abound. He is much maligned for his politics, he was often attacked for threatening bourgeois norms (or its complacency); his work a coded vehicle for other fears (Japan, Germany, Russia); and, I will argue, never more relevant than now (financial crisis, do-gooder philanthropists as alibi for business as usual). Welles of course, in advance, is already known – as dozens of biographies attest, and as the pre-publicity and staged controversy of his most famous film confirms. Perhaps the question to ask is whether it is possible to reclaim such a figure from the vast accumulations of biography and myth. Already in Citizen Kane Welles mocked such ambitions. The first image is of a sign that says “No trespassing”.
The biographers are on the march – dozens and still counting. Simon Callow begins part one of his multi volume biography (part two released 2006) with a quote that might be read as revealing as much about the anxieties of a biographer about to approach ‘the fabulist Orson Welles’ as it does about its subject’s self-consciousness:
“If you try to probe, I’ll lie to you. Seventy-five percent of what I say in interviews is false. I’m like a hen protecting her eggs. I must protect my work.Introspection is bad for me. I’m a medium not an orator. Like certain oriental and Christian mystics, I think the ‘self’ is a kind of enemy. My work is what enables me to come out of myself. I like what I do, not what I am … Do you know the best service anyone could render to art? Destroy all biographies. Only art can explain the life of a man – and not the contrary. Orson Welles to Jean Clay, 1962 (Callow 1995:xi)
Callow continually takes away Welles’ stories about his life, even the place where he was said to be conceived is labelled a fabrication – much energy devoted to undoing the Welles myth only confirms it. Welles had already anticipated these moves. Seven years earlier in Touch of Evil he had Marlene Dietrich say of his character Quinlan, who had just been found dead, that: ‘He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?’
Welles is surrounded by myth. Among the routine retinue, it has become commonplace to sort commentators into two camps – defenders and opponents – Pauline Kael who raised the stakes of the controversy over the writing credit for Citizen Kane into an international brouhaha on the one side, Peter Bagdonovich still attempting to finish Welles’ final masterpiece, The Other Side of the Wind (caught up in legal disputes) on the other. In between, sects and factions, a host of divergent positions and jockeying for favour, and a massive publishing culture industry that has made a commodity, franchise and brand out of the good name of the citizen.
Welles himself deserves some praise for this. In cases where there is so much written, this will always be offered with some perspectival bias. Should it matter than that the following highlights are only a selection?:
- 1915 born, his mother a suffragette who once served time in prison for her radical views (Welles and Bogdanovich 1988:326), a ‘brilliant public speaker’, she was the first woman in Kenosha to be elected to political office (Callow 1995:9)
- 1936 an all black production of Macbeth– admittedly there are issues of exoticization here in the move of action from Scotland to Haiti, and where Welles contrives a voodoo withes scene (see Callow 1995: 235). Nevertheless, an important production
- 1938 campaigns for and champions various leftwing causes, including speaking against Franco at ‘Stars for Spain’ – a medical aid benefit. Welles gives a series of talks on the ‘People’s Front’ at the Workers Bookshop and writes for the Daily Worker. Plays Signmund Freud on stage, gets to know Hans Eisler, Count Bassie, Vincent Price, Lucille Ball.
- October 30th 1938 War of the Worlds radio play.
- 1941 Wells is ‘attacked as subversive and communistic by leaders of the American Legion and the Californian Sons of the Revolution in Hearst papers (Rosenbaum 1998:363). The FBI’s J.Edgar Hoover writes a memo linking Welles to various ‘communist’ organizations (Bogdanovich 1998: xxxvi)
“FBI director J. Edgar Hoover writes a “memorandum for the assistant to the attorney general Mr Mathews F. McGuire” stating: “For your information the Dies Committee has collected data indicating that Orson Welles is associated with the following organizations, which are said to be Communist in character: Negro Cultural Committee, Foster parents’ Plan for War Children, Medical Bureau and North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, Theatre Arts Committee, Motion Picture Artists Committee to Lift the Embargo, Workers Bookshop, American Youth Congress, New Masses, People’s Forum, Workers Bookshop Mural Fund, League of American Writers [and] American Student Union…” (See James Naremore, “The Trial: The FBI vs. Orson Welles, “ Film Comment, January-February 1991” (Rosenbaum 1998:364).
- May 1st 1941 – Citizen Kane. In a scene edited out of the film, Kane’s first wife’s son was to have been killed ‘when he and other members of a fascist organization try to seize an armory in Washington’, with the son’s body shown interred in a mausoleum where a wall inscription from the 1001 Nights begins ‘The drunkenness of youth has passed like a fever’ (Carringer 1996:148).
- 1946 Welles gives protest speeches against the nuclear tests on Bikini Atol (Rosenbaum 1998: 397) and uses his ABC program Orson Welles Commentaries to campaign to bring charges against a policeman who had beaten and blinded black war veteran Isaac Woodward. With heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, Welles draws 20,000 people to a benefit for Woodward. The culpable policeman is finally identified in mid August (Rosenbaum 1998:398-9).
- 1955 on a television program Welles speaks out against passport control and immigration bureaucracy, a subject later dramatised in Welles’ film Touch of Evil.
‘the bureaucrat is really like a blackmailer. You can never pay him off; the more you give him, the more he’ll demand. If you fill in one form, he’ll give you ten’ (Welles and Bogdanovich 1998:262)
- 1962 Welles’ film of Kafka’s The Trial in part conceived as a commentary on Displaced Person Camps (Welles and Bogdanovich 1998:281).
- Filming Don Quixote, incomplete, but the Knight is the emblem of a quixotic politics
- 1972, Welles reports that he still wants to make a film of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, emphasizing the contemporary political associations (Rosenbaum 1998:512). Seven years later Francis Ford Coppola releases Apocalypse Now.
- 1977 ‘the original Rosebud sled turned up in a prop warehouse at Paramount that used to belong to RKO. (Custom-built in the RKO property department, it was thirty-four inches long, made entirely of balsa wood, and fastened together with wood dowels and glue … three identical sleds were built; two were burned in the filming’ (Carringer 1996:49-50)
- 1973 F is for Fake – if you have not seen this, see it now.
On the above grounds, then, after tallying the votes from the members of the Academy, we are proud to announce that the Oscar goes to Orson not only for his film on Kane – patron saint of trinkets – but because of this exchange from the book This is Orson Welles:
Bogdanovich: ‘well, do you have a theory about possessions, or just an inability to keep things from getting lost’
Welles: ‘Both. The things you own have away of owning you’
Bogdanovich: ‘How about things like letters andbooks’
Welles : ‘I’m not laying this down as a law for anybody else. It’s just that I feel I have to protect myself against things, so I’m pretty careful to lose most of them’ (Welles and Bogdanovich 1998: 183)
More to come: where Kane is the embodiment of Money-Bags, yet curiously he himself tries to fight for the ‘common man’ and has sentimental attachment to things (Rosebud), nevertheless he is still a representative of his class, a class who – as capitalists – do not care about things, only the possibility of recouping profits (valourization of appropriated surplus value) through the exchange of things. So much fun to be had with this. And then on to The Trial, and F is for Fake. Soon…