Board Member and unrivaled cinephile Mark Cousins shares this personal letter to Orson Welles. Celebrate Orson Welles and the State Centennial with us at our screening of “Citizen Kane” featuring Orson Welles’ daughter Beatrice Welles on Wednesday, July 27 at 3 pm.
Dear Orson Welles,
Can we go around the world together? You’re dead, of course, but that doesn’t stop me imagining us as a gruesome twosome, on the road. Maybe you will accept my offer because you were a mendicant friar. When Hollywood didn’t know what to do with you, you set off and out to Spain and France, Yugoslavia and Morocco, to ply your trade, to set up your baroque stall in souks and courts and on stages, between rages.
From where I’m sitting – about which, more in a moment – it looks like you couldn’t stop making films, Orson, from Citizen Kane onwards. You had a will to cinema, a longing for it, or maybe not quite a longing because that implies that it was outside you, far away, something to be reached for when, in fact, it’s better to say that it was inside you. You embodied movies. It’s hard to write to you and not use the word embody, Orson. Your body was like an echo-chamber, like the belly of Ahab’s whale; it produced that voice of yours that rumbled, and all those kings you played.
So can we go on this travelogue, Orson? We could see it, also, as an epilogue. An epilogue to your life, which was so baroque that it is begging for one. I wish this letter could be a dialogue, Orson. For me it is a kind of dialogue. Shall we make it a decalogue? Shall we visit ten places around the world, with cinema on our mind the way Diego Rivera had Frida on his mind, in that great picture he did of himself? To mention Frida and Diego is to think of Mexico, of course. Can we travel the world together without going to Mexico? Without thinking of Sergei Eisenstein’s time there? Without nodding our caps now to the fact that part of the reason for travelling, the compulsion to travel, the propulsion of travel, is what Eisenstein called “exstasis”: the desire to get out of yourself, the rapture of self-loss, the hope that, if we are fleet of foot, we might be able to outwit ourselves, leave them behind, reverse the polarity of self and other?
Indulge me, Orson. Let’s strike out together on this travelogue, epilogue, dialogue, Decalogue. Let’s travel the world and, as we do, ask a simple question. What are the movies? Years ago, when I was in my twenties (and as close to handsome as I was ever going to get), I went to Naples to film a grand lady in her 60s, Flora Pinto d’Albavilla mariata Capaldo. As her name suggests, she was from aristocratic stock. Just as the years of Garibaldi were long gone, so was her money but, somehow, she managed to ignore this fact and live in a small apartment gussied up with chandeliers and French furniture. One evening, after filming, she told me that she’d like to take me to “la plus belle balcon du monde.” We drove for an hour in her fancy car, arrived in Ravello, from where she took me to a balcony overlooking the bay of Naples, the Costa Amalfitana. The moon was full and twinned with its reflection in the sea. As we stood on the balcony, Flora told me that Greta Garbo took Leopold Stokowski there. It was indeed, for me, a working class Belfast boy, the most beautiful balcony in the world. As we stood there, so said to me: “Travel the world with me. I have not long to go, but we could visit the great art galleries together. I would pay for everything. All I’d ask for in return is your company and, occasionally, for you to wear swimming trunks”. Did Tennessee Williams write her lines that night? Did he write this scene, Orson? Did you? I mention it here, of course, because her invitation – “travel the world with me” – seemed to me then, and still does, one of the most risky and beautiful things that one person can say to another. And so I say it to you, Orson.
Can we start our journey here, where I am now? I’m in Cannes, France. I’m sitting in a cheap restaurant called La Frigate. It’s lunchtime. The sky is grey – the Magritte colours are only here in the sunshine, as you well know – and, just to further dispel the glamour, I can tell you that I smell of sweat (I’ve been schlepping around town today) and vin blanc provencal. I’m away from the numbers, as someone called Paul Weller once wrote, beyond the Cannes film festival bubble; it’s where I want to be. There’s a quietude in this small restaurant. Nobody’s talking about the film business.
I don’t need to describe Cannes to you, of course, because you were here often. In 1948, you lived in the exclusive Eden Roc hotel at the Cap d’Antibes, near hear, didn’t you? And in that year Rita Hayworth visited you at the Cap, to try to reconcile your relationship. Two years later, you took a taxi from Italy to the hotel, at a cost of $500, to try to convince producer Darryl Zanuck to fund your film of Shakespeare’s Othello. You dropped to your knees and begged him. The place went silent. Perhaps to bring the moment to an end, and out of embarrassment, he offered you $100,000 to play a part in Prince of Foxes. You accepted. The money helped fund your film. You charged him for the taxi. Two years later, in 1952, Othello won the Palme d’or here. And, then, in 1966, you were given a prize here for your contribution to world cinema. Jean Cocteau’s lover Jean Marais made the announcement. Raquel Welsh, whose beauty then brought tears to our eyes, took you to the stage. Behind you stood Mademoiselle Presidente du Jury, Sophia Loren, who was from Naples and who, therefore, had probably stood on la plus belle balcon du monde. So I don’t need to tell you about this place. Unlike me, you’ve seen its inner sanctum, its upper echelons, its holiest of holies, its tracking shots, its foleys.
But what does Cannes tell us about the movies, Orson? As I sit in this restaurant, ten metres from the sea, with scooters buzzing by like wasps, I notice what I’ve always noticed about this place. There’s no smell of the sea. I’ve heard, several times – can this be true? – that before the Cannes film festival starts, they comb the sea to remove the seaweed. If they do do this, why? To make the water look cleaner, clearer? Seaweed gives the sea its smell so, removing it, makes the water more like an ideal but, also, more distant, because it isn’t confirmed by smell. Is it the wine that makes me see, in this, a metaphor for the movies? What we see in a film is there and not there, isn’t it Orson? Just like you’re here and not here now. Movies are over-available to some senses and completely unavailable to others. Read more