We’re On the Spectrum Between Ed Wood and Orson Welles

Ed Wood

Great piece by Andrew Bloom at Consequence of Sound that expresses  a notion I’ve been mulling since I first saw Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Bloom drills down into the scene between Johnny Depp’s titular character and Vincent D’Onofrio as Orson Welles as the filmmakers discuss keeping to one’s artistic vision:

Burton and his collaborators sketch an unexpected parallel between the two unlikely “visionaries” here. The scene suggests that there’s a beauty in artistic purity, whether it comes from one of cinema’s most venerated artists or from its most deluded-if-earnest creators of crap. The film posits that all art contains a piece of the author’s soul, from cinema’s highest highs to its lowest lows, and that fact connects everyone with the foolhardy impulse to try to make good on the impulse to create.

Source: Ed Wood and Who Art Really Belongs To | Consequence of Sound

This kinship in creation, the idea that “everyone with the foolhardy impulse to try to make good on the impulse to create” are connected in a community of creativity is a marvelous notion. Especially for those of us making art who like to believe we’re on the spectrum somewhere between Welles and Wood, as with our art film project Pill Head. In the end, we’re part of a community, perhaps even a tradition and the esprit de corps this engenders is the fuel one needs when launching over such Quixotic humps like, you know, reality.

Though it’s technically easier than ever to make a movie, it’s still an act of outrageous will that gets them done. Moreover, per Bloom, when making work that contains “a piece of the author’s soul,”  you need to A) have a soul and B) believe you’re carrying a torch lit by a common flame. The connectivity of which Bloom writes is that flame — whether it’s (spoiler alert) Rosebud heaped into the fireplace  or the crackpot fire burning in Wood’s eyes — that connection, in spirit, is what ultimately helps our work connect with its audience and them to each other.

War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast: When Hearing is Believing

Orson Welles and War of the Worlds

Prior to watching the American Experience presentation of War of the Worlds, I assumed that John Lennon’s apology for his comments on the popularity of Jesus relative to the Beatles was the first mass media act of contrition. Wrong.

Watching the 23-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles apologize for causing mass panic with his infamous radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells Martian invasion tale 28 years earlier, in 1938, is a case study of how to put the “me” in mea culpa. One claimed to be bigger than Jesus, the other simply scared the b’Jesus out of a large portion of the East Coast. And then became a film god.

Produced by American Experience, the documentary mines the fallout of Welles’ infamous Mercury Theatre on Air production broadcast on CBS, using interviews with talking heads like Welles’ daughter and perennial “Orsonista” Peter Bogdonavich, among others. Likewise, the doc, which first airs at 9 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 29, on KQED (75 years to the day-ish of Welles hysteria-inducing adaptation), makes splendid use of letters from the listening audience who feared that New Jersey had been laid to waste and would’ve learned the disappointing truth had they waited for the next station ID.

Here’s the original broadcast:

Among Welles’ detractors was a gentlemen who wrote that Welles was a human “carbuncle.” Having no idea what that meant, I Googled it and now I can’t get the image out of my mind. Proceed with caution. NSFW would be an understatement. It’s more like NSFL: Not Safe for Lunch.

Predictably, Welles was both pilloried and celebrated for his virtuosic performance — both that of the fateful broadcast and later his wide-eyed, “Who me?” apology, which some say was the performance of a lifetime. In the footage, Welles’ broad, usually babyfaced cheeks are shadowed by stubble, his hands are folded in his lap and his brows knit with befuddlement and concern. Looking back over the course of his career and the characteristic commitment to his roles, from “Harry Lime” to his latter days as a pitchman for Paul Masson wines, it’s hard to imagine anything other than an actor, whose genius bordered on sociopathology, was caught on that newsreel.

The actors in the American Experience film are similarly invested in their roles — it’s a wonder director Cathleen O’Connell didn’t ditch the documentary altogether and opt for a docudrama instead.

Of course, this territory was trod before, in an ersatz manner, by Woody Allen’s Radio Days, in which a favorite aunt is ditched in mid-date when her beau’s fear of Martian invasion supersedes his chivalry.

In terms of lasting cultural significance, Welles’ War of the Worlds far outpaces that of the 1953 and 2005 film adaptations. Despite their special effects and multiplex idols, neither can compete with the “theater of the mind” when paired with pure naivete. It didn’t help that the flying saucers from the 50s version sounded precisely like a loose fan belt.

What looms in every media maker’s mind, however, is “Could it happen again?” Sadly, some dark part of me realizes that, the way we consume media, despite it’s contagions of memes and viral videos, the days of inducing mass panic with a mockumentary are long gone (But then there’s always “fake news”).

First off, there’s no longer a single medium that unifies the masses — could you imagine War of the Worlds unfurling on the fractal-like world of, say, Twitter. Second off, whatever the medium, anyone with an inkling of incredulity would go online and dispel their concerns within a couple clicks, not to mention the time-shifting means by which many now consume media. No one reads, watches or listens to anything at the same time anymore.

Welles’s schtick could only work in simpler times, When America was gullible, innocent and still able to believe in the media.

Naturally, Radio Lab created a tour de force meditation on Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast, its fallout and follow ups:

Wine, the Original Social Networking

Social networking sites such as MySpace and FaceBook are the rage for those plugged into online community experience – but wine was and remains the preferred social networking experience for the unplugged, or at least the uncorked, set.

Prior to modern winery practices (and the public health code), making wine was a socially-driven endeavor in which people bared their soles and stomped grapes in barrels. Surely some order of social networking occurred in these cozy bacchanals, if not outright orgies. The DNA of hot tubs and the Jacuzzi can surely be traced to this common ancestor as well as, I suppose dozens of families of Mediterranean descent.

In this context, notions of “rubbing elbows,” “elbow grease” and “social lubrication” are merely iterations of an evolving network. Though each can stand on its own, as can, being social and networking, the notions are more effective when forged together, the way it’s understood that rubbing and lubrication benefit from a well-greased elbow.

I recently stumbled into a wine marketing conference due to the machinations of a publicist with a grudge to get as many media-butts in seats as possible, no matter how qualified. For a gratis pour of wine, I’ll be anyone’s ass. The marketers were concerned with acquainting the so-called X and Y Generations with their product by embracing viral videos, blogs, podcasts and social networking sites with such zeal that they used the unfortunate term “Wine 2.0.” What they failed to notice was that we’re already into wine – some of us since grade school. This, I attribute to Orson Welles.

In late 1970s, a furrow-browed Welles pitched Paul Masson jug wine in TV commercials, famously harrumphing “We shall sell no wine before it’s time.” I took him seriously. Albeit, Masson’s ad men weren’t attempting to foment early brand-loyalty with the single-digit set; wine had none of the ersatz sophistication promised by the candy cigarettes peddled by Big Tobacco. Even at age seven, I was sufficiently intrigued by this corpulent Anti-Claus to forge a mental bond between wine and my burgeoning sense of urbanity (a notion temporarily eclipsed, of course, by the advent of the juice box).

Welles’ would sell me no wine until it was time, which was about 14 years later when I was of age. However, at 16, given my penchant for blazers and newly infected with a British accent, which had spread through the high school drama club like mono, I was able to bamboozle the employees at the local liquor store. My misdemeanor of choice? Wine. Why, what else, Mr. Welles?

“Do you have ID?” a clerk would ask as my crime wave expanded beyond my small town.

“Me passport’s in me luggage, mate,” I’d brogue, then smile brightly as if to say “Now, let’s not mar this moment of international diplomacy then.”

It’s only now that I’ve realized that, as my gang’s designated-buyer, I was shaping their virgin palates. This could account for the enduring popularity of bottom-shelf product in my home town. In retrospect, I would have been more selective, but a $5 budget is to selectivity as adolescence is to discretion, which is why the legend of my Christ-like ability to turn their liquid assets into wine had spread. Within months, I was supplying most of my town’s class of ’90 with jugs of California plonk simply labeled “Red.”

Despite the fact that even the most technically advanced of my brood could barely operate the clasp of a girl’s bra, I purchased bottles with corks and never screw caps (I ran a classy operation). This necessitated mastery of such arcane instruments as the Ah So or the lethal-looking, android Jumping Jack otherwise known as a “winged” corkscrew, about which I’d lead impromptu seminars in shadows of American Alley before trundling off to some poetry reading or other.

I dare say that the girls huddled in the abandoned shack we called our “studios” were little impressed with the poetry we recited, hushed and humid over candlelight – male display behavior muddied by a midsummer night’s drunk. More to the point, the girls were there for the wine not the poets. Only after a couple of champion swigs by both parties could we even hope them to be the least bit susceptible to our charms, especially those in verse. But eventually, we networked.

After much meditation, I believe I’ve found the wine bar analog to MySpace: The next time you order a wine by the glass, ask your sommelier to acquaint you with the other patrons with whom you are sharing the bottle. Though it may result in a raised-eyebrow, it might also garner a friendly smile and if you’re lucky, some greasy elbows.