Sunday, June 16, 2019

Welles in Power

From some reason, this early text by Daney has been translated twice: in Andrew Sarris' Cahiers du cinema in English, and in Bridget Lyons' book on Welles. Here are both. The first one is more literal but perhaps reads less well or has aged a bit. Both are correct. You choose.

Welles in Power (Chimes at Midnight)
1. Of Falstaff, Welles said that "He wages a struggle lost in advance." And, too, "I don’t believe that he is seeking something. He represents a value; he is goodness." That strength and genius – unanimously recognized – celebrate our only hopeless causes or majestic downfalls, that a man like Welles, exerting an undeniable influence on those around him, incarnates only the defeated (disappearing, certainly, at the heart of an impressive machinery, but still worn by life, betrayed by his own) – that is a very surprising thing. Strange malediction – that a man too strong can only end badly. And yet, from Kane to Falstaff, from proud display to bareness, from a corpse that one does not see to a coffin that is carried, it is really the same story, that of a man who makes ill use of his power. 
Cinema tends to recount how this or that character (and behind him, often, the cinéaste) has obtained some power, that of speaking, or acting, of making a choice, and so on. Those are perhaps the noblest films (like Le Héros sacrilege, Le Caporal épinglé, or Le Coeur d’une mère), the strange roads on which the cinéastes lead their characters, because the simplest road is not always the most natural, because there are detours more rich than straight lines, defeats more noble than victories, and so on. The winning of one’s power – aiming at it, meriting it, snatching it – is precisely what Welles speaks of least. It is the witches who shape Macbeth, and his intuition that pushes Quinlan forward. The films of Welles begin where the others end; when everything is won, nothing remains but to unlearn everything, unto death, once Quinlan, today Falstaff. 
2. The work of Welles, in that way faithful to Shakespeare, is a reflection on the very idea of Power, that excessive freedom that no one can follow without seeing in it, in the end, degradation and derision. Power is an evil that brings life only to those who do not yet have it. Theirs the bold enterprises, the efficacious and astonishing actions, the well contrived plots – men of the future, born to trample on kings, to whom it is given, at least once in their lives, to rock the world. Kings have other cares; their victory is automatically without prestige, like a repression, a useless recall of the past. Defeat is the only adventure which remains for them. 
Absolute power destroys real power, condemns it to futility. “If there is a sense of the real,” Musil said, “there must be also a sense of the possible”. And a little further, “No doubt God Himself prefers to speak of His creation as potential”. In too extensive a power, the possible gnaws away the real, condemns it in advance; one action is never more necessary than another; good and evil, interchangeable, are equally indifferent. He who is master of the possible at twenty, like Citizen Kane, ends as slave to his caprices, surrendered gradually to a power without object or echo to an arbitrary and mad activity, useless and expensive, which never involves him completely, but which separates him always more and more from others (like the career of a singer without a voice, or the collections heaped up in Xanadu). Who can do the most, does the least, or acts at the margin of his power. Comedy demands then that from a prodigious expenditure of power there results a rigorously useless life. 
From film to film, to the extent that his work proceeds, that Welles ages, the sense of the derisory grows stronger, to the point of becoming the very subject of the film (The Trial) that Welles considers his best. Always, everywhere, power is in bad hands. Those who possess it do not know enough about it (Othello who believes Iago, Macbeth victim of a play on words) – or know too much (Arkadin, Quinlan, Hastler the lawyer), each committed to purely destructive actions by an excess of naivete, as of intelligence. 
3. The life of John Falstaff is a commercial failure. Shortly before dying, he observes that his friend – the feeble but prudent Robert Shallow – has been more successful, and he promises himself to cultivate his friendship. No doubt only his sudden death, which no one had foreseen, spares him the last disillusion. Falstaff was born, not to receive, but to give – without discrimination or hope of return – or, if he has nothing, to give himself as entertainment. Welles calls this waste, the goodness of Falstaff (and the latter himself remarks, “Not only do I have wit, but I give it to others.” Which is a good definition of genius). That Fasltaff – whom Shakespeare had intended mostly ridiculous – has become, imagined, then incarnated, by Welles, a moving character is not surprising. His death is not the disappearance – mysterious and legendary – of a Kane but the drab naked event in which one must read, although nothing is underlined, the end of a word. “If one amused oneself all the year,” says the young prince, “amusing oneself would be forced labor”. Of what is Falstaff guilty? Not so much of having ill used his power, for he has scarcely any, being a character of comedy, moreover without real courage or authority. Perhaps of having used without restraint speech, that power of parody, of having made from it an interminable histrionics, useless and tedious, in which talent, if there is any, asserts itself for nothing. More certainly still of having so long survived so scandalous a waste of his energy (his puns on “waste” and “waist”). And what is still more serious, victim more than culprit, if he makes ill use of his affections too, when he chooses as his friend the very person who will betray him. 
4. The work of Welles is singularly rich in abuses of trust (The Lady from Shanghai) or in friendships betrayed (Othello). The strange and scandalous complicity that for some time links Falstaff and the young prince makes more and more evident what it passes over in silence, the difference in their natures. But there would be no fascination between them if each did not precisely feel that they are radically different, symbols of two complementary and inimical worlds, like face and reverse of the same coin. On one side, Falstaff who lives on his past, on what he is already, in the entropy of a freedom deliberately ruined. On the other, the future Henry V, who is nothing still, who will perhaps be a great king, if he discovers that exact relation between the effort to supply and the end to reach, the austerity and the rigor that makes power utilizable. 
First published in Cahiers du cinema, #181, August 1966. Published in English in Cahiers du cinema in English, issue 11, September 1967. A couple of typos corrected.


Welles in Power (Chimes at Midnight
Welles says of Falstaff "that he fights a battle that has already been lost." And further, "I do not believe that he is looking for anything. He represents a value. He is goodness." There is something very astonishing in the fact that power and genius – unanimously acclaimed as such – should celebrate only hopeless causes or grandiose falls, and that a man like Welles, whose influence on his colleagues is so undeniable, embodies in his art only those who have been defeated. Admittedly this is obscured by an impressive technology, but nonetheless his protagonists tend to be worn out by life, betrayed by those close to them. An extraordinary fate decrees that a man who is too strong can only come to a bad end. And yet from Kane to Falstaff, from pomp to nakedness, from a corpse one doesn't see to a coffin that is carried away, it is always the same story: that of a man who misuses his power. 
... The conquest of power (aspiring to it, living up to it, obtaining it by force) is precisely what Welles deals with the least. For him, this kind of power is represented by the witches who create Macbeth and the intuition which propels Quinlan. Welles' films start where others end; when everything has been won, the only thing left is to be stripped of all knowledge as death approaches: Quinlan yesterday, Falstaff today. 
Welles' work, faithful to Shakespeare in this respect, is a reflection on the very idea of Power: that excess of freedom which nobody can pursue without finding degradation and ridicule at the end. Power is an evil that gives life only to those who do not already have it. Heroic undertakings, actions that succeed in changing the course of events, intricately woven plots: these belong to men of the future, who are born to "tread on kings," men to whom it is granted, at least once in their lives, to shake the world. Kings have other cares; their triumph, like repression or the fruitless re-creation of the past, confers no prestige by definition. Defeat is the only adventure left to them. 
Absolute power destroys true power, reducing it to futility. "If there is a sense of reality," Musil says, "there must also be a sense of the possible." And a little further on he adds, "God himself undoubtedly prefers to talk about his creation as potentiality." When power is too great, the possible consumes reality, dooming it in advance: one action is then no more necessary than another; good and evil are interchangeable and equally meaningless. A man like Citizen Kane, who is master of the possible at the age of twenty, winds up being the slave of his whims, surrendering bit by bit to a power that has neither object nor echo, and to action which is arbitrary and foolish, useless and wasteful, which never involves him fully but which distances him more and more from others (like the career of a singer who has no voice, or the collections heaped up at Xanadu.) He who has the power to do the most achieves the least, or uses only a fraction of his power. The laws of humor require that a prodigious expenditure of energy results in a strictly useless life. 
In film after film as his work develops and as Welles grows older, the inclination to mockery grows stronger, to the point of becoming the very subject of the film Welles considers his best, The Trial. Everywhere and always, power is in bad hands. Those who have it either do not know enough (Othello, who believes Iago; Macbeth – who is the victim of wordplay), or too much (Arkadin, Quinlan, the lawyer Hastler) – all doomed to act for nothing out of excessive naiveté or intelligence. 
In terms of money, the life of John Falstaff is a failure. Shortly before dying, he observes that his friend - the doddering but shrewd Robert Shallow - has succeeded better, and he resolves to cultivate his friendship. Only Falstaff's sudden death, of which there has been no warning, spares him what would undoubtedly have been a last disillusionment. Falstaff was not born to receive, but to give – indiscriminately and without hope of return – or, if he has nothing, to give himself theatrically. Welles calls this prodigality the goodness of Falstaff. That Falstaff – whom Shakespeare especially wanted to be ridiculous – should have become a moving character as imagined and then embodied by Welles, is not very surprising. His death is not the mysterious and legendary disappearance of a Kane, but the prosaic and unadorned event into which the end of the world must be read (although nothing is really emphasized.) "If all the year were playing holidays," says the young prince, "to sport would be as tedious as work." Of what is Falstaff guilty? Not so much of having misused his power, since he hardly has any, being a comic character and one without real courage or authority into the bargain. Perhaps of having been intemperate in his use of words, of having turned his power of parody into an interminably hammy act, an unproductive and tiresome one, where talent, if there is any, asserts itself to no purpose. Even more surely, he is guilty of having survived the squandering of his energy for so long (indicated by the wordplay on "waste" and "waist.") And even more seriously, he is the victim, rather than the guilty one, in making a bad use of his feelings, since he chooses as his friend the very person who will betray him. 
Welles' work offers many examples of breaches of confidence (The Lady from Shanghai) or betrayed friendships (Othello). The strange and scandalous complicity that links the young prince and Falstaff for so long reveals more and more clearly that which is never spoken: the differences in their natures. But there would be no mutual fascination if each of them did not feel himself as radically Other: they are symbols of two worlds that are inimical but complementary, opposite sides of same coin. On one side there is Falstaff, who lives off his past, off what he already is, in the gradual entropy of a freedom that has deliberately been abused. On the other, there is the future Henry V, who is nothing yet, who will perhaps be a great king if he discovers the proper relationship between the expenditure of effort and the object to be attained: the austerity and discipline which make the use of power possible.
First published in Cahiers du cinema, #181, August 1966. Published in English in Chimes at Midnight: Orson Welles, Director, edited and translated by Bridget Lyons, Rutgers University Press, 1989.

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