July 26, 2013 7:19 pm

Creative differences

Three great film directors offer a glimpse into the complex life and work of the auteur

 My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, edited by Peter Biskind, Metropolitan Books, RRP$28, 306 pages

The World is Ever Changing, by Nicolas Roeg, Faber, RRP£25, 256 pages / iPad version, RRP£6.99

Roman Polanski: A Retrospective, by James Greenberg, Abrams, RRP£25, 288 pages

There is no cultural figure that has to wrestle with his or her ego like a film director. Every step in the creative process demands compromise. How to reconcile the realising of a grand vision with the need for teamwork? Having the idea is only a small part of the equation. Waiting in ambush are nervous producers, jealous rivals, tempestuous liaisons with onscreen leads, ham-fisted editors, klutzy marketing campaigns. Not to mention critics and audiences, who can sink a hole in the most distinguished of works with a few hastily-chosen words of disparagement.

It is apposite, and more than a little sad, that one of the greatest directors of them all saved his most eloquent remarks for describing his routine confrontations with all those demons. Orson Welles was stymied at virtually every stage of his career by those whom he believed to be inferior and, in consequence, terminally unsympathetic to him. Welles wrote the template for the way in which arrogance and insecurity fuel each other to produce breakdown. There was the stellar ambition of Citizen Kane (1941), and then immediate and lengthy decline. His physique swelled, his patience shortened, his friends, or “friends”, scarpered. He ended his days at his regular hang-out, Hollywood’s Ma Maison restaurant, draping himself, as Gore Vidal once described, in “bifurcated tents to which, rather idly, lapels, pocket flaps, buttons were attached in order to suggest a conventional suit”.

Which is where we find him in My Lunches With Orson, Peter Biskind’s sensitively edited account of Welles’s conversations with Henry Jaglom. The British-born actor and director became Welles’s regular lunch partner and confidante, and taped their dialogues over a couple of years before Welles’s death in 1985. This is Welles riffing uninhibitedly on his life and times, lurching from mischief to melancholy, and it is riveting. I defy anyone not to feel moved by its narrative arc of greatness laid low by its own luminosity.

 

The book is already attracting attention for its waspish indiscretions. Here is Welles on Woody Allen: “I can hardly bear to talk to him. He has the Chaplin disease. That particular combination of arrogance and timidity sets my teeth on edge.” On Laurence Olivier: “Larry is very – I mean, seriously – stupid.” On the pianist Arthur Rubinstein: “The greatest cocksman ... [he] walked through life as though it was one big party.” On Rear Window (1954): “Everything is stupid about it. Complete insensitivity to what a story about voyeurism could be ... Vertigo. That’s worse.”

But beyond those headlines, there are fascinating pointers to how Welles viewed himself, and his work. What, asks Jaglom, did they think of Kane in England? “It was not gigantically big in England. Auden didn’t like it,” replies Welles, obviously preferring to stew on the verdict of a single poet rather than the bathetic business of box office returns. “I always knew that Borges ... hadn’t liked it,” he continues. “He said that it was pedantic, which is a very strange thing to say about it, and that it was a labyrinth. And that the worst thing about a labyrinth is when there’s no way out. And this is a labyrinth of a movie with no way out.” And then we can imagine that famously booming voice turn warm with the sudden discovery of a good joke. “Borges is half-blind. Never forget that.”

After a while, we get used to the rhythms of the conversations, in which Jaglom, mindful of his tape recorder, lobs some easy jibes for Welles to smash out of court with evident relish. The outrageous, politically incorrect remarks from Welles seem no more than provocative jousting, and both men know it, and enjoy it. Such is their rapport that Welles comes to resent any intrusion, with occasionally eye-popping results.

Richard Burton arrives at their table: “Orson, how good to see you. It’s been too long. You’re looking fine. Elizabeth is with me. She so much wants to meet you. Can I bring her over to your table?” Welles: “No. As you can see, I’m in the middle of my lunch. I’ll stop by on my way out.” Jaglom admonishes Welles for his rudeness. “Richard Burton had great talent,” counters Welles. “He’s ruined his great gifts ... Now he just works for money, does the worst shit.” One doesn’t need to be a psychoanalyst to sense the self-hatred here.

Rarely does Welles expose himself, and when he does, his over-sensitivity is shocking. A pitch to an HBO executive turns inexplicably sour when he senses she is uninterested, despite her vehement encouragement. “When I get that dead look, I’m dead! I can’t do it. I begin to wonder what I’m talking about.” To be suddenly inarticulate was the greatest torture for Welles, even worse than pleading with the tin-eared executives. Fortunately for us, it was a rare occurrence.

 

There is an anecdotal tone, too, in Nicolas Roeg’s The World is Ever Changing but in other respects his own, relaxed account of his cinematic career couldn’t be more different from Welles’s firework-chats with Jaglom. Roeg has also had to deal with the negotiation of a long and gradual creative decline after the succession of masterpieces – Performance (1970), Don’t Look Now (1973), Bad Timing (1980) – that made him the most innovative talent of 1970s British cinema.

But his reflections here are gently observed, lacking in any bitterness or regret, and containing not a whiff of scandal. In sections that are devoted to the various arts of film-making, what comes across most strongly is an ingenuous, almost innocent approach to his craft that is at odds with the disturbing themes explored by his best work.

“I did a love scene that has become very well known,” he recounts undramatically on the electrically-charged encounter between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Don’t Look Now, by some distance the most erotic scene between a married couple ever committed to celluloid. It earned the film an “X” certificate in the US. (The BBC, too, cut the scene when it first broadcast the film on television.) Roeg all but resists the attempt to moralise. “Desire is so delicate, so dangerous,” he observes neutrally.

Was there ever a better director of pop stars than Roeg? In The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), he elicited an otherworldly performance from David Bowie (“I really came to believe that [he] was a man who had come to earth from another galaxy”); in Performance and Bad Timing, he respectively pushed Mick Jagger and Art Garfunkel into never-bettered turns, understanding that their “extraordinary gift of projection or personality” was very different from acting bravura.

Roeg’s work is probably best read as an ebook, which has been designed exclusively for iPad, complete with sequences from his films and grandfatherly accounts of their making, which ramble sweetly into occasional dead ends. Like his career, Roeg’s final chapters veer abruptly into obscure territory, embarking on a semi-mystical discussion of time and space, and sounding like the postscript of one of the Star Trek movies before they became funny.

But the book is, finally, a homage to his beloved art form. “Film opened the door of doubt to the collapse of the difference between fiction and reality,” he says. “Reason sets the boundaries far too narrowly for us and would have us accept only the known.” We mock Roeg’s spirit of genuine inquisitiveness at our peril. Commercial film-making has become a desperately uncurious business, laying aside, with the odd exception, all pretence at philosophical inquiry.

 

James Greenberg’s richly-illustrated Roman Polanski: A Retrospective is a more conventional book, produced with the director’s evident blessing (he contributes a foreword), but still unafraid to comment on the weak spots in a variable career. Greenberg’s dilemma is obvious: Polanski’s life has always been more interesting than his art, and once those bare biographical facts have been cursorily acknowledged – the death of his pregnant mother in Auschwitz; the murder of his wife Sharon Tate by the Manson family; the arrest for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl and subsequent flight from the US – it is hard to avoid the feeling of anticlimax when we turn to the actual work.

That’s not to say that the book lacks insights into the intricate bonds between Polanski’s life and films. Peter Coyote, who acted in 1991’s Bitter Moon, sensed a “fevered pitch of anxiety” in the director’s approach. “I can’t help but think that at one time this was a child whose life was worth less than dust,” he says.

But Polanski is nothing if not resilient, and there are Wellesian levels of self-confidence in his ascent to prominence. His early radio career as a child in Poland was launched when he was asked to comment on a programme during a visit to a communist station, and replied insolently that “the show stinks”. Asked if he could do better, he delivered a monologue and was hired on the spot.

Citizen Kane’s deep-focus cinematography was one of many influences on Polanski’s storytelling techniques, and he produced remarkable and original works in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a period of rapidly-changing morals and he could not help stumbling as he negotiated the fine line between notoriety and infamy. But he managed to keep his cool, zipping from the romance of Tess (1979) to the swashbuckling comedy of Pirates (1986) with what always appeared to be carefree aplomb. Choosing a film, he says, is “as it is with food ... Have you had too much pasta or not enough pasta? What do you feel like eating now?” One wonders if he ever asked that question of Welles, with a straight face.

The greatest auteurs in cinema have traditionally had a habit of gorging on their favourite subjects, their leading ladies, their studios’ cash registers. Today’s directors are less monstrous, and altogether more respectful of the tiresome fact that cinema is a collaborative art form. Put it down to sharper accountants, blander movie stars, infernally complex technological demands. It is more difficult than ever to be a legend in your own lunchtime, and that’s a shame.

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer. His column is on page 14

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

SHARE THIS QUOTE