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April 30, 2024

I’ve seen a few interesting documentaries since my last entry.  “David Bowie: the Last Five Years” was a fascinating look at a great artist being determined to create as much new art as possible while being aware of the end being near.  I surprised myself with my willingness to watch - and enjoy! - docs on both Donna Summer and Dean Martin.  Before his own death, Elvis Presley released concert movie docs in both 1970 and 1972, and while I vaguely remember coming across them years back, the hard work and enduring showmanship I might have dismissed when I was young now serve to amaze and inspire.

These people did not become world-wide phenomenons without reason.

But surprisingly, the subject of Orson Welles, portrayed in two very different documentaries, seems to have captured my imagination the most.

“The Eyes of Orson Welles” might have been a bit difficult to sit through, but I’d never before been aware of how his drawing and painting skills so thoroughly inspired the structure and conception of his entire filmography.  Each frame seems to have artistic aspirations.  Every moment undoubtedly had been deeply thought out.  Nothing appears to be accidental.

But it was an ultra-rare documentary I happened to come across on YouTube that has caught my attention most of all.

“Filming ‘The Trial’” is simply Orson Welles himself taking questions from film students in 1981, four years before his death.  His intelligence is extraordinary, his humility appears genuine, and his appetite to create more work in the decades to come is at an all-time high.  Yet, much like the aforementioned Bowie documentary, he had to have known his time was nearing an end soon.  Overweight, hard of hearing, and unimaginably unable to secure funding for his many ideas, one would think this man should have been content to simply sit back and drink wine.

Which, remembering now, was all I’d believed he was capable of back when the pre-teen me used to watch him on TV.  Spots on my favorite show “Laugh-In” made me wonder who the hell this guy was.  There were wine commercials galore, where he seemingly made a fool of himself by promising to drink no Paul Masson wine before its time.  He’d be one of the lesser guests on the daytime TV shows, although Merv Griffin would fawn over him, in his customary way. I thought he was a relic from a long-distant past who had absolutely nothing to do with what was going on now.  Whatever influence he might have had on whoever else was out there was invisible to me.

Time moves so slow when you’re young.  And there were no streaming devices to introduce true masterpieces like “Citizen Cane” or “Touch of Evil” or “The Lady From Shanghai” to a younger generation.  So for YEARS I’d believed Orson Welles was a bit of a one-hit wonder who had failed miserably in the second half of his life.  But, as is the case with many of the luckiest of fools, eventually I’d realize the error of my own thinking.

In fact, only now do I truly appreciate how true artistic ambition was the main reason this great artist and legendary man allowed himself to get lost in the world of TV commercials in the first place.  Income was needed to self-finance the movies he remained determined to finish.  A thoroughly justified unwillingness to allow studio heads to change his own scripts, his own editing choices, his own vision made him a pariah among the many faceless financial bosses he was destined to run into for the remainder of his life.  The reason Orson Welles became the figure a young man from Burlington, Vermont would foolishly find reason to belittle is glaringly apparent to me now.  Great artists aspire to continue creating great art.  Previous success or failure does not change that fact.

What does run away, however, is time.

Unknown artists have the same problem, as I well know.  I increasingly have trouble explaining my motivation for writing new songs or stories while success of any kind remains elusive.

But watching these documentaries have served to inspire me, at least temporarily.

Being famous or successful has nothing to do with it.  Writers write, singers sing, and musicians play.

No other explanation is necessary.


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