Daily Archives: February 8, 2018

DONALD PHELPS, 1929-2015

CovereingGround

Readingthe Funnies

In some ways, the saddest deaths are those we only hear about accidentally. For me, Donald Phelps was one of the very greatest of American critics — not just literary critic and film critic, but comics critic as well — even though only two collections devoted solely to his written work exist (see above). I would love to imagine that many more will follow, because it’s clear that anyone who tracks down obscure journals, including his own (For Now), looking for Phelps’ insightful and highly original prose, will discover an unending bounty. But it seems like he never had much money, and even before the advent of Trump, Phelps appears to have lived his entire life in the shadows.

I learned of his death by ordering another collection — Sparring with Gil Kane: Debating the History and Aesthetics of Comics – from Fantagraphics Books, chiefly because it boasted having a dialogue with Phelps, and it was only upon reading editor Gary Groth’s introduction that the demise I’d already suspected was confirmed. But at least Donald survived until his mid-80s. Several years earlier, after the stupidity and intolerance of a new Film Comment editor had summarily turned him from an invaluable regular contributor into a non-contributor, I had started to communicate with Donald by letters and by phone as a way of funneling his genius into the precincts of an Australian online film journal named Rouge that managed to publish half a dozen texts of his over its 13 precious issues.… Read more »

Orson Welles as Ideological Challenge (Part 2)

Originally written as the tenth chapter of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (2000), this is also reprinted in my 2007 collection Discovering Orson Welles. Because of the length of this essay, I’m posting it in two installments – J.R.

OrsonWelles1937

JohnCassavetes

3. The taboo against financing one’s own work. I assume it’s deemed

acceptable for a low-budget experimental filmmaker to bankroll his or

her own work, but for a “commercial” director to do so is anathema

within the film industry, and Welles was never fully trusted or respected

by that industry for doing so from the mid-forties on. This pattern

started even before Othello, when he purchased the material he had

shot for It’s All True from RKO with the hopes of finishing the film

independently, a project he never succeeded in realizing. As an

overall principle, he did something similar in the thirties when he

acted in commercial radio in order to surreptitiously siphon money

into some of his otherwise government-financed theater productions

during the WPA period, a practice he discusses in This Is Orson

Welles. John Cassavetes, who also acted in commercial films in order

to pay for his own independent features, suffered similarly in terms of

overall commercial “credibility,” which helps to explain why he and

Welles admired each other.… Read more »

Orson Welles as Ideological Challenge (Part 1)

Originally written as the tenth chapter of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (2000), this is also reprinted in my 2007 collection Discovering Orson Welles. Because of the length of this essay, I’ll be posting it in two installments – J.R.

OrsonWelles1937

Nothing irritates one more with middlebrow morality than the perpetual needling of great artists for not having been  greater.

— Cyril Connolly

Orson-Welles-Opens-Paper

During my almost thirty years as a professional film critic,

I’ve developed something of a sideline — not so much by

design as through a combination of passionate interest and

particular opportunities — devoted to researching the work

and career of Orson Welles. Though I wouldn’t necessarily

call him my favorite filmmaker, he remains the most

fascinating for me, both due to the sheer size of his talent, and

the ideological force of his work and his working methods.

These continue to pose an awesome challenge to what I’ve been

calling throughout this book the media-industrial complex.

orson-welles-color

 

In more than one respect, these two traits are reverse sides of

the same coin. A major part of Welles’s talent as a filmmaker

consisted of his refusal to repeat himself — a compulsion to

keep moving creatively that consistently worked against his

credentials as a “bankable” director, if only because banks rely

on known quantities rather than on experiments.… Read more »