Orson Welles’ The Immortal Story

The Immortal StoryA lot is made of Orson Welles as a brilliant film maker: someone who does amazing things on the micro-scale like the amazing tracking shot at the beginning of Touch of Evil or the hall of mirrors climax in The Lady from Shanghai. But it is better to think of Welles as a great storyteller. I always remember a quote from D W Griffith. When asked about his exceptional use of cinematic technique, he replied that he was just solving the problems that came up in trying to tell his stories. That’s also true of Welles. In fact, I often wonder if he would have been as innovative if he had been given greater resources to make his films.

Last week, I heard that The Immortal Story was available on Hulu-Plus. It was the only Welles film that I had never seen. So I quickly begged a friend who had Hulu-Plus and watched the film. And then again and again and again. It was made for French television back in 1968 — based upon the short story by Karen Blixen (under her pen name Isak Dinesen). It’s just an hour long (apparently, the French version 48 minutes). And it isn’t flashy. It’s just a simple story rendered beautifully.

The story is simple. Welles plays Mr Clay, an old rich man who spends his free time having his assistant read to him from his account books as though they are stories so he can relive his glory days. But one night, he asks about other kinds of books. His assistant reads to him from Isaiah 35, “Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy. For waters will break forth in the wilderness and streams in the Arabah…” Clay doesn’t want to hear it. He’s only interested in stories — like his account books — of things that have actually happened or are happening.

Clay then starts to relate a story he heard on his original trip to Macau about a rich old man who pays a sailor to come to his home and impregnate his young wife so that the old man will have someone to leave his fortune to. The assistant interrupts him, explaining that it isn’t a true story, but one he has heard from dozens of sailors in his travels. Clay then decides to recreate the events so that at least one sailor will be able to tell the story and have it be true.

There are no twists in the story. We simply find out more about the characters. The woman hired to play the wife is the daughter of Clay’s old partner who he bankrupted and caused to commit suicide. The sailor chosen recognizes immediately what is going on because he too has heard the story many times; he ultimately provides the real meaning of the film. We find out much more about the assistant and the daughter — both beaten down by personal loss. And we get to see Clay perform the only meaningful act of his entire life.

As a film, it is deliberately plotted. It draws the viewer in — becoming more and more interesting as we get to know the four characters. And this is probably Welles’ greatest strength — although one not commented on. He was a great director of actors. He always got excellent performances from his people. And that’s especially true here. Jeanne Moreau, Roger Coggio, and Norman Eshley are all excellent.

The Immortal Story was the first film where he used color film. And it is beautiful in an exaggerated way. Apparently, cinematographer Willy Kurant was trying to compensate for the limitations of televisions in France at that time. The result is slightly otherworldly. The shots look about what you expect from Welles. People focus on the low camera angles. That’s not so much true of Welles’ work overall. What he didn’t like were high angles. I agree with him. High angle shots tend to call attention to themselves and pull the viewer out of the story. Welles is careful in this film to never distract from the delicate narrative he’s created.

There are a couple of problems with the film — neither of them Welles’ fault. First, it isn’t available on home video. It doesn’t look like it was ever released on VHS. And the only DVD I’ve found is Region 4 (Australia). Second, the version on Hulu-Plus has terrible sound quality and no optional subtitles. There were a number of lines that I just couldn’t understand — even after multiple viewings. This is all an outrage. The Immortal Story was the last narrative film that Welles finished in his lifetime. And it is a wonderful film. It deserves much better. But I’m glad that at least Hulu-Plus is offering it. If you have access to it, you will be rewarded by spending an hour with it.


The Immoral Story is now available on DVD. And it is available on line. After watching it, you might want to buy it. I’m going to right now.

Paul Weyrich and the Secret of Conservative Power

Paul WeyrichNow many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome — good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.

—Paul Weyrich
1980 Speech

TPP Represents the Failed Neoliberal Past

Lydia DePillisLydia DePillis tried to get to the bottom of a question, Why NAFTA Passed and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Failed. She noted that nothing had really changed in terms of the arguments for and against the two deals. The only real answer she comes up with is that there was a procedural difference: the fast-track authority was long done on NAFTA — before it was negotiated. So it was just a matter of voting for it or against it. I think it is simpler than that.

The 1992 election was widely misinterpreted by both Republicans and Democrats. Republicans are to this day convinced that they lost because Bush raised taxes. The Democrats were for a time — and to some extent still — under the delusion that Clinton won because he turned right and had his “Sister Souljah moment.” So there was a feeling that conservative policy was the right way to go — or at least the wave of the future. That just isn’t true anymore. I think that even the Democratic Party establishment is waking up to the fact that the New Democratic movement was bad for the nation and ultimately bad for the party.

Here’s the question that people are starting to ask: why vote for the Democratic Party when its unofficial slogan is, “Not as bad as the Republicans!”? If the Republican Party hadn’t become so horrible, the Democratic Party would be doing major soul searching right now. And even as it is, a whole lot of Democrats are wondering what it matters to win elections when the playing field is so shifted to the right that even a conservative measure like Obamacare required herculean effort and passed only with Democratic votes. The American voter is pretty messed up, but almost no one is in favor of having two political parties as fully owned corporate subsidiaries.

I think most people are where I am regarding these matters, No Trade Deals Until Our Economy Is Fixed. Are trade agreements good for the economy? They appear to be. But they aren’t that good for the economy. They create modest growth. But this is nothing compared to the enormous disruption that they create. And the kicker is that people see no correlation because economic growth and job or wage growth. That’s because there is none. Over the last 40 years, we’ve seen the economy manipulated so that it exists for the benefit of the rich — and the rich alone. What do trade deals have to do with the lives of workers — other than making them even more insecure?

The only thing that is surprising is that our elected officials listened. But it makes sense. They too have been worn down by ever more trade deals. Trade deals are for centrist Democrats what tax cuts are for Republicans: things that are done because they will supposedly create jobs but never really do. A lot of people have wondered why Obama is so all fired up about the TPP. I think this is why. It isn’t rational. He just “knows” that this trade deal is good for the economy in the same way that George W Bush just knew his tax cuts were good for the economy.

The difference now is that Democrats are capable of learning. And they saw that this was not just — or even primarily — a trade deal. The thing is larded up with special deals for industries that are going to increase profits but not jobs. No one thinks that if Lionsgate can sell The Expendables for he next 70 years in Vietnam that more films will get made. At a time when the Democratic Party is finally waking up from its long neoliberal nightmare, yet another trade deal just doesn’t make sense. If NAFTA seemed like the future to the Democrats in 1993, TPP definitely is the past in 2015.

Republicans Will Not “Reform” After 2016

Brad DeLongFor liberals, there is a long history of thinking that surely the Republicans will have to change their ways. They have a very unpopular platform and seem only interested in funneling money to the rich. There is almost no rational basis for their policies, so they have cast aside science for a kind of postmodern mentality where reality is whatever they want it to be. And this has morphed into a proto-fascist belief in “might makes right.” Remember the Bush administration idea that 50% plus one vote gave them legitimacy to do whatever they wanted? Surely, we liberals have thought, they cannot continue on like this and win elections!

Now we are hearing rumblings within the conservative moment that if the Republicans don’t win the presidency in 2016, the party is dead. There will be a civil war in the GOP that will tear it apart. Liberals tend to be more cautious. We’ve watched this before. For one thing, if the Republican Party came out in favor of torturing kittens, it would still manage to get 40% of the vote. That just seems to be built in. Still, Brian Beutler seems cautiously optimistic that the Republicans might change if they lose in 2016. I’m not.

The problem is that there is a disconnect between the micro-scale and the macro-scale. What is good for any one politician is not necessarily what is good for the party that she represents. It is interesting that the divide between these goals should be so much greater in the Republican Party than it is in the Democratic Party. But I don’t think it is hard to construct a narrative about why it is so. The conservative movement went through a long period of defeat. For four decades, the closest it came to the presidency was Dwight Eisenhower who wasn’t much more conservative than Adlai Stevenson who the Democrats ran against him. It bears repeating: Republican economic policy is not popular.

With the Democratic Party’s turn toward civil rights in the mid-1960s, the Republicans saw their chance. This is the basis of Richard Nixon’s southern strategy: get people to vote against economic policy that, all else being equal, they would hate — all in the name of saving their culture. The Democrats have never done anything comparable. It’s ironic that identity politics is a label placed on the Democratic Party, but the party has never used identity to get people to vote against their own class interests. It is the Republican Party that pushes the “real America” — incidentally, the places where very few people live — as an identity to policies that these people don’t generally agree with.

Brad DeLong wrote an amazing essay at his site, What About Today’s Republican Party? He highlighted the way that former California governor Pete Wilson got a second term by demagoguing against Latinos in the state. He did this, even while knowing that demographic changes in the state would soon make that position toxic. And now we have a state that in 1988 voted for George HW Bush by over 3.5 percentage points is now at just about a super-majority of Democrats and the idea that the state would vote for a Republican president is outrageous.

DeLong thinks the turning point was Newt Gingrich, who thought that he could demagogue his way to power and then govern the normal way but for the interests of the rich and powerful. Of course, that didn’t work. Once you set up that kind of situation, others are going to use it against you. As DeLong put it, “But then he found that his allies who did not care about governing could use his willingness to strike bipartisan deals — and his problems with his zipper — to bounce him out as well.” Now I think this all goes back a lot further, but the idea is the same.

After the 2012 election, there were many Republicans who thought that the party needed to reform. If the party loses in 2016, we will hear the same voices. But the party will have the same problem in 2016 as it did in 2012. If it becomes a “reasonable” pro-business party, it will have no base of voters. So it will continue to push forward with its white resentment strategy. At some point, it will find a winning coalition. But I suspect that will have more to do with the Democrats making a mistake rather than the Republicans suddenly getting creative.

Morning Music: Erik Satie

Erik SatieI will probably write about Orson Welles’ The Immortal Story this evening. It uses a lot of music by the great minimalist Erik Satie. I tell you, there was something in the water there in France in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century — such beautiful music! One of the pieces used is the first of the Gymnopédies. It’s interesting in that it has its own idiosyncratic sense of rhythm. It makes sense but it is frustrating if you try to find a constant beat to it. You’ll hear a clear four beat measure and think, “I’ve got it.” And then suddenly: you’re lost. You just have to go with it and it is lovely. It won’t lead you astray.

The other major piece is the first of the Gymnopédies. It was written a few years earlier and is in strict 3/4 time. But it is so delicate — so tenderly beautiful — that it is impossible not to love. You doubtless know it because it has been used in a zillion films. Here it is performed by Swedish pianist Lars Anders Roos at the St Nicholas Church on 13 April 2008:

Anniversary Post: Baseball

Alexander CartwrightOn this day in 1846, first baseball game was played using Alexander Cartwright’s rules. But that’s the thing about baseball: it wasn’t really invented; it evolved. I’m sure you’ve heard about Abner Doubleday inventing baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. But that’s just nationalistic hogwash. The idea was to make baseball a distinctly American game, instead of what it is: a variation on rounders — a game that dates back to 16th century England and that was referred to as base-ball in A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, which was published in 1744.

Cartwright did systematize the game, set up the diamond shape of the playing field and got rid of the rule allowing players to get runners out by hitting them with the ball. Cartwright was a fireman — eventually becoming fire chief of Honolulu. But he was a huge booster for baseball and spread its play far and wide. But again: he didn’t invent baseball. This is a fact that Americans especially hate to acknowledge. The history of humanity is not a story of “great men” who we would be lost without. It is a story of various people — usually without even knowing each other — working collectively.

This isn’t to take away from anything that individuals do. But they don’t exist in a vacuum. Was Cartwright’s game with the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club really the first baseball game? Or was the first baseball game something played by a bunch of kids while Henry VIII ruled England? Or was it some much later time, since baseball continues to change? It is all of these and none of them. But clearly Alexander Cartwright made major contributions to the modern game of baseball. And that’s cool. But he didn’t do it so that there would be a plaque featuring him at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum (hilariously located in Cooperstown). He did it because he loved the game. And rightly so. Baseball is a wonderful game.

But what the hell: happy anniversary baseball!