Orson Welles: not a self-destructive failure

November 22, 2009

From Dennis Lim’s discussion of the new film “Me and Orson Welles” in the New York Times:

“In grappling with an artist who revolutionized every medium he worked in but spent his final decades as a Hollywood outcast and a pop-culture punch line, Welles’s biographers … differ on whether he was a radical genius who fell victim to a callous and conservative system or a self-destructive failure who squandered his abundant gifts.”

A more persuasive viewpoint is to see that Welles was a typical conceptual innovator, achieving his greatest work at a young age, then declining in accomplishments through the rest of his life.

For more on that insight into Welles, see David Galenson’s article “Age and Creativity” (PDF, 2006) in the Milken Institute Review.

Orson Welles and John Milton

December 14, 2006

Film maker Orson Welles and poet John Milton aren’t usually lumped together, but they both show up in commentary by Jeffery Hodges of the Gypsy Scholar blog. Responding to Daniel Pink’s Wired article on David Galenson, Hodges proposes that Milton was a mixture of experimental and conceptual innovator:

“I wonder if some geniuses might encompass both conceptualist and experimentalist stylesJohn Milton and thus constitute a third category. Milton, for instance (whom, you may recall, I’ve occasionally blogged about), strikes me as fitting both categories. He showed extraordinary ability from an early age and wrote some excellent, groundbreaking poetry as a young man and would have been remembered as a great literary figure even if he had died young, but because he lived on to an old age and wrote the epic Paradise Lost, he’s remembered for that work of genius more than for his youthful ones.”

Hodges also suggests that Galenson’s approach can shed light on a recent dispute about whether film maker Orson Welles was a genius. The debate was triggered by film critic Richard Schickel’s harsh words in an August review of two books about Welles. The review starts:

“If, as the saying goes, genius is defined by an infinite capacity for taking pains, then Orson Welles was no genius. If, as another saying goes, God is in the details, then there was nothing godlike about him, either — despite the worshipful posturings of his many acolytes. … How, people go on wondering, could the man who created ‘Citizen Kane,’ arguably the greatest of all American films, fritter away the rest of his life — nearly half a century — on movies spoiled by his own inattention or by the machinations of others or, worse, simply abandoned with many of their most significant elements lost?”

Hodges notes the problem with Schickel’s position: “Welles … is classed among the conceptualists, which suggests that Richard Schickel is a bit one-sided in his criticism because he faults Welles for not fitting a category of genius that sounds more like Galenson’s experimentalist sort.”