The Medium on Trial: Orson Welles Takes on Kafka and Cinema

  • Published 2015


Few American directors have been as manifestly preoccupied with the uses and abuses of the media as Orson Welles. He became instantly famous in 1938 when his radio show The War of the Worlds, a simulation of a news broadcast announcing that Martians had just invaded New Jersey, managed to induce mass panic in an audience who took the hoax for an actual event.' People packed the roads, hid in cellars, loaded guns, and even wrapped their heads in wet towels as protection from Martian poison gas. As recently as 2005, an EBILaw Enforcement Bulletin article titled "The Future of Officer Safety in an Age of Terrorism" informed that no event provided as reliable a picture of open mass panic as the reception of Welles's War of the Worlds (Buerger and Levin). His contemporaries did not tniss Welles's lesson, with commentators pointing out that the broadcast was meant to reveal the way politicians could use the power of mass communications to manipulate the public with empty but dangerous illusions.^ After this dramatic demonstration of the power of the media, specifically radio, to manipulate the public, Welles turned to filmmaking. His debut. Citizen Kane ( 1941 ), was immediately recognized as an unflagging critique of the corruption of the media, this time of newspapers. While Welles's critique of radio and printed media has been extensively discussed, his critique of his main medium—film—has received little critical attention. In this essay I focus on The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962), which I argue provides Welles's most thought-provoking interrogation of film: its aesthetics, politics, ethics, and its relationship to the literature it selfconsciously adapts. „ Although Orson Welles considered The Trial "the best film [hej ever made, critics have often described it "as the hardest to watch" of all his films (Wheldon; McBride 155). Joseph McBride traces "the film's ultimate failure" to the irreconcilable discrepancy between Kafka's and Welles's world views: Kafka's penchant for cat-andmouse games, with the omnipotent narrator amusedly orchestrating and watching the confused, panicked struggle of an already doomed hero, is often seen as incompatible with Orson Welles's "egocentric visual style."' I argue that rather than an incidental failure, the confiictual relationship between the movie and the story is carefully played out as one of the film's central investigations. As we will see in detail, Welles self-consciously opens and closes the film on the question of adaptation, which as a result frames the film. However, when it comes to adaptation, there are frames and frames. The frame could delimit the movie from the story and thus present it as an autonomous artifact. Or on the contrary this frame could turn out to be more of a Procrustean bed, imposing the constraints of the story onto a movie that, try as it may, just does not fit. To frame, the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, can mean "to give structure, shape," and thus "to benefit." But it can also mean "to pre-arrange (something), esp. surreptitiously and with sinister intent"; "to fabricate"; "to concoct a false charge or accusation"; "to devise a scheme or plot"; "to frame-up."^ Having made Touch of Evil, a film where he played a cop specializing in frame-ups, Welles knew well that in telling a compelling story, in making a case, framing and framing

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@inproceedings{2015TheMO, title={The Medium on Trial: Orson Welles Takes on Kafka and Cinema}, author={}, year={2015} }