Review: 'My Lunches With Orson' edited by Peter Biskind

When critics are too lazy to explain how and why something works, they compare it to magic. On the second page of his introduction to "My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles," Peter Biskind describes Welles' filmmaking as "wizardry"; unfortunately, this as close to criticism as Biskind — who italicizes "auteurism," as though it were a foreign word — is willing to get.

Billed on the jacket copy as "America's foremost film historian," Biskind has made a name for himself writing gossipy books about movies ("Easy Riders, Raging Bulls"; "Down and Dirty Pictures") that are uniformly bad at explaining why their subjects matter as either works of popular art or as cultural touchstones. His writing is clunky with out-of-place references jammed into sentences that have to be read backward to be understood ("My Lunches with Orson": "Long before Bob Dylan mocked Jackie Kennedy's 'leopard-skin pill-box hat,' Hopper was famous for her flamboyant headgear").

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In other words, Biskind is the wrong choice to edit a book about Orson Welles, one of the most complicated and misunderstood figures in American film. Biskind doesn't even seem to be all that keen on Welles' work; he describes the late essay film "F for Fake" as "too clever for its own good," "Touch of Evil" as "too much of a mixed bag to be considered one of his best efforts," and calls Welles' second feature "The Magnificent Ambersons" "inane" and "maudlin." The Shakespeare adaptations "Macbeth," "Othello" and "Chimes at Midnight" are mentioned only in passing; "Mr. Arkadin," "The Trial" and "The Immortal Story" aren't mentioned at all. Biskind isn't interested in Welles as a filmmaker or an artist; instead, he regurgitates the popular myth of Welles as the "man who did too much, and thus did, in the end, too little." Welles, the ultimate American multi-hyphenate, becomes the ultimate American failure.

Once readers are done slogging through Biskind's introduction, they'll be met by a picture of Welles at a gala with actor-director Henry Jaglom. In true tabloid style, the caption lists the many celebrities who were also present at the event. Then comes the first of 27 mealtime conversations with Welles recorded by Jaglom in the mid-1980s; these are dotted with celebrity cameos as well as interjections by Welles' dog, whose barking is helpfully transcribed.

The provenance of these conversations is, to put it mildly, disputed. While Jaglom — who befriended Welles in the 1970s — admits that they were captured on a tape recorder hidden in his bag, he claims that Welles was aware of the taping. Sources closer to Welles — including his partner and muse Oja Kodar — claim that he was unaware of Jaglom's recordings until shortly before his death, and felt betrayed by his younger friend.

Regardless of whether Welles was aware that he was being recorded, nothing he says is earth-shatteringly candid. In fact, Welles seems to be performing for his companion. The chapter titles ("Everybody should be bigoted," "Gary Cooper turns me right into a girl!") read like the track listing of a comedy album, and the "conversations" find Welles riffing on material — "politically incorrect" observations, impressions, personal anecdotes about social misunderstandings and wacky encounters with famous people — traditionally associated with stand-up. Unsurprisingly, Welles at one point expresses his admiration for Richard Pryor.

Jaglom, in turn, serves as a sidekick and audience surrogate. The conversations tend to be one-sided, with Jaglom offering reactions and comments, few of them insightful (in response to a story about Charles Laughton: "That's great. He was so gay.").

Were the book just a record of Welles-as-raconteur, it would be easy to excuse its editor's mistakes, which range from stray quotation marks to outright factual errors (Biskind refers to "The Stranger" as being "unofficially directed" by Welles, although the movie is in fact credited to him; he also can't seem to get Jaglom's birthdate right). However, "Lunches" has a sour quality; it often reads like a deliberate settling of scores on Biskind and Jaglom's part.

Their primary target is director Peter Bogdanovich, who was unflatteringly depicted in "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" and has since publicly attacked Biskind's work. Biskind's introduction first mentions Bogdanovich as a friend who promised Jaglom the lead role in his debut film but took the offer back when he decided to play the role himself. This starts a narrative that continues throughout the book; Bogdanovich is portrayed as unreliable, pretentious and an emotional exhibitionist. Though these statements say little about Welles, their inclusion in a heavily edited text says an awful lot about Jaglom and Biskind.

By repeatedly bringing up Bogdanovich, "Lunches" invites comparisons to "This is Orson Welles," the 1992 book edited from interviews Bogdanovich conducted with Welles. Unlike the largely passive Jaglom, Bogdanovich engaged Welles in conversation, resulting in a text rich with in-depth discussions of everything from editing to Yiddish theater. Furthermore, "This is Orson Welles" benefited from the editing of Jonathan Rosenbaum, then the film critic for the Chicago Reader; its appendices include the script to the original ending of "The Magnificent Ambersons" and an exhaustive 130-page chronology of Welles' career. "Lunches" doesn't even have an index; the best it can offer is an appendix featuring such mind-boggling sentences as "He returned to Fox — sinking fast under the weight of 'Cleopatra' (1963) — riding the success of 'The Longest Day' (1962)."

"This is Orson Welles" is an essential book for both Welles enthusiasts and people with a general interest in movies. "Lunches with Orson," on the other hand, is too specious to interest the former group and too uninformed to be very helpful to the latter. At best, it's a collection of comedy routines — amusing, but only if you can stomach Biskind's writing and Jaglom's bitterness.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky is a Chicago-based film critic and essayist.

"My Lunches with Orson"

Edited by Peter Biskind, Metropolitan, 320 pages, $28

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