Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Reproduction, Preservation, and the Sandpaper of Time, with Special Guest Star Orson Welles

Sean Michael Robinson:

Greetings all!

Special notice to everyone reading today — if you're not already, please consider becoming a patron of the Cerebus Archive restoration project by donating to or purchasing Cerebus Archive Number Five (CAN5), featuring the first ten pages of Jaka's Story, as well as a 11,000 word commentary on the book by Dave Sim. If you haven't read one of these commentaries yet, suffice it to say they're exhaustive examinations on the art, the story, and observations of his life around the time of their creation. 

More importantly, to me, than the already amazing CAN package and reproductions, is these Kickstarter projects are what allow us to continue doing the meticulous work we're doing. I think it's truly remarkable that just a few hundred people have been able to support and finance a mammoth undertaking such as this, the most thorough (and, from my perspective, the most deserving) comics restoration project in the short history of comics. Today, I'm asking you to join your fellow fans in supporting this project.

Cerebus is unique in so many ways—I suspect this isn't a controversial statement—but one of those many ways is Dave's approach to ownership and commitment to the public domain. When Dave is dead (may it be five decades from now!) the entirety of Cerebus will pass to you, the reader, to do what you wish with it. Print a new edition on llama skin? Translate it into Japanese? White out the aardvark guy and clip in photos of yourself and your girlfriend? Or whatever presidential candidate is currently annoying you? Adapt it into a live-action movie starring only the descendants of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt? All these and more will be yours to enjoy.

But one thing I learned from my time in the Orson Welles fan community — having no clear estate (or a fractured estate) means materials fall into disrepair. Even Orson's almost-completed films (Other Side of the Wind is a fine example) have been scattered to the winds, some negative here, some negative there, a work print under someone's sofa. A raft of notes in an archive somewhere. And each of these materials subject to the whims of the current "owner" of that material. 

His public domain radio materials, removed in time by a few more decades, are a whole other matter... which I happened to write about, in this space, almost two years ago now. Why don't we let 2014 Sean take it from here?

As many of you probably know, Orson Welles was possibly the greatest radio director who ever lived, a fact made all the more remarkable by his young age-- the radio plays on which that reputation rest were made when he was in his early twenties. And like many prolific artists, Welles was a shark, always moving, only infrequently looking back on what he had created, with eyes squarely on the next project, the next story, the next thing to devote himself to.

Dave and Orson Welles. I've made the comparison before, in an article/addendum to an interview I conducted with Gerhard for The Comics Journal in 2011. Here's the relevant bit--

In the world of film, at least the technicians and artists behind each of the specialized tasks have names, have credits. And yet it doesn’t seem to have done much good, at least in the way that people tend to view the “authorship” of a movie. To take a ready example- it’s still routine to read analyses of Citizen Kane that mention Gregg Toland, the film’s cinematographer, in passing only. I find this example particularly apt, as it seems clear that Toland and [Orson] Welles created the visual look of Kane as equal partners, that in fact Welles was as eager to work with Toland as Toland was to work with him.

The Welles/Toland comparison seems even more relevant when you consider that although Welles was undoubtedly the central figure, the “author” and architect of Citizen Kane, the film relied very heavily on the visual innovations of Toland, and that Toland had himself been developing many of these innovations for years. In a certain way it could be argued that many of Welles’ chief visual contributions to Kane involved knowing when to collaborate, and when to leave Toland to his own devices.

Despite their obvious differences, there are actually lots of similarities between Dave's work and Welles' work. Innovative, pioneering storytelling methods, so inventive that they could/would be mined by lesser talents for whole careers. Uneasy and shifting relationships with mainstream success. Both working in unusual narration-heavy "essay" forms in their later work, works which rely on their personalities and ideas rather than pure narrative interest. (This is an invitation for someone to write a comparison of glamourpuss and F For Fake.)

Anyway, I'm getting off track here. Back to the Radio Archives set.

These are fascinating to listen to, and hearing them for the first time was one of the most visceral aesthetic experiences I've ever had. Bracing. It's not just the command of narrative, the break-neck pace of the story telling or the compelling acting or the gorgeous music by Bernard Hermann. It's also that they sound so damn good!

You see, for the most part, Welles' mighty work in radio is currently represented by who-knows-how-many generations of audio. Someone taped a re-broadcast on their reel-to-reel, transferred it to cassette later, then made a dupe for someone else, who made a low-resolution MP3 of the whole thing and THEN applied some terrible noise reduction.

Welles himself didn't think much about preservation. His secretaries kept files, sure, he had dupes of transcription discs made so he could review the shows later, improve things. But he moved offices, he lost staff, he moved countries. Nothing stayed with him. And certainly, at the end of his life, he was more interested in raising money to complete his current projects than spending time and resources on holding on to what was, in essence, his juvenilia.

But that Radio Archives set makes it clear how outstanding the work he did in radio truly was, in a way completely different from hearing those tenth-generation copies I was talking about before. On Dracula, the Mercury Theatre's very first broadcast, you hear ghostly howls, wind, murmuring of crowds, shrieks, the eerie mechanical sound of Welles' Dracula voice, all details that couldn't possibly have been heard even at the original point of broadcast. And all of these thing were captured by the transcription discs, recorded because of various broadcast regulations and then stuffed in a closet, only to re-emerge, decades later.

So why even bother creating that amount of detail when it would have, in all likelihood, be lost in the terrible-sounding A.M. radio signal, broadcast once and then never again?

Because it's better that way. Because that's what artist's do, even when they have an eye for broadcast (or reproduction), even considering all of the states that their work might go through before it reaches an audience.

It would be impossible to assemble a definitive collection of Welles' radio work at this point. Too many of the materials are gone, destroyed, or in private collections, hanging on someone's wall, never to see the light of day. The irony of this is, unlike his film work, which is owned by the many fractured pieces of his estate, much of Welles' radio work is squarely in the public domain. And yet, access to it, in a listenable form that gives full respect to the source, is mostly impossible.

Dave is in a unique position in that, though the work is now historic, the window for restoration has yet to close. There are still active collectors out there who are willing to help assemble the materials, there's still funding out there to help us make progress on the tremendous amount of work required per book. It seems likely that attempting a project like this a decade from now would be impossible.
There's a lot more to say here, about the public domain, about how estates do or don't manage the legacies of their creators. Rather than contribute any more words of my own, I'd appreciate any thoughts you all might have about these issues.

I'll leave you with a relevant Gerhard quote--

It’s amazing to see the difference between the printed book and the original artwork. If you ever see a copy of the Winsor McCay book, look at the difference between the illustration on the cover, which is a giant multi-layered, multi-winged multi-engined airship, and then it’s reproduced much smaller on the title page, and all that delicate line work is filled in to solid black. And that’s sometimes the difference between the original art and the printed version. I look at that and I think, “I’m not going to do all that crosshatching when it’s just going to fill in to solid black anyway.

But, of course, we all know they both did it anyway...


Unknown said...

Yes, it's an arduous process that we're in the middle of. Very expensive. VERY expensive. The ultimate goal is to have the entirety of CEREBUS -- negatives, photocopies, notebooks, the original artwork that hasn't been sold -- under one roof at the Off-White House. But, that's a long-term goal.

Right NOW, the priority is scanning the original artwork so that Sean can do his restoration/remastering. But, that's really only part of it. The CEREBUS ARCHIVE Portfolios are really the Highest of the High End for the CEREBUS Collector: 10 pages at a time, you're getting reproductions that are the closest possible to the original artwork.

It would be nice if we were in the situation of doing Artists' Editions in another form, but given the constraints -- we're in The CEREBUS Dark Ages where there is really only between two and three
hundred people dedicated to keeping this going -- the CEREBUS ARCHIVE Portfolios are the most rational means of moving forward.

Unknown said...

A good example of the Cash Flow Riptides that are SOP for Aardvark-Vanaheim was getting in a $16,000 cheque from Diamond this week. ALL of that money is needed to pay the printing bill on the remastered GOING HOME (which is scheduled to ship September 23rd, God willing).

The money that comes in on the remastered GOING HOME is going to be needed to do the next printing of the CEREBUS trade and pay for proof-reading on JAKA'S STORY, scanning of MELMOTH, etc. etc. I'll keep it going as long as I can, primarily FOR CEREBUS fans. I really just see myself as CEREBUS CUSTODIAN #1 -- as opposed to CEREBUS creator, Dave Sim -- at this point. It's my job to preserve EVERYthing and see that EVERYthing is restored and maintained.

So, thanks to everyone who has pledged for CAN5!! I'll be posting here at AMOC all day Saturday when the campaign comes to an end (again, God willing).

I'm HOPING there's a "breathing space" up ahead

Malcolm X said...

Orson Welles on Winston Churchill:

Unknown said...

Re: Sandeep's clip: I love the fact that Churchill LEANED ON the lines that Welles had excised. There's a similar "WTF?" story of Abraham Lincoln watching a Shakespeare play backstage when he was President. Non-actors tend(ed?) to be Shakespeare Purists. What are DOING cutting lines that Shakespeare WROTE? A modern analogy would be seeing a Led Zeppelin tribute band and them leaving out lines in "Stairway to Heaven". WTF? To the point of actionable whiplash. For the actor (usually director/actor) it's: it PLAYS better that way. The extra -- rather, "extra" -- lines slow everything down and you lose the audience.

I'm a Shakespeare agnostic, but I love watching purists get worked up about it!

Sean R said...

The Shakespeare purists don't have a leg to stand on, I'm afraid. Shakespeare himself, as a writer, was a pragmatist who aided Shakespeare the theater owner and Shakespeare the social climber. I've heard pretty compelling arguments that certain seemingly superfluous scenes are cover for costume changes or other practical stage business. He also clearly rewrote for a variety of reasons. See the three very different Hamlets. Really, what would an uncut hamlet actually look like? An unwieldy amalgamation of all tree extant versions? Alternate lines or wording included in chronological order?