DEAR MR. ROSENBAUM... Re: "The Big Brass Ring"

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Posted by George Hickenlooper on November 30, 1999 at 19:50:21:

Unfortunately, I do not have the luxury of broadcasting my opinions in a major alternative newspaper because I am not a world renowned famous film scholar like Mr. Rosenbaum. Over the years, I have enjoyed Mr. Rosenbaum's opinions (I think he is one of the better critics in the country), I have enjoyed his scholarship, and I have respected his perseverance in preserving an "unadulterated" memory of Orson Welles. However, at this point, I must object to his persistent bashing of my filmed ADAPTATION of the Orson Welles script "The Big Brass Ring". I regret that this is the only forum I have to do so, but nevertheless, here goes.

When Mr. Rosenbaum first learned of my intention to adapt BBR, he brought it up in his rather mediocre review of my film "The Low Life." I'm not sure what relevance BBR had to this film, nevertheless, Mr. Rosenbaum found the space to chastise me for even having the thought. Subsequently, I knew I was doomed in his eyes from the very beginning.

Now that BBR is finished, I don't mind that Mr. Rosenbaum doesn't like it. I know for a fact that he saw it at a screening at the Toronto Film Festival. A screening in which, by the way, the film broke, there was a twenty-minute forced intermission and when the film re-started three minutes of a crucial, expositional scene was not shown (a nightmare for any filmmaker, believe me). And whatever Mr. Rosenbaum’s opinions may be about my film, let me make it clear that I am not pining away to be celebrated by his inner circle of aesthetes, a circle that includes mostly publications of leftist leanings that have insidiously contributed to the debasing of American art in literature, fine art, and most blatantly, the cinema. I would equate the current state of film criticism and independent film in general to that ridiculous "Sensation" exhibit at the Brooklyn museum. We live in a kind of Hellenistic, hedonist’s age where aesthetics and criticism have become bankrupt (like the avant garde) to the point of becoming a celebration of meaningless shock value -- kind of like a fart in the wind. Now, I would say that Mr. Rosenbaum is less guilty of this than most. Most of the blame frankly exists with Janet Maslin and all of the other solipsistic sycophants of Pauline Kael, but here I digress, so let me get back to the point.

Mr. Rosenbaum is welcome rip apart my movie, I only wish that he would look at the film on its own terms. ITS OWN TERMS. Critics who have successfully done this are Stephen Hunter of "The Washington Post" and Howard Rosenberg of "The Los Angeles Times" among others. But in a way, I can understand why Mr. Rosenbaum is doing this, because after all, he is the most persistent keeper of the Wellesian flame, and fancies himself a purist, no doubt. And here let me challenge Mr. Rosenbaum with the word "hypocrisy" by asking the question IS Mr. Rosenbaum more guilty of aesthetic arrogance by pretending he can step into the shoes of Mr. Welles and properly reconstruct "Touch of Evil" from a 58 page memo. Welles was known to be highly improvisational, even in the cutting room, so wasn't this memo a simple reaction to the changes that the studio wanted? In other words, did this memo reflect pure changes, pure Wellesian changes, or were they a frightened reaction to what Universal was doing to his film? What I'm trying to say is that Mr. Rosenbaum is just as guilty for tampering with the Welles memory as anyone (and let us not forget that he was paid money for his consultation), and perhaps more guilty of hubris by his repeated insistence that "Touch of Evil" is an honest reflection of Welles' vision.

I, on the other hand, never pretended to be stepping into Welles' shoes. If Mr. Rosenbaum had bothered reading any of the press material to BBR, he would have learned that my writing partner F.X. Feeney and I treated this as an ADAPTATION. We adapted this like we would adapt any great piece of literature, from William Shakespeare to T.S. Elliot. We looked at the script as a kind of unfinished poem that only Mr. Welles himself could have realized (so unlike Mr. Rosenbaum and the "Touch of Evil" crew, we were not trying to assume to have the genius touch of Mr. Welles). We were simply being inspired by him and the timelessness of his great writing, as Mr. Chaplin was on Mssr. Verdoux.

However, I am being dragged through the coals because I am not Mr. Chaplin (nor is BBR Mssr Verdoux), nor am I Mr. Welles, but I am rather a no name documentary filmmaker who has virtually no reputation in the crititical world. And since most critics (not Mr. Rosenbaum) are sheep and have very little ability to judge movies on their own terms, unless they come out of Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, or New York or unless they are by a "name" director, or unless they fit some hedonistic or political chic, then they ultimately will be dismissed, because critics' editors of these various newpapaers and alternatives won't be interested in giving those unknows filmmakers space, because after all, space is limited and advertising revenue is more important than ever (again here I digress, but all things are relative to even those leftists who pretend to be the sole perveyors of integrity in the capitalist world).

So, in the end, I only ask that BBR be judged on its own terms. And as difficult as this may be for Mr. Rosenbaum to do (after all he published the original BBR screenplay in 1987 with an invaluable essay on the history of the project), it is only fair. I never set out to try to assume Mr. Welles’ vision. I was trying to make my own film (as brazen as that might be) inspired by his idea, and idea that personally struck a chord with me. If anything, in the end, I would hope that my film would only bring more attention to the SOURCE material, to the ORIGINAL Welles script, and to Welles as a writer, a reputation that was substantially diminished in Pauline Kael’s unscholarly essay "Raising Kane." If anything, I hope that this dialogue will be a healthy one between me and Mr. Rosenbaum and in the end, will only draw more attention to the great master Orson Welles. And if Mr. Rosenbaum continues to have problems with young filmmakers taking on Mr. Welles, then he should go to the source of the estate itself, Oja Kodar, and ask her not to license the rights to any of his work. But then, I doubt he would ever do that, for he cannot afford to alienate Mrs. Kodar for that would negatively affect his own pursuits, many of which are monetary regardless of their honorable intentions.

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