Orson and Goya in Chinchón
by Peter Stone

Of course, they never met. A difference of 87 years before the departure of one and arrival of the other saw to that. But if they had you feel they might have got along. Two larger-than-life figures - both in flesh and spirit - obsessed with their particular branches of the arts. One an undisputed genius throughout his creative life. The other an awesome talent that glowed briefly and then faded like a disintegrating meteor.

The latter was enfant terrible Orson Welles, who peaked at 25 with his movie satire based on newspaper mogul Randolph Hearst, "Citizen Kane" (after having three years earlier terrified half of north East USA with an uncompromisingly realistic radio version of "War of the Worlds"), only to see his next film "The Magnificent Ambersons" ruined as no other before or since by studio interference and spend the rest of his life hustling for funds (it had not been wise to mess with Hearst) in order to make startlingly original Shakespearian forays - "Othello", "Macbeth" and "Chimes at Midnight," - and sub masterpieces like "The Lady from Shanghai" and "Touch of Evil", before eventually settling for hammy roles in inferior films and plummy voice-overs for Tio Pepe adverts that were clearly based on substantial field research. "His talents now seem as deeply buried as a silver sixpence in a Christmas pudding," proclaimed The Sunday Times biliously in the early eighties, while Welles wryly conceded, metaphorical sherry glass in hand, "I started at the top and worked down."

The former was Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, the rebellious and revolutionary Aragonese painter whose huge work encompassed frescoes, oil, etchings, engravings and royal portraits, and progressed with equal facility from romantic early work such as his fiesta-oriented Goyescas through his sharply satirical Caprichos etchings - which unflinchingly attacked politics, church and society - and vividly impressionist Desastres de la Guerra paintings (including the famous 3 May 1808 firing squad scene) to his Pinturas Negras which featured such nightmarish visions as "Saturn Eating his Young." A fruitful bulk of work that - though marked by an increasing pessimism - filled his entire lifetime and whose inventiveness was undimmed even in his final years of exile in Bordeaux when he started studying new techniques in lithography. At the height of his fame Charles IV made him his pintor de cámara in 1799 and his portrait of the monarch is almost as famous as are his studies of the Duchess de Alba, or Maja, with or without clothes. It's said he knew his models "biblically" - at least the female ones. An attitude with which the one time husband of Rita Hayworth and Eartha Kitt would undoubtedly and wholeheartedly concur.

What else had these two rebellious giants in common? One indisputable answer is the medieval town of Chinchón, situated just 40 kms from Madrid. They both loved this supremely picturesque spot and Welles even expressed a wish for his remains to be buried there. He went there in the mid sixties to make two films ostensibly laden with intimations of old age and impotence: "The Immortal Story," an atmospheric colour movie (his first) made for French television and based on an Izak Dinesen short story about lost youth, and the more ambitious but conventionally black and white "Chimes at Midnight" which rather erratically combined no less than four Shakespeare plays, had additional scenes set in Avila and La Mancha and featured Welles himself as the bloated, pathetic and neglected Falstaff.

Life does not necessarily imitate art and Orson enjoyed himself greatly in Chinchón. He relished his early morning chispazos of anís with local mesón owners, his prodigious meals of Castilian chuletones, and the summer bullfights held in the oval shaped terraced main square. Like that other great self-parodying legend Hemingway he was a friend and fan of torero Antonio Ordoñez on whose ranch near Ronda his remains were finally scattered (although, as we've said, he would have preferred Chinchón).

His base when filming was a rented house on the Calle del Toledillo which he shared with his technical staff. For "The Immortal Story" he's said to have employed 90% of the inhabitants as extras. Chinchón was meant to represent Macao which is not as crazy as its sounds as Macao has a history of Portuguese occupation and much of its architecture is similar to Spanish. Welles took his art seriously. At one stage while filming he fell backwards into one of the town's larger fountains, the Fuente del Moro, rose soaked but oblivious of the raucous laughter all around him and called for a second take of the scene they were shooting as if nothing had happened.

Welles was not the first international film maker to be enchanted by the cinematic possibilities of Chinchón. A decade earlier the ill-fated impresario Mike Todd (who died in a plane crash in the 1950s) had chosen the town as the Spanish setting for his super production of "Around the World in 80 Days," rejecting other gems such as Ronda in the process. Not surprisingly, since Chinchón offers many sights to admire. Among them a towering dominant church, labyrinthine lanes, great emblazoned doors that still require a giant key to open them and a fairy tale square surrounded by collonades and medieval balconies. No wonder it was chosen to represent Spain on so many tourist posters.

Goya was in his element in Chinchón not only for the sheer beauty of the place but because his famed Duchess of Alba had a residence there. When he took up his easel in the main square his thoughts were possibly not always totally on the view in front of him. His brother Camilo - who he ostensibly came to visit - was a religious town bigwig, carrying the illustrious post of Capellán de los Condes de Chinchón (Chaplain of the Counts of Chinchón) and the Duchess lived nearby at 9 Calle Iglesia.

When Napoleon's troops invaded the town during the Peninsula War killing - according to official records - 103 males out of that tiny population in just 72 hours Goya felt a personal loss that added to the horrors of his Desastres de la Guerra work. On a brighter note the town's summer bullfights also enhanced his creative works, clearly effecting his lively two tone tauromaquía engravings and colourfully impressionist "Corrida en Plaza de Pueblo," featured in Madrid's Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando.

One likes to think of Orson making and starring in a film on Goya (though posthumously he'd have had been up against pretty stiff competition with Francisco Rabal in Saura's recent "Goya in Bordeaux."). Or the great painter doing a portrait of the sometime great filmmaker wearing a black cloak and a huge black hat, as Welles himself did in one of his last movies "F is For Fake," a dazzling sleight of hand that confirmed all art as pure illusion.

Copyright © 2002 Peter Stone

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