Saturday, January 23, 2016

Double Review: Carol (2015) and Room (2015)

In the past several days, I have seen two of the films mentioned at the end of my 2015 roundup as the ones I most wanted to see next. I have not been disappointed. Both Carol and Room, especially the latter, are must-sees. They are two of the most emotionally layered and holistically satisfying movies I have seen this winter.

Carol is the latest film from New Queer Cinema auteur Todd Haynes, who I recently described in a Facebook post as being "the Stanley Kubrick of queer cinema." I call him this due to his meticulous attention to detail and the tendency of his films to unfold at what I call a "stately" pace. Not slow exactly, but deliberate and visually dense, much like Kubrick's films tend to be.*

Carol is adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel called The Price of Salt (1952). Both film and novel are about a budding homoerotic romance between a shopgirl (Rooney Mara) and an older woman (Cate Blanchett) who is in the process of divorcing her estranged husband (Kyle Chandler) while maintaining connections with her beloved young daughter Rindy (Sadie and Kk Heim). What is most remarkable to me about Carol -- besides its amazingly high quality of cinematic craft and eye-popping set and costume design -- is its attention to the fine nuance of human interactions, applied to ALL the relationships in the movie. That is, while the film's primary focus is upon the romance between Therese and Carol, it really shows us how that new, fragile relationship unfolds within a matrix of other key interrelationships, especially Carol's lingering tie to her soon-to-be-ex-husband Harge and her deep bond with ex-lover and current best friend Abby (played brilliantly by a superb Sarah Paulson).

Rooney Mara gives the standout performance in Carol as shy shopgirl Therese. Despite its title, Carol mainly unfolds from aspiring photographer Therese's point of view.  

Most importantly, Carol treats all of these characters and interrelationships with nuance and respect, refusing to lionize or vilify any one person at the expense of another. Sure, many of the men in the story, especially one of Therese's young male suitors and Harge himself, make presumptions about their entitlement to, even implicit ownership of, their female objects of desire. Yet the film does not paint them as irredeemable villains -- Harge in particular is able to do the right thing by the end of the film, even though he is still an unthinkingly patriarchal dickhead. As in Haynes' earlier works Safe (1995) and Far From Heaven (2002), Carol manages to critique patriarchy and show us its general savagery without utterly dehumanizing its onscreen male agents.

Carol conveys all the fine details of its characters' feelings toward each other via delicate, precise attention to character gesture, camera distance, and editing. One of my favorite examples of this is a close-up of a small hand gesture Carol makes at the beginning and end of the film (we see the same sequence twice, as a kind of frame story). It is a silent placement of her hand on Therese's shoulder that has enormous emotional consequences, yet it is not over-emphasized with a clumsy music cue nor unduly broadcast by the camera pushing in or by an obvious reaction shot. No, it just happens, we see it, and if we have been paying attention then we know what great emotional weight it carries. This is confident, assured filmmaking that trusts its audience to make connections.

In other words, Carol is a film every thinking filmgoer should see. A little looser and more upbeat than some of Haynes' previous works, and endowed with the world-class period set design, amazing costumes, and beautifully composed visuals we have come to expect from this directorial master, Carol explores the nuances of adult relationships in a way that few American films do. Highly recommended.

Even more highly recommended is Room, director Lenny Abrahamson's follow-up to 2014's remarkable Frank. If Carol easily beats out the visually stunning yet emotionally hollow The Revenant for overall impact, then Room in turn beats out Carol -- or pretty much anything else I've seen recently -- in that area. Resonant, heartfelt, and intermittently heartbreaking without being exploitative or nearly as harrowing as I expected, Room is an absolute must-see.

One probably wouldn't anticipate Room's accessibility and potentially wide appeal given its bleak-sounding premise: a mother (Brie Larson), kidnapped and held in sexual servitude for seven years, has a child, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), two years into her stint as a prisoner in a windowless (but skylight-equipped) shed. That is all backstory; the film depicts the weeks following Jack's fifth birthday, including the duo's nail-biting escape from captivity and -- really the bulk of the movie -- how they begin to adjust to life in the outside world.

Regular readers know that I like bleak, grim films, and I fully expected Room to be pretty damn dark. Yet it mostly isn't -- that is its miracle. Room is, in fact, an enormously uplifting, even feel-goodish film about how these two central characters survive their imprisonment and beyond by "sharing their strong." It is about human bonds, parental love, and the will to survive. Its escape sequence is one of the best suspense sequences I have seen in a long time, and its performances, especially those given by Larson, Tremblay, and Joan Allen, are also some of the best I've seen this season.**

Room deploys a lot of handheld camera and, especially in its opening thirty minutes in the confines of the shed, lots of close-ups. This technique really works. Even once the mother and son reach the outside, the film is very sparing in its use of wide shots -- the focus remains, via abundant close-up work, tightly on these two, their feelings, and their bond. As such, Room is one of the most beautiful paeans to motherhood I have ever seen -- it rivals classic maternal melodramas like Stella Dallas (1937) and Terms of Endearment (1983), and contemporary works like We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011), in this regard. Room is, quite simply, an emotionally rich movie that all moviegoers interested in these themes should see.

The film's point of view -- carried over from the novel by Emma Donoghue, who also adapted the screenplay -- is Jack's. I think this is what allows the film to work so well, and permits Abrahamson and company to depict the opening scenes in the shed without ever becoming graphic or exploitative about the horrible things occurring there. No, we are aware -- in ways Jack himself is not -- of what the mother is going through, yet the emphasis remains on the mother-son dyad, their love, their mundane ways of getting through the days, and their eventual planning for their escape.  

In its fixation on the emotional, rather than legal or procedural, consequences of the mother's kidnapping, long-term imprisonment, and sexual assault, Room offers an implicit critique of films that use female suffering as a pretense for masculine action, legal resolution, and/or tales of violent vengeance. Room dares to be something much more provocative and vulnerable: it is a film about love, and about human strength and weakness, told from the point of view of a child who has been raised under unique and (somewhat unbeknownst to him) traumatic circumstances. It is a beautifully crafted film about dark deeds that nevertheless ultimately functions as a meditation about love and endurance and family ties.

Both Carol and Room are films about younger protagonists (Therese, Jack) who explore new horizons (lesbianism, the outside world). Haynes' film is perhaps formally more beautiful -- the hair! the costumes! the gorgeously framed shots through car windows! -- yet Room delivers emotionally in a way few films do. Confident, bold, true, and resonant, Room is one of the great films of its period. You should go see it.

Room director Lenny Abrahamson with most of his film's stellar cast plus Room novelist / screenwriter Emma Donoghue.

* Of course there are exceptions to the stateliness of Kubrick and Haynes. Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) move along at headlong, even frantic paces, and Haynes' three-part debut film Poison (1991) and his glam rock homage Velvet Goldmine (1998) both exhibit a certain pep and fierce energy that his other films, like Safe (1995), Far From Heaven (2002), and Carol eschew.
** If I were able to regard the Academy Awards as an indicator of quality, I would hope for Brie Larson to win the best actress Oscar this February. I would also want to give Rooney Mara an award for her work in Carol -- she outshines Cate Blanchett IMO -- and young master Tremblay for his knockout turn as Jack in Room.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Review: The Revenant (2015)

I saw Alejandro G. Inarritu's The Revenant last Thursday -- that and Carol are the two Oscar-contender films I most want to see in the theater on the big screen -- and overall, I enjoyed it very much. Cinematographically, The Revenant is easily the best film of the year. It is flat-out enchantingly beautiful to look at. In this sense it reminds me a lot of the work of Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog, two filmmakers who consistently produce extremely striking and vibrant visual images, often of wilderness landscapes shot on location. However, despite its great cinematography, lighting, and strong performances throughout, and despite the fact that it will most likely clean house at the Oscars in February, I judge The Revenant to be something slightly less than a holistic masterpiece.

I would be tempted to call The Revenant a noble failure except that it doesn't truly fail at anything its sets out to do -- I don't think. However, this uncertainty on my part is the root of my problem with the movie.

The Revenant's single biggest weakness is the arc of its "betrayal and revenge" story, which is incredibly predictable and conventional in the way it plays out. There are no surprises nor cathartic revelations to be had here. Now of course I have no inherent problem with films that stick to a formula, but The Revenant seems to want to suggest something more than a simple genre exercise via its slow pacing and arresting camera work. Yet its "arty," seemingly thematically suggestive visual aesthetic does not quite jibe with the simple, straightforward story the film actually tells. I do not know what, if anything, some of The Revenant's visuals, specifically its lingering shots of nature imagery and heavy-handed flashback sequences, are attempting to convey on a deeper level.

Maybe I expected too much from the film narratively and thematically. If indeed my initial expectations for The Revenant were unrealistically high, then the director and film have no one to blame but themselves. I have written elsewhere about how great I think Birdman is -- it is basically one of my top two or three films of 2014. Birdman more or less perfectly balances its straightforward comedy elements with its thematic deconstruction of the U.S. entertainment industry -- its visual aesthetic, its narrative structure, and its underlying thematic meaning fit perfectly together. It totally earns its productively ambiguous conclusion. (In contrast, The Revenant's final shot suggests an intertextual shout-out to the last shot of Birdman more so than anything intrinsically meaningful to The Revenant.)

Furthermore, the stories of The Revenant's grueling, troubled production, and Inarritu's and the cast and crews' perseverance in the face of those obstacles, have lent the whole thing an aura of momentousness and the promise of substantial artistic achievement. I admire Inarritu and appreciate his commitment to location shooting and his perfectionist tendencies in the camera and lighting departments. Yet if Inarritu and company struggled so hard to get this film in the can, wouldn't we hope it would be a total masterwork?

Yes we would, but the film, for all its great achievements, has problems:

1. Let's return to the Malick - Herzog comparison. Malick -- I am thinking mainly of The Tree of Life (2011) here, though all his films (that I've seen) evince this tendency* -- uses natural imagery to suggest deep interior states of character psychology and, simultaneously, something cosmic and vast and non-human at the same time. That is, there is an ambiguous yet meaningful symbolic aspect to Malick's use of such imagery. For example, The Tree of Life's "through the eons" sequence and concluding oceanside scenes, and the moving desert landscape shots paired with Holly's voice-overs in Badlands (1973), meld natural landscapes with character emotions and states of mind, using imagery to create a kind of landscape of the human soul.

Conversely, as Herzog says on camera in Les Blank's great documentary Burden of Dreams (1982),
Nature here is violent, base. Of course there is a lot of misery, but it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery -- I don't think they sing, they just screech in pain.
For Herzog, nature is a brutal, existential place, not necessarily an abstract symbol for other things as it might be in Malick or in Nicholas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising (2009). Nature is just nature and in Herzog's view it simply wants to kill us and/or make us miserable. Thus when Herzog's camera lingers on the onrushing river early in Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) it is meant to suggest that that river is a physically insurmountable thing -- indeed, it will prove to be a key factor in Aguirre's undoing. Though the shot is lengthy and therefore somewhat meditative, I don't think it is meant to suggest any abstract meaning to the river -- no, Aguirre presents that river as simply an indefatigable obstacle to be struggled with, not as a metaphor for any character's inner state. This point of view is consistent with the rest of the film and with the director's larger body of work.

For me, the main problem with The Revenant is that I cannot tell if its meditative, drawn-out nature shots are meant to depict the beautiful but brutal indifference of the wilderness, or to work as some kind of metaphorical cypher giving us access to Glass's soul. I don't think the film knows either. The best clue we have is that The Revenant is very much situated within the subjectivity of Glass -- in the opening shot we literally inhabit his point of view, and throughout the movie we get several weird flashbacks and visions and quasi-dream sequences shown from his perspective. These sequences are supposed to tell us about Glass's interior state but really only repeatedly and unnecessarily reinforce the idea that he loves his wife and son, neither of whom we are allowed to know in depth or care about. Is his love for his indigenous family members really all that motivates this man? Is that all that's going on here?

As EW's Chris Nashawaty writes, The Revenant "almost works better as a series of stunning images and surreal sequences than as an emotionally satisfying story." He concludes that
Here, story and style never quite get on the same page. It’s a movie that’s so focused on dazzling your eyes that it never quite finds its way into your heart.
I am sadly inclined to agree.

2. Whatever steps The Revenant takes to humanize its indigenous characters -- and I count only one, a speech given by Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud) to the French traders -- those efforts come too little, too late. For the movie's striking, impactful, pulse-pounding opening sequence places the viewer among the white traders and frames the attacking Arikara as terrifying, sinister monsters of whom we should be afraid. We see their death-dealing arrows long before we see them, and none of the natives are given individual identities we might empathize with or relate to.

I am sure the filmmakers do not consciously intend to recycle damaging indigenous stereotypes, as DiCaprio's conclusion to his Golden Globes acceptance speech makes clear. Yet as Aisha Harris notes,
What makes this [speech] so awkward and cynical is the fact that it’s so at odds with the movie DiCaprio and director Alejandro González Iñárritu produced. The Revenant is only the latest in a long history of major Hollywood studio films featuring indigenous characters that is told from the white male perspective.
This is hard to argue with. I am sure DiCaprio and Inarritu mean well, but they have indeed made a film whose racial politics and white-male-centeredness are as retrograde as a 1940s Western. As Carole Cadwalladr puts it in her scathing Guardian op-ed piece, The Revenant is a "vacuous revenge tale that is simply pain as spectacle. [. . .] It's simply the kind of tedious, emotionally vacant film that has certain critics and Academy Award judges wetting their pants." Harsh but not entirely inaccurate words.

3. As the AV Club's Iggy Vishnevetsky points out, there are a great many actors who could have assayed the role of Hugh Glass with more depth and interest than Leonardo DiCaprio does -- his cast-mate Tom Hardy chief among them. Indeed, I found as the film unfolded that DiCaprio, while certainly very capable and believable, did not really wow me -- I kept getting distracted by the supporting players like Hardy, Will Poulter, Domnhall Gleeson, and the bear.**

The bear sez: "I just want to thank my co-star Leonard, and of course my director Alejandro. I'm a two-year-old bear from the Sierra mountains, you know, and you took a chance on me, and honestly, I don't forget it, pal."

To be clear, I really enjoyed The Revenant. I will probably watch it again, if for no other reason that I want another look at its stellar camera work, lighting, and mise-en-scene. My criticisms here are meant to finely point out how this film manages not to be an utter masterpiece in my view. It is still better than 98% of all other movies out there and most everyone should go see it, in a theater if at all possible.

In the end, I wanted to like The Revenant more than I did. I wanted it to be an outright masterpiece. Instead it is a visual stunner with great individual performances but with an extremely questionable ideological point of view and a few inconsistencies that keep it from cohering as powerfully as perhaps it could. It is too thin on the ground thematically given its running time (two and a half hours) and visual grandeur. It suggests -- too vaguely and indeterminately -- more than it ultimately delivers.***

UPDATE 2/26/2016: I thought last year's Birdman was flat-out superb and I do not agree with this author's hyperbolic assertion that Alfonso Cuaron is "a genius," but I generally agree with his assessment of Inarritu's latest effort:
Even the best thing about The Revenant is maddening: It is one of the most visually stunning studio films in recent memory, with long takes winding through dusk-dappled woods, seemingly impossible shots of men floating through whitewater rapids and horses falling off cliffs. All this useless beauty, in service of obscuring a lazy screenplay and aggressively dimensionless characters.
Ouch! Sad but true.

UPDATE 5/21/2016: For an even more in-depth analysis of Innaritu's self-defeating overuse of a "BEAUTIFUL & SOULFUL" visual aesthetic, see Film Crit Hulk's long discussion of The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road (which includes discussion of Malick).

* I really need to see The New World (2005), one of the few Malick films I haven't seen, since I suspect it may be the best one to compare to The Revenant to illustrate how Inarritu's use of "trippy / meditative nature visuals" differs from Malick's.
** You may think I'm joking but I'm serious: the bear attack is the best scene in the film by far, an amazingly believable and pulse-pounding sequence the likes of which I have never seen before.
*** In this one way only The Revenant reminds me of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008), another film that seems at first glance to have a lot on its mind, but finally reveals itself to be a straightforward white male power fantasy and a retrograde celebration of post-9/11 neoconservative values.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Book Review: Orson Welles by Simon Callow

Actor / director / producer / author Simon Callow.

Though I have mentioned a few books in my movie review posts -- titles like Searching for John Ford, Joseph McBride's biography of the influential director, More Than Night, James Naremore's brilliant exploration of film noir, and Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers, Kathleen Karlyn's insightful feminist overview of contemporary cinema -- I haven't really written any bona fide film book reviews for this blog to date. That will now change since I am most excited to tell you about Simon Callow's wonderful multi-part biography of Orson Welles.

I obtained a lovely hardcover edition of The Road to Xanadu (Viking, 1995), the first volume of Callow's projected four-volume biography of Welles, for free. The book was sitting on the "free book" table outside the English Department office where I work, so I snatched it up. Once I started reading it -- this was in 2012 sometime I think -- I simply could not put it down. It is a totally gripping page-turner.

Part of what compelled me to race through that first lengthy (650-page) volume is Welles himself -- influential film artist, larger-than-life personality, iconic entertainment figure, and, most interestingly, a multi-faceted, internally contradictory, delightfully puckish trickster and raconteur of the first order. Welles is simply fascinating and so too is that book about his early years in the theater, his exploits on the radio including War of the Worlds, and the events leading up to the release of Citizen Kane in 1941.

Yet Callow's remarkable prose also accounts for the "page-turner" quality of Xanadu and the subsequent volumes of his Welles biography, which include Hello Americans (Penguin Books, 2007), One Man Band (Jonathan Cape, 2015), and a forthcoming, as yet untitled fourth volume. No doubt about it: Callow is a flat-out excellent writer.

Here, for example, is an excerpt describing Welles from the preface to the latest volume, One Man Band:
His energy is astonishing and unceasing. But it would not be correct to describe him as a driven man, a Dickens or a Laurence Olivier -- men whose goals were clearly defined, and whose very lives seemed to depend on achieving them. [. . .] With Welles there was simply a constant supply of energy which could be squandered on anything; he seemed to give himself with equal fervour to all of his projects, whether vaudeville, radio comedy or filming the classics. (p. xvii)
Succinct, clear, yet so evocative. Great stuff.

I am only a quarter of the way through One Man Band (which I received for Xmas this year) as I post this. The volume covers an especially tumultuous time in Welles' life and career, his European "exile" period when he truly became an independent filmmaker working (at least in a directorial capacity) completely outside the Hollywood system (with the exception of 1958's Touch of Evil). Callow's heady, montage-like approach, interweaving and juxtaposing fragments of information and analysis to expressionistically suggest a larger whole, suits this period's rootless and feverish tenor.

One of the best Xmas gifts I got this year: the hardcover edition of One Man Band.

The central thesis of Callow's biography is that Welles was a relentless experimenter -- for Welles, process was everything. This is one reason why so many of Welles' films never got finished, or got changed by studios without Welles' consent: because he just didn't care all that much about the finished product, especially if it was being contractually demanded or creatively influenced by some outside entity like a producer or a studio. As Callow writes in the closing paragraph of Hello Americans:
Any form of limitation, obligation, responsibility or enforced duty was intolerable to him, rendering him claustrophobic and destructive. He could only function as a free agent, untrammelled by partners, children, wives, administrators, accountants, producers, studios, political mentors. [. . .] In terms of his work as a director, that meant that he had, inevitably, to become an independent film-maker. Confinement, whether personal or professional, was unbearable to Orson Welles. His exploratory urges were central to his nature; he indulged them unceasingly for the rest of his life. Occasionally, something close to a masterpiece would result. But that was not the purpose of his journey through life. The doing was all. (p. 444)
If this sounds a bit grandiose, perhaps it is. Welles possessed a grandiose persona and Callow, with his theatrical background and flair for the rhythm of words, tends to convey information dramatically. As a lover of melodrama and appreciator of hyperbole, I enjoy Callow's somewhat purple style -- it works beautifully for me.

Callow's theater background lends a dramatic quality to his prose but also qualifies him to speak most insightfully about Welles' approaches to acting and directing. 

But lest you think these tomes are simply full of adulating macro-observations about Welles, check out Callow's discussion of the director's incessant need to introduce an atmosphere of chaos and instability into his film sets:
[Welles] would call the entire crew and actors for nine in the morning, and then show up at six in the evening surrounded by pretty women and a chap playing the accordion. 'What can you do with a man like that?' asked [Othello cinematographer Alvaro] Mancori plaintively. It takes a nearly superhuman level of chutzpah to behave in this fashion on a film set, which at the best of times is a seething mass of resentments and mutinies waiting to happen. It is a gauntlet thrown down, an explicit assertion of personal status, which says: 'Defy me if you dare.' It is behaviour designed to provoke. And provocation was one of Welles's central strategies -- a technique, in fact. 'If everything's going well,' said [art director Alexandre] Trauner, 'you can rely on him to come up with something that throws everything into doubt. It's subconscious.' It is a tactic that breeds adrenalin and counteracts complacency; it was deeply embedded in Welles's temperament. (One Man Band pp. 46-7) 
Notice how Callow moves from the particular -- Welles' outlandishly rude and childish behavior on the set of Othello circa 1950, and Mancori's exasperated yet resigned response to it -- to a broader analysis of how Welles' eccentric, childlike behavior is somehow fused to his artistry, hardwired into the core of this despotic yet brilliant man who created so much great cinema, radio, and theater. While Callow rarely gives exact dates and provides no clear over-arching timeline for Welles' activities, he does zero in on key incidents like this that give a taste of what it was like to work alongside Orson Welles. Nearly every paragraph begins with observation then plunges into deeper analysis.

This seems an appropriate way to relate the life of such a frantically energetic, unpredictable, and prolific artist as Welles. It also provides evocative, poetic description of a kind that keeps these biographies light on their feet and extremely enjoyable to read. As Callow explains in One Man Band, "The technique I have applied in trying to organise all this material may perhaps be compared to the way in which Welles edited his films: I have juxtaposed and woven together images, incidents, phrases, seeking (sometimes by means of echoes, sometimes sharp contradictions) to give an impression of how Welles moved through life" (p. xvi). I approve of this approach, especially when writing about Welles. Callow claims that this montage-y approach to his notoriously contradictory subject has led him to be able "to sense the existence of a continuous Welles, not one that simply staggers from one anecdote to another" (p. xvi). In other words, his Welles biography is going to prioritize flowing and getting into a "truthy" groove rather than meticulously recording every anecdote, every incident, every factoid.

My love of Callow's books may reflect my preference for this artsy, Werner Herzog-ian search for "ecstatic truth" over a strict recounting of facts. Don't get me wrong, I have read several extremely factual (some would say dry) film business books in my day -- Memo from David O. Selznick (ed. Rudy Behlmer, Modern Library, 2000) leaps to mind, as does Tino Balio's amazing political-economic history United Artists: The Company that Changed the Film Industry (U. of Wisconsin Press, 1987). These are incredible, eye-opening books but they are very thorough, detail-laden works about the business side of the film business, not (primarily) breezy dishes on scandal, stardom, or film artistry.*

In his Welles biographies, Callow foregoes certain details (day to day accounts of life on the set, much of anything about Welles' personal/home life) and foregrounds others (Welles' approach to directing and acting, his professional and artistic relationships and rivalries) in order to capture, as he says, "an impression of how Welles moved through life" as a mercurial, vital artist and an erratic, negligent businessman. This feature makes Callow's books stand out and, as I've said, makes them enormously readable.

I recommend starting from the beginning with The Road to Xanadu and reading all of these suckers in order, but if you don't think you can commit to that, I recommend beginning with Volume Two, Hello Americans, which documents Welles' activities from just after the release of Citizen Kane in 1941 until he departs for Europe in 1947. It discusses a concise seven-year segment of Welles' life, after he started making movies, and it is (mainly) set in the U.S.A. -- though some of the most compelling stuff in the book centers on his stint as a quasi-documentarian in Brazil. Start there and then if you're convinced, go back and read Xanadu, which is mostly about Welles' early love of and extraordinary early work in the theater.

Or maybe just jump right into the third volume, One Man Band. Why not? Callow's writerly voice remains potent and his grasp of what makes Welles tick only seems to have deepened and taken on new layers since he wrote Xanadu twenty years ago. Hell, with a newly restored print of Chimes at Midnight now circulating in the U.S., now's the time to read up on the story of that film's creation, recounted in the last third of One Man Band.

Then again, one's understanding of Welles's European period, which One Man Band recounts, would be greatly enhanced by knowing which factors in his meteoric American rise eventually sent him there. So maybe it's best to read at least one of the first two volumes first -- The Road to Xanadu might be especially crucial since it covers Welles' creatively fertile radio years and the production of the debut film which would (for better or worse) forever define him, Citizen Kane.

In any case, the final word: you cannot go wrong reading Callow's biographies of Welles.**

Orson the cat loves reading books about the inner workings of the film business.

Bonus Afterthought: Beyond Callow's first three volumes, I have only read three other books about Orson Welles.

James Naremore's oddly titled The Magic World of Orson Welles (U. of Illinois Press, revised edition 2015) centers its analysis on the films only, and is highly recommended for those seeking insightful film interpretation without much biographical material. Naremore is simply one of the best scholarly film writers around.

However, the (as far as I can tell) undisputed master of understanding Welles and his work from the point of view of a professional film critic is Jonathan Rosenbaum. I strongly recommend Discovering Orson Welles (U. of California Press, 2007), Rosenbaum's collection of superb Welles-related essays.  The whole book is top-notch, though I would single out chapter 15, "The Seven Arkadins" (available in revised and updated form here) as a particularly essential piece of Welles criticism.

See also Rosenbaum's thoroughgoing and informative reviews of various books on Welles, available piecemeal as this online review*** plus chapters 9, 12, and 13 of Discovering Orson Welles.

Josh Karp's recent Orson Welles's Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind (St. Martin's Press, 2015) is one of the most fun Welles books you could hope to read, and serves as a crucial stop-gap covering the last phase of Welles' career until Callow's fourth biographical volume arrives. It tells the tale of the as-yet unfinished and undistributed "last" Orson Welles film, The Other Side of the Wind. Unlike Callow's works, this one goes day-by-day and blow-by-blow through the making of an Orson Welles movie. It is written with keen attention to detail and appreciation for the humor and absurdity of Welles' methods. A behind-the-scenes thrill ride!

Lastly, I want to mention a book I have not yet read, but that almost surely will be the next Welles-related work I pick up: Alberto Anile's Orson Welles in Italy (trans. Marcus Perryman, Indiana University Press, 2013) Callow himself repeatedly draws from and acknowledges this book in One Man Band, and there seems to be some critical buzz around this essential tome that "gives us a more detailed impression of a great artist in the midst of a gruesome spell, and entertains in the process." 

"It is characteristic of many of Welles's commentators that they select one or other of the many Welleses as quintessential, but the mystery of the man is that all the Welleses coexist; all are true."
--Simon Callow, One Man Band p. 108

* Anyone familiar with Golden Age uber-producer David O. Selznick knows that he was deeply involved in the day to day creative doings of every film he worked on. Therefore Memo from David O. Selznick, an edited collection of Selznick's famous, enormously detailed memos spanning his entire career, reveals the intersections between commerce and artistry in unique and fascinating ways.
** Unless you really need to know facts and dates and production schedules in order to be satisfied. In which case I assume Joseph McBride's What Ever Happened To Orson Welles? (U. Press of Kentucky, 2006) is an excellent choice. You can read Callow with a grain of salt then compare what he says and thinks about Welles to McBride's or Rosenbaum's take. Also see Wellesnet for all the latest Orson Welles-related news.
*** Also available as Chapter 20 of Discovering Orson Welles.