Notes on Welles (1)
I’ve been on a Welles kick the last couple of weeks. (If last fall’s revelation was Rossellini, this spring it’s been Welles.) For the first time in many years, I revisited several of his films and read the Bazin and Naremore books (both excellent). All these years I didn’t quite realize just how formally daring—transgressive, even!—his movies can be.
It's a tad curious that André Bazin championed Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons as key moments in the history of cinematic realism, a sort of rejuvenation of realism after its decline at the end of the silent era. (Of silent filmmakers, Bazin especially admired Stroheim, Murnau, Flaherty and Dreyer; here’s an older post for more.)
I find that there is so much, in large and small ways, that either disturbs or actively opposes realism in Welles’ cinema. True: the wide-angle lenses and deep focus mean that our eyes take in a large playing area, both in terms of depth of field and width of field. Also, the long takes preserve unity not just of space but also of time. Fair enough. But wide-angle lenses distort (1) the image, especially at the edges; and (2) movement, making it appear exaggerated and extreme. Both these factors, of course, detract from realism.
Also, the rationale for using sequence shots and staging in depth is that it makes the spectator an active participant by forcing her to scour the frame and determine the relative significance of its various contents without the eye being guided or manipulated. And yet, Welles, in contrast to someone like Renoir whom Bazin championed for similar reasons, is a more ‘authoritarian’ filmmaker. The frame has been designed and filled with great care and premeditation. Further, his ‘expressive’ chiaroscuro in fact guides the eye by highlighting certain elements in the frame or playing them off against each other.
Peter Wollen, from his fascinating essay on Kane in Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies:
“For Bazin, of course, the crucial feature of Citizen Kane was its use of deep focus and the sequence-shot. Yet one senses all the time, in Bazin’s writings on Welles, an uneasy feeling that Welles was far from sharing the spiritual humility and self-effacement, or even the democratic mentality, which marked for Bazin the ‘style without style’, the abnegation of the artist before a reality whose meaning outruns that of any artefact. It is easy to forget that, on occasion, Bazin talked about the ‘sadism’ of Welles, of his rubbery space, stretched and distended, rebounding like a catapult in the face of the spectator. He compared Welles to El Greco (as well as the Flemish masters of deep focus) and commented on his ‘infernal vision’ and ‘tyrannical objectivity’. But this awareness of Welles the stylist and manipulator did not deflect Bazin from his main point. Fundamentally, his enthusiasm was for the deep focus cinematography which Welles and Toland introduced with such virtuosity. It was on this that Welles’ place in film history would depend.”
[…] “So flexible, so generous in many respects, Bazin was nevertheless able at times to restrict and concentrate his vision to an amazing degree. Obviously he felt the influence of expressionism (which he hated) on Kane, but he simply discounted it—or tried to justify it by pointing to the exaggeration and tension in the character of Kane, a kind of psychological realism, similar to the way in which he defended the expressionist style of a film about concentration camps (in the same vein, Christian Metz remarks how the formal flamboyance of Kane, the film, parallels the personality of Kane, the man). In general, however, Bazin simply hurried on to his favourite theme—the importance of deep focus and the sequence-shot.”
I watched Kane, Ambersons, The Lady From Shanghai, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, and F For Fake. I had seen all but Arkadin before. I look forward to soon watching Chimes at Midnight, Macbeth, Othello, The Trial and The Immortal Story, none of which I've seen.
— Jonathan Rosenbaum's new blog post is full of links, including a couple that are Welles-related; his latest book, which is a collection of his Welles interviews, reviews and essays, has just been released.
— At Pilgrim Akimbo, Tucker posts 42 images of hands from my all-time favorite movie.
— At her blog Cinebeats, Kimberly Lindbergs mounts an Ann-Margret retrospective.
— Chris Cagle has taken on a project: to watch every single film from 1947 that he can hunt down.