Tuesday, 7 August 2018
On Orson Welles
I love Citizen Kane. I have never understood how Vertigo could replace Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time, but that label is also a curse—many people choose not to watch it, for fear of being disappointed, or because they expect it to be boring; people who love it, like me, are accused of being pretentious, or conformist, or both.
Citizen Kane is 1 of those films that opened up to me the possibilities and powers of filmmaking—like 8 ½, Persona, or Cries and Whispers. The film is great in many ways, containing and exemplifying everything essential to learn about cinema, but to me, the 2 most important aspects are about blocking/ shot composition and editing. With shot composition, Orson Welles makes me rethink staging and framing completely, especially with deep focus, the z-axis, the brilliant use of the long take with characters in foreground, middleground, background, and camera movements, instead of a series of shots, and the use of blacks or shadows. Citizen Kane has changed me so much that now when watching a film, I always notice if the director depends on the conventional triangle system of master shot, shot, reverse shot (pity, if only I had watched Citizen Kane before making my 1st film Bird Bitten).
Regarding editing, apparently critics tend to talk about the breakfast montage and the jigsaw puzzle montage, which are both wonderful, but I’m more interested in the pace, which is fast in the newsreel and gets slower and slower over time because of the mood of the film, and in the structure, which is not only unusual and revolutionary for its time but also perfect for the story about the multifacetedness of a human being and the inability to understand a person completely. If Persona or 8 ½ makes me realise that film is not only external but can also explore consciousness, Citizen Kane makes me realise that film can have different narrators, with conflicting points of view.
(At the risk of sounding self-centred and ridiculous, I’d like to add that Citizen Kane helped save my 2nd film Footfalls on the editing table).
My 2nd favourite Welles film is F for Fake. The film is about Elmyr de Hory, a professional art forgery, and his biographer Clifford Irving, notorious for the hoax biography of Howard Hughes; and also about the director Orson Welles, as a magician and liar. The film is an investigation of the natures of authorship and authenticity, of forgery, fraud, and fakery; it is a damning mockery of (art) experts; it is also a playful joke on the audience, whilst suggesting more of the deceitful nature of filmmaking, specifically editing. By the last point, I’m referring to creative geography and the Kuleshov effect, especially in the sequence in which Elmyr and Irving appear to be reacting to, and arguing with, each other, about Elmyr’s signatures, whereas in reality they were not in the same location.
The editing of F for Fake is also fantastic in terms of structure, as analysed in a video above. To film students and aspiring filmmakers, Welles is showing how he can hold the audience’s interest whilst telling 5-6 stories at the same time and jumping from one to another.
Among the other films by Orson Welles I’ve watched are Touch of Evil and The Lady from Shanghai—good examples of what a great director could (and couldn’t do) with mediocre material. They are not great films, but the Hall of Mirrors sequence in The Lady from Shanghai and the opening shot of Touch of Evil, the 3-minute crane shot, are among the most ambitious and impressive sequences in the history of cinema, without exaggeration, and I can understand why the films are popular among the auteurists. (After all, I’ve read André Bazin’s book about Orson Welles).
I prefer a less known film, The Trial. It is understandable, but a pity nevertheless, that the name Orson Welles is always associated with Citizen Kane, and Citizen Kane only. His adaptation of Kafka’s novel is, like the book, unsettling, bizarre and nightmarish. Welles himself said “Say what you will, but The Trial is the best film I ever made… I have never been so happy as when I made this film.” I personally prefer Citizen Kane, but The Trial does have a grand visual style, with expressionistic lighting and extreme camera angles, and Welles successful depicts a terrifying, surrealistic world in which you wake up 1 morning to find yourself accused of something you’re not told, and no matter where you run, you always find yourself back in the Court. The wide-angle lens and camera angles are not a means unto themselves—they help depict a distorted world, a claustrophobic world that is like a giant python that squeezes tighter and tighter around Josef K’s body. My main complaint is about the changed ending, which rather ruins the film.
On a final note, between Ingmar Bergman and Orson Welles, I have more admiration for Bergman, and also feel closer to him. But I feel sadder for Welles—after Citizen Kane, he never had the immense freedom that Bergman had. He was always making films with 1 hand tied behind his back.