Filed Under: Cinema
Orson Welles in his radio days.
The Treachery of Images by Renee Magritte; "This is not a pipe."
This is why.
A mini-industry has developed around Orson Welles's personality. Critics and biographers, in a gross parody of leaches on a warm body, have swarmed his remains, until all that can be seen is a thick parasitic crust. The leaches chatter about how the great man fell after Citizen Kane. They chitter about the lost genius and the ultimate failure of his career. They are in need of a good dose of salt.
Much has been written on the cinematic techniques of Welles's work. The wide angles, the dutch angles, the low angles; the chiarascuro, sfumato, and overlapping dialogue. Almost all of this analysis is based not on what is unique to Welle's work internally, but what can be gleaned from the surface. Any idiot can hire a cinematographer to tilt the camera, so who cares about the tracking shots and wide camera angles? What is important is this: how does one employ these tools to create great art?
Superficial filmmakers, fed by superficial film schools and film books, end up equating Welle's style with substance, and parrot these techniques blindly. Like the warehouse sequence in the first "Indiana Jones" film, reminiscent of the final sequence of "Citizen Kane," filmmakers seem to think that aping the style of a genius makes one a genius.
So let's approach Welles without the perversion and decadence by taking a moment to talk about Rene Magritte's painting, The Treachery of Images.
So if it is not a pipe, what is it? It is a representation, an image, of a pipe. The word "pipe" is equal to or equivalent to "image of a pipe." Both perform the same function. The title of the painting is certainly appropriate; whenever we are confronted with a representational image, we are in danger of forgetting that we are looking at an image of a thing, not the thing itself.
Magritte's painting has profound implications for us in this age of cinema, video, and YouTube. With 24, 30, or 60 images flying at us per second, the greater meaning can slip past - if we can even recognize or comprehend that there may, or can be, a greater meaning. After all, the most popular videos on YouTube feature puppies, mentos, and girls jumping on trampolines. The Treachery of Images, indeed. Western civilization is quickly devolving into a mass of unseeing eyes disconnected from comprehension.
But why bring up Magritte? As a filmmaker, I roughly categorize my colleagues into two camps: the escapists and the "pipers." As to the former, we have an overstock of escapists these days, from youTube mentos munchers all the way up to the multi-million dollar carnival barkers happy to stuff us with cotton candy.
But there are very few "pipers," filmmakers who weave and infuse images with meaning that support the greater whole of their art, who understand that when they turn on the camera, they are turning on an instant-language manufacturing machine, and that the imagery produced can be babble, or it can have intricate meaning.
Welles was an intricate piper, and his first film, while certainly not his best (I'll explore his greater works in later columns), was a hint of things to come. Take, for instance, the picnic scene in which Susan Alexander, Kane's second wife, has a temper tantrum in a tent and is slapped by Kane.
It starts with a funeral-like procession of cars driving to the picnic, which then opens with the jazz-dirge "It Can't be Love." An elderly Kane argues with Susan as noises from the party outside can be heard. Angered by Susan's shrill accusations, Kane leaps to his feet, looms over his wife.
Kane: Whatever I do, I do because I love you.
Susan: You don't love me. You want me to love you. Sure. I'm Charles Foster Kane. Whatever you want, just name it and it's yours. But you gotta love me.
Kane slaps her. The sound of a woman partygoer laughing in the background can be heard as Susan stares up at him.
Susan: Don't tell me you're sorry.
Kane: I'm not sorry.
The sound of the partygoer continues as Susan stares up at Kane in defiance.
Then the image dissolves to a stained glass window in Xanadu, Kane's palacial hideaway. We are trained to view such dissolves as nothing more than a way to go from one scene to another, to show that time is passing. In a pavlovian manner, we turn off our brains and wait for the next scene to come along. But note the progression of the dissolve imagery, and how it bolsters and comments on the scene:
Note how scales of justice evolve from Susan's right eye, and an omniscient / masonic eye evolves from her left. Note the other images in the window, the bird, the book, the chalice; note the fractured nature of those images, their religious nature, their secular nature. It is a jigsaw puzzle. Weeks could be spent contemplating this one moment, this incredibly labyrinthian knot in the thematic web of Citizen Kane. There are countless other examples of this sort of imagic weaving, or "piping", throughout the film, that only a very few critics or analysts have ever truly touched on. But for me, it is just these sorts of labyrinths that give the film its value.
Speaking of labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges once wrote that "...forms of multiplicity and incongruity abound in the film: the first scenes record the treasures amassed by Kane; in one of the last, a poor woman, luxuriant and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a palace that is also a museum... At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by a secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances."
To which I might add: yes, and the irony is that the film Citizen Kane achieves unity through this chaos.
As a filmmaker, I find that the greatness of Welles has nothing to do with his personality, the "stylishness" of the angles, or any of the other things that critics and analysts alike point to. No, his greatness was born from his ability to bring order to chaos through a crucial understanding, which is the great unspoken secret of all great films:
This is not a pipe.
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