Thursday 11 August 2022

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Part Six (1) of Bruce Hodsdon's history - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles

 Part 6: The Sixties   

The sixties was a watershed decade for the post classical feature film in America and the art film in Europe. In Asia the postwar years saw the transition to a modern Japanese cinema and the emergence of a state-supported parallel art cinema in India inspired by the international success of Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy. Latin American cinemas attracted worldwide attention for the first time following local political initiatives beginning in the 50s given further impetus by the new Cuban cinema. Two pioneering films by Ousmane Sembene in 1963-5 were an inspiration for other credible indigenous filmmakers in sub-Saharan Africa. 


A cinephile’s foreword to the Sixties                                                                                                                      

My first encounter with an art feature film was at the local 'independent' as a 13 year old. By 1960, my first year at university, art cinema was associated with sub-titles and “foreignness,” the director  - Bergman, Antonioni, Cocteau – as author closer to the equivalent of a novelist 'writing on film' than to an orchestral conductor or theatre director. There were not only the globally recognised film 'authors' - Chaplin, Disney and Hitchcock, there was Billy Wilder and David Lean. Short seasons of their films with the supporting Annotations on Film (cover below) were mounted by Melbourne University Film Society in first term in the Union Theatre, 1960. There was also a history of cinema to be discovered at MUFS Friday night members' screenings of silent classics on 16mm with only the sound of the projector in the spartan viewing conditions of a university lecture theatre. This was supplemented by an Eisenstein retrospective - my first film festival - at the Coburg Teachers College. There were the regular visits to downtown art houses, the Savoy and Australia cinemas: Bergman, Antonioni, Resnais, Fellini, Satyajit Ray, Cocteau et al.  The adjacent Carlton cinema ('the Bughouse') screened an eclectic mix of art and mainstream recent releases. In addition to  Annotations I had Arthur Knight's paperback history of cinema The Liveliest Art,Roger Manvell's Film and the Public,Cocteau on the Film from the library,the English monthly Films and Filming and the irregularly Melbourne-published  Film Journal discovered at the local newsagent. In addition to his film reviews, the first specialist film critic in the country, Colin Bennett, had a weekly film column in the Saturday's ‘Age’ newspaper. In my second year I already presumed to write a 1500 word essay, “The Film as Art,” for the college magazine in which, in those nascent days of confusion and controversy surrounding the concept of the director as auteur, I referred to “Brando's The Fugitive Kind in a premature 'launch by default' of the claim for the actor as auteur to the neglect of Anna Magnani, Tennessee Williams, Sidney Lumet and Boris Kaufman.


 Part 6: (1)                                                                                                                                               

Orson Welles (64*) b.1915  

Alfred Hitchcock (64) b.1899   

Stanley Kubrick (65) b.1928  

Elia Kazan (71) b.1918   

Arthur Penn (69) b.1922  

George A Romero b.1940   

Shirley Clarke b.1919                                                                    


Note*:  Inclusion as one of International Film Guide’s '5 directors of the year' indicated above by the year in parenthesis.



In making the selection of auteurs to span the accelerating decline of Hollywood's studio system through the 60s, five of the list above came almost immediately to mind with the later addition of the  'inspired amateur', from Pittsburgh, George Romero, and of Shirley Clarke an independent filmmaker in New York.  All seven were gifted outsiders in different ways. Hitchcock and Kazan were immigrants, Kubrick at his peak chose to work in exile. Welles's career embodied the romantic notion of the artist working within art cinema breaking the rules in order to “express his innermost self ” as opposed to the director working successfully in the studio system accepting the rules of classical cinema. (Elsaesser 159-61).   


Hitchcock and Oscar

Hitchcock's underlying moral seriousness harnessed by his technical mastery but down-played by a projected persona of performative quirkiness, was never recognised by Hollywood with an Oscar for direction. He was, on the eve of his death, finally honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1979. After making rather perfunctory acknowledgment of the accolades Hitch drolly simulated the role expected of him, in this instance of a thief whisking away the honorary Oscar cloaked by his dinner jacket. 


Similarly unrecognised by Hollywood, Orson Welles projected on the screen from Europe to the audience and host John Huston, graciously accepted his honorary Oscar in 1971 as “precious because it comes, not from critics or the people but from people who love movies.” He accepted it “not for what I've done but for what I hope to do.” He was he said [still] “hoping to make some movies that deserve it.”   


Orson Welles

In the transition to the new Hollywood, Arthur Penn's embrace of modernity took a lead in challenging the rules of classical Hollywood's transparent storytelling. Bonnie and Clyde is nominated by Paul Monaco as one of the three 'landmark films' made in 1967 (the others: Cool Hand Luke and The Graduate). This was further amplified by the success of Easy Rider(1969) following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and the events surrounding the 68 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Monaco refers to their box office success as being primarily with late teens and younger adults based on their shared identification with the antiheroes and outsiders in these films “rooted in a widely shared sense of alienation from middle class American society.” (182-8)


Citizen Kane

Andrew Sarris attributed to Mark Shivas (co-founder of 'Movie' magazine in 1962), the observation that Welles was concerned with the ordinary feelings of extraordinary people and Hitchcock with the extraordinary feelings of ordinary people.  “Whereas Welles flourished in baroque settings, Hitchcock functioned in commonplace settings. To a limited extent, at least, Wellesian cinema is as much the cinema of the exhibitionist as Hitchcockian cinema is the cinema of the voyeur.”


Welles and Sound 

No two directors have had more written about their life and work. David Bordwell argues “that Hitchcock and Welles did more than change the cinema of the forties. They showed directors who came after them that the forties motivations could be revised with unflagging ingenuity” (Forties 461).


Dudley Andrew suggests that Orson Welles(1915-85) “knew the auteur theory in advance and set out to make a series of films whose variety would make sense to later critics intent on their unity.” As referred to above it is no accident that Welles's 'consistently inconsistent' feature films are book-ended by his only fully realised works in his lifetime: the psychological density of fictionalised biography (Citizen Kaneandreverie” (Chimes at Midnight), to borrow again from Sarris. 


John Huston, The Other Side of the Wind

The production of Welles's 'final film', The Other Side of the Wind, was spread over 48 years (1970-2018) to be completed more than two decades after his death. Joseph McBride quotes Welles's description of his film in 1962: “this will be a film about death, the portrait of decadence, ruin.” Michel Legrand described his score for the film as “a requiem.” Stylistically it is a satire of classic and new Hollywood, and European sixties art cinema. Except for the theme of death, Wind is consistently inconsistent in that each Welles' film is stylistically different from the preceding ones while the themes recur throughout. In this, Welles's oeuvre resembles Kubrick's.


Welles was the first American director in the sound era to break with the notion that plot visualised through  style were the invisible servants of the story. As Jean-Pierre Coursodon puts it, Welles “made form the content of his films” marking him as the first modern director (vol 2 367). The innovative deep focus style of Citizen Kane was debated from its first release. While depth of field in cinematography was not new, the availability of a new blimp-less camera in 1934 (of which Gregg Toland was the first user) was combined with the introduction of lens coatings in 1939. Both combined with faster film and shorter focal length lenses allowing the achievement of greater depth of field with any given light level thus enabling Toland's work with depth of field, prior to Citizen Kane, on films with William Wyler and John Ford 1937-40. 

Orson Welles, Citizen Kane

Coursodon points to the paradox that Welles's influence was allegedly immense, yet considers that only his first two pictures, Kane andThe Magnificent Ambersons, can be said to have been “influential” (ibid). In challenging the primacy of the story over style in classical narrative, Welles re-invoked the spirit of creative formal invention that was alive in silent cinema. Griffith's genius changed the face of storytelling on film while von Stroheim's refusal to accept the economic and logistical limitations of the medium resulted in his career as a director ending in frustration and failure. Welles managed to complete only one film as he intended, never to be given the opportunity by four of the Hollywood majors (MGM, Paramount, Fox and Columbia). Kane was left stranded ahead of its time as the initial 'maverick' encroachment of modern art cinema into the classic Hollywood studio system.


Welles's on-stage and radio productions embodied a trend Bordwell identifies as Theatricalism, pioneered by European theatre directors Vsevolod Meyerhold and Erwin Piscator. “The trend broke with both Naturalism and Symbolism by admitting the sheer artificiality of the stage space.” (Bordwell 40s 452) Bordwell enumerates ways that Welles took “the Theatricalist impulse” from the stage to another level in his moviemaking, examples being “the harsh sound cuts and surprise visual transitions” in Citizen Kaneand The Lady from Shanghai. Bordwell identifies numerous other ways Welles countered what he saw as dullness in most films, examples being in his experiments with voice-over narration, embedded stories, and ways of weaving pastness into the texture of his storytelling, as in The Magnificent Ambersons. (452-61)  


Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, The Magnificent Ambersons

Carringer points out that “deep focus photography provided Welles not with realism but with the technical means of adapting the Mercury Theatre performance style to the requirements of a new medium. Extreme depth of field gave them a playing space equivalent to what they had on the stage.” (83) The wide angle lens kept them suitably distanced...The heavily theatrical gestures and mannerisms of the Mercury players, Welles included, are very unsuited to the studio style of intercutting.” Long takes facilitated by depth of field permitted the playing of scenes almost continuously. (85)


Dudley Andrew contends that, despite having a background in theatre and an evident theatrical personality, Welles in Citizen Kane from the beginning had the unique opportunity in the studio system to immediately become “fully a man of the cinema,” meaning “someone whose most profound  realisations are made possible in this medium.” The illusory quality of the image, the nature of motion picture technology, the depth of sound and the shallowness of the screen “all contribute to the fullest realisation of Welles's meditations on authenticity, mirage, impermanence, and loss.” Both André Bazin and Roland Barthes “wrote evocatively on the relation of photography to death: the image is a trace left by an object gone before us in time. And yet the animating power of motion confers on the cinema a vibrancy missing from the still photograph.” (DA 168)  


Jeanne Moreau, Welles, Chimes at Midnight

Andrew concludes that Welles's “overriding obsession with the past and death goes against the grain of the medium even while it is best expressed in that medium.”  The arrangement of images and sound in his films so as to embody the notion of loss and death,  Andrew suggests, is realised not only in Kane but even more relentlessly in The Magnificent Ambersons and Chimes at Midnight. He “effectively encloses time in the giant box of his narration.” (171) In Ambersons it's the way Welles's “deep seriousness” expands film's properties, specifically deploying, for example, spatialisation of sound (dialogue levels in relation to character movement and camera placement) in combination with the long take and wide angle lenses, minimising or dispensing with close-ups and reverse angle cutting, “his method right outside the system” in transforming a Pulitzer prize-winning novel, otherwise standard material for classic Hollywood adaptation. Bazin saw 1940 as a watershed year for cinema in which the deep focus styles of Renoir (Le Règle du Jeu) and Welles “tipped film language away from its obsessive self-concern and toward the subjects it was its mission to render.” (Quoted Andrew 7)


Although often touted for his expressionist visual sense Andrew writes that “Welles' most signal moments come from devices realised on the soundtrack.”(166) His fascination with sound culminates in  Chimes at Midnight. After describing it as “perhaps the greatest adaptation of Shakespeare that the cinema has yet produced,” Andrew writes that Chimes is “also the adaptation most difficult to hear...finding our greatest poet left to the mercy of Welles with his bizarre sense of sound mixing and pace.” (167).*  

Laurence Olivier's Henry V (1945) and Hamlet (1948) are often acclaimed as the best adaptations of Shakespeare to film because of the priority given to enunciation of the bard's writing.In contrast Chimes at Midnight is profoundly tied to the actor's voice. “Welles violated the sanctity of the [writing], piecing and patching a single film from the fragments of five different plays. Instead of a text which comfortingly remains behind the scenes and outlasts the film, Welles gives us avoicedisconcertingly disappearing over time... even Shakespeare, cannot outlast deterioration in time and diminution in space.” 


John Gielgud, Chimes at Midnight

Once again Welles has put forward “an immense power”... While he also uses “techniques of transition, of embedding and of parable in his scripts, these are merely a part of the magician's panoply of tricks...The effect of his use of sound is the more disturbing through the simplicity of its to devastate through sheer sound recording...[He] has taken as his model, not the immortal bard, but “a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more.” (ibid)  


* For most of us who have only encountered Chimes at Midnight in the 'difficult  to hear' versions on film and video, Mark Cousins has written of watching a beautifully restored version in 2016 of Welles's film audible like never before. (Sight & Sound Jan. 2017 p.47)  James Naremore, while acknowledging that the badly synchronised soundtrack of Chimes at Midnight can make it “seem like a defaced masterpiece,” this “has tended to obscure the fact that the ideaof the soundtrack, considered apart from the images, is quite satisfying. It contains some of the most beautiful readings of Shakespeare ever recorded for film, especially the case of Gielgud's soliloquies – and the musical settings by Lavaginino are uniformly superb” (233) 



Dudley Andrew, “Echoes of Art: The Distant Sounds of Orson Welles” essay in Film in the Aura of Art” 1984                                                

Robert L Carringer  The Making of Citizen Kane 1985

Thomas Elsaesser  “Authorship and Orson Welles”  The Persistence of Hollywood  Routledge 2012 

James Naremore  The Magic World of Orson Welles  Oxford UP 1989 

Jaime Christley, Great Directors: Orson Welles Senses of Cinema January 2003 


Editor’s Note: This is the sixth part of a series by Bruce Hodsdon in which he analyses the history and impact of Art Cinema. 

Part One appeared on 10 March and can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE

Part Two appeared on 16 May and can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE 

Part Three appeared on 3 June and can be found  IF YOU CLICK HERE 

Part  Four appeared on 2 July and can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE 

Part Five appeared on 19 July and can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE

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