Pop before Pop: Welles, Sirk, Hitchcock

Article excerpt

  The communication system of the twentieth century is, in a special
  sense, Pop Art's subject.
  --Lawrence Alloway,
  "Popular Culture and Pop Art" (1969)

"THE VIRUS OF ARTISTIC AMBITION"

There was always in twentieth-century cinema an implicit promise of inclusion: the sense that the same movies might hold both the mass audience and the avant-garde cognoscenti spellbound, if not always at the same time. (1)

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For some, mainly European, early filmmakers, the motion picture was a medium; for others, mostly American, the motion picture was a mass medium--the mass medium. The latter filmmakers, including D. W. Griffith and Charles Chaplin, were popular artists who saw the new mass audience as a larger version of the traditional theatrical public; for a mysterious few, that larger public (and, thus, the nature of mass-produced entertainment) would be a subject in itself. To these directors, motion pictures were not simply dramatized stories but consumer products that--predicated on promotional gimmicks and artfully constructed publicity, trafficking in trademarks and merchandised personalities, including those of the filmmakers--epitomized a particular system. Because their movies were, in essence, self-aware mass-produced consumer products, such filmmakers were, in effect, Pop artists before Pop art. Their prototype was Orson Welles (f 915-1985), who was already a celebrity when he made his first feature, Citizen Kane, in 1941.

Citizen Kane hyperdramatized the act of filmmaking no less than van Gogh hyperdramatized the act of painting, and consequently, as critic Andrew Sarris put it, "infected the American cinema with the virus of artistic ambition." Citizen Kane surely inspired Maya Deren's psychodrama Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), which invented the avant-garde film in America as well as the idea of an American avant-garde film artist, but the most obvious example of Kane's influence is on the ultra-aestheticizing Hollywood tendency known as film noir--like bebop, an instance of a pop-culture vanguard. Citizen Kane was self-reflexive, and not only because its eponym was embodied by its twenty-five-year-old director. In allowing the boy genius Welles to play another genius on the screen, the movie was less about Welles than about the communications system of the mid-twentieth century.

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Two decades before Andy Warhol, the young Welles took the media as his medium. Prior to Citizen Kane, his Mercury Theatre had entertained New York with high-concept Shakespearean productions such as a voodoo Macbeth (1936) and an antifascist Julius Caesar (1937), both of which interpolated film and radio techniques; even more dramatically, Welles panicked America with The Mercury Theatre on the Air's faux news-report adaptation of H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds, broadcast Halloween evening 1938. After Kane, Welles would broaden his means of address--as an actor, an orator, a journalist, and a political activist--but that movie, over which the director enjoyed near-total control, was an unrepeatable event. Thanks in part to its scandalous burlesque of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and in part to its implicit Hollywood satire and adroitly fake, hence "world-changing," newsreel, Citizen Kane shocked the nation's communications system--which the him precipitously illuminated, in the way an animated lightning flash might reveal a cartoon creature's skeleton.

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Welles subsequently cast himself as a creator of film statements--The Stranger (1946), for example, was the first Hollywood feature to incorporate newsreel clips of the Nazi death camps--but Chaplin notwithstanding, such a role did not exist in the American motion-picture industry. And so he came to live, as well as to dramatize, the self-serving Promethean spectacle of an outsize artistic temperament laid low by the constraints of commerce--The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) butchered, The Stranger shortened, The Lady from Shanghai (1948) reedited. …

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