The Indelible Signature of Orson Welles's Films

By Heptonstall, Geoffrey | Contemporary Review, November 2004 | Go to article overview

The Indelible Signature of Orson Welles's Films

Heptonstall, Geoffrey, Contemporary Review

'A BLIND man', Orson Welles said, 'should be capable of appreciating a film'. He was referring to the contribution of sound in so visual a medium. Music certainly is, and always has been, quintessential in the nature of film. Experiments with sound accompanied the development of film as an art. Though it took many years to establish the technique of sound on film, live music accompanied public performances. A totally silent film is a strange experience. Especially in the flickering monochrome of the pioneering years, a silent film seems to resemble a dreamed recollection of something personally witnessed. It is ghostly.

The dream-like or spectral qualities of film remain even as sophisticated familiarity reduces the privileged mystique of the experience. A film made with integrity can continue to entrance by its appeal to our imagination. Art is never solely a matter of technique. It was another of Welles's observations that anyone can make a film. Perhaps he was recalling his meeting with John Ford who told the young Welles that he could learn the craft of filming in a day. The rest was a question of having something to say. Let us say it was a question of having a vision that did not depend entirely on artifice and illusion.

It may be the sound of a Welles film which is the more arresting than the visual experiments, interesting as these are. The visual effects still serve to remind us how conservative and limited is cinematography. This is true even as film since Welles is capable of a quasi-realism indistinguishable from actuality. Turn away from the special effects and there is nothing beyond a cacophony. A Welles soundtrack is a composition in its own right. He and his team served a famous apprenticeship in radio. Listening now to those broadcasts is like seeing the still photographs of the Moscow Art Theatre come to life. There is Stanislavsky moving as Chekhov listens. They are fashioning the way we will come to understand things. Welles shaped his radio work like films. The rhythms are faster than the conventions of theatre (he played his theatre rapidly, too). There is the montage effect with cross-cutting from scene to scene. Voices overlay one another. And where a longeur is necessary, it is punctuated by something unexpected, inappropriate even. We are required to remain alert.

The intensity contributes to the authorial signature. For Welles art is a subliminal dream of powerful intentions-erotic or violent-tamed by the charm of an extraordinarily revealed personality. He allows us, unknown and anonymous onlookers, to imagine ourselves privileged to his secrets, though we suspect these are no more than chiaroscuro tricks of light and shadow. Turn on the arc lights, which we never do, and there may be nothing. And yet. Effects, however marvellous, need the purposive coherence of authorship. With the least of resources an artist can yet produce a masterpiece. Cervantes in captivity can dream of the Quixote. How much great art from Homer onward is the work of the deaf, the blind, the diseased and the mad? Welles was unafflicted except by being a romantic venturer, a condition defensible as a vantage towards a more forgiving future.

When Welles arrived in Hollywood, Scott Fitzgerald--then a script writer--predicted that Welles would change film so radically that it would be necessary to return to the beginning and to rediscover the art of film. Fitzgerald died before Citizen Kane was complete. What he might have said would have been enlightening. Would Fitzgerald have been disappointed by the derivative script grounded in the conventions of the nineteenth-century realist novel? Would it have been a further disappointment that the panoply of narrative devices under Welles's supervision had the suspicion of a jeu d'esprit? Or would Fitzgerald have surmised that Welles and his team were imaginatively dismantling the accepted structures of film in order to open the latent possibilities so often proscribed by consumer populism? …

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