Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Orson Welles

The films of a life

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Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita

The other week, while musing on Richard Linklater’s Boyhood—which I still haven’t seen—I noted that we often don’t have the chance to experience the movies that might speak most urgently to us at the later stages of our lives. Many of us who love film encounter the movies we love at a relatively young age, and we spend our teens and twenties devouring the classics that came out before we were born. And that’s exactly how it should be: when we’re young, we have the time and energy to explore enormous swaths of the canon, and we absorb images and stories that will enrich the years to come. Yet we’re also handicapped by being relatively inexperienced and emotionally circumscribed, at least compared to later in life. We’re wowed by technical excellence, virtuoso effects, relentless action, or even just a vision of the world in which we’d like to believe. And by the time we’re old enough to judge such things more critically, we find that we aren’t watching movies as much as we once were, and it takes a real effort to seek out the more difficult, reflective masterpieces that might provide us with signposts for the way ahead.   

What we can do, however, is look back at the movies we loved when we were younger and see what they have to say to us now. I’ve always treasured Roger Ebert’s account of his shifting feelings toward Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which he called “a page-marker in my own life”:

Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw La Dolce Vita in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom “the sweet life” represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello’s world; Chicago’s North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello’s age.

When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was ten years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him.

Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

And when we realize how our feelings toward certain movies have shifted, it can be both moving and a little terrifying. Life transforms us so insidiously that it’s often only when we compare our feelings to a fixed benchmark that we become aware of the changes that have taken place. Watching Citizen Kane at twenty and again at thirty is a disorienting experience, especially when you’re hoping to make a life for yourself in the arts. Orson Welles was twenty-five when he directed it, and when you see it at twenty, it feels like both an inspiration and a challenge: part of you believes, recklessly, that you could be Welles, and the possibilities of the next few years of your life seem limitless. Looking back at it at thirty, after a decade’s worth of effort and compromise, you start to realize both the absurdity of his achievement and how singular it really is, and the movie seems suffused with what David Thomson calls Welles’s “vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent.” You begin to understand the ambivalence with which more experienced filmmakers regarded the Wellesian monster of energy and ambition, and it quietly affects the way you think about Kane‘s reflections on time and old age.

The more personal our attachment to a movie, the harder these lessons can be to swallow. The other night, I sat down to watch part of The Red Shoes, my favorite movie of all time, for the first time in several years. It’s a movie I thought I knew almost frame by frame, and I do, but I hadn’t taken the emotional component into account. I’ve loved this movie since I first saw it in high school, both for its incredible beauty and for the vision it offered of a life in the arts. Later, as I rewatched it in college and in my twenties, it provided a model, a warning, and a reminder of the values I was trying to honor. Now, after I’ve been through my own share of misadventures as a writer, it seems simultaneously like a fantasy and a bittersweet emblem of a world that still seems just out of reach. I’m older than many of the characters now—although I have yet to enter my Boris Lermontov phase—and my heart aches a little when I listen to Julian’s wistful, ambitious line: “I wonder what it feels like to wake up in the morning and find oneself famous.” If The Red Shoes once felt like a promise of what could be, it’s starting to feel to me now like what could have been, or might be again. Ten years from now, it will probably feel like something else entirely. And when that time comes, I’ll let you know what I find.

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July 23, 2014 at 9:30 am

A boyhood at the movies

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Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, and Everett Sloane in Citizen Kane

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your favorite movie of the year so far?”

I don’t think there’s another movie this year that I’ve been more excited to watch than Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Anyone who has visited Linklater’s IMDb page over the last decade or so has been curious to see how this project—which he’s been filming off and on for more than twelve years—would turn out, and the rapturous response indicates that the wait has been worth it. I’ve always been deeply moved by depictions of growth and aging in film, whether imagined, as in The Last Temptation of Christ or Saving Private Ryan, or real, as in the wonderful documentary Ballets Russes, and Boyhood, which follows actor Ellar Coltrane as he ages before our eyes from grade school to college, seems like the ultimate realization of this theme, which the movies can depict so mysteriously. The irony, of course, is that I probably won’t see it for a while, because I have a daughter of my own at home. And I have a feeling that the viewers who would benefit the most from this movie—the parents of small children—will probably wait for it to show up on video, even as art houses are packed this weekend with twentysomethings with kids still in their future.

As I’ve noted here all too often, now that I’m a father, my moviegoing habits have been severely curtailed. (The only new films I’ve seen so far this year are The LEGO Movie and The Grand Budapest Hotel, both of which I liked, even if the parts in the latter seem just as interchangeable as those in the former—it’s the ultimate Wes Anderson construction set.) And while I’ve thought a great deal what this means for my love of movies now, it only recently occurred to me to consider its implications for my cinematic education in the past. When I look back at my life, it seems likely that I’ll have seen most of the movies I love in my teens and twenties, when I was single, possessed of disposable income, and willing to make the long trek to an independent theater or midnight screening. Those trips to the Brattle or the UC Theatre were a central part of my young adulthood, and the way I think about the movies was deeply shaped by my early experiences. In retrospect, I was lucky: the act of sitting in a darkened roomful of strangers to see a scratchy print of Ikiru seems increasingly remote from the lives of budding cinephiles, so I feel like I came along at just the right time.

Jeanne Moreau and Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight

But the fact that I saw so many of these movies when my firsthand knowledge of the world was so limited seems like an important factor as well. When you’re young and impressionable, you tend to be drawn to works of art that speak to you in a language you understand, either because they resonate with your own life or because they’re exhilarating on a formal or visceral level. As a teenager, I never had much interest in movies that reflected my life back to me—it took me years to get into John Hughes, for instance—but I fell in love with films that appealed to my senses in new ways. I was a devotee of Kubrick before I started middle school, largely because his virtues were the kind that I could immediately understand and admire: scope, symmetry, meticulousness, and intimate attention to image and sound. Even if you’ve never been out of your hometown or a narrow emotional comfort zone, you can react instinctively to films that thrill your eyes and ears. And the canon of my own favorite movies is still primarily a young man’s list, even if I’ve since come to appreciate the depths that the best of them conceal beneath their spectacular surfaces.

Of course, that’s the path that most of us follow: we’re drawn to the movies at a young age, gradually refine our tastes to look beyond their surface aspects, and end up with a personal pantheon populated both by old favorites and by films that we might have found difficult or uninviting at an earlier stage. At the moment, though, I sometimes fear that the process has been arrested for me just at the point when I’m ready to make new discoveries. The list of filmmakers who honestly confront the problems of marriage or old age is vanishingly small compared to those who construct beautiful fantasies, and even in the work of highly gifted directors, like Paul Thomas Anderson, we can sometimes sense enormous talent and will compensating for a lack of experience. It’s revealing that the most essential movie of them all, Citizen Kane, is a young man’s systematic impersonation of the old man he might one day become, and the difference between Welles as Kane and the incredible creation of his later years reminds us of how even the greatest movies can fail to predict what life has in store. Welles later made his aging a central part of his work, but far more of us have seen him in Kane than in Chimes at Midnight. And as we get older, as hard as it might be, it’s all the more crucial to make time for the films that speak to us now.

Quote of the Day

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Orson Welles

A director is someone who presides over accidents.

—Attributed to Orson Welles

Written by nevalalee

May 21, 2014 at 7:30 am

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The lost art of the extended take

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Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark

For Christmas, I got my wife a copy of The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz, which is one of those ideal presents that the giver buys for the recipient because he secretly wants it for himself—I’ve spent at least as much time browsing through it as she has. It’s a beautiful book of interviews with a fascinating subject, and I suspect that it will provide a lot of material for this blog. Today, though, I’d like to focus on one short exchange, which occurs during a discussion of Anderson’s use of extended tracking shots. Seitz points to the drinking contest in Raiders of the Lost Ark as an example of a great director subtly shooting a long scene in a single take without cuts, and shrewdly notes that our knowledge that the action is unfolding in real time subliminally increases the suspense. Anderson agrees: “You’re not only waiting to see who’s going to get knocked out with the liquor; you’re waiting to see who’s going to screw up the take.” Elsewhere, Seitz has written of how the way the scene was shot adds “a second, subtle layer of tension to an already snappy scene…our subliminal awareness that we’re seeing a filmed live performance, and our sporting interest in seeing how long they can keep it going.”

This is a beautiful notion, because it exemplifies a quality that many of my favorite films share: the fictional story that the movie is telling shades imperceptibly into the factual story of how the movie itself was made, which unfolds in parallel to the main action, both invisibly and right in front of our eyes. It’s something like Truffaut’s statement that a movie should simultaneously express “an idea of life and an idea of cinema,” but it’s less about any specific philosophical idea than a sense that the narrative that the movie presents to us is a metaphor for its own creation. We see this in a movie like Citizen Kane, in which it’s hard not to read the youthful excitement of Kane’s early days at the Inquirer as a portrait of Orson Welles arriving on the RKO lot, and its later, disillusioned passages as a weird prefiguring of what would happen to Welles decades down the line; or even a movie like Inception, in which the roles of the participants in the mind heist correspond to those of the team behind the camera—the director, the producer, the production designer—and the star looks a little like Chris Nolan himself. (Someone, possibly me, should really make a slideshow on how directors tend to cast leading roles with their own doubles, as Anderson often does as well.)

Gravity

And the ultimate expression of the marriage between the filmed story and the story of its creation is the extended shot. It’s a moment in which the movie we’re watching fuses uncannily with its own behind-the-scenes documentary: for a minute or two, we’re on the set, watching the action at the director’s side, and the result is charged with the excitement of live performance. If every cut, as Godard says, is a lie, a continuous take brings us as close to the truth—or at least to a clever simulacrum of it—as the movies can manage. It doesn’t need to be overtly flashy, either: I’ve never seen a better use of an extended take than in the party scene in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, in which the camera remains stationary for an entire reel. But there’s also a childlike pleasure in seeing filmmakers taking a big risk and getting away with it. You see this in the massively choreographed long takes, involving dozens or hundreds of players, in movies as different as Absolute Beginners, Boogie Nights, and Hard BoiledAnd if the hallway fight in Inception ranks among the most thrilling sequences of the decade, it’s because we’re witnessing something astonishing as it must have appeared that day on the set, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt getting battered by the walls of that rotating corridor.

So it’s worth taking a moment to remember that it’s not the long take itself that matters, but the fact that it puts us in the filmmaker’s shoes, which we lose when an extended take is the result of digital trickery. I’m as big a fan as any of the opening shot of Gravity, which recently made my updated list of the greatest movie openings of all time, but there’s no escaping the fact that we’re seeing something that has been invisibly stitched together over many different days of filming, and nearly everything in sight has been constructed through visual effects. This doesn’t make it any less miraculous: along with Life of Pi, it marks a turning point, at least for me, in which digital effects finally live up to their promise of giving us something that can’t be distinguished from reality. But it’s a triumph of vision, planning, and conceptual audacity, without the extra frisson that arises from the sustained tightrope act of an extended shot done in the camera. As time goes by, it will become easier to create this sort of effect from multiple takes, as Cuarón himself did so brilliantly in Children of Men. But it can’t compare to the conspiratorial tension we get from a true tracking shot, done with the full possibility of a disastrous mistake, in which the movies, so often crafted from tricks and illusions, really do seem to defy gravity.

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December 26, 2013 at 9:10 am

Quote of the Day

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Orson Welles at age 24

It’s about two percent movie-making and ninety-eight percent hustling. It’s no way to spend a life.

Orson Welles

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September 4, 2013 at 7:30 am

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My ten great movies #8: Citizen Kane

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“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper,” writes Charles Foster Kane to his guardian, Mr. Thatcher, only to confess in the following scene: “I don’t know how to run a newspaper—I just try everything I can think of.” In those two lines, Citizen Kane captures the romance of what it means to be young, gifted, and boundless of ambition, and in particular, what it meant to be Orson Welles, twenty-five, already famous, and given the keys to the greatest train set a boy ever had. This honeymoon wouldn’t last forever, of course, and Welles barely survived two more years in Hollywood. But the memory of those days lives on, in Kane and in much of The Magnificent Ambersons, with Kane in particular serving as both the most lasting movie ever made in America and a bittersweet emblem of what might have been.

Kane is famously the film that inspired the careers of more directors than any other, and even for those of us who express ourselves in other ways, it’s a shining example of what can be accomplished when respect for the lessons of craft is combined with a reckless disregard of the rules. Most of the great innovations in the arts and sciences come when an individual of genius changes fields, and with Welles, with his unsurpassed training in theater and radio, Hollywood not only got a genuine boy wonder, but gave him the freedom and resources he needed to do great work—a lucky combination that would never happen again. Welles came to RKO with a willingness to try everything once and, more importantly, to listen to the likes of Gregg Toland and benefit from their skill and experience. Without this bedrock of craft, Kane would be a mess of inspirations; without inspiration, it would be pointless technique. But for once, blessedly, a Hollywood film had both. And the movies would never be the same.

Tomorrow: The best of all recent Hollywood movies.

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November 30, 2011 at 10:00 am

“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper…”

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It took me a long time to love Citizen Kane. When I first saw this most famous of all movies, which was finally released last week on a gorgeous Blu-ray, I was maybe ten years old, and already steeped, believe it or not, in the culture of such movie lists as the Sight & Sound poll. (I got an early start at being an obsessive film snob.) And my first viewing of Kane, which I knew had been universally acclaimed as the best film of all time, came as something of a shock. Looking back, I think my biggest issue was with the film’s insistent humor, since I had assumed that all great art had to be deadly serious. Xanadu and its brooding shadows were fine, but when we got to the moment when the stagehand holds his nose at Susan Alexander’s operatic debut, I didn’t know what to think. What kind of masterpiece was this, anyway?

Needless to say, in the years since, this sense of fun has become one of my favorite things about Kane, as it was for Pauline Kael and so many others. Like Hamlet, with its ghosts and swordfights, Kane is both popular and sublime, and it’s one of the first movies to directly communicate to the audience the director’s joy in his craft—the sense that a movie studio was “the biggest electric train set a boy ever had.” As Kael points out in “Raising Kane,” the movie is almost a series of blackout sketches, full of tricks and gags, and that underlying pleasure still comes through, especially in the earlier newspaper scenes, which feel like a glimpse of the RKO set itself: the Inquirer, with its exhausted but grateful staff, becomes a dream of all creative collaboration, the warmest memory in a movie that ends with the line “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”

And yet, as I’ve grown older, I’m also struck by the undercurrent of sadness and loss, which prompted David Thomson to say, in Rosebud: “This is the most moving picture ever made…Or ever will be.” More than any other film, Kane grows with time, both in the context of film history and in its viewers’ own lives. For one thing, it’s hard to watch it now without seeing it as a prophetic version of what would happen to Orson Welles himself, still only twenty-five and a little more than a baby in the few times he appears in his own face. Welles was a greater man than Kane, but he was already preparing his own warehouse of memories, that incredible mass of stories, myths, and unfinished projects that he carried with him like an invisible Xanadu. Of all great directors, only Coppola—with the ghosts of Zoetrope and the Corleones lingering at the Rubicon estate—can claim to be so haunted.

But Kane isn’t really about Welles himself, but all of us. There’s a reason why such disparate figures as Charles Schulz and Ted Turner have seen themselves in this story: among other things, it’s our best movie about youth and aging. Now that I’ve long since passed the age at which Welles made this film, I’m convinced that there’s no way I could fully appreciate it until now: when you’re twenty-five, the movie seems like a goad, or an exemplar, and it’s only when you’re a little older that you notice its preemptive nostalgia for the promise of youth already lost. I expect that the movie will continue to evolve and show different aspects as I get older, a hall of mirrors, like the one Kane walks through in his very last appearance. It’s an inspiration and a warning, a labyrinth without a center, as Borges writes. And yet running that newspaper still seems like so much fun.

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September 20, 2011 at 6:23 am

Midnight in Paris and the true golden age

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Yesterday my wife and I finally caught a screening of Midnight in Paris, which is already on track to become Woody Allen’s highest-grossing movie since Hannah and Her Sisters. While it’s definitely one of Allen’s slighter films, it’s easy to see why it’s doing so well: it’s clever and fun, and by the end, it’s hard not to be charmed by its premise. I was especially envious of the fact that my wife managed to enter the theater without knowing the movie’s central twist, which is that—spoiler alert—the main character, played by Owen Wilson, travels back in time to Paris in the 1920s, allowing him to rub elbows with Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, and many other luminaries. (I was really hoping for a cameo by Duchamp, but had to settle for Dali and Man Ray.)

The funny thing is that even though I liked the movie a lot, I responded more to its air of Parisian romance (the cinematography, by the legendary Darius Khondji, is gorgeous) than to its underlying conceit, which is that it would be awesome to have the chance to hang out with your favorite writers. In my own experience, writers generally aren’t great company: the best ones put so much of themselves into their work that there isn’t much left for social niceties. And that applies to great writers as much as to anyone else. Joyce and Proust met only once, at a party thrown by art patrons Violet and Sydney Schiff, and while they evidently shared a carriage ride home, they didn’t have much to say to each other. (Proust, evidently, spent most of the night complaining about his health problems.)

And in the end, the books themselves are more than enough. It’s possible to know Proust more intimately than just about any other person, because he put so much of himself into his writing. Reading, as others have pointed out, is the only form of time travel that we’re currently afforded, and the nice thing about being a reader in the present is that you can access so much of previous eras. One of the messages of Midnight in Paris is that every generation, even the ones that we idealize today, has looked back to a lost golden age. But objectively speaking, if there’s a real golden age, it’s right now, even if you’re the kind of person—like me—who tends to be stuck in the past. There’s simply more past than ever before, in libraries, record shops, movie houses, and, yes, even online. And I’d never want to give up any of it.

That said, it’s still fun to think about what your own golden age might be (as the AV Club did last year, in one of my favorite Q&As). I’d happily spend an afternoon with any version of Orson Welles, or, if we’re going to restrict ourselves to a more recent period, to Coppola and the Zoetrope Studios, ideally in the narrow window after Apocalypse Now and before One From the Heart. As I’ve mentioned before, I’d love to go back in time to Berkeley of the 1970s. And there’s something very tempting about that party with Proust and Joyce, which was also attended by Picasso, Stravinsky, and Diaghilev. In the end, though, I’m happiest here, because I can enjoy the best of the past and look forward to more to come. The trouble with going back in time, after all, is that you’d know all that was coming, good and bad, and would never have the chance to be surprised by a masterpiece—or even just a very good Woody Allen movie. And where’s the fun in that?

Von Trier’s obstructions

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As you see [filmmaking] makes me into a clown. And that happens to everyone—just look at Orson Welles or look at even people like Truffaut. They have become clowns.

—Werner Herzog, in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

The news that Lars Von Trier has been expelled from Cannes for his decidedly ill-advised remarks is depressing in more ways than one, although I can’t fault the festival for its decision. I don’t think that von Trier is really a Nazi sympathizer; I think he’s a provocateur who picked the wrong time and place to make a string of increasingly terrible jokes. But the fact that he ended up in such a situation in the first place raises questions of its own about the limitations of the provocateur’s life. Von Trier, who used to be something of a hero of mine, has always been testing his audiences, but there’s a difference between a director who pushes the bounds of taste out of some inner compulsion, and one who is simply going through the motions. Von Trier, it seems, has gradually become the latter.

There was a time when I thought that von Trier was one of the major directors of the decade, along with Wong Kar-Wai, and I don’t think I was entirely wrong. Dancer in the Dark is still the last great movie musical, a remarkable instance of a star and director putting their soul and sanity on the line for the sake of a film, and a rebuke to directors who subject their audiences to an emotional ordeal without demanding the same of themselves. Just as impressive was The Five Obstructions, von Trier’s oddly lovable experiment with the director Jørgen Leth, which remains the best cinematic essay available on the power of constraints. (Von Trier had recently announced a remake with Martin Scorsese as the test subject, a prospect that made me almost giddy with joy. I’d be curious to see if this is still happening, in light of von Trier’s recent troubles.)

But the cracks soon began to show. I greatly admired Dogville, which was a major work of art by any definition, but it lacked the crucial sense that von Trier was staking his own soul on the outcome: he was outside the movie, indifferent, paring his nails, and everything was as neat as mathematics. At the time, I thought it might be the only movie of its year that I would still remember a decade later, but now I can barely recall anything about it, and don’t have much inclination to watch it again. I tried very hard to get through Manderlay and gave up halfway through—Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance, through no fault of her own, might be the most annoying I’ve ever seen. And I still haven’t watched Antichrist, less out of indifference than because my wife has no interest in seeing it. (One of these days, I’ll rent it while she’s out of town, which will be a fun weekend.)

And now we have the Cannes imbroglio, which only serves as a reminder that every director—indeed, every artist—ultimately becomes a caricature of himself, in ways that only reveal what was already there. That was true of Orson Welles, who in his old age fully became the gracious ham and confidence trickster he had always been, except more so, in ways that enhance our understanding of him as a young man. The same will be true, I’m afraid, of von Trier. The spectacle that he presented is even less flattering when we try to imagine the same words being said by Herzog, or even someone like Michael Haneke—men who are provocateurs, yes, but only as an expression of their deepest feelings about the world, something that is no longer true of von Trier, if it ever was. Von Trier, clearly, was just joking. But he revealed much more about himself than if he were trying to be serious.

The work of a lifetime

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Yesterday I finally got around to reading Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker piece on Middlemarch—by all odds the most intelligent novel ever written—and its influence on her own life. If you’re a subscriber, Mead’s article is well worth reading in full (especially for her discussion of an inspirational quotation inexplicably misattributed to George Eliot, a subject on which I have some strong opinions), but I was struck in particular by her thoughts on how her attitudes toward the book have changed over time. Mead writes:

I have gone back to Middlemarch every five years or so, my emotional response to it evolving at each revisiting. In my judgmental twenties, I thought that Ladislaw, with his brown curls and his callow artistic dabbling, was not entirely deserving of Dorothea; by forty, I could better measure the appeal of his youthful energies and Byronic hairdressing, at least to his middle-aged creator, who was fifty-three when the book was published.

This, of course, is the measure of a great work of art: its ability to reveal new perspectives as we approach it at different times in our lives. Most of us, I imagine, have a book or movie or album that serves as a similar sort of milestone, with our evolving feelings toward it charting how much we ourselves have changed. For Roger Ebert, it’s Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. In an article first published two years ago, he writes:

In 1962, Marcello Mastroianni represented everything I dreamed of attaining…Ten years later, he represented what I had become, at least to the degree that Chicago offered the opportunities of Rome. Ten years after that, in 1982, he was what I had escaped from, after I stopped drinking too much and burning the candle at both ends.

And now Ebert has left the movie behind entirely. Recently, he wrote movingly of the fact that he will no longer be able to discuss the film shot by shot at the Conference on World Affairs at Boulder, as he’s done on four separate occasions, and concludes:

Well, now I’ve outlasted Marcello. I’ve come out the other side. He is still standing on the beach, unable to understand the gestures of the sweet blond girl who was his waitress at the restaurant, that day he was going to start his novel. He shakes his head resignedly and turns to walk back into the trees and she looks after him wistfully. I am in the trees with Marcello.

As for the equivalent work in my own life, I’m tempted to say that it’s the Pet Shop Boys album Actually, which has slipped imperceptibly from the imagined soundtrack of my adulthood to a reminder of a period I’ve already left behind. Or perhaps it’s The Phantom Tollbooth, which has evolved, as I’ve grown older, from escapist fantasy to handbook for adult life to the book that I’m most looking forward to giving to my own children. I suspect, though, that it might actually be Citizen Kane, which I once saw as a challenge and call to art, and which currently seems—now that I’m five years older than Welles was—more like a warning, or a rebuke. Or perhaps all of the above. What about you?

Great Directors: Orson Welles

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Essential films: Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons, F for Fake

I have to admit that it took me a long time to come around to Kane. Few other movies have been so unfairly suffocated by their own reputations: advance expectations run so high, for the officially certified greatest film of all time, that it nearly overwhelms what is really, as Pauline Kael points out, the fastest and frothiest of all newspaper comedies. At least, that’s how it plays at first. But as time goes on, thanks largely to David Thomson, I’ve found depths in Kane that probably weren’t evident even to its creator, who was, in fact, the secret subject of his own movie. Citizen Kane is a prophetic foreshadowing of the career of Orson Welles, the boy wonder who plays only a handful of scenes in his own face, and its power grows all the greater as the years take us further away from the incredible physical fact of Welles himself.

And the movie wouldn’t be able to sustain the weight of such baggage, or scrutiny, if it weren’t so intricate and beautiful a toy—a labyrinth without a center, as Borges notes. Of all the faces in Kane, the one that stays with me most is that of George Coulouris, as Thatcher, scowling, at the end of the closing credits, “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.” No other film has made the art of movies seem like such mischievous fun for boys, and though Welles’s vision darkened over the years, that sense of delight is never entirely gone. It’s there throughout Touch of Evil, and it’s wonderfully evident in F for Fake, his last film, a feat of sleight of hand that even Exit Through the Gift Shop can’t hope to match. In the end, Welles’s life remains, as David Thomson says, “the greatest career in film, the most tragic, and the one with most warnings for the rest of us.”

Tomorrow: Akira Kurosawa and the triumph of storytelling.

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February 9, 2011 at 7:37 am

Great Directors: An introduction

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At the risk of stating the obvious, the life of a movie director is vastly different from that of a novelist. While a writer is free to invent a world at his or her own leisure, in relative privacy, a director soon finds that even the simplest story requires a collective effort only slightly less complicated than that of going to war, as well as the need to cajole and compromise with a thousand interested parties, and in public. It’s no surprise, then, that so many of our best directors—from Welles to Von Trier—have something of the con artist about them, or that the movies that create the greatest popular impact—from Gone With the Wind to Avatar—seem less like acts of the creative will than like massive feats of organization.

Still, for a novelist, there’s something to be said for looking to the example of great directors. Like filmmaking, the bulk of the writing process is less about creativity than persistence, and much of an artist’s time is spent on rote work, heavy lifting, or simply waiting around for something to happen. Both fiction and film draw on an untidy range of skills and disciplines. For the director, it’s screenwriting, performance, art direction, camerawork, music, and editing; for the writer, it’s plot, character, research, theme, style, and revision. The director, unlike the writer, has the luxury of outsourcing much of the work to others, but the hard task of making decisions remains. And a director, like all artists, is defined by the choices he or she makes.

This week, then, I’ll be looking at five—or actually six—directors, all now gone, whose lives have shaped my own life and work. Tomorrow, I begin with the very best: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Written by nevalalee

February 6, 2011 at 8:49 am

Quote of the Day

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For precocity some great price is always demanded sooner or later in life.

—Margaret Fuller

Written by nevalalee

January 8, 2011 at 4:17 am

In praise of David Thomson

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The publication of the fifth edition of David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the best book ever written on the movies, is cause for celebration, and an excuse for me to talk about one of the weirdest books in all of literature. Thomson is a controversial figure, and for good reason: his film writing isn’t conventional criticism so much as a single huge work of fiction, with Thomson himself as both protagonist and nemesis. It isn’t a coincidence that one of Thomson’s earliest books was a biography of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy: his entire career can be read as one long Shandean exercise, in which Thomson, as a fictional character in his own work, is cheerfully willing to come off as something of a creep, as long as it illuminates our reasons for going to the movies.

First, a word about the book’s shortcomings. As in previous editions, instead of revising the entries for living subjects in their entirety, Thomson simply adds another paragraph or two to the existing filmographies, so that the book seems to grow by accretion, like a coral reef. This leads to inconsistencies in tone within individual articles, and also to factual mistakes when the entry hasn’t been updated recently enough—like the article on George Lucas, for instance, in which the latter two Star Wars prequels still evidently lie in the future. And the book is full of the kind of errors that occur when one tries to keep up, in print, with the vagaries of movie production—as when it credits David O. Russell with the nonexistent Nailed and omits The Fighter. (Now that this information is readily available online, Thomson should really just delete all of the detailed filmographies in the next edition, which would cut the book’s size by a quarter or more.)

And then, of course, there are Thomson’s own opinions, which are contrarian in a way that can often seem perverse. He’s lukewarm on Kurosawa, very hard on Kubrick (The Shining is the only movie he admires), and thinks that Christopher Nolan’s work “has already become progressively less interesting.” He thinks that The Wrestler is “a wretched, interminable film,” but he loves Nine. He displays next to no interest in animation or international cinema. There’s something to be outraged about on nearly every page, which is probably why the Dictionary averages barely more than three stars from reviewers on Amazon. And if you’re the sort of person who thinks that a critic whose opinions differ from your own must be corrupt, crazy, or incompetent—as many of Roger Ebert’s correspondents apparently do—then you should stay far, far away from Thomson, who goes out of his way to infuriate even his most passionate defenders.

Yet Thomson’s perversity is part of his charm. Edmund Wilson once playfully speculated that George Saintsbury, the great English critic, invented his own Toryism “in the same way that a dramatist or novelist arranges contrasting elements,” and there are times when I suspect that Thomson is doing the same thing. And it’s impossible not to be challenged and stirred by his opinions. There is a way, after all, in which Kurosawa is a more limited director than Ozu—although I know which one I ultimately prefer. Kubrick’s alienation from humanity would have crippled any director who was not Kubrick. Until The Dark Knight and Inception, Nolan’s movies were, indeed, something of a retreat from the promise of Memento. And for each moment of temporary insanity on Thomson’s part, you get something equally transcendent. Here he is on Orson Welles, for example, in a paragraph that has forever changed how I watch Citizen Kane:

Kane is less about William Randolph Hearst—a humorless, anxious man—than a portrait and prediction of Welles himself…As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent…Kane is Welles, just as every apparent point of view in the film is warmed by Kane’s own memories, as if the entire film were his dream in the instant before death.

On Spielberg and Schindler’s List:

Schindler’s List is the most moving film I have ever seen. This does not mean it is faultless. To take just one point: the reddening of one little girl’s coat in a black-and-white film strikes me as a mistake, and a sign of how calculating a director Spielberg is. For the calculations reveal themselves in these few errors that escape. I don’t really believe in Spielberg as an artist…But Schindler’s List is like an earthquake in a culture of gardens. And it helps persuade this viewer that cinema—or American film—is not a place for artists. It is a world for producers, for showmen, and Schindlers.

And, wonderfully, on what is perhaps my own favorite bad movie of all time:

Yet in truth, I think Kevin [Spacey] himself is the biggest experiment, and to substantiate that one has only to call to the stand Beyond the Sea, written, produced and directed by Kev and with himself as Bobby Darin. The result is intoxicating, one of the really great dreadful films ever made, worthy of an annual Beyond the Sea award (why not give it on Oscar night?), as well as clinching evidence that this man is mad. Anything could happen.

The result, as I note above, is a massive Proustian novel in which nearly every major figure in the history of film plays a role. (Thomson has already written a novel, Suspects, that does this more explicitly, and his book-length study of Nicole Kidman is manifestly a novel in disguise.) Reading the Dictionary, which is as addictive as Wikipedia or TV Tropes, is like diving headfirst into a vast ocean, and trying to see how deep you can go before coming up for air. Although if it really is a novel, it’s less like Proust than like Pale Fire, in which Thomson plays the role of Kinbote, and every article seems to hint darkly at some monstrous underlying truth. (In that light, even the book’s mistakes seem to carry a larger meaning. What does it mean, for instance, that Thomson’s brilliant article on Heath Ledger, in which he muses on “the brief purchasing power” of fame, was “inadvertently dropped” from the fifth edition?)

And what monstrous truth does the Dictionary conceal? It’s the same truth, which applies as much to Thomson himself as it does to you and me, as the one that he spells out, unforgettably, at the end of Rosebud, his study of Orson Welles:

So film perhaps had made a wasted life?
One has to do something.

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