Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Welles, A Tree Filled With Birds & Shadow

Excerpts from Jean Cocteau's introduction to the Orson Welles book (André Bazin), from August 1949. It is translated to English by Gilbert Adair.

I met Orson Welles in 1936 at the end of my world tour. It was in Harlem, at his Black Macbeth, a strange and wonderful spectacle to which Glenway Westcott and Monroe Wheeler had taken me.
Orson Welles was still a very young man. Macbeth was again to reunite us at the Venice Festival in 1948. Oddly enough, I did not connect the young man of the Negro Macbeth with the famous director who was going to show me another Macbeth (his film) in a little cinema on the Lido. It was he who reminded me, in a Venice bar, of the remark I had once made to him that while in the theatre the sleepwalking scene was generally made little of, it was, to my mind, the essential scene.

Orson Welles' Macbeth is a film maudit, in the noble sense of the word, such as we used it to light the beacon of the Festival at Biarritz.

Orson Welles' Macbeth leaves the spectator deaf and blind and I can well believe that the people who like it (and I am proud to be one) are few and far between. Welles shot the film very quickly after numerous rehearsals. In other words, he wanted it to retain a certain theatrical style, as proof that cinematography can put any work of art under its magnifying glass and dispense with the rhythm commonly supposed to be that of cinema. I disapprove of the abbreviation cinema because of what it represents. In Venice, again and again, we heard the absurd leitmotif: "It's cinematic" or "It isn't cinematic." And even: "This film is a good film, but it isn't cinematic" or "This isn't a good film, but it is cinematic." You can imagine how amusing we found this, and when interviewed together on the radio, Welles and I replied that we should love to know what a cinematic film was and that we asked only to be taught the recipe in order to put it into practice.

Orson Welles' Macbeth has a kind of crude, irreverent power. Clad in animal skins like motorists at the turn of the century, horns and cardboard crowns on their heads, his actors haunt the corridors of some dreamlike subway, an abandoned coal mine, and ruined cellars oozing with water. Not a single shot is left to chance. The camera is always placed just where destiny itself would observe its victims. Sometimes we wonder in what period this nightmare is unfolding, and when, for the first time, we see Lady Macbeth, before the camera moves back to situate her, it is almost a woman in modern dress that we are seeing, reclining on a fur-covered divan beside the telephone.

The film, withdrawn by Welles from the competition in Venice and screened by Obiectif 49, in 1949, at the Salle de la Chimie, has everywhere met with the same kind of opposition. It epitomizes the character of Orson Welles, who disregards convention and whose weaknesses, to which the public clings as to a life preserver, have alone afforded him any success. Sometimes his boldness is blessed with such good fortune that the public is willing to be seduced, as, for example, in the scene from Citizen Kane when Kane wrecks the bedroom, or in that of the maze of mirrors from The Lady from Shanghai.

And yet, after the syncopated rhythm of Citizen Kane, the public expected a succession of syncopes and was disappointed by the calm beauty of The Magnificent Ambersons. It was easier for the soul to go astray in the labyrinthine penumbra taking us from the strange image of the little millionaire, not unlike Louis XIV, to the hysterics of his aunt.

Welles the student of Balzac, Welles the psychologist, Welles reconstructing old American mansions: this is what the fanatics of jazz and jitterbug found so shocking. They rediscovered Welles with the rather confused Lady from Shanghai, lost him again with The Stranger, and this roller coaster brings us to the moment when Orson Welles came from Rome to live in Paris.

Orson Welles is a kind of giant with the look of a child, a tree filled with birds and shadow, a dog that has broken its chain and lies down in the flower beds, an active idler, a wise madman, an island surrounded by people, a pupil asleep in class, a strategist who pretends to be drunk when he wants to be left in peace. He knows better than anyone how to use the apparent nonchalance of true strength to give an impression of drifting, and advances with a half-open eye. The derelict manner he sometimes affects, like some dozing bear, shields him from the cold, restless whirl of the film world. A method that made him pack his bags, leave Hollywood and allow himself to be drawn toward other company and other prospects.

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