A book of interviews from the early 1990s reveals that the director of Citizen Kane was a big man whose pronouncements were almost as big.
Why has poetry vanished from the movies? One proffered explanation is that, like delicate mist in the early hours, verse has been annihilated by the blinding glare of modernity, the modern-day pace of life, all push and go with very little stopping and savouring. It was perhaps inevitable that The Guardian, a couple of years ago, carried a story about the Royal Shakespeare Company retelling the Bard’s most famous romance over five weeks and 4000 tweets. The in-real-time drama was called – you might want to sit down for this – Such Tweet Sorrow and a sample utterance (from @LaurenceFriar) went thus: “In my town the big problem is family feuding. Would love 2 talk 2 others about how to deal with *that* problem.” A tetchy critic weighed in a fortnight later, in an item titled A plague on the Twitter Romeo and Juliet: “Didn’t the original have something to do with poetry? Does a tweet like ‘Goooooooooood morningggggg :):):):):) It happened….. with THE most beautiful boy alive…. IT happened :):):):)’ really cut it?”
But poetry had vanished from screens (and our lives) long before this, even when the only tweets we knew came from birds (not birdbrains) – and here’s Orson Welles explaining why. “England’s stage came out of the church when the actors got too entertaining. It lingered for a couple of hundred years in front of it in the marketplace and then moved into the inn yard… Poetry has since then been neither necessary nor possible because when you can make the dawn over Elsinore with a lantern and a pot of paint there’s no call for having a character stop in the middle of action and say a line like, ‘But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill,’ even supposing you could write a line like it. You can’t see and hear beauty, fully, at the same time… because poetry is its own scenery, and because we’ve stuck to physical scenery and isolated our actor from his audience… we’ve stuck to prose.”
Like many things Welles says (either directly, or through excerpts from previously published thoughts) in This is Orson Welles, a book-length compilation of interviews by the director Peter Bogdanovich, this all sounds fascinating – and also a little suspect. Ploughing through the filmmaker’s richly fertile mind, Bogdanovich comes away with a bounteous harvest of quotes that, whether digestible or not, are always delicious – like that logic about the loss of lyric, that you can’t see and hear beauty, fully, at the same time. It does seem true, for when we look at a painting (a still picture, as opposed to a moving picture), we furnish ourselves a soundtrack of silence. But if a modern artist, the kind who recklessly throws together the past and the present in multimedia installations, were to play a few poetic lines over his paintings, would we not be able to multitask between the seen and the heard? Isn’t Welles really talking about something else, that whole other argument about “showing and telling”?
The point, though, isn’t whether Welles is right, but that he has a theory about something, and that theory, like the man himself in his later years, is expansive and grandiloquent, a sweeping declaration intended to rattle the rafters. Other directors who submitted to admirers and colleagues for persistent and probing interviews (Alfred Hitchcock with François Truffaut, Billy Wilder with Cameron Crowe) bared a lot about their inner worlds, but because Welles was himself an actor, these private thoughts are revealed as flamboyant public entertainments. Bogdanovich struck a deal with a publisher in 1969, but the book wasn’t published until 1992, after Welles died, and the reader is struck by how some things haven’t changed at all – like when Welles says, “I was a maverick, but the studios understood what that meant… With an annual output of 40 pictures per studio, there would probably be room for one Orson Welles picture. But an independent [producer] is a fellow whose work is centered around his own particular gifts. In that setup, there’s no place for me.” The reader is also struck by the man’s marvellous capacity to shroud himself in myth. He seems to be performing all the time – to entertain Bogdanovich, the reader, and, most of all, himself.
Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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