Sunday, March 21, 2010

Eight Minutes on a Sunday Afternoon: The Hearts of Age (1934)

In 1934, Orson Welles and a group of friends shot an eight-minute silent film called The Hearts of Age. The film--a surrealist comedy/nightmare/goof inspired by Jean Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet--was intended as nothing more than a meaningless lark. Welles himself later called it "Absolutely nothing...a joke. We shot it in two hours, for fun, one Sunday afternoon."

Welles was right that the film had no meaning. It's a loose collection of images with only the thinnest wisp of a narrative (an old woman is chased by death) holding it together. The film, however, is fascinating for anyone with an interest in Welles. It shows that six years before he made Citizen Kane many of the elements of his style were already in beginning to take shape. As a surrealist movie, Hearts is negligible. As a document of a nineteen-year old Orson Welles at play with a 16mm movie camera, it's a gem.

Rather than a narrative, the film is a progression of images. A heavy chiming bell, a cross, tombstones, a skull, a spinning ornament. And faces--an old woman (Virginia Nicholson, Welles's wife, in thick makeup), a servant in blackface, and Death. Played by Welles himself with a cane and top hat, Death is the main focus of the piece. Spry and grinning, he descends a series of steps over and over in a loop, doffing his hat to the old woman, endlessly introducing himself. At the end of the film, alone, he plays piano by candlelight.

Attempts have been made over the years to analyze the film (much to Welles's annoyance, I might add), but there's not much to find. It is a rough sketch, co-directed with Welles's friend William Vance. What is interesting about it is that it gives us the first glimpses of Welles's visual imagination taking form. Slanted angles abound. There's an interest in shadows. The preoccupation of the piece is old age and death, two themes that would dominate Welles's feature films. There's a clear attraction to the grotesque in terms of mood and make-up. You can even get the hint of Welles and Vance attempting to create different plains of action in a shot--a flirtation, perhaps, with the idea of deep focus.

Welles always disowned the film as a trifle. And certainly it is a trifle, but he may have distanced himself from it for other reasons. Welles was every bit the wunderkind, but like many wunderkinds he liked the myth that he sprang from his mother's womb fully formed. Now the thing is--Welles damn near did enter the world quoting Shakespeare and sipping brandy, but there was some growing and learning. The film shows him thinking, learning, experimenting with film. It's thrilling to see, but Welles, like any great magician, wasn't in a hurry for people to see him still figuring out the trick.

(As an aside: the character in blackface is a jarring sight to see today, and I can't help but feel that the image hints at the somewhat ambiguous approach Welles would take to race in his films. As a human being, Welles was almost shockingly progressive in matters of race, but his films are either mute on the subject or are somewhat problematic. As far as this film goes, blackface was a common practice at the time, so some historical perspective is called for, but, of course, lots of things were common practice at the time which today shock our conscience. I suspect that Welles wasn't particularly proud of the image himself.)

What is most instructive about the film, however, is the image it paints of a young Orson Welles toying with a medium new to him. Simply put, who in 1934--much less today--decides to goof around by making a surrealist short film? Like the early sketches of painters or the germinal scribblings of budding writers, The Hearts of Age give us a glimpse of a future genius just beginning to discover the contours and joys of an art form that had piqued his interest.


The film is available online. It comes with a new soundtrack, but I recommend viewing it with the sound off. I was lucky enough to see the film projected, and the images work better in silence. Music imposes a mood, but Welles, Vance, and their cohort created it to work without sound.

Here's a nice short essay on the film from Senses of Cinema by a writer named Brian Frye.

The film is also available as part of Kino's collection Avant-Garde: Experiemental Cinema of the 1920's and 30's.

1 comment:

StephenD said...

I stumbled across this film a few years ago as a throw-in to the 2 disc set advertised as "Citizen Welles" (the movies where "The Stranger" and "The Trial"). Your analysis is spot-on. There's not much in the way of narrative, but his visual style is present in its nascent form.