Friday, February 25, 2011

The Future of 1940

above: Welles and Toland shoot CITIZEN KANE

THIS IS ORSON WELLES is the best book ever written about the director not because it is the most factual (it probably isn't) but because it is the most accurate--accurate in the human sense. When you read biographies of Welles, it's often difficult to reconcile the disparate personalities you come up against (which seems almost fitting considering the director's own obsession with contradiction). In THIS IS ORSON WELLES, the book-length interview book he did with Peter Bogdanovich, however, you get a record of the man himself on full display.

Consider, for instance, this revealing passage in which Welles and Bogdanovich discuss long shots.

PB: Preminger once said that ideally...he would never cut. He would like a picture all in one take.

OW: That will come when tape is perfected and they stop putting film in the camera. I saw that kind of insane flash of ignorance when I first started. I said to [Gregg] Toland, "Isn't it basically ridiculous that the film is in the camera?" And he said, "Yes. Eventually it will just be a sort of electric eye. We won't be carting the film around or the motor--we'll just be carrying the lens."

The crazy thing about this passage is that Welles and Toland apparently foresaw the rise of digital cameras as far back as 1940. Notice that in relaying this story to Bogdanovich, Welles still refers to perfection of "tape"--an indication that he and Toland hadn't figured out the solution to the problem. But Toland's basic concept of an "electric eye" is shockingly prescient.

What should humble Hollywood today is to think what these two visionaries might have accomplished if they'd been allowed to work together after CITIZEN KANE. Who knows how they might have further revolutionized film?


Mike Wilkerson said...

I've always been fascinated by Welles- he was a genius in my opine- but have not yet read a biography on him. I'd considered Callow's, however, the sheer size of that work is daunting. Your suggestion looks like a good place to start.

And he was ahead of his time, and misunderstood by many because of it.

Jake Hinkson said...

This Is Orson Welles is by far the best place to start, I'd say. It's packed with all kinds of good stuff and it makes one thing abundantly clear: Orson was the most interesting guy who ever lived.

I like Callow's second book more than his first. The Road To Xanadu has problems--it relies way too much, and too uncritically, on the word of John Houseman. But the second book is pretty good and spotlights, for instance, Welles's involvement in civil rights in the 40s.