The Magic World of Orson Welles (10 page)

Undoubtedly Welles's theatrical experience led him to conceive movie images in this way; the
Julius Caesar
sets, as we have seen, had been designed to allow for just this sort of in-depth composition. Actually, however, Welles's long takes are in some way less conventionally theatrical than the typical dialogue scene in a Hollywood feature, which does nothing more than establish a setting and cut back and forth between close-ups of the actors. Hollywood cinema was basically a “star” medium, designed to highlight faces and words, whereas Welles tried to introduce a sense of visual conflict and directorial presence, even in the absence of cutting. In the scene at hand, the three planes of interest have been as carefully “reconstructed” as any montage, and they function in a roughly similar way. One important difference is that the spectator has an immediate impression of the whole, of several conflicting elements presented not in sequential fashion, but simultaneously. The movies, after all, are not an exclusively linear medium; if the director wishes to preserve the temporal continuity, he has a second dimension—depth—along which the fragments of an idea can coexist. Thus while the story of
Kane
moves briskly forward on the reel, we occasionally have the sense of slicing through a cross-section of a moment, looking down a corridor of images and overlapping events.

Welles designs the boardinghouse scene in such a way that we cannot help looking down Mrs. Kane's parlor to the window that neatly frames and encloses the boy's play, seeming to trap him at the very moment when he feels most free. At virtually the same time we are aware of Mrs. Kane seated with the banker in the foreground, her face the image of stern puritanical sacrifice; Thatcher hovers over officiously, while in the middle distance, caught between son and mother, the weak, irresponsible Mr. Kane keeps saying he doesn't like turning the boy over to a “gardeen.” The faces, clothing, and postures of the actors contrast with one another, just as the slightly blurred, limitless world of snow outside the window contrasts with the sharply focused, gray interior. Clearly the shot was meticulously organized in order to stress these conflicts; in fact it took Welles and Toland four days to complete the sequence, because everything had to be timed with clockwork precision. As a result,
Kane
has a somewhat authoritarian effect; Welles may not be so Pavlovian a director as Eisenstein, but neither is he quite willing to let the spectator choose what he will see. He keeps the actors and the audience under fairly rigid control, just as the characters in this scene seem under the control of fate.

Abetted by Toland's extreme-depth photography, Welles uses the long takes in
Citizen Kane
in highly expressive ways. As in the shot described above, the actors often take unnatural positions, their figures arrayed in a slanting line that runs out in front of the camera so that characters in the extreme
foreground or in the distance become subjects for the director's visual commentary. Actors seldom confront one another face-to-face as they do in the shot/reverse shot editing of the ordinary film. The communications scientists would say that the positions of figures on the screen are “sociofugal,” or not conducive to direct human interaction, and this slight physical suggestion of an inability to communicate is fully appropriate to the theme of social alienation that is implicit in the film.

Space in the conventional Hollywood film—especially in action genres like the gangster movie or the western, which used a sharp, relatively “deep” photography—had been freer, more mobile, and certainly less symbolic than this. Oddly, however, Welles's long takes have frequently been praised for their heightened “realism.” For example, in the course of his fine early essay on
Kane
, David Bordwell has written that the boardinghouse scene demonstrates the self-effacing quality of Welles's direction: “despite the complexity of the set-ups, we gain a sense of a reality—actual, unmanipulated, all of a piece.” Elsewhere he remarks that key features of Welles's technique are designed to create the illusion of a “real world”: “The spatial and temporal unity of the deep-focus, the simultaneous dialogue, the reflections and chiaroscuro, the detached use of the moving camera, the intrusion of sounds from outside the frame—all increase the objectively realistic effect.”

Bordwell's notions about technique seem to derive, with some modification, from André Bazin, whose famous essay “The Evolution of Film Language” has been a major influence on Welles's critics. Indeed Bazin's commentary on
Kane
raises so many interesting questions that no study of Welles's deep-focus compositions can afford not to give it a brief review. Summarized, Bazin's argument runs as follows: between 1920 and 1940 there had been two kinds of filmmakers—“those who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality.” By the “image” Bazin meant “very broadly speaking, everything that the representation on the screen adds to the object there represented”; by “reality” he was referring to an unmanipulated phenomenal world spread out in front of the camera, a world he believed could leave its essential imprint on the film emulsion. According to Bazin, a director had two ways of adding to the object represented, thereby diluting the “reality”: he could manipulate the “plastics” of the medium—the lighting, the sets, the makeup, the framing of a shot, and so forth—or he could employ montage, which would create “a meaning not proper to the images themselves but derived exclusively from their juxtaposition.” Around 1940, according to Bazin, the principle of “adding” to the reality was challenged by directors like Jean Renoir, William Wyler, and Orson Welles. Thanks to the depth of field in
Kane
, Bazin wrote, “whole scenes are covered in one
take. . . . Dramatic effects for which we had formerly relied on montage were created out of the movements of the actors within a fixed framework.” In Welles and in his predecessor Renoir, Bazin saw “a respect for the continuity of dramatic space and, of course, its duration.” Indeed, he said, the alternation of expressive montage and long takes in
Kane
was like a shifting back and forth between two tenses or between two modes of telling a story.

Because the many deep-focus shots in
Kane
eliminated the need for excessive cutting within a scene, and because they theoretically acted as a window upon what Bazin regarded as the ambiguous phenomenal world, he praised the film as a step forward in movie “realism.” Furthermore, he argued, the deep-focus style was appropriate to ideas expressed in the script. “Montage by its very nature rules out ambiguity of expression,” he wrote, and therefore “
Citizen Kane
is unthinkable shot in any other way but in depth. The uncertainty in which we find ourselves as to the spiritual key or the interpretation we should put on the film is built into the very design of the image.”

Bazin was certainly correct in describing
Kane
as an ambiguous film and as a departure from Hollywood convention; nevertheless, in his arguments about “realism” he underemphasized several important facts. For example, if in some scenes Welles avoided using montage to “add to the object represented,” this left him all the more free to add in another way—through what Bazin had called “plastics.” Interestingly, some of the deep-focus shots in the film were made not by simple photography, but by a literal montage, an overlaying of images in a complicated optical printing process that created the impression of a single shot.
Citizen Kane
is one of the most obviously stylized movies ever made; the RKO art department's contribution is so great, Welles's design of every image so constricting, that at times the picture looks like an animated cartoon. Indeed this very artificiality is part of the meaning—especially in sequences like the election rally and the surreal picnic in the Xanadu swamplands. Technically speaking, Welles has made the ultimate studio film; there is hardly a sequence that does not make us aware of the cleverness of various workmen—makeup artists, set designers, lighting crews, and perhaps most of all Orson Welles. Critics as diverse as Otis Ferguson, Paul Rotha, and Charles Higham have complained that
Kane
calls attention to its style, making the audience aware that they are watching a movie. Even François Truffaut and Joseph McBride, who are strongly influenced by Bazin's aesthetics, seem to prefer Welles's less obtrusive films—
The Magnificent Ambersons
, say, or
Chimes at Midnight
(
Falstaff
). “When a director matures,” McBride says, “his work becomes more lucid, more direct, allowing room for deeper audience response; as Truffaut has put it, what is in front of the camera is more important.” Behind this axiom
one can feel the whole weight of Bazin's theories, although to McBride's credit he acknowledges a flaw in the argument. When he met Welles, he asked about the relative simplicity of the later European films: “I asked him why, in recent years, his movies have had less and less of the razzle-dazzle of his youth. Could it be a kind of growing serenity? ‘No, the explanation is simple,' he said. ‘All the great technicians are dead or dying.'”

Yet the statements of both Welles and Toland, in other contexts, seem to foreshadow or confirm Bazin's notions about realism. Toland has claimed that Welles's idea was to shoot the picture in such a way that “the technique of filming should never be evident to the audience,” and in his well-known
American Cinematographer
article, we repeatedly encounter comments such as the following: “The attainment of approximate human-eye focus was one of our fundamental aims”; “The
Citizen Kane
sets have ceilings because we wanted reality, and we felt it would be easier to believe a room was a room if its ceiling could be seen”; “In my opinion, the day of highly stylized cinematography is passing, and being superseded by a candid, realistic technique.” The last statement finds an echo in Bazin's notion that
Kane
is part of a general movement, a “vast stirring in the geological bed of cinema,” that will restore to the screen the “continuum of reality” and the “ambiguity of reality.” The same general argument can be heard in Welles's own remarks. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Welles was asked why he used so much deep focus. “Well,” he replied, “in life you see everything at the same time, so why not in the movies?”

One should remember that the term “realism” (often used in opposition to “tradition”) nearly always contains a hidden ideological appeal and that the word has been appropriated to justify nearly every variety of revolution in the arts. But if “realism” is intended simply to mean “verisimilitude,” then Welles, Toland, and Bazin are at best half right. It is true that deep focus can preserve what Bazin called the “continuum” of reality and that three-dimensional effects on the screen (which owe considerably to Welles's blocking and Toland's skillful lighting) can give the spectator the impression of looking into a “real” space. Nevertheless, Welles and Toland are inaccurate when they imply that the human eye sees everything in focus, and Bazin is wrong to suggest that either reality or human perception is somehow “ambiguous.” On the contrary, human vision is exactly the opposite of depth photography, because humans are incapable of keeping both the extreme foreground and the extreme distance in focus at the same time. The crucial difference between a camera and the human eye is that the camera is nonselective; even when we are watching the deep-focus composition in
Kane
, we do not see everything in the frame at once. We are aware of an overall composition that exists simultaneously, but,
as Bazin has noted, the spectator is required to make certain choices, scanning the various objects in the picture selectively. Welles seems instinctively aware of this fact, because he has designed his images quite rigidly, sometimes blacking out whole sections of the composition or guiding our attention with movement and frames within the frame. Welles's movies make relatively greater intellectual demands upon the audience, giving them more to look at, but the information that is crowded on the screen has been as carefully manipulated and controlled as in any montage.

Still another and perhaps more important factor needs to be taken into account in any discussion of the phenomenal “realism” of Welles's technique. Toland claimed that he was approximating the human eye when he stopped down his camera to increase the depth of field, but what he and most other commentators on the technique do not emphasize is that he also used a wide-angle lens to distort perspective.
Kane
was photographed chiefly with a 25mm lens, which means that figures in the extreme foreground are elongated or slightly ballooned out, while in the distance the lines formed by the edge of a room converge sharply toward the horizon. Thus if Toland gave the spectator more to see, he also gave the world a highly unnatural appearance. In fact Welles's unusual images fundamentally alter the relationship between time and space, calling into question some aspects of Bazin's arguments about duration. Here, for example, is an extract from an interview with the British cameraman/director C. M. Pennington-Richards:

Of course using wide angle lenses the time-space factor is different. If you've got a wide angle lens, for instance a 1" lens or an 18mm, you can walk from three-quarter length to a close-up in say four paces. If you put a 6” lens on [i.e., a telephoto], to walk from three-quarter length to close-up would take you twenty paces. This is the difference: During a scene if someone walks away and then comes back for drama, they come back fast, they become big fast. There is no substitute for this—you only can do it with the perspective of a wide-angle lens. It's the same with painting; if you want to dramatize anything, you force the perspective, and using wide angle lenses is in fact forcing it.

These comments signal the direction that any discussion of photography in
Kane
should take. But while there has been a great deal of theoretical discussion about depth of field in the film, rather little has been said about forced depth of perspective, which is the sine qua non of Welles's style, and which accounts for a great deal of the speed and energy of his work. And the technique is effective precisely because it lacks verisimilitude. Most directors operate on the principle that the motion picture image should approximate some kind of human perception; the virtue of Welles's films, however, is that
they work in a different direction, creating what the Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky would call a poetic “defamiliarization.”

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