Oh, So Surreal



So much has been written about the film director Orson Welles that you can convince yourself fairly easily that there's nothing new to say about him. And yet, when a great writer or critic tackles any topic, no matter how daunting or shopworn, he or she can often find some new wrinkle to investigate.

Such was the case with a recent review- essay on a number of Welles biographies in the March 15 issue of The New York Review of Books. The author was Sanford Schwartz, who is hands down the most learned, most provocative commentator on art in the United States at present, and his piece makes you look at Welles in a whole new light.

The essay began in a traditional manner, with Schwartz saying that "Twenty-one years after his death … Orson Welles remains an artist whose achievement is open to question, and a figure people seem to feel they have to take sides about."

What is extraordinary in this sentence is the tone, since it cues you in that the critic thinks this widespread notion is nonsense, and he will have none of it. Schwartz spent the next few columns refuting most of those who've demoted Welles, for one reason or another, over the course of the last two decades.

It was all done with mastery and wit, but the article only came into its own at the halfway point, when Schwartz began drawing on his knowledge of art and history, and placed Welles in a position he has never really held before in the critical literature — as a painter.

Schwartz noted that in some of the books under review, Welles made it clear "how important the sheerly visual element of moviemaking is to him. The only aspect of it he claims to be a master of … is camera placement, knowing how to frame a shot, which he says he does intuitively; and he often says that, at the core, he is a painter. He remarks that he was painting 'from the minute I could walk'; and when he finished high school at 16, and took himself to Ireland to have time and space to think about whether he wanted to go on to college (he never did go), he traveled with only art supplies, and expected that painting would be his life's work. He seems never to have stopped sketching, and his own rough-edged, cartoonish drawings can be glimpsed here and there in his movies, often on the walls of many of the sets he painted … . Welles told his interviewer that 'movies should be studied in the context of modern art in general, not alone — that is the point I keep making.' And Surrealism, though not the part of it concerned with sexuality and the unconscious, gives a 'context' for the photographic trickery, the pronounced feeling for perspective and great depth, even some of the themes in his films."

Schwartz then showed what Welles shares with Surrealist artists like Salvador Dalí and Giorgio de Chirico, even in films such as "Citizen Kane" and "Magnificent Ambersons."

Frame by frame, Welles always shot beautiful pictures, but who knew that his source was painting, and not theater or cinema? 



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