PRINT December 1987


ORSON WELLES HAD THAT ONEROUS BURDEN, an original vision. He never had a commercial success. Instead he had those rhetorical ghosts of success—controversies, sensations, prizes. He created what many consider his masterpiece at 25. The rest of his career is usually seen as one of the longest dying falls in American art, which isn’t true. But it’s too satisfying a myth to abandon. To many, the notion of Welles, prematurely posthumous, good for narrations and commercials, sitting among the shards of his ego, is satisfying. Nothing reassures us more than a failed genius. It is a particularly American status, a kind of forced democratization of the offensively exceptional.

Virtually every discussion of Welles shows an awareness of his body—parked in the vicinity of his art—all three hundred pounds of it, out of which comes the voice resonating in fleshy caverns. That body infects the body of criticism about Welles, and few have been able to expel it. Any criticism seems to stimulate a kind of ominous muttering from that inert mass, which is theoretically outside the critical field. To separate Welles—Welles the director, Welles the actor, Welles the writer, Welles the magician, Welles in his various personas—from his work is a hopeless task, and eventually a dubious one. Like his films, he was his own fiction. He and his art interpenetrate in ways that some criticism finds unallowable. But who is making the rules here? The critic is forced to rehearse the problem Welles gave to nearly everyone he came in touch with: how do you separate image and substance, person and persona, myth and fact, creation and rhetoric? Much as he detested the description, Welles, like Ingmar Bergman, had elements of the grand charlatan. He performed magician’s tricks on his own career—now you see him disappear into Kane or Arkadin, then there is Welles again, coming forward, theaterwise, to take the applause.

Or is it Welles? As he said, “I drag my myth around with me.” The genesis of that myth, and the way it influenced his work, his thinking, and his life, are subjects as massive as Welles himself. A myth alters its source according to imaginative imperatives imposed by the audience. The artist who generates a myth always has a difficult relationship to this proffered other, this Faustian doppelganger. In Welles’ case, the relationship became part of his creative process, for good or ill or both. He couldn’t hide from himself or from this other. Both were too big. This problem, like problems in philosophy, will solve itself by simply going out of date. Allow enough time and Welles will simply fade into that shadow that lurks around great art, the phantom of the opus, the displaced creator resenting that the work now creates itself.

Welles died in 1985, and his persona is still with us. As Kenneth Tynan remarked, it looks a bit like that of the old actor/manager who built a company around himself and played everything from Lear to the Count of Monte Cristo. There is a touch of the impresario, of the astrakhan collar. (Mr. Arkadin, 1955, is pure astrakhan.) As Jeanne Moreau said, Welles was a king without a kingdom—and a bankrupt king at that. He had no gift whatever for raising money. Before all this, however, he was first a prodigy, and to most adults prodigies are an insult—lopsided miniatures prematurely mature in some exalted skill.

Prodigies in music—and Welles was one, on the piano—are a tradition; prodigies in film are unwelcome, even embarrassing. Twenty-five-year-old kids aren’t supposed to order people around. To many of Welles’ new colleagues when he arrived in Hollywood in 1939, his serious theatrical background made him a kind of intellectual show-off. Also, many of the intellectuals in Hollywood in Welles’ time were the compromised ones, usually screenwriters, who didn’t relish the presence of the real thing. Welles’ presence—he characterized himself as a “king actor”—composed a field of force that diminished or enhanced those caught in it. Welles also brought to Hollywood something not particularly cherished there, the artist’s curiosity that responds to the usual “You can’t do that” by doing it. Hence his reputation for being untrustworthy. Unpredictable is more like it. Such chronic distrust brought out in Welles a trace of the prodigy as bad boy. Within the massive exterior was buried that old familiar, his own worst enemy

Eventually Welles’ detractors attached their criticism to the one thing they best understood: money, or his misuse of it. This reputation was unearned. Welles didn’t grossly abuse his budgets. (He went $200,000 over on The Magnificent Ambersons, 1942.) He never made a big-budget movie. What he transgressed were movie conventions and the producer’s idea of a director. Since popular art thrives on its own conventions, such transgressions are dangerous (until they are imitated). Like a good Modernist, Welles tested the conventions of each medium he worked in, radio, theater, and film, treating them as roughly as he needed. He also practiced the Modernist artist’s tricks of camouflage—often giving false leads to the earnest. He indulged in ironies that were taken literally, wearily explaining himself to those incapable of understanding him. When he met interviewers he could respect, he talked brilliantly. Such moments occurred usually in Europe, a sounding board for the misunderstood American artist. The 1966 Cahiers du Cinéma interview was such an occasion.

Here, responding to a question about the dual movements of actors and camera, Welles says, “I believe that [movement] corresponds to my vision of the world; it reflects that sort of vertigo, uncertainty, lack of stability, that melange of movement and tension that is our universe. And the cinema should express that.” And earlier in the interview: “I do not believe in the cinema unless there is movement on the screen.” What kind of movement? Perhaps we can conveniently introduce Baroque movement to do some work for us. (Jorge Luis Borges—who didn’t like the film—thought Citizen Kane, 1941, was like a labyrinth without a center, which is accurate enough.) A problem for the Baroque spectator is where to find his or her place; and Welles’ spectators, too, sit in an unstable theater where all the seats appear to be shuffled before the lights come on to find them in their own seats. Intrinsic to the Baroque is manipulation, awe, rhetoric, the spectator’s vertigo. The Baroque “engine” sucks up the spiraling gaze until it exits through heaven’s oculus. The Wellesian equivalent is not only the deep space through which the eye tunnels, past objects and figures all in perfect focus, whatever their distances; it is the tilting of the horizon, the low points of view that make the ceiling an active lid on a scene—the low point of view being, of course, frequently reversed to a high one. Add the mannered cuts, which make athletic demands on the spectator—and all of this experienced (to adapt a bon mot of the co-writer of Kane, Herman Mankiewicz) through the seat of the pants. No matter how much Welles disowns his Arkadin film, its lurching boat scene could make a dog seasick. And as always, it’s not that it’s new; it’s the way Welles does it.

If, as Andrew Sarris says, Welles is American baroque, he exhibits the Baroque’s faults and virtues to excess. “Baroque,” however, is just a tag in the game of name-it-and-run-away. Welles is baroque in his assumption that a grand theme lies behind every subject, that the treatment of that theme should astonish, that it has a moral armature around which free will encourages its puppets to contort themselves according to their natures, that all this requires a hero, and that the hero must be shown in the round. The transcendent heroes of the Baroque exit through the central hole in the sky; Welles’ heroes are generally in transit in the other direction. Their fall is part of the Fall, for with the exception of Falstaff (Welles) in Chimes at Midnight, 1966, they are original and sinful. The Baroque treats detail as a relative point, a relay in a larger scheme; it crowds details into clusters that themselves become units in another larger scheme as it telescopes upward; it fakes architecture, favors multiple viewpoints, plays with illusion. It is a perceptual storm around a concept. And it conducts this vast repertory of forms and effects with aplomb. It assumes such an air of confidence that it occasionally seems cynical, as vast and successful machines in the arts do. This might serve—somewhat shakily—as a description of Citizen Kane. I believe, however, that Welles was also fully conversant with a quietistic Baroque that may have been more in accordance with his natural instincts, instincts that he often forced into rhetorical excess.

Welles said that as an artist he didn’t particularly admire those that “correspond to my tastes.” To Goya he preferred Velázquez, whom he called “the Shakespeare of painters.” “I know what I’m doing and when I recognize it in other works my interest is diminished. The things that resemble me the least are the things that interest me the most.” This kind of sophistication—working against your own taste—is more commonly the equipment of the Modernist painter, composer, or writer than of a Hollywood filmmaker. Welles’ favorite painter was a master psychologist who created the most complex work of illusion in European art, Las Meninas, 1656, a work Welles undoubtedly saw at the Prado in Madrid during his youthful grand tour. One can always make too much of this kind of “discovery.” Works of art are generally defenseless against the retroactive dumping of content upon them; bits of outlandish theories stick, and clearing them off can be messy. But I believe Las Meninas, perhaps as much as John Ford, inspired some of Citizen Kane’s most original space, as well as instructing the movement of the figures in that space, a space with extraordinary metaphoric valency—that is, a space so potent, so psychologically alert, that a move or a gesture within it instantly provokes a reading of intention, or of several intentions.

So too the space of Las Meninas. Velázquez’s painting and Kane have a lot in common spatially—that is, psychologically. Las Meninas carries through its immense complexities with increasing clarity as they replicate and mirror themselves. The rational basis for this great intuition of a picture is tested at every step. Certain works of art force the spectator to define him- or herself. Where are you standing? How does your space relate to the illusion before you? Who in the picture is looking at you and what do they see? At a certain moment, Las Meninas forces the spectator to switch places with the king and queen (the original spectators) reflected in the distant mirror, who, sitting for their portraits, are fixed by the painter’s professional regard. We see what the sitters saw. To make every spectator a king or a queen! How Welles must have enjoyed that.

These are just some of many converging glances. Framed in the distant doorway, a chamberlain surveys the room and its inhabitants; he sees the reverse of what we see, and more, because he sees us. His posture does not block the door but allows the space exit, as it were. At the same time, that figure rebounds our glance back into the room. The attendant lord, though the smallest figure in the picture, is a major player, conspiring with the royal spectators to compress and charge the space.

The figure in the distant doorway is also a key motif in Kane, the certifier of its famous deep space. Kane watches from the faraway door, unseen but dominating, as Senor Matisti (Fortunio Bonanova) at the piano despairs of Susan’s (Dorothy Comingore’s) voice; he breaks through the distant door to rescue her from an overdose; he walks to the far-off door behind which Leland (Joseph Cotten), drunk, slumps over his half-finished review. And when Kane comes back to find a typewriter on which to finish it, Leland appears in the distant door, then, enlarging, walks to where Kane is typing; as he does, in a telling bit of small business, Bernstein (Everett Sloane) replaces Leland in the doorway, a tiny figure bearing witness, curiously doubling our perception of the scene in diametric counterpoint.

Most filmic space is shallow—the foreground in focus, the background blurred. Just as shooting from below is an analogue of raising our eyes to the screen, so does Kane’s deep space extend the perspective of the movie house itself. When the near figures on the screen turn away from us, they relay our attention into the distance; when they face us, they force intimacy, putting their backs to that deep space that eavesdrops on them and us. Welles handled this deep space—roofed in, generally shot from below—superbly. As Gregg Toland, his cameraman, wrote, “scenes which conventionally would require a shift from close-up to full shot were planned so that the action would take place simultaneously in extreme foreground and extreme background.” Figures enlarge and shrink, loom and vanish in that converging alley. Compositions reform with the turn of a head, the sound of a voice, a faraway movement. Foreground, middle distance, and distance become characters that articulate themselves through objects rather than the reverse. A zigzag gaze—left foreground, right mid distance, center distance—sometimes slips through the space like lightning. Often, the famous deep focus releases us to drift and fix on anything that takes the eye. Perhaps, as André Bazin suggested, that’s why you can see Kane so many times: you are always noticing something new. Welles gave the spectator the freedom to wander, to make decisions on what to look at, much as Jean Renoir did when he encouraged ensemble playing.

The so-called expressionist lighting doesn’t interfere with this; everything, shaped by light and shadow, can be clearly seen, including the mask of shadow that sometimes obscures a face, giving the figure a new acoustical “space” when speaking, or a mysterious potency when not. Few close-ups in the film have the power of the one of Kane, his lower face covered with a scarf of shadow, watching his wife sing onstage (and not too badly at that; the voice was that of a fine opera singer trying to sing poorly). Generally, close-ups subvert a style, force too definite a reading. The face in reverie, shimmering through filters, is perhaps the only way the close-up sucks in the audience’s collective stare until the empty icon, usually the female, is filled—and the continuity of course is interrupted. The close-up, the telephone, and the mirror may be the most misused devices in film. The all-too-clear close-ups of Leland and Kane at the end of the Declaration of Principles scene are banal, and the faces seem to share that discomfort. The shots are unnecessary, because everything is clear in Kane; every scene is outlined by a clear idea. Despite its tricks of light and shade, it is a highly conceptualized piece of work. If style is internal consistency, it is highly stylized. Its mysteries are carefully constructed, the clues meticulously distributed among props and people; but the interpretation is delayed, or not forthcoming without work from the spectator. Kane’s rhetoric keeps us off balance, the film’s truculent originality undercutting that rhetoric’s frequent hollowness. It is, as Francois Truffaut said, “complete”; frame by frame it is a totally defended work, a young man’s film, designed to astonish. Surface and detail trap our attention so closely that they interfere with the relaxed feedback between memory and the present, the internal “loop” through which we usually experience film. Kane chops up and recycles memory without ever letting it settle.

At the end of Kane, in the “palace” scenes, sound and space parody themselves. Acoustical space and visual space reciprocally enlarge each other. Language bears itself across baronial distances, and, echoing with its own replication, arrives as noise. The corridor of space, along which characters enlarge and diminish, has been replaced by a void through which Kane and his wife circulate in planetary solitude, or, rather, through which he circulates around her. The obvious alienations crowd into that absurd vacuum. It may be a long way to go to make a point, but it’s a perfect preface to the picnic that follows, with its black automobiles filing across the beach as if to a funeral. The succeeding denouement in the tent, as Kane rears up before his cowering wife, is made grotesque by the sounds of the party off camera.

At all times, the sound in Kane is a coefficient of the space; it has a spatial function that contributes to Kane’s unmistakable rhetoric, and that frequently asks “Where am I?” Habitually when watching movies, we quickly locate ourselves with each new shot—a cinema literacy we learn early. But Kane was probably the first movie to force us to locate ourselves by ear as well. To the spectator is added the listener, and the two are frequently dissociated enough to distract our sense of space, adding to the space another psychological coefficient. Where is that voice coming from? Who is speaking? After the newsreel of News on the March goes off, for example, near the beginning of the film, we are at sea as figures break into cones of light, silhouettes speak, and dialogue overlaps. But if we close our eyes and listen to the scene, we can imagine where the speakers are. It’s when we open our eyes that the scene becomes confused, a carefully constructed confusion that reinterprets the Hollywood cliché of newsroom urgency. Another device is now itself a cliché—the off-camera noises (the laughter as Kane watches his wife’s disastrous debut) that double the spectators’ images, overlaying the one they are watching with that offered by the off-camera suggestion. And the parallel device of holding on the face of the person who is not speaking has a similar effect, and sophisticates the usual ping-pong of shots in a dialogue.

The influence of Welles’ radio years on Kane is, of course, a standard text. Correlating space and sound as they modulate the experience of Kane can keep one happily busy and off the street. Such exercises can lead into the fallacies of writing about film—describing a scene becomes a little like listening to a patient explain his operation to his surgeon. However, the changing ratio between sight and sound, and how that ratio is conceived as a material, is indispensable to understanding Kane’s extraordinary brilliance.

Several writers have dimmed that brilliance by criticizing the film’s corny parts, giving the obligatory rough treatment to the “Rosebud” enigma. Welles himself later distanced himself from it (“dollar-book Freud”), and like Bernstein’s Dante-like vision of an anonymous Beatrice on the New Jersey ferry, it was a Mankiewicz conceit. Far from being an extraneous piece of claptrap, however, Rosebud is a brilliant formulation. To treat it contemptuously is to have contempt for the popular audience, for it is the sled that takes them through the movie, and if they are not along for the ride, you don’t have a movie. Indeed, Rosebud is a key to Welles’ declared obsession: innocence and its loss. If he hadn’t liked the idea of Rosebud, he wouldn’t have used it. Welles’ fascination with innocence is the natural pole to his fascination with evil.

Oddly enough, between Wellesian innocence and evil falls no sexual shadow. Moral rather than sexual guilt is one of the engines of his films, but many of his “moralities” are as serious as those of grand opera—that is, stylized melodrama. Innocence of course can be the sophisticate’s toy, the intellectual’s lost virginity. When you add the heavy baggage of Welles’ unusual childhood, though, the theme of paradise lost becomes a primum mobile of the Wellesian universe. He often said so, but people rarely listened to what he said; they tended just to enjoy the noise. And what the artist says is now somewhat depreciated currency in critical exchanges. The theme of innocence is paradoxically embodied in Welles’ own history as a prodigy whose immaturity surrounded a mature faculty; the wise child and the sometimes petulant adult often occupied the same premises.

I first saw Kane as a child in a provincial Irish town, and the experience, as they say, remains vivid. A great film seen repeatedly over a lifetime assembles a group of witnesses who happen to be yourself. The stimulus is unchanged, but the person you are each time you return inherits the memories of his or her predecessors. Just as there is a conflict between looking and reading, there may be a conflict in memory between images and language. Words work ceaselessly to deposit images in categories that rather uneasily stabilize them. In this metaprocess, images are placed and made available by the internal captions of recall. But often random memory images usurp this process, silencing language and returning us to the urgency of sensations. The image overwhelms the word, the emotion, the category. Kane’s images, including its sound images, frequently exist at this “primitive” level. They have the capacity to stay unresolved in memory, unintimidated by words. So looking at a film (and particularly at Kane) at different times in one’s life is more complex than we usually acknowledge. The brokerage in memory between word and image, the categories of memory that are constantly revised by new experience, and the present context make up a constellation in which judgment reveals its true arbitrariness. One’s serialized ghosts collect a provenance that is the image of one’s own identity on its unstable voyage.

The first viewing of Kane, to which one brought one’s virgin eyes, may instruct the process, cruel though it is to summon a child as witness, even when the child is one of your former selves. This is all by way of returning to Rosebud, the meaning of which was debated over my head at home, as it has repeatedly been elsewhere. It is really no enigma at all. Why it should be seen as one is a bit of an enigma itself. In that distant movie house (the Royal, as I remember), the Rosebud question carried such a meaningful burden as to obscure its obviousness. The explanation at the end, as the word is consumed by fire and the sled becomes smoke (in an image of memory), did not discharge the mystery but enhanced it. It was less and more than the child sitting in the cinema expected. The audience was mystified, or perhaps the hush one remembers was more like awe.

On leaving, several images from the film remained. The film’s apparent discontinuities shuffled these images like a pack of cards. For the film language being revised (“the whole spangled pyramid of Hollywood movie conventions . . . left in ruins,” as a contemporary critic put it) hadn’t been fully learned by the child. Nor was his inner voice sophisticated enough to give these images a coherent sound track. The images resisted language, that is, they retained the potency of children’s dreams. (In adult dreaming, language attempts to run its subtitles through the obstinate images, and to create, on one’s waking, a tissue of meaning from them.) So for the child (whom I am now overworking) the experience was mythically enhanced, since it half escaped language. Childhood’s mythic apparatus echoed the film’s rhetoric. The film sounded areas that language, in its ubiquity, seals off.

The experience suggests a mode of seeing and remembering film that may be more common than we realize. It was not the film’s language that was remembered. Of plays, we remember words; of movies, we remember—what? Something else that makes all the expositions of motivation, the psychologistics of film analysis, seem tendentious and absurd—a connecting of dots to make your own picture. Our memory of films we have seen, and are convinced we know (“Yes, I’ve seen that”), is paradoxical. We “know” the film; but how often, induced to see it again, do voids open up that argue against our conviction, voids that are spuriously “new”? Why does that lump of memory certify we have seen a film when it contains numerous drop-outs that seeing the film again fills-in? The most appropriate image is visceral. We have swallowed the film and it is lodged in our memory. It is lodged all right, but undigested. What we recognize on such occasions is one of memory’s categories, not its content. Kane’s life in the memory has, in my view, little to do with readings of intention, development of character, the do-it-yourself kit we bring to plays. It has to do with the way its images possess meaning. That meaning is a function of the potent matrix of Kane’s visual and acoustic space. (This seems to be what Welles aimed for in several stage productions, charging the space with reciprocal transactions between characters and light.) Kane’s rhetoric is produced by effects implicit in it rather than extraneous to it. These effects are developed by breaking movie conventions and our perceptual habits, both visual and acoustic. Welles hunted his quarry obsessively with effects. (When he didn’t, he made his worst movie, The Stranger, 1946.) Arkadin is all effects, a kind of magic opera; despite its flaws, it is a very underrated film. When the images—including sound images—in Kane embody or dislocate the words, we experience the film in split-level attention, through what Phyllis Goldfarb calls “a partial fragmentation of our senses.” Visual images and sound images overlap, are shuffled, alternate—for example, the famous cockatoo screech, followed by the light-filled drift of Susan out of Kane’s life. Truffaut was unusually sensitive to Kane’s “radiophonique” aspect: “I knew it by heart, but like a record rather than a film; I wasn’t always certain of the image which was going to follow, but I was sure of the sound which was coming.” Welles’ sound tracks magnify attention, as the famous trailer for Kane shows, where Welles’ voice, as in Arkadin 14 years later, issues from a machine, while the unseen speaker maintains an overwhelming presence.

Arkadin and Kane are bookends for the same standard theme: power and its corruption, the fall of the flawed hero, Gothick melodrama as pop tragedy. (Welles’ pictures sometimes resemble a child prodigy’s nightmares.) But Arkadin has more mysteries attached to its making than Kane’s content ever had. To prefer Arkadin, Kane’s misfortunate sibling, is of course heretical. Yet Arkadin haunts Kane like a troubled ghost. The film is usually dismissed; Welles himself dismissed it, indeed would never discuss it seriously. In its present form, Arkadin staggers forward like a patient who has been through heavy surgery. But there is still more than enough there to reverse the routine dismissals that injure it further.

(This is the first part of a two-part article. The second section, “Et in Arkadin Ego,” will appear in a forthcoming issue.)

Brian O’Doherty is an artist who exhibits under the name Patrick Ireland.