Happy Birthday, Orson. May 6, 1915
“Everyone will always owe him everything.” – Godard
We’re all filmmakers now, so on his slightly belated birthday we can finally ask ourselves what it is we all really owe Orson Welles. My own catalogue fills several notebooks, so I’ll mention just two of the indispensable lessons I’ve learned studying Welles’s films these last twenty odd years.
First, it’s possible to be baroque and commonplace at the same time – in both character and conceit. It’s a rare sensitivity that can marry the majestic and the mundane and find in each characteristics of the other. The dynamic is abundant in Shakespeare and Dickens; otherwise it’s a rarity, and it showed diminishing returns with the fade of romanticism and the Victorians. Welles was the first (was he the only?), to show us that these extremes could thrive even among the various austere and internal modernist idioms of the twentieth century. Kafka’s particularly obscene banality, to point to one example, was called and raised in Welles cubist masterworld rendering of ‘The Trial’ – it’s an intuitive adaptation to set beside Kubrick’s Lolita.
Second, having spent his formative years in the theater, Welles always understood that the camera wasn’t a single perspective, a single eye, or a single viewer, but that inside the flickering theater of that mechanical box, in row after row behind the ground glass, sat a doll’s house audience of hundreds. His use of the camera brought to bear all the accordant pressures of a full house, and in every shot Welles ever made he maintained that pronounced and affectionate awareness of his audience.
Both of these intuitive capacities on Welles’s part utilized massive counterpoints of scale, only the most obvious example of which is the jarring opening – childhood home to smashed snow globe – of Citizen Kane.