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March 20, 2007

Schwartz on Welles

Michael Blowhards writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm not entirely sure what the "line" (ie., the argument) of Sanford Schwartz's NYRB piece about Orson Welles is. I'm also sorry to see that he has his reservations about Simon Callow's biography of Welles. (Though I've only read volume one of this projected three-volume work, I found it the most convincing of the books about Welles that I've been through.) And, to be honest, I'm not the world's biggest fan of "Citizen Kane," which Schwartz considers the greatest of Welles' movies. Count me as a "Magnificent Ambersons," "Touch of Evil" and "Chimes at Midnight" kind of guy. Still, some of the passages in Schwartz's piece are plain wonderful.

For example:

In their roller-coaster speed and the way one dynamic, startling image follows the next, in their highly individual sense of how a story is told on film, and in their feeling for shadows and mirrors, odd angles and voices that come at you in a rush or are oddly disembodied, his pictures are trickier, more artificial and abstract, even, than those of most other directors. Yet Welles's movies, with their sense of one man calibrating the effect of every split second of screen time, are unusually object-like, too. He makes it seem as if fashioning a film is as physical and sensuous an experience as playing with a piece of clay.

And if that ain't what it's like to watch a Welles film, I'll rip up my former-film-buff credentials.

Which reminds me: So far as criticism goes, I'm more than happy to settle for breathtakingly good descriptions. What critics say in the most direct sense often strikes me as complete nonsense -- or, to be a little more fair, as threads in a conversation that I find unappealing. I tend to be far more interested in down-to-earth observations about what's-going-on-here and far less interested in debating whether a work is good or bad than most critics seem to be.

But the good critics -- by which I mean, of course, the ones I enjoy -- deliver many goodies anyway. Schwartz, who generally writes as a visual-arts guy, is freakly gifted. Though he seldom seems interested in discussing the external world and though he's far more willing to accept the art world's self-evaluations than I usually am, his evocations and explorations of what it's like to experience art are unmatchable.

At his worst he tends to the solipsistic; he overfondles his own responses. But usually he's awfully good. And unlike the pro critics, who are obliged to deal with the market as it comes at them, Schwartz wanders about under his own motor. He isn't contending heroically with what the culture spews out; he's following his own responses and interests. And, in doing so, he makes his own contributions; he turns up unfamiliar artists, he comes at topics from fresh and very personal directions. He's a considerable literary artist in his own right.

I've loved this collection of Schwartz essays and reviews, and this gorgeous art-book / bio of the little-known Danish painter Christen Kobke. I look forward to catching up with his essay about the fascinating realist Rackstraw Downes.



posted by Michael at March 20, 2007


Yeah, what is it with "Citizen Kane" and film critics? I find CK mildly amusing and more or less nothing more. It always seemed to me that "Magnificent Ambersons" is ten times the movie. I base that on what I perceive as a much higher level of commitment to the story and the characters, neither of which strikes me as terribly high in CK.

Somebody once savaged Welles with the remark that he always had to be "doing something" with his material, rather than letting it speak for itself. I regret to say that I find this remark on point, far more often than not. Now, if you're dealing with fairly lightweight material as in CK or "Touch of Evil" that's not much of a criticism; I enjoy both of these films as entertainments. But if there's something profound in the depths of either film, I can't say that Welles was very successful at dragging it out into the light.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 20, 2007 2:34 PM

I'm kinda sick of the Orson Welles cult. I do think that Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil are materpieces in that they are wonderfully entertaining. I've never been able to develop an affinity for The Magnificent Ambersons or much of anything else of his I've seen. Mr. Arkadin is gawdawful and F Is for Fake is an embarrassment.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on March 20, 2007 5:31 PM

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