FFC rating: 8/10
by André Bazin
by Walter Chaw André Bazin is one of the most influential figures in cinema, not for his actions behind a camera, but for his actions as an active spectator--as that most loathsome and vital of creatures, the critic. A founder of the legendary arts magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, Bazin became the de facto father of the French Nouvelle Vague movement and a nearly literal father to director François Truffaut, whom he saved more than once from imprisonment and impoverishment. Writers employed by Cahiers du Cinéma include the "big five" French New Wave directors: Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer. Each began his career in cinema among its staunchest critics, and each would later endeavour to redefine film as a more "novelistic" and "authentic" method of expression.
Coiners of terms such as auteur and mise-en-scene, the Cahiers du Cinéma staff almost single-handedly brought film into the realm of respectable academic study, basing their philosophy and theory on the works of Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo while championing certain American directors they rightly saw as having a common thread of concerns and subtexts running through all of their works, such as Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. The influence of the French New Wave on modern cinema, then, is best charted in two ways. First and most obviously, it introduced existentialism and its accompanying gritty fatalism, that most Gallic of textures, into the cinematic language. Second, and less obviously, the French New Wave provided the critical vocabulary necessary to chart sophisticated cinematic evolutions and place them in a scholarly and cultural context. The miracle of the Nouvelle Vague, in other words, is that it not only invented a new way to create a visual narrative but also provided for itself the means by which it could be communicated through criticism. It is Mark Twain's Eve first experiencing an object and then naming it.
In addition to paving the way for the application of traditional modes of critical theory to the film medium, Bazin's articles on Chaplin and Welles were instrumental in his gaining an intellectual following in France. Bazin is therefore perhaps as critical a figure in modern cinema as Orson Welles. That Bazin would produce the early and still, in many respects, essential, critical biography of Welles thus strikes me as something of a matter of course.
Orson Welles: A Critical View's first edition was published in 1950 and dedicated to Welles, whom Bazin referred to as "the wonder kid from Kenosha." Just a few months prior to his death in 1958, Bazin revisited this thin volume of critical musings and revised it in the form readily available in the United States today in Jonathan Rosenbaum's workmanlike translation and featuring both a lengthy eulogy/summary by Truffaut and a brief introduction from Jean Cocteau, which was written in the late summer of 1949. This thin volume is something of a yearbook signed by three exceptionally gifted students, one that--for all the immaturities, starry-eyed optimism, and hyperbolic misstatement such an analogy implies--remains a work of lasting value, a repository of faith. It is a heartbreakingly familiar essay not in the clear passion of Bazin for Welles, but in Bazin's desire to understand the ineffable sublime that strikes an indefinable core in him in Welles's output.
The best criticism reveals an individual human struggle for self-knowledge through the product of another human hand; Orson Welles: A Critical View is a showcase for a fine mind that grasps continually at that secret nesting in the seat of passion of all art so that he might come closer to knowing his desire and bliss. Critical theory makes mirrors of all things when used correctly--it is a truism that the critique reveals far more of the critic than of the work being analyzed.
So it is with Bazin's book-length essay: an exhaustive discussion of Welles's early days at the Federal and Mercury Theaters; the wonderful apocryphal tale (that happens to be true) of Welles and cast improvising for two thousand theatre patrons left on the street when police closed the troupe's theatre on opening night (because of the controversial nature of their political opera "The Cradle Will Rock", an event that has since been dramatized in a Tim Robbins film of the same name); the tragedy of CBS' War of the Worlds radio broadcast in October of 1938 that almost never happened; and on through to Welles's major films, each of which receives its own chapter and detailed examination. Peppered throughout the new Acrobat Books edition are editor marks and translator corrections that amend Bazin's erroneous statements (that Kazan was responsible for the founding of The Actors' Studio rather than Strasberg, that Welles had directed himself in the play "Panic" in 1936, and so on). Ending it is a worthwhile index of notable names and titles. As a reference material, then, Orson Welles: A Critical View is a serviceable, if not definitive, resource.
Among all of Bazin's identifications of Welles's contributions to cinema's visual vocabulary (the relation of his films stylistically to the realistic novels of Balzac, the use of extreme low angle and ceilings, Gregg Toland's lateral use of the wide-angle deep focus, and the intuition of the sequence that would find its full form in "the method" and Kazan), perhaps his most important statement is the one that closes this work:
"We see (Welles) passing from one court to another in quest of that artist's Holy Grail which exists only in the possibility of creating."
Bazin's technical criticism, while purple in its overwhelming admiration for Welles, is more than adequate and, in several instances, illuminating. It is only when Bazin sets aside his technical expertise and expresses his belief that the single recourse for an artist's dissatisfaction is the act of creation, however, that his essay takes on a greater importance than an expert film criticism from the French New Wave school.
Bazin doesn't just define what it is that compelled Welles to create, but what implacable urge drives writers to write, artists to paint, musicians to compose, and critics to analyze. In that homogeneity of an innate will-to-fashion in the poetic mind, whatever form that poetry might take, Bazin's approach towards Welles's films through Welles's life, his theatre experience, his radio dramas, etc., takes on a Jungian meaning and shape. The secret of life and collective experiential images, after all, is not in the product. Rather, it is in all the multitude of life's gifts and torments that find their small expressions in that product.
People who leave Citizen Kane with the impression that the identification of Rosebud resolves its mystery have failed to realize that their own lives can be as handily summarized without the effort of another to disentangle the signifiers that lend soul and purpose to existence. The wedding ring on your wife's finger is a bent piece of metal to a stranger who sees it as nothing more than an idle glint in the course of a day--understanding that an object has weight no matter its medium or conveyance recognizes that there are things we can only understand through a careful contemplation of personal experience, innate emotional responses, and accumulated knowledge.
Orson Welles: A Critical View is a rare document of criticism that, by its very frankness, dares suggest that criticism is as procreative a process as any art, one that requires of its effective practitioner the utmost in candour and self-awareness. Bazin's greatest gift to his and Welles's admirers is this love for discovery and his understanding that deconstructing the art we love and hate so that we might come closer to understanding ourselves is a vital step in any examined life. Above and beyond the absorbing, though slightly dated, insight offered on Welles's life and portfolio, Bazin's seminal study is worth a read for as good an example as any of the central tenets of the French Nouvelle Vague and the Cahiers du Cinéma philosophy of criticism, life, and art--one that introduced a screening room into the ivory tower, and another crucial foothold in the unconscious life of the active observer.
138 pages; January, 1991; ISBN: 0918226287; Acrobat Books