Orson Welles on Jean Renoir
Here is Orson Welles beautifully written tribute to one of his own favorite directors: Jean Renoir.
It was written for The Los Angeles Times after Jean Renoir died in Feb, 1979.
Re-reading this piece is quite interesting, since Welles is ostensibly talking about Jean Renoir's own career difficulties, but in retrospect, Welles seems to be echoing the kind of problems he himself faced (but with far greater severity) than Renoir ever did when dealing with Hollywood's "money men".
An interview with Jean Renoir about his own bad previews at RKO can be read on Wellesnet HERE.
JEAN RENOIR:‘The Greatest of All Directors’
BY ORSON WELLES
February 18, 1979 - Los Angeles Times
Orson Welles, whose own films include “Citizen Kane,” “Touch of Evil” and “The Trial.” was for many years a friend of the late Jean Renoir.
For the high and mighty of the movie industry, a Renoir on the wall is the equivalent of a Rolls Royce in the garage. Nothing like the same status was accorded the other Renoir, who lived in Hollywood and who died here last week.
If we exempt Islamic and Japanese newcomers, it's safe to say that the owners of Pierre Auguste Renoir's paintings in Bel Air and Beverly Hills are all connected with the movies. And it's just as safe to say that not one of them has even been connected, however distantly, with any movie comparable to the masterpieces of the painter's son, Jean Renoir.
A comparison between the movie-maker and his father is not so easy. Nor is it necessary. Jean Renoir stands on his own: the greatest of European directors: very probably the greatest of all directors—a gigantic silhouette on the horizon of our waning century.
He made his first film in 1924, his last in 1969. Here are his best-known movies: "Tire au Flanc," "Boudu Saved Prom Drowning," "Toni," "The Crime of M. Lange," "A Day in the Country," "La Grande Illusion," "La Marseillaise,'' "The Human Beast," "The Rules of the Game," "The Southerner." 'The River," "French Can-Can," "Picnic on the Grass," "The Elusive Corporal," "The Little Theater of Jean Renoir."
Some of these were commercial and even, in their time, critical failures. Some enjoyed success. None were blockbusters. Many are immortal.
"A word which in the producer's jargon has lost all meaning is the word ‘commercial’,” Renoir writes in his autobiography. "A given film is a masterpiece and has pleased audiences in minor cinemas, but is ignored by the big distributors because it is not 'commercial.' This is not to say that it does not make money, but simply that it is a type of film which does not appeal to the money men. Even after 'La Grande Illusion' had made a fortune for its producer I had difficulty in raising money for my own projects."
He had to wait, sometimes for several years, before he was able to make another film. A number of his early silents were financed out of his own pocket, and when that money was gone, he sold some of his father's paintings to get more, and to make more movies. The price of a Renoir has gone up since then. Who knows? Some of those same paintings may be hanging today in the beautiful homes of the money men in Bel-Air. For the price of one or two of those pictures, they could have bought themselves a moving picture—an original Jean Renoir of their very own.
It would be unjust, however, to reproach Hollywood for its ill treatment without acknowledging that Renoir's troubles were just as painful during his years with the French film industry. "When I think,” he writes, "of the fruitless struggle with which my life has been filled, I am amazed at myself. So many humiliating concessions and wasted smiles. And above all, so much wasted time!"
Renoir has become a father-figure, a kind of saint in the academic establishment of world cinema. But though he always had his ardent partisans, a long-winded and murky dispute has ranged through the years over the question of which films are "true" Renoir and which are, if not "false," at least what many French aesthetes speak of as "deceptions." From his earliest beginnings, and many times throughout his long career, he had been charged with abandoning social realism, or with turning away from "nature" to a candid theatricality which outrages those who would tie his work to the impressionism of his father, or who would rate the films according to their ideological content
The old critical preoccupation with what is and is not truly 'cinematic'' has never ceased to detest the unreality of the stage and to assume that film must be liberated from that unreality by a Zola-esque attention to natural detail Those who insist on an analogy between Renoir's moving pictures and the paintings of his father forget that Pierre Auguste rejoiced in the invention of photography as having liberated painting from the boring chores and dreary obligations of photographic realism.
As for Jean Renoir, he said, “The care of everyone who tries to create something in films is the conflict between exterior realism and interior non-realism." As for working "close to nature," he reminded us that "Nature is millions of things. And there are millions of ways of understanding its preoccupations."
This breath of range, this amplitude of spirit must necessarily, at some point, confound every critic. Doctrinaire leftists are ill at ease with the ardent and life-long pacifist who was a pilot in the First World War and the author of two of the great anti-Fascist films. They have repeatedly denounced what they view as his political amorality.
“A theme,” said Renoir, “is exactly like a landscape for a painter. It's just an excuse. You can't film an idea.
He wrote a lovely book about his father, a warm, perceptive and affectionate portrait in which he speaks of the painter's love for all living things. “When he walked through the fields,” he tells us, “my father would do a curious dance to avoid crushing the dandelions.” Ideologues have often found themselves irritated and not a little bewildered when Jean Renoir seemed to be performing “a curious dance” of his own. “You see,” he explained, “there is in the world one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.”
There are no easy labels for such a man. The money men cataloged him, at least as inaccurately as the critics. “Producers,” he told critic Penelope Gilliatt, “ want me to make the pictures I made 20 years ago. No, I am someone else. I have gone away from where they think I am.”
Twenty years was a span of time that turned up often in his conversation. Jean Renoir was born in Paris on Sept 15,1894. “I was always,” he once told me, “a man of the 19th century, just as my father considered himself to be a man of the 18th century.”
He also said that every artist must be 20 years ahead of his time. And this was much harder for the artist of the cinema, “because the cinema insists upon being 20 years behind the public.”
Knowing him as I did, I know there was nothing of self-pity and only a dry and impersonal bitterness in his statement to Gilliatt that, “The money men think they know what the public wants, but the truth is that they know nothing about it—any more than I do.” And when he said, as he often did, that the most dangerous mistake of all was “to be afraid that the public wouldn’t understand," he was not defending the intelligence of the public (no, “the public is lazy”), but rather proclaiming the virtue of a certain degree of deliberate ambiguity.
When we strain for perfect clarity, what we finally achieve is perfectly banal. That, he was sure, was the real trouble with Hollywood: Not that it worshiped money, but something much worse—that it worshiped an ideal of so-called perfection.
“They double-check the sound, so you get perfect sound, which is good. Then they double-check the lighting, so you get perfect lighting. But they also double-check the director's idea—which is not so good. In the case of the physically perfect—the perfectly intelligible—the public has nothing to add and there is no collaboration. A silent film was easier to make than a talkie because there was something missing. In the talkies, we have to reproduce this missing something in another way. We have to ask the actors not to be like an open book. To keep some inner feeling, some secret.”
I have not spoken here of the man who I was proud to count as a friend. His friends were all loved him as Shakespeare was loved, “this side idolatry.”
Let's give him the last word:
“To the question, ‘Is the cinema an art?’ my answer is, ‘what does it matter?’... You can make films or you can cultivate a garden. Both have as much claim to being called an art as a poem by Verlaine or a painting by Delacroix… Art is ‘making.’ The art of poetry is the art of making poetry. The art of love is the art of making love... My father never talked to me about art. He could not bear the word.”