ORSON WELLES: “But Where Are We Going?”
Shortly after Welles had begun filming The Other Side of the Wind, he published this piece in Look magazine (Nov. 3, 1970), about the rise in prominence of young directors who were now seen as the driving force behind Hollywood's biggest box-office hits. Films like Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider and Paul Mazursky's Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice - both of whom would appear in The Other Side of the Wind as spokesmen for the hip new generation of young Hollywood filmmakers. But, ironically, although these directors were given the same kind of freedom Welles had on Citizen Kane - a fact which Welles wryly notes in his opening remarks - they strangely succumbed to the same fate as Welles with their follow-up films. Both Hopper and Mazursky produced box-office disasters. The Last Movie virtually ended Hopper's directing career, while Mazursky's Alex in Wonderland, came very close to sinking his.
At any rate, Welles essay here is a vintage piece of his writing acumen which makes for a superb introduction to his own script that was very much written in the spirit of experimentation and freedom that the late sixties engendered.
Of special note is how prominently Welles speaks of Napoleon, whose story Stanley Kubrick was, at the very same time, vainly trying to convince MGM to finance for his own epic film about the life of the French Emperor.
BUT WHERE ARE WE GOING?
By Orson Welles – Look, November 3, 1970
Just at this modish moment, everybody under 30—and his idiot brother-wants to be a film director. And why not?
My own start in movies was a lucky one, thanks to a contract that for almost 30 years remained unique in Hollywood history. That contract shattered all precedents and challenged for a brief moment the basic premise of the whole studio system. Quite simply, I was left alone. Like a painter's or a writer's, my work was my own and nobody else's, to be respected as private property, not handed over for processing on the assembly line. That freedom has never again been entrusted to me. Nor indeed—until quite recently—to anyone else, Hollywood protected the integrity of its assembly line by denying freedom to a whole generation of filmmakers. Without indulging in any personal might-have-beens, I think it's fair to say American movies have been poorer for that lack of trust.
The industry is very poor today: It faces bankruptcy. The big movie factories virtually belong to television. And yet with television itself slumping, all too visibly, into the stupors of the middle-aged, the older mass medium draws the younger public. Only the kids are still going to the movies. And it happens that it's mostly just kids who are now making them.
Box-office hopes are riding, rather desperately, on the very youngest generation of directors. And they've all been given just that freedom, just that total control over their own work that was uniquely, and briefly, mine all those years ago. Bless them, they're no more experienced than I was then. Indeed—and for the first time in Hollywood's history—the bosses and the banks are actually happiest when a director has absolutely no experience at all.
This is a sign of panic, of course, but it's also our best hope for the future. For American films, I mean. Disadvantaged as I am by experience (not all of it good), my own future may well take me back to the old country. Europe for me is more necessity than choice, I'd rather be here with the kids. Who wouldn't? Still, if work is to be found away from home, that's where I'll be—not as a sulky exile but as a sort of prospector looking for another golden age.
Golden ages come and go. They come, most frequently, with the first springtime of some moral or political liberation. They go when the censor comes and the dictator takes over. (Czechoslovakia is a classic example.) But when the arts and skills combine for anything, from films to football-combine with passion and purpose in the brief explosion of a nation's cultural energy—this sudden harvest of grace is not invariably subject to the rule of seasons. Quite often, a country seems to come into a golden age as unpredictably as a poet gets his inspiration. There is no reliable calendar for such beginnings. The end is easier to chart, easier to explain.
For instance, when the virtue started draining out of Hollywood, the process may have looked mysterious, but the facts were clear enough. Business was too good—as simple as that. The box office was much too safe for much too long. The neighborhood movie palace was packed if the theater manager just turned up the lights on the marquee. Didn't really matter what it said there. All he had to do was open the doors. It started in the forties—even then, the Hollywood air was getting stale. The war boom made the industry so fat, it lost its self-respect. The gold dust blew away. Drones and hacks reigned over a long age of plastic. Magic didn't happen very often. Sometimes, yes (great books have been written in jail). But the muse was elsewhere.
In Italy, the very minute Mussolini quit the war, the white telephone, that celebrated trademark of Fascist high-society soap opera (for many years the principal Italian film product), went into the garbage can. The garbage can itself can become the symbol of the new ambiente. Italian directors, too poor to work in the old sound studios, took their cameras out into the streets to make Open City and Shoeshine. Rossellini, De Sica and the rest, under the flag of neo-realism, marched on the international film market. Hollywood kept the big money, but now, in every important sense, Rome was the movie capital of the world.
Cinematic births and rebirths, breaking forth since then all over the globe from Stockholm to Tokyo, have taken off a lot of the shine. But even today, it can't be said that all the gold has gone from Italy. Not as long as Fellini continues to get money for—and money from—those marvelous and very costly personal extravaganzas of his. Should fairness force me to include the name of Antonioni, that solemn architect of empty boxes? Must I admit that, as much as he maddens me, there are still serious film-lovers throughout the world who take him almost as seriously as he takes himself. I can't deny that between them, these two have changed the shape of the horizon.
In place of the old movie star, there towers over us now another sacred monster: the Great Director. As far as popular mythology is concerned, when Fellini hired his country's foremost male star to play Fellini in a Fellini film about Fellini—his 8½— the sun may be said to have set on the day of the actor. Wherever the gold may be, in this epoch the glamour is mostly behind the camera.
Just at this modish moment, everybody under 30—and his idiot brother-wants to be a film director. And why not? Let it be whispered that film directing (the very job itself) is often grossly overrated. Good paintings don't come from a bad painter, but good motion pictures are often signed by directors of the most perfect incompetence. Writers, editors and actors do his work for him. His only task is to speak the words "action" and "cut"— and go home with the money. Such a man can, as we have seen, wing his way through 50 years of film directing and never be found out.
Is there a message here? The eight mm camera has broken the secret that almost nothing can be quite so delightfully easy as to make a movie. The bright sense of discovery is bringing to the screen, if not a new language, at least a new and most attractive style. As for the Hollywood producers now frantically pandering to youth—and all got up for the benefit of this new market in beards and beads—that spectacle is rather less appealing. Never mind. While these ugly, greedy little hustlers are opening up old hernias by hopping on the bandwagon, it's the young director who has happily been given the reins.
Where is he taking us? Hopefully, into a new golden age for the American film. The signs are good. But I'll be happy to have proof from him that he's not seduced by the example of those celebrated Italians we spoke of.
We've all been brainwashed, for some two centuries, into servility in the presence of the Genius as Cult Hero. Essentially a Romantic institution, the Genius with a capital "G" replaced the absolute monarch as a law unto himself, and took over from the church as spiritual bully. The true importance of an artist is judged not by how much he impresses us, but by the gifts we receive from him. Shakespeare and Mozart opened windows; they were liberators. The ego-licensed Cult Hero is an invader. He breaks in, and—drunk with the sound of our breathless praise—burns down the house.
The quintessential capital "G" was that chunky little Italian actor who burned so many houses and who crowned himself dictator of Europe. He was a Genius all right. He really was an actor. And though he and France both claimed each other passionately, he really was Italian. There can never be too many Italians in the world. But there have been (in the arts and elsewhere) far too many Napoleons.
Those gifted Italians so largely responsible for the erection of the Film Director as a monumental icon of our culture are themselves anti-Fascists. And if it does sometimes seem as though the Duce's balcony has risen again from the ashes in the form of a camera crane, we might remind ourselves (in case it matters) that Mussolini copied the whole damn business from Bonaparte.
Such heroes—and, indeed, all heroes—are dubiously regarded by the generation from which we're going to get our next great film directors. In time, of course, this anti-hero sentiment may be expected to wither away, the human need for heroes being even more universal, eternal and urgent than the need for grass. As far as movies are concerned, a Golden Age must require of its heroes that they stay where they belong: in front of the camera.
Behind the camera, what we need just now is a bit more discipline and quite a lot less glamour. We need, at last, to take the Mickey out of the myth of the Director as The Great Man of Our Times.
The prestige of that myth, the heady sense of power, the glorious Napoleonic solitude—none of this has anything to do with the making of movies. If no art form is so valid today, that's because movies remain—quite uniquely—popular. Movies still belong to the people. Self-indulgence, the vice of all art in our epoch, is an obvious temptation to a director invested with his full rights of total authority. Let the new director put that new authority to the service of his film, and not to his own ego. Let him remain, in the best sense, the servant of his actor, not his rival for attention. Above all, let him be loyal to the story. It's a fine thing to be free, for a white, at least, from the creaking machinery of the formal plot. Who needs a plot? But who can live without a story? The director who wants to be called the author of his film is not only responsible for the story, but responsible to it.
If there's gold in this new age, the new director will find it only when he loves the movies even more than he loves himself. A quarter of a century ago, on my own, and free of the crippling restraints of the Hollywood factory system, I managed to make a couple of pictures; the second of these (The Magnificent Ambersons) was seized and sorely mangled by the studio machine. What is surprising is that I lasted as long as I did. In those days, the men behind the desks had no reason to doubt that their authority was fully sanctioned by the public taste The movie industry was making a successful product for a middle-aged, middle-class, middle-brow market. Today, the bosses, such as they are, cannot pretend they know anything about then market except that it is very young. Solution: very young filmmakers in total control of their own work.
Like a nervous old lady. Hollywood is suddenly afraid of the traffic. She needs youthful hands to guide her. This trust is rather touching, slightly ridiculous, and very hopeful for the future of American films.