Tuesday, November 27, 2012

“Let filmmakers beware of films”

Just quoting something from a cherished book, This is Orson Welles, a thoroughly engrossing series of conversations between Welles and the director-critic Peter Bogdanovich. This section begins with Bogdanovich asking Welles why he sees so few films.

Welles: Good ones in particular. I stay away from most of them out of sheer self-protection, to cherish what’s left of my own innocence...You smile. I’m being serious. Innocence is really quite a serious concern. The better another man’s film might be, the more I stand to lose by seeing it [...]

My own special case is that, to function happily, I like to feel a little like Columbus: in every scene I want to discover America. And I don’t want to hear about those goddamn Vikings. Each time I set foot on a movie set, I like to plant a flag. The more I know about the intrepid discoverers who’ve come before me, the more my little flag begins to look like the one on the golf course which you take out of a hole so you can sink a putt. I don’t pretend that my own delicate feelings in this matter should be taken as dogma, but I will say this: let filmmakers beware of films. They really are bad, you know, for the eyes. Filmmakers spend too much of their lives in projection rooms. They should come out more often into the sunshine. Other men’s films are a poor source of vitamins… You follow me?

Bogdanovich: I think I agree.

Welles: Other men’s films are full of good things which really ought to be invented all over again. Again and again. Invented – not repeated. The good things should be found – found – in that precious spirit of the first time out, and images discovered – not referred to.

Bogdanovich: Well, it’s a big problem for anybody starting now...

Welles: Everything’s been done, you mean? No, that’s not the problem. The trouble is that everything’s been seen. Directors see too many movies. Sure, everything’s been done, but it’s much healthier not to know about it. Hell, everything had all been done when I started...


“When I started” – that would be way back in 1940-41; even the boy wonder who made a universe-altering film like Citizen Kane knew that he was standing on the shoulders of giants. (In a video introduction to D W Griffith’s Intolerance – a film that was being prepared in the year Welles was born – he says: “Much too much literature has been written about me, and they give me credit for innovations that I'm not responsible for...but the film you're going to watch now deserves all the credit possible...there's almost nothing in the entire vocabulary of cinema that you won't find in it.”)

I also like the resigned, wise way in which Bogdanovich says “it’s a big problem for anyone starting now”, because the conversation quoted above took place in the late 1960s. It turns out that the great conundrum of being creatively influenced without being derivative did not spring into existence in just the past few years (or with the advent of Quentin Tarantino). That’s something worth remembering each time we hear about contemporary directors having huge DVD collections and drawing much too liberally from the thousands of movies they have watched. It isn't necessarily a creativity-wrecker, but they should be careful about those eyes...


  1. Very interesting.
    However, for writers, the rule seems to be different, or am I getting it wrong? Shouldn't a good writer be a well-read person too?

    I am asking this purely on the to-read-or-not-to-read dilemma. I am sure there are other attributes that make a writer or a director great, including observation skills, sensitivity, the desire to tell a story, style etc.

  2. Apu: I don't think Welles intended to lay down any "rules" here (the quote makes that quite clear) - and even if he did, no one is obliged to listen to him.

    And yes, in my view a good writer should be a good reader first. Preferably one who began reading at a young age.

  3. Yeah, I think, that Orson Welles may just have been engaging in sophistry. If asked again, he may say something else.
    There is of course, the rather banal point to be made, that for whatever high ideal Mr Welles may be aspiring to, it seems almost inhuman to deprive a film lover like say Scorsese of films.
    I also think that mutual inspiration can create an inter connected universe that is bigger than the sum of its parts. To take an extreme example, almost all the directors of the Italian neo realist movement collaborated with and were inspired by each other. The body of films that they created transcended cinema and became a part of the cultural Zeitgeist.I doubt that they would have achieved as much if they were working in cocoons of their own.