Andre Bazin was a French film critic of the 50’s. One of his books (two volumes) is described as quintessential for film students, What is Cinema?, which made for the perfect bragabook (book you read to brag about). Your French accent and quirky moustache could only get him so far, it was his writing which established him as THE film critic to read. It has endured for 50 or 60 years, and will continue to endure, an extraordinary feat considering that cinema was only beginning to get credibility as an art, which makes him a pioneer.
Bazin was an admirer of Jean Renoir and Orson Welles. He wrote a book about each of them, but my library had only the latest – which was actually surprising considered its dimensions and the general lack of demand for fifties French film criticism on a director with only one recognizable work in my country.
I devoured the book in one day. It’s short and a particularly boring passage of Karamazov Brotherscombined with a particularly boring afternoon at the beach, made reading it in one sitting the most sensible course of action. It had pictures, too.
I learned quite a few things I didn’t know about the man and his upbringing, his difficulties to get a movie done and his personality. He said something worth quoting, that I couldn’t find on the web:
“Only the optimists are incapable of understanding what it means to love an ideal.”
(Unprecedented words from an interview in the Ritz, 27th of July of 1958)
He broke my heart, by confirming he lifted the story of the Cuckoo Clock from a Hungarian play and that, in fact, cuckoo clocks were made in the Dark Forest and not in Switzerland. Among these pearls the most fascinating insight was on his cinematic taste or distaste.
1958 Welles talks about the movies and directors he admires and despises:
– To finish, do you want to tell us which are the directors you admire?
– You’re not going to like what I’m going to tell you, because the people I admire aren’t considered intellectuals of the cinema; all the drama resides in it. My favourite filmmaker is De Sica: I know that you pity me. And John Ford. But John Ford of 20 years ago, De Sica of 12 years ago. Ah! Sciuscia: it’s the best film I ever saw.
– What about the young American directors?
– Detestable. Nothing to say. I despise them
– And Eisenstein? He was mentioning concerning your films.
– I never saw any film by Eisenstein. Yes, only one. But I identified a lot with it. You know why? Because I had attacked violently Ivan, The Terrible in an American paper and one day, in Russia, he heard about that article and sent me a huge letter. I answered him. He did too. I did too, etc. For years we exchanged letters about the aesthetics of cinema. Thank god you like my films, but I dob’t like anything you like. More, I watch very few films, and the last masterpiece I’ve seen was Sciuscia. I’m desolate: that’s my taste.
– It was said that some American filmmakers were your followers: Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray…
– I saw nothing from Aldrich. Of Nicholas Ray, yes: it didn’t interest me. I left the room after four reels of Rebel without a Cause: I get mad just thinking about that movie.
– What do you think of Vincent Minnelli?
– Come on, come on, we’re having a serious conversation, we’re talking about filmmakers.
– And what about the German directors?
– Oh, the famous French theory that I was influenced by the Germans! I never saw a German movie in my life. It was always said I watched the Nibelung of… I forget the name; everybody said that Macbeth is inspired by it: it’s false, I never watched that movie. In return, the German theater had an enormous influence over me. Among the young American directors, I only watch Kubrick: The Killing is not totally bad, but Paths of Glory is dull; once again I left the room after the second reel.
– You saw a lot of German plays?
– A huge amount. When I was young, a kid, before Hitler, I ran the German theaters, and also the Russian and French. For my films I suffered the influence of the theater a lot more than the cinema because, at the time when I could easily let myself be influenced I saw plays, not movies. There were really no cineastes who had impressed me. Better, there were some rare ones, who aren’t seen as intellectuals. De Sica, for example. You should be ashamed for not liking De Sica: you would need to talk about him again in two hundred years.
– And Rossellini?
– Of him I watched all the movies: he’s an amateur. Rossellini films simply prove that Italian actors are naturals and that in Italy you just need to grab a camera and put people in front of it to make believe you’re a director.
– Then you are a “self-made cameraman”, if you can say so?
– The only time I suffered someone else’s influence: before shooting Citizen Kane, I watched Stagecoach 40 times. I didn’t have the need to take the example of someone with something to say, but someone who showed me what I had to say: for that, John Ford was perfect. I chose Gregg Toland as Director of Photography because he was the one who asked to work with me. During the first ten days I regulated the lights myself, since I thought the director should do everything, even the lighting. Gregg Toland wouldn’t tell me anything and discretely, in my back he’d rearrange things a bit. I eventually found out and told him I was sorry. At the time, besides John Ford, I admired Eisenstein – but not the other Russians – Griffith, Chaplin, Clair and Pagnol: above all La Femme du Boulanger. Currently I admire the Japanese cinema, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, Ugetsu Monogatari and Ikiru. I enjoyed cinema more before I started making it. Now I can’t stop myself from hearing the clappers before the beginning of each shot: all the magic is ruined. According to the pleasure they give me, this is the hierarchy that I’d establish among the different arts: before anything else literature, after that music, painting and theater. In the theater there’s a very unpleasant impression: people look at us and, for two hours, we feel prisoners of the stage. But I’ll make you a much more terrible confession: I don’t like cinema, except when I shoot it; then it’s required not to be shy with the camera, ravish it, and force it into its trenches because she’s an evil machine. What counts is the poetry.
I’m not the messiah, but you can follow me: