THIS Wednesday the Orson Welles begins a series of new semi-commercial, short feature films. This act of daring and dedication deserves everyone's attention and attendance, for the series promises to be one of the most rewarding viewing experience the Cambridge audience will ever be offered. Since the SUMMER NEWS hopes to review each film before it plays, this article will simply explain the significance of this series of new, mainly West European films, in the process suggesting an approach to them.
TODAY'S avant-garde in film is a director's movement. The American audience knowns Italian, French, Czech films as the work individual men. College audience, the newly-discovered gold mine of U.S. film distributors, appreciate foreign films for qualities of high social artistic awareness and personal expression. Given the importance of the youth market for ticket sales, the trend has even hit Hollywood, long considered by native critics the place where individual talent is lost. The names of young directors (Arthur Penn and, unfortunately, Mike Nichols) are becoming good box office. Hollywood has even begun to conceive that the old directors had something to do with their films. Action, the Screen Directors' Guild journal, aped Francois Truffaut in a recent Hitchcock interview even sillier that Truffaut's.
Seeing the same qualities in Italian, French, Czech, and American directors may appear sweeping and uncritical, but there are good historical reasons for it. American audiences which go one night to see Antonioni and the next Godard, and like them for the same things, are implicitly recognizing a clear line of aesthetic influence. A healthy chunk of the French New Wave's conception of film comes from Neo-Realism (Antonioni, visconti, Rossellini, de Sica, Fellini). Neo Realism's original choice of social reality for subject-matter and its tendency to documentary as method had a tremendous influence in France, giving rise to a large school of French documentarists (Jean Rouch, Chris Marker) and a larger consciousness of film as more that a purely fictional narrative medium. Andre Bazin, father of modern film criticism, stressed the integrity of the photographed event, the virtue of films which preserve a measure of reality's implicit ambiguity instead of analyzing reality for perfect clarity. Indeed, he transmitted these semi-documentary values form the Neo-Realists to modern European film-makers.
Nevertheless, none of the new film movements really makes documentaries. The films of the Neo-Realists were the action of social reality on a particular sensibility: Open city (Rossellini), far from being objective, details at every moment Rossellini's outrage at the Nazi occupation of Rome. Godard's films similarly document the meeting or reality and sensibility, instead of documenting reality in a direct, objective manner. Thus fiction and fantasy abound in his works. The same is true of newer Eastern and Western European films, which delight in twisting old dramatic old dramatic forms and inventing new and yet more fantastic ones, instead of making straightforward films whose subject is truly social reality.
The same tendencies prevent these movements from being popular. The degree of social consciousness of any of their films depends entirely on the sensibility of the director. The film is his personal work; he is responsible to nobody. So much for socialist realism in the New Eastern European Cinema, although sweeping indictments based on what's shown in this country are probably unfair.
AT LEAST a third of the Orson Welles' series is the work of New Wave directors (Godard, Varda) or people close to them. Perhaps a third more comes from younger Europeans whose dramatic and visual experiments are still more drastic. In all of them the director designed his film form the beginning to end, which makes watching them a grand revelation. To figure out films designed as a unity gives you a new ability to look for meaning in their dramatic construction and visual style, instead of relying entirely on the dialogue and actors' expressions. The variety of dramatic forms and visual styles the series includes, further reveals the purpose of each, the importance of shooting a scene one way rather that another.
In other words, going to this series can generate the sensibility necessary to understand the movies of the future and the past. Social reality is likely to continue growing more complex and confusing. Films, to be faithful to these conditions, will have to use more sophisticated and suggestive forms if they're to communicate more in the same time. This means widespread experimentation with form even more than changes in content. Ability to understand the meanings carried in new forms will be necessary to understand such films.
But formal awareness is also essential in appreciating the classics of American film. Given broadly standardized plot material, those American directors worthy of the term used dramatic handling and above all visual style to make their films personal expressions. To understand these directors attitudes you have to listen less exclusively to what the dialogue says, and look instead at how the director treats the dialogue and plot he was given. The Orson Welles' series is an especially pleasant and rewarding way to start doing just that.