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Martin Scorsese on how Orson Welles changed American cinema


Martin Scorsese is, in many ways, the last of a dying breed of film directors. Raised on a diet of Italian neorealism, French new wave, and classic Hollywood movies, Scorsese developed an interest in film at a time when it was shedding its milk-teeth and utilising previously unexplored techniques, formulas and formats. This is perhaps why the only thing more interesting than watching a Martin Scorsese film is listening to Martin Scorsese talking about the films of his heroes.

Speaking about Orson Welles’ 1941 mystery drama, Citizen Kane, Scorcese once explained how the film completely altered his understanding of what cinema could do. “I saw Citizen Kane on television for the first time, and I began to become aware of editing and camera positions,” he told AFI. “He was not afraid of being self-conscious with the camera and making self-referential remarks with the camera.”

This idea of the self-conscious camera was pretty alien to the directors who had laid the foundation of the Hollywood studio system. In a subconscious attempt to match the immersive power of the literary novel, the fledgeling film industry held that directors should do everything in their power to make movies feel like a slice of real life. The stitches between scenes had to be imperceptible, the transitions natural and logical. But as cinema reached maturity, directors started to realise that the artificiality of cinema could be used as a creative tool in itself.

Welles did this by drawing attention to himself, to his role as a filmmaker. “He did this with such conviction and with such brilliance that you began to realise ‘ I see the camera moves'” Scorsese continued. “And I started realising camera movement because he used that wide-angle lens a great deal, and if you use a wide-angle lens and you move quick enough, you see the walls speeding past you, you know? And this is what I think Welles bought to the cinema, to American cinema particularly. Because up until that time was the seamless film in away, the hidden camera, the camera that you couldn’t tell was there. So, Welles was the one to really open up the pandora’s box.”

By the 1950s, the content of that pandora’s box had spread right across the world. The French new wave directors, for example, completely abandoned the model of the Hollywood studio system and took their film crews out onto the street, where they set about capturing the modern world on its own fragmentary terms. Welles’ self-conscious style was especially embraced by Jean-Luc Godard, whose film Breathless employs jump cuts to draw the viewer’s attention to, among other things, the mechanistic artificiality of film. However, in an age dominated by CGI-laced superhero movies, the legacy of Welles is losing some of its grips.

Today, the seamlessness of a film is once again an indicator of quality, which begs the question: where do we go from here?