Disney & Welles
To the Editor:
Terry Teachout understandably prefers the films of Jean Renoir and Ingmar Bergman to those of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg [“Why Hollywood Cannot Make Art,” January]. But while I agree with his general sentiment that Hollywood too easily sinks to the lowest common denominator in the name of profit, his article raises an interesting question: where did Renoir, Bergman, Antonioni, Kurosawa, et al. get the money to make their films?
I suspect the governments of their respective countries footed much of the bill. Sergei Eisenstein, for one, could certainly not have made Battleship Potemkin without the financial backing of the Soviet government. Would Mr. Teachout believe there is a correlation between government subsidies and good films? If Walt Disney had received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts or some other federal agency, would he have gone on to make more high-quality short subjects (of the kind he did in his early days) instead of Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, and other features?
The fact that more artistic films do not sell cannot be laid entirely at the feet of Hollywood’s worship of the almighty dollar. It is part of a much larger cultural malaise, a discussion of which goes beyond the scope of Mr. Teachout’s article. Still, he should be thanked for showing that this malaise apparently existed from Hollywood’s earliest days.
To the Editor:
In his essay on Walt Disney and Orson Welles, the usually sound Terry Teachout writes that Welles had a “superficial” grasp of acting technique. In fact, Welles’s acting on film consistently demonstrated a kind of fuzzy genius. Consider his role as the corrupt border-town detective Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil (1958). The characterization is so complete that, watching the movie, you feel you can smell Quinlan, all musty wool and crumpled candy wrappers. When he meets the town fathers at a murder scene and sees them dressed in black tie, his tone is rueful, even childish, as he realizes he has been excluded from some important local shindig.
Quinlan frames suspects (who all turn out to be guilty anyway), and is not above murdering to ensure his own survival. But in that scene, Welles plays the role of the perennial outsider so poignantly that Quinlan’s fate becomes grandly tragic. Welles understood that even the most unsympathetic character must demonstrate some humanity to maintain our interest. And in Touch of Evil, he uses a profoundly subtle acting technique to achieve this often elusive effect.
New York City
To the Editor:
Terry Teachout is one of my favorite critics, but I ask on this occasion to be saved from his intelligence when he describes Citizen Kane as “the greatest film ever to be made in Hollywood.” I have tried valiantly many times, but I have not once been able to sit through that film in its entirety.
On the other hand, I have seen Casablanca at least 30 times, hanging on every scene and relishing every line. It is well crafted, smart, funny, dramatic, well acted even unto the smallest roles, and magnificently entertaining. It is against my religion not to favor Casablanca. What do I care whether it is called “art,” let alone “serious art”? But then, to quote the Ugarte character played by Peter Lorre in the film, “what right do I have to think?”
To the Editor:
Terry Teachout’s fine article is marred either by a typographical error or an absent-minded gaffe. He has James Agee corresponding with Dwight Macdonald as one film critic to another in 1927. But in that year, Agee was all of eighteen, and still a student at Philips Exeter Academy. I suspect 1937 would come closer.
Diamond Bar, California
Terry Teachout writes:
Doron Becker alludes to the problem of subsidized art, which is . . . well, a problem. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not, and no one has come up with a fully convincing explanation of why this should be so, much less how to get it consistently right. As a member of the National Council on the Arts, the civilian review panel of the National Endowment for the Arts, I naturally believe that it is possible for government to do some good in this area, but I also think its power to encourage the making of good art is narrowly limited.
I agree, though, that “Hollywood’s worship of the almighty dollar” is by no means the only reason why so many of its films are so bad. Up to a point, we get the art we ask for. As H.L. Mencken once wrote, democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
I very much like Irving Metzman’s observation that Orson Welles’s acting “demonstrated a kind of fuzzy genius.” That is exactly right, but I think the fuzziness Mr. Metzman has in mind arose from the weakness of Welles’s technique. One of the best things about Simon Callow’s The Road to Xanadu (to which I referred in my article) is that it discusses this weakness frankly and knowledgeably, something that few of Welles’s admiring critics have been able or willing to do.
Patrick Stewart has said that technique is “what you use when you don’t feel it anymore.” When Welles felt it—and when what he demanded of himself as an actor fell within the limitations of his self-made technique—he could give memorable performances. Hank Quinlan is one, Harry Lime (in The Third Man) another. Alas, he did not always bring the trick off, as can be seen all too clearly in such films as Jane Eyre, Journey Into Fear, and The Stranger, and by most accounts his stage acting was no less uneven.
Nathan Dodell’s letter made me smile. I, too, like Casablanca, and I have probably seen it as many times as I have Citizen Kane. What is more, I know other people, some of them deadly serious film buffs, who do not care for Kane and cannot see what makes it so good. The best statement I know of the case against the film was made by Otis Ferguson in his 1941 New Republic review, which is reprinted in the Library of America’s American Movie Critics. It is one of the smartest pieces of film criticism ever written—which, incidentally, does not make it right. As for me, all I can say is that Kane has been bowling me over for more than a quarter-century now, and that every time I see it, I see more in it. Maybe I will try to explain why someday.
With respect to Sam Bluefarb’s letter, the lines by James Agee that I quoted really do date from 1927—Agee wrote them when he was still a high-school student.