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Who Makes Movies?

In response to:

Who Makes the Movies? from the November 25, 1976 issue

To the Editors:

Anybody who takes on Gore Vidal is crazy, and the fact that I’m an admiring friend will do nothing to protect me from the consequences of this letter, but a couple of things he said in his piece [NYR, November 25] about screenwriters vs. directors are outrageous and even he must know better. I assume he was in a bad mood when he wrote it, or at least part of it. The part about Orson Welles.

It’s not that I disagree with him about directors often getting too much credit for the quality of pictures, but that credit shouldn’t automatically go to writers. Movies are a strange medium and a good film can sometimes be attributed to almost anyone who might have been on the set. Producers have been responsible for good ones, certainly writers, some editors, a lot of actors, here and there a cameraman, occasionally the composer. Good pictures have been made by bad directors, and great scripts have been turned into lousy pictures. Of course there are poor scripts that have become great films thanks to great direction. I know that Gore agrees with me on this because we’ve discussed it.

Why, therefore, he decided to join ranks with Pauline Kael over Citizen Kane is beyond me—repeating all those tired old ideas about Gregg Toland’s stylistic influence and Herman Mankiewicz’s primacy in the screenwriting. Miss Kael’s book on Kane came out in 1971, and the following year Esquire published “The Kane Mutiny,” an article in which I carefully, perhaps exhaustively, disproved most of Miss Kael’s essential “facts.” This piece has recently been reprinted in Ronald Gottesman’s collection, Focus on Orson Welles (Prentice-Hall, 1976). Miss Kael has never responded to this article. Perhaps Mr. V. never read it, but if he hasn’t he should now.

In any event, his specific comments on O.W. are pretty silly and not worthy of a fellow as smart as Gore Vidal. For instance, the one that said, “Gregg Toland’s camerawork…[links] Citizen Kane to Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives in a way that cannot link Kane to, say, Welles’s Confidential Report.” Clever of Gore not only to pick an extremely unfamiliar Welles picture but also to use the British release title instead of its (correct) American one, Mr. Arkadin. This way he leaves himself open to few arguments since most of his readers probably haven’t heard of, much less seen, that movie under either title. If they had, however—if we could run Kane, Arkadin, and Best Years for an impartial audience right now—I think Mr. V. would be embarrassed. Not only do Arkadin and Kane have identical themes and a similar construction, but their photographic style is the same. If Best Years looks like any Welles film, it does slightly resemble The Magnificent Ambersons, which was made three years before Best Years and wasn’t shot by Gregg Toland at all. The obvious truth for anyone who has seen even two or three Welles pictures is that they all have a particularly identifiable photographic personality (and only Kane was shot by Toland). This little idea of Mr. Vidal’s was also received from Miss Kael and I addressed myself to it at some length in the old Esquire piece. I do wish he’d read it.

Now I’m getting in a foul mood because I’m reading this sentence again: “The badness of so many of Orson Welles’s post-Mankiewicz films ought to be instructive.” That’s another of those glib, sweeping statements that play right into the reader’s lack of information and is written so as to presume a general critical atmosphere, which in this case is not just superficial, it is decidedly untrue, which makes it all the more offensive and irresponsible on Gore’s part. Almost everyone with any sense knows that Orson Welles is a great director and that Herman Mankiewicz was a talented hack, but for the record, here is a list of the movies Orson Welles has directed since Citizen Kane:

The Magnificent Ambersons
The Stranger
The Lady from Shanghai
Macbeth
Othello
Mr. Arkadin (Confidential Report)
Touch of Evil
The Trial
Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff)
The Immortal Story
F for Fake
And these are all of Herman Mankiewicz’s post-Welles films:

Rise and Shine
Pride of the Yankees
Stand by for Action
Christmas Holiday
The Enchanted Cottage
The Spanish Main
A Woman’s Secret
The Pride of St. Louis
These acerbic comments you dash off, Gore, are actually read by people—and they can hurt people. If we’re going to give opinions, let them at least be educated ones.

Peter Bogdanovich
New York City

To the Editors:

Gore Vidal’s “Who Makes the Movies” [NYR, November 25] is both dishy and fascinating; his “sight” is “sound” since he has had first hand experience in the studios, and yet I am not convinced by his central argument that movie directors are given more attention than they deserve.

Despite the cribbing and banality of a large part of contemporary film production, despite “the solemn inanity” of the pretensions of les auteurs (mindlessly upheld in America by such suet-brains as Andrew Sarris) the film remains a form of art separate from other visual and theatrical arts. It can easily be demonstrated that film directors created this art: Méliès, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, G.W. Pabst, Fritz Lang, Abel Gance, René Clair, Robert Flaherty, Alfred Hitchcock, Louis Malle—the list is long.

Contrary to Vidal’s belief, the director is not simply a technician who gets in the way of screen writers; the cameraman is not the ultimate source for film expression. Vidal’s argument may be justified in relation to the average storytelling movie, but it is not at all relevant when we give our attention to the best and most moving works of film art.

Eisenstein’s theory of montage still remains the basic element for serious film. When the director is in the position to control this element (the rhythm of the separate pieces of film spliced to create particular signs, symbols, meanings, tones of feeling), film is an art form quite different from plays, paintings, novels, or poems. Movies which are manufactured to divert mass audiences are indeed usually superior when a talented screen-writer takes over and tells a good story with literate dialogue. Hats off to those who do this.

But this is only one aspect of film. Grierson’s Song of Ceylon, a documentary, is a masterpiece because it gives us an experience unlike any other we are likely to find in books, paintings, or still photographs. Gertrude by Karl Dreyer is a somber, philosophic reverie as dour as the darkest thoughts of Kierkegaard. We can repeatedly see Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet, Eisenstein’s Potemkin, Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. Louis Malle’s lengthy Phantom India teaches us much we might be unable to learn from any other source.

It was the imagination of directors, obeying the essential aesthetic of film, which has produced the best and most enduring cinema. I think what Gore Vidal really has in the back of his head is an idea rather like the late Nicola Chiaromonte’s: that it is not possible for movies to be a serious art.

John Bernard Myers
New York City

Gore Vidal replies:

Honestly, Peter, I try always to educate my opinions before I send them out into the world. But you know how wilful opinions are nowadays! This particular little shaver insisted on reading Classics in the library of the American Academy at Rome instead of studying Drama, Film-making, and Domestic Science at Yale, my dream for him. But even though opinions never turn out the way you would like them to, I think I’ll stick by this one.

Now, Peter, I wasn’t attacking directors as such, only the auteur theory which has made the director who interprets and illustrates the writer’s script the creator of the movie—which he is not. I can’t say that I agree that “a good film can sometimes be attributed to almost anyone who might have been on the set.” In fact, this is perfect nonsense. But sly nonsense: By spreading all over the place the authorship of a film, Bogdanovich makes it inevitable that, for simple reasons of tidiness, someone must arbitrarily get the credit so why not give it to the official captain of the crew the director? In any case, if all components in the making of a film are to be considered equally “creative” then I would be inclined to give credit not to the director (or composer!), but to the vice-president at the Bank of America who approved the loan that financed the film.

Orson Welles. I have not yet read Bogdanovich’s answer to Pauline Kael’s book on Citizen Kane. If Bogdanovich has, by this time, indeed “disproved most of Miss Kael’s essential ‘facts,’ ” I am surprised. But that would not in any way change my mind about the work of Orson Welles. Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons were amusing, lively films, artistically on a par with such contemporary work as Idiot’s Delight by Robert Sherwood, The Late George Apley by John P. Marquand, “Fog” by Carl Sandburg: in other words, highly satisfying well-wrought mainline kitsch.

Herman Mankiewicz was a talented hack.” Well, anyone who wrote (or directed) movies in those days was pretty much of a hack most of the time since the producers were the final arbiter of what would be in the script and on the screen. But, as movies go, the script for Citizen Kane was certainly enjoyable and sharp. Bogdanovich’s list of Welles’s post-Mankiewicz films as compared to Mankiewicz’s post-Welles films only proves that neither was to be involved in another good film (excepting The Magnificent Ambersons and Christmas Holiday) ever again. This is the not unusual fate of movie makers as I discovered, and as Bogdanovich is discovering. You almost can’t win.

With characteristic wit, wisdom, and eloquence, John Myers proves my point that ever since the movies began to talk the writer, not the director, is the essential creator of any film. Mr. Myers lists the directors that he admires and except for Louis Malle, they are all silent film directors (Fritz Lang of course worked in both silent and sound). Are the movies really and truly an art form? Nolo contendere.

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