In light of this experience, I'd do well to remember that we should all probably beware of any concept which wreaks of the grand plan, the magnum opus, the giant work or concept that will explain the world and justify our existence. We defy augury, and the world is much too large to be understood except within the parameters of our little corners within it. Without pragmatic concessions to feasibility, the still shorter days of our lives will grow very long indeed.
So with that said, here's Evan's grand theory of cinematic greatness:
There are three kings on which all quality in the movies are based, and then perhaps a destructive emperor above all three whose achievement has to be viewed with a slight asterisk. Their movies the yardstick by which all other directors are measured, and they were all roughly contemporary with each other, each of which embody the four most important, longest, most fruitful and vital traditions in film. From the beginning to the present day, there are three countries whose proliferation of great movies have been pretty much unceasing from the early 1900s to right now: the US obviously, but also France and Japan. Each of them has a grand master at the height of movies' importance to the world which exemplify the greatness of movies in their classical period - the mid 30s to the early 60s, when, like all classical periods, the movies were in thrall to formal and emotional balance. Every expression was balanced by its opposite - tragedy with comedy, sublimity with vulgarity, compassion with contempt.
But still more important than the emotional balance of these directors' films was the particular focus. The focus was human beings; their frustrations, their triumphs, their dignity and their indignities. What makes a society live on is the belief that life of human beings matters above all else - once we believe that, then the world is worth fighting on against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It may be a lie that human dignity matters at all, but if we want to survive at all, we have to convince ourselves that it does. Before them were the Baroque stylistic experiments of silent film directors which seemed to communicate to us in the language of dreams: Fritz Lang, FW Murnau, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Wiene, Victor Sjostrom, and yes, Griffith too, and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. After these directors were the romantic generations with yearnings to the transcend our humdrum realities, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, Werner Herzog, Akira Kurosawa, Bergman and Fellini, Godard and Truffaut, Scorsese and Spielberg, David Lynch and Oliver Stone. Directors whose movies electrified and stimulated audiences to the point that the yearning to break free from the confines of reality became a narcotic.
But in between them was a very different, more grounded and settled, conception of art and movies, indicative of a society that, whether correctly or not, believed in itself - that its problems could be changed with proper application, and that there was little enough which needed to change that even if they weren't, it would ultimately turn out alright. This approach involved delayed gratification and didn't necessarily make for the most satisfying lives for the citizens of its time, but the belief in delayed gratification did provide future generations with still greater prosperity which they could use to gratify themselves; prosperity enough that, in some ways at least, it turned their successor generations to various forms of decadence.
And decadence is the name of the game in our own historical period. Following the romanticism that yearned to break free of constraint came the decadent generations who had broken free only to realize that the constraints were ourselves. In film, the creation of stunning imagery has never been easier. Advancement in computer technology means that moviemakers are now free to create whatever images they like. And yet who were the most praised directors of this era? Tarantino, Stephen Soderbergh, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, the Coen Brothers, the Andersons PT and Wes, with David Lynch as a kind of transitional figure between the generations. These are moviemakers so enamored of movies that there's barely a movie by any of them without a series of homages to earlier movies. And even if they are not saturated with other movies, how many of these directors make movies that are not saturated with misanthropy? Of course, then you have the genre moviemakers. Peter Jackson may not be misanthropic, but he sure as hell doesn't think much about human beings except as a vessel for his spectacles, or Christopher Nolan, or the Wachowskis, or James Cameron, or Guy Ritchie, or M. Night Shyamalan, or Ridley Scott and George Lucas before them, who created works that seem to appeal to our generation far more than any other director of theirs save Spielberg. Maybe Pixar is interested in human beings and their motivations, but if Pixar is an exception to the rule, a shining exception in the eyes of many - perhaps too many, then think of the extreme visual stylization it takes to get audiences interested in human beings again.
This is the paradox of our own era, beginning with the gen-X'ers, our generations are 'free to be free'; and yet we are so beholden by the weight of our society's history, so incapable of even thinking outside of the constraints of our inescapable American culture - mostly popular culture, that we have no idea what to do with our freedom. It is so difficult to conceive of a different way to live life if you don't have any experience in witnessing them. If you travel to any first-world region or country: Western and Central Europe, Japan and South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, and yes, Israel too, perhaps especially Israel, you're still saturated by a culture that America ultimately created. There are many ways in which all these countries, particularly Japan and South Korea, will be very different from ours, but in the ways that they are different from us, they are different because they rebelled against the model we bestowed to them; and nowhere moreso than Japan and South Korea, whose societies created their new identities by taking the technological advancements we gave them and advancing them so far past our own that they've almost completely divorced from the traditional societies and worldviews we coerced them to leave behind.
So unless you travel to what we used to call during the Cold War the Second World, which is the Soviet Sphere, and most particularly the Third World - which doesn't necessarily imply poverty the way we use the term today but rather implies non-alignment in the Cold War, and therefore the traditions of their societies have not been decimated by either Americanization or Sovietization - you will find it extremely difficult at best to find me meaningfully different ways of thinking about the world than the one in which you were raised. At least many of our grandfathers had to travel to truly different societies from America - old Europe and traditional Japan and Korea - so they could destroy them. So since finding a way to perceive the world that isn't Americanized is so difficult, who can be surprised then that many Americans left, right, and center, no longer even think that our problems can ever be solved without destroying the whole edifice of American civilization and starting all over again from scratch? Even many from the American center now seem to be taken in by the idea that American society needs to be changed in a dramatic, and not particularly democratic, way. A number of leftists I know have been crowing lately about a poll which shows that centrists, dramatically more than either conservatives or liberals, are suspect of democracy. I didn't think much of the poll's methodology, which seemed only to offer very simplistic definitions of democracy, and I think one poll doesn't tell you very much, but still, it should give everyone pause. And when you see that Trump still has an approval rating of 42%, and you see the rise of thinkers who flirt with authoritarianism while keeping a thin veneer of moderation like Jordan Peterson, or you see the traction which the supposedly bipartisan 'No Labels' movement gets which alleges that the problems of America are evenly balanced between both sides of American discourse and not the result of one party declaring war on lower-case d democratic process - even after in the last generation we've seen Gingrich's government shutdowns, the Clinton Impeachment, Bush v. Gore, the Iraq invasion, the Katina response, the Party of No, the holdup of Merrick Garland's Supreme Court nomination, the response to Hurricaine Maria in Puerto Rico, and now, concentration camps for children - and we shouldn't sugarcoat exactly that these are concentration camps... and now, as I'm writing this, we hear of Anthony Kennedy's retirement and brace ourselves for abortion being illegal in 20 states in a year's time - so maybe the Republicans have now declared war on democracy itself, and you realize that the American divorce from reality is so epidemic that it affects every flank of American life - left, center, and most especially right.
This is what it means to be a decadent society in its actual meaning. Decadence's proper meaning is not that we're somehow spoiled or degenerate, it means that a society no longer has the commonly shared consensus that binds it together. These commonly held assumptions don't have to be true, many of them are demonstrably false. Here in America, the most demonstrably false belief was obviously the American Dream. It was a commonly held belief for pretty much the duration of our history that if we work hard we can create an individuated life with prosperity and dignity. All through our history, there were so many obvious contrary forces to that notion, and no doubt, there was and perhaps still is a better chance to create this identity in America over any other place in the world, but that still doesn't mean that the American Dream is ultimately true, and the fact that it isn't largely true has occurred to a particularly large swath of Americans recently. Since 1999, US median income has gone down in real terms, meaning general purchasing power, 9%. The top 1% of America's income earners hold 23% of our wealth, between 1950 and 1970, they held 10%. If wealth in America were as evenly distributed as in 1979, the bottom 80% would be earning an average of 7,000 dollars more.
At bottom, we are as irrational as any animal, and in every era when it looks like we've finally solved humanity's problems - whether the solutions are liberal, or monarchical, or religious, or dictatorial, and it looks like all we need to do is apply the proscribed solutions with enough greasepaint, people become in thrall to explanations which tell us that our current society is rotten at its core. It's almost as though mother nature has a homing device to make sure humanity doesn't get too powerful, and let's mass death clean out a significant part of the human population in the same manner that rain washes away toxins into the ocean where they can be diluted.
Obviously, it's much more complicated than that, but this is hopefully still a weekly podcast and if I didn't feed you a load of shit I would never have enough intellectual authority to keep it going; and yet, while we live in an era in which the intelligensia completely dispenses with archetypes particularly because of their vituperative cousin, stereotypes, the recent resistence, the unwillingness of so many to dispense with this mode of thinking, to the point that they'll elect men like Donald Trump and vote for Brexit and support Viktor Orban and Marine Le Pen, has to give one pause. Archetypal thinking is so completely embedded in the human psyche that even if we wanted to get rid of them and treat every individual on a case by case basis, we wouldn't know how. Today's people of the left argue so vociferously against any kind of archetypal grouping of people, that we have to treat every individual with the full measure of their uniqueness, and yet simultaneously, so many of them insist on the primacy of identity, that the groups to which they belong define their experience, how then do they expect for people to let go of archetypes and stereotypes? When they're honest with themselves, do they really think they'll ever be able to educate the public to the point that they can ever educate the better angels of people's nature to the point that they can surround themselves with other people's cultures without also fearing them?
So just as we archetype various groups of people, we also archetype time and space. As Arthur Schlesinger put it in Cycles of American History, I forget exactly how the quote goes: the earth and the moon go in cycles, the tides and the sun, why wouldn't we be cyclical as well? After all, our lives themselves are cyclical - we're born, we have inescapable stages of our life, and eventually we die. It should be obvious that there is danger in thinking of the world in cyclical terms, with all the pessimism that implies, just as there is in an idealism that says we can cheat such a life cycle. But as with all concepts, one can see a synthesis between the two. So long as we accept the terms of our cyclical limitations - that there is a season for everything under the sun - we can achieve a kind of limited mastery over our destinies; perhaps steer the direction of our elliptical orbit, as it were.
So in that sense, a certain level of archetypal thinking is inevitable, and perhaps beneficial to how we think of the world. So long as we're willing to make an infinity of exceptions to better fit the world within whatever conceptual framework we believe, we still can only process the world using archetypes of how the world works and humans behave, and relate each new situation we're in to the millions of situations in which we've already found ourselves, using that close cousin to archetypes, the metaphor - 'this is to that as that is to this.' I believe Oswald Spengler put it like this: 'metaphors are the algebra of the right side of the brain.' I would further add that because metaphors are conceptual, the right side of the brain can only come up with metaphors and analogies that are messy and easily disproven quantitatively. But you cannot apply scientific rigor to humanistic concepts. It is only through the right side of the brain that we can process those infinite number of happenstances over the course of a lifetime that we cannot explain - and rather than existence growing more explicable, the more advanced we become in science, the more processes there are in existence which we discover that cannot be explained. Artificial intelligence can now perform simple quantitative tasks better than we ever can, but still seems an infinite distance away from thinking in the conceptual manner that we do. We've scanned the human brain, but we have little understanding still of how our neurological wiring thinks. We've mapped the human genome, but we have no idea what it is within the coding of DNA that creates us the way it does. We've long since discovered that reason and compassion is the best way to ensure we all live good lives, yet we have no idea why we're in a prison of our resentments, unable compel humans to act in a generous way toward one another - let alone ourselves. We conquer disease after disease, and yet new diseases always present themselves to show that we are ultimately as powerless against death as we have ever been, and in the infinite framework of time, our lives are but the blink of an eye. The human mind cannot process all this except through generalizing, settling for approximate concepts that except that there are many irrationalities that so transcend our understanding that we can only accept that life itself defies explanation.
So in that sense, let's just think of recent American history for a moment. Obviously, the mid-century was so much more complicated than this idyllic era, used today by the American Right for propaganda that sounds uncannily like the enforcement of white supremacy. And who can deny that we are now living with the discontents of the midcentury pastoral; which wasn't all that much of a pastoral period really: Urges to alternate gender and sexuality repressed by societal pressure in manners that were more strenuous in fact than earlier in the century, minorities and women that were only beginning to lift their oppression, the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, the US support of dictators like Batista in Cuba, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Montt in Guatemala, Jimenez in Venezuela, Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal, Khan in Pakistan, al-Za'im in Syria, the Shah in Iran, the House of Saud, Diem in South Vietnam, Chiang Kai-Shek in China and then Taiwan, a whole series of them in Thailand, at times even communist dictators like Tito in Yugoslavia, and let's not forget Stalin... I know this list is excessive like so many of my lists, but I'm listing all of these to demonstrate the extent of the problem, which only got still exponentially worse with Nixon and Kissinger in the '70s, to give a sense about why so many tens if not hundreds of millions, abroad and increasingly here, feel that American liberalism is a sham.
But the mid-century was, relatively speaking, a prosperous, hopeful time, and the evidence of that is how much more peaceful the world became after 1945. It was a time of renewal after a period of death, and the renewal happens precisely because one realizes the fragility of life. It does not guarantee any good life except in relative terms, after all, in many ways, the real rewards of spring only come with the autumn harvest. But so done was the world with old monarchical Europe, with Imperial Japan and dynastic China, even with pioneer America, that works of art had an amazing opportunity to announce a new type of living, a new type of person, to the world. People whom, in a previous era, did not have the future they would have in this new created world, have a future. Perhaps now that we're living in this future, we realize that however prosperous, perhaps it was not worth its price tag.
Perhaps in another few years, we'll see more recent movies crack this list of the top films, Apocalypse Now is the latest of all of them just mentioned, and it's been nearly 40 years. There's no Scorsese in them or Spielberg, let alone Tarantino or PT Anderson. One has to figure that could change soon for the films of all four; maybe a large-scale American epic could join them like Do The Right Thing or Nashville or The Right Stuff. Perhaps something by Almodovar will crack the top of the list like Bad Education or All About My Mother, or Werner Herzog's Aguirre, or perhaps something mammothly epic like Krzystopf Kieslowski's Dekalog, or Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, or Claude Landesmann's Shoah, or something from a director working in Chinese like Xiang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern or Wong Kar-Wai's Chunking Express, or something from a Mexican director like Pan's Labyrinth or Children of Men, or something Iranian like A Separation or Taste of Cherry, or a one-off by a director who never again amounted to much like City of God or The Lives of Others, or something technologically experimental like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Boyhood, or hell, even something by Miyazaki who seems now more beloved in our generation than Pixar or even Disney in it own time. But fundamentally, is the lack of recent films because it takes critics a generation or two to catch up with the trends of the moment, or is because the movies that are consistently ranked are made in an era that was a lot more crazy for movies than we are today, when television has supplanted movies in prestige, and the internet has supplanted both as a time passer. Popular entertainments are, in many ways, far more ambitious than today's artistic counterparts. I'm sure it was just as difficult to make the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings trilogies as it was to make La Regle du Jeu or Apocalypse Now. But the fundamental difference between them is that one kind of movie aspires to say something about human beings, and the other aspires to say something about inhuman - like technology or magic. It's perfectly valid to believe that other things than humans are more interesting, but don't be too surprised if an age which responds more to technology than human beings leaves the human race worse than they were found.
Furthermore, except for 8 1/2 and Bicycle Thieves, which are Italian, all of these movies are made in either America, France, or Japan. It's obviously impossible to say for sure whether or not the quality of these movies is related to the fact that these are the three great cinematic traditions, but I would imagine it's related. There were lots of precedents from which each moviemaker could build their achievements, and lots of directors and critics afterward could see how the achievements of these allegedly greatest movies can be built upon.
But why those four? Why Kane, Vertigo, Tokyo Story and Rules of the Game?
That's obviously a very elusive question. But three of the four movies seem to dramatize in different ways the triumph of this new worldview against the old - and perhaps above all three of them, a fourth director, an international figure, obviously Hitchcock, who with his unmatched technique often seems to define the ultimate reach of what cinema everywhere is capable of expressing. But in each of the other three directors, there's a large, perhaps huge, element of mournfulness for the old world, and ambivalence just as big about the new; but the triumph, the energy, the confidence of the new, the young, the lower class, can sweep all before it when you see how the figures they portray from the older world are inevitably exhausted, vitiated, made completely aware of their obsolescence. And from this emergence of a new world, every moviemaker since them had to develop their discoveries, their aesthetic, either taking their discoveries still further, or somehow reacting against it.
In some ways, that is the message of Citizen Kane - a boarding house operator in pioneer Colorado realizes she's sitting on one of the biggest gold mines in America, so like the Puritans from which she's probably descended, she foregoes it all and instead makes her son one of the richest men in the world, abandoning him to literally be raised by a bank. The son then engorges himself on the American carnival with the maximum possible relish, that unprecedented feast of feast of freedom in which every sensual appetite can be satiated at a moment's notice, and learns over the course of a lifetime that money, power, pleasure, and possessions bring only existential emptiness. In 1941, the absolute springtime of the mightiest American power, it predicted that the entire American enterprise, the entire American worldview which believes in absolute liberty, not just the freedom to create yourself in the world, but the freedom to create the world in an image of yourself, is as empty in the face of existence's transcendent problems as any other worldview yet conceived. All the seasons of America's sense of self are predicted in the life cycle of Charles Foster Kane, and Trump is Citizen Kane's predictive fulfillment, the elderly Kane having emerged from his Xanadu and in his senile dotage, grasping the reins of power so that he can reappear on the balcony as an equal head of state to Mussolini and god knows who else. And the wake of Trump, I don't know how any other work could ever be suggested as the greatest work of artistic creation this country this country ever bequeathed. It is a total work of art, not just in how it synthesizes visuals and words and sound, but in how it expresses every human condition, and by portraying a larger than life figure, it magnifies each facet of this character to life size, and thereby conveys an individual human personality in all its contradictions.
Welles has come up so often in this podcast in seemingly unrelated topics that I figure I should probably rename this podcast 'The Orson Welles Worship Hour.' I figure I must have enough to say about him that I should probably try to get him out of my system. So what ultimately was it about Welles that is so worth talking about that he keeps coming up?
I'm just going to take it on faith that people know about the broadcast production of War of the Worlds that made Welles famous because many people really thought it was an alien invasion. The point, in this case, is that Welles was already world-famous when he made Citizen Kane, catapulted to fame as a 23-year-old boy genius for whom any future at all was possible.
Francois Truffaut, himself one of the greatest directors who ever lived and even before he became a director a boy genius of a film critic, wrote what's surely one of the most insightful lines ever written about Citizen Kane:
It (meaning Citizen Kane) is only the 'first' film directed by a famous man. Welles was forced to make not a film which permitted him to get started in the industry, but THE film, the one which sums up and prefigures all the others. And, my God, this mad gamble was very nearly won.Anything less than the greatest film ever made would have been a disappointment from the expectations that were upon him, and Welles fulfilled those expectations to the point of the dotted i, but the price was the entire rest of his life.
Movies are clearly the dominant artform of the last century, and at the very nexus of the place they were made, the director with the vision to make his oeuvre the crowning achievement was denied every opportunity to fulfill his potential - and jesus, doesn't oeuvre just sound so incredibly un-Hollywood?
Welles's the great tragedy of the arts in America, and perhaps an indication that movies, with all their commercial compromises, are not meant to be an art in the manner of older, more venerable arts. Welles's father was a drunk, and the legal guardian of Welles's youth, Maurice Bernstein, notice the last name, said that Welles, rather than having been a movie director, should have founded an American national theater and taken the troupe on tour for six months every year to perform for students around America. Perhaps, had Welles been from a smaller country he could have had a career like Ingmar Bergman's, with parallel careers in film and theater, using his acting troupe to tailor make film roles to their strengths. But if he were in a smaller country, he would not have been Orson Welles - an artist who could encapsulate the spirit of the most powerful country in the world at its moment of its greatest power.
For this was a director simply too good to succeed. Everything about him was a threat to the status quo of American life. With the first movie he ever made he'd used his carte blanche contract to make a thinly disguised biopic of William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper tycoon as powerful in his day as Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, and Michael Bloomberg combined. It was a bullseye of a target - Welles could never have chosen a subject more relevant to the American condition or better demonstrated how the very process of how Americans think was bought and paid for. Hearst used his giant publicity apparatus to make sure the movie was a failure, and in the process nearly got this greatest of all movies burned before it could ever be seen, and bankrupted the studio stupid enough to give Welles the freedom to make something so great. Even creatives felt threatened by Welles. F. Scott Fitzgerald even wrote a story about it, 'Pat Hobby and Orson Welles,' Hobby being a washed up screenwriter. Here's a bit of the story, taken from Simon Callow's biography of the young Welles:
"Who's this Welles?" Pat asked of Louie, the studio bookie. "Every time I pick up a paper, they go on about this Welles." "You know, he's that beard," explained Louis. "Sure, IU know he's that beard, you couldn't miss that, but what credit's he got? What's he done to draw one hundred and fifty grand a picture?"Unable to get onto the studio lot to scrounge some lunch, Hobby broods darkly about being barred to Pat and though Welles was on another lot it seemed as if his large body, pushing in brashly from nowhere, had edged Pat out of the gate . . .
Orson Welles had no business edging him out of this. Orson Welles belonged with the rest of the snobs back in New York.'Hobby finally gets a lift from Mr Marcus, a mogul, and begs him for a pass to the studio lot. Marcus is on his way to meet:
'this new Orson Welles that's in Hollywood.' 'Pat's heart winced. There it was again - that name, sinister and remorseless, spreading like a dark cloud over all his skies. "Mr Marcus," he said so sincerely that his voice trembled, "I wouldn't be surprised if this Orson Welles is the biggest menace that's come to Hollywood for years. He gets a hundred and fifty grand for a picture and I wouldn't be surprised if he was so radical that you would have to have all new equipment and start all over again like you did with sound in 1928."Fitzgerald would be dead long before Citizen Kane was finished, and perhaps was prescient about it only as one great artist could be about another. Think of Hollywood at that exact moment. It was the one moment in the history of movies when the movies didn't need a figure like Orson Welles. Just in 1939 when Orson Welles first came to Hollywood: Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, Gunga Din, Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Young Mr. Lincoln, Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk, Northwest Passage, Union Pacific, Only Angels Have Wings, Destry Rides Again, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Babes in Arms, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, What a Life, Dark Victory, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, Midnight, Juarez, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, Sargent Madden, St. Louis Blues, When Tomorrow Comes, Jamaica Inn, Fifth Avenue Girl, Frontier Marshall, Bachelor Mother, The Great Man Votes...
Usually, the common consensus is that 1939 is the annus mirabiliis of Hollywood history. Right before, or right as, a supposed artistic genius blew into town that completely changed the way movies were made, the studio system, for at least one year in its history, was doing just fine on its own in terms of the quality of its product. The big directors of Golden Age Hollywood, the Hawks's and the Fords, were no artistic geniuses, maybe Lubitsch..., they were just excellent craftsmen who knew what was good when they saw good. Not a single movie on that list is a forgotten part of film history. If I were a real masochist, I could make a list ten times as long of all the filmmakers, film technicians, stars, and character actors that made this such an incredible time in the history of movies. But what made it particularly amazing was that this was a period when the technology was such that the emphasis had to be on the human story. In the silent era, the visuals were everything, and movies were closer to paintings, or perhaps even ballet. The great movies of that period were truly beautiful, full of fantasy, but they had a very hard time conveying an experience that was truly human, so they gravitated towards the fantastic, the sensational, the extraordinary. By the 1980s, visual technology was such that once again, market forces made movies gravitate again toward the fantastic, the sensational, the extraordinary. Human stories had a harder time getting made, and even when they were, there's something about them that seems a little less human. Compare Scorsese to Tarantino, Coppola to PT Anderson, compare even Spielberg to any of the dozen directors touted as his artistic heir - who of them makes movies that are more compassionate to, more invested in, their characters? Maybe you disagree but I know what I'm watching.
What happened in Hollywood, what was different in this period, was that because sound and music were introduced, the movies became a more theatrical, perhaps even literary, experience, which had to focus on human beings. And because they focused on the struggles of fellow human beings, the human beings watching these movies became more invested in the movies; in watching them, talking about them, reading about them, and watching them again, than ever before or since. Around the time that Orson Welles went to Hollywood, the movies were the American religion. And during this synergistic ecology when so many viewers cared about the stories of so many people on the screen, the average movie was therefore better. The best Hollywood movies of that period, except of course for Citizen Kane, were not really better than the best Hollywood movies of any other period, but there were more of them, and because there were more of them, there was both a chance to make a movie that is as great in its way as King Lear or Beethoven's Ninth, but also, a lot of trepidation that anything that good would put all the really good movies Hollywood produced in the shade. And even if Citizen Kane did never put the old model of Hollywood in the shade in which the producer calls the shots rather than the director, he did show that it was possible, even if for just a moment, for a real artist to create something that truly did justice to America.
Welles was never allowed creative control over another movie, but after Kane, nothing could go back to the way it was. Audiences developed a taste for revelation, and gradually movies became more about the director than the star or the production. It was always that way for Hitchcock and Wilder, and then came David Lean, and eventually Stanley Kubrick. If you were feeling adventurous and lived in any city, not just New York or LA but any city at all, you'd go to see the latest Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini, Resnais, Bresson, Godard, Truffaut, Antonioni, and by the 70s, directors had taken over Hollywood completely, at least for a decade and change.
Citizen Kane is proof that if the work is good enough, the art represents a revolutionary threat, and there's probably only one other movie ever made which made people feel as threatened as Citizen Kane, and that is The Rules of the Game, at the premiere of which, somebody tried to set fire to the theater. La Regle du Jeu is the only movie that I think could ever be considered objectively greater than Kane. Its director, Jean Renoir, and his struggles, deserve their own podcast too.
The difference between Renoir and Welles is the difference between a man who understands life as people live it, and a man who could never understand life because life itself changed in his presence. Welles, certainly the young Welles, born to rather ordinary upper-middle-class circumstances in the Chicago suburbs, was too charismatic and intelligent to ever see anyone as anything but adjuncts to his plans. So of course, he was attracted almost solely to the stories of the larger than life humans to whom he could relate. Jean Renoir, yes, son of the painter Auguste Renoir, grew up in a Parisian household populated on any given day by not just his father but Zola, Maupassant, Cezanne, Monet, Pissaro, perhaps even Clemenceau at times. So even if the young Renoir was as brilliant as Welles, he was surrounded by much more experienced equals, and could never develop the same larger-than-life sense of himself. In fact, in order to be paid attention to, he probably had to keep his focus on the smaller people of his father's household, the chambermaids, the footmen, the musicians, the intruding hobos...
What Renoir made in the 30s was, in many ways, studio Hollywood transformed into great art. So much of Golden Age Hollywood movies is about social class and its various interactions and inequalities. Even if a number of directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Leo McCarey, Frank Capra, could be very perceptive about the interactions of society, there were always limitations on how far their imaginations could go. In the cases of Hawks and Lubitsch, the finesse with which they negotiated those limitations is part of what makes them so brilliant. But in Renoir's case, there were not the same imaginative limitations placed on him, except during the 40s when he worked in Hollywood, and this is not the podcast go into the infinite kinds of atmosphere and place, and therefore person, he conjured in his movies, but his movies felt very, very different from the extremely stagebound feel of so much Golden Age Hollywood. In order to break out of that stage-bound feel, you need a genius of the stage. Hollywood needed someone whose stage shows were known as being the nearest thing to cinema already, and an actor with a stage presence so huge that he didn't even seem entirely human but from a larger-than-life, perhaps more neanderthalic, peoplehood. They needed a magician who could find the fantasy within Hollywood's realism. If Welles had risen to prominence at any other point, he would not have been as good because his natural inclination toward fantasy would not have been balanced with a grounding in the real. One might what Welles does macroscopic realism, or expressionistic realism, or just plain heightened realism, but however much magic and exaggeration and fabulism is inherent in it, it is still true to life. It's a lifeness that's also larger-than-life, perhaps Tolstoy is the most obvious comparison.
This is the paradox inherent in artistic greatness. It's only through this draconianly Darwinian process by which only the strongest personalities can ever shine through with their independence of spirit intact that the works which truly move the earth ever get made. Whether the problem is the commercial considerations that lead to Orson Welles being blackballed from ever again getting creative freedom, or the offended aristocratic sensibilities that made Mozart a Viennese pariah, or the offended political sensibilities that Tolstoy internalized that made him recoil in disgust from his own genius for portraying the bourgeois, or the scandalized religious sensibilities that made Michelangelo's life such a misery, or the potential Royal censure that made Shakespeare's career so dangerous, it was the tension between the impossible sensibilities of the audience and a great artist's ability to pinpoint what's morally wrong with the audience's beliefs that creates the Arts' finest hours, and also seems ensure the perpetual state of misery that comes with being one of the greatest artists.
But like in Tolstoy, it also can't be denied that the largeness in Citizen Kane generally, perhaps even the sheer greatness of it, is also a limitation. Welles was interested in flawed greatness because that was what he related to. A twenty-four year old wunderkind has no idea how to process any part of the world that is the province of an ordinary person, or even ordinary sentiments. There is something cold about Welles, empty even at his core, which could not quite relate to ordinary human sentiments. Perhaps it was a kind of narcissistic personality disorder. If Welles were fifty years younger, there's no question in my mind that he would have been an entertainer more grounded in popular culture who would try to beat Peter Jackson to adapting Lord of the Rings or Spielberg to Jurassic Park or Christopher Nolan to Batman. But being a midwestern rich American WASP of the early century who achieved theatrical success in Europe by the time he was sixteen, his frame of reference was nineteenth century classics of realist literature. He responded to the extraordinary within those books, but what he responded to was the extraordinary within the ordinary. When one asked Welles whom his favorite directors were, the usual two he mentioned were Jean Renoir and John Ford. Both of them realist directors who had a hotline into the dignity of those ordinary people about which Welles clearly had no idea because his movies were incapable of processing average people except through the eyes of the extraordinary. Just to give the most obvious example, the incredible cruelty with which Welles allowed Marion Davies to be portrayed as Susan Alexander Kane is a case in point of just how narcissistic Welles could be. Marion Davies was Hearst's longtime mistress and one of the great comic actresses of her era, but the character based on her was a floozy, a hack lounge singer whom Kane fell for precisely because she was so dumb and easily pushed over.
Here is what Andrew Sarris says about Welles's screen persona in his still famous book, The American Cinema. Sarris was the critic for the Village Voice for nearly fifty years, and in the years before Siskel & Ebert, one of the one of the two most influential film critics in America along with Pauline Kael of the New Yorker:
Call him Hearst or Falstaff, Macbeth or Othello, Quinlan or Arkadan, he is always at least partly himself, ironic, bombastic, pathetic, and, above all, presumptuous. The Wellesian cinema is the cinema of magic and marvels, and everything, and especially its prime protagonist, is larger than life. The dramatic conflict in a Welles film often arises from the dialectical collision between morality and megalomania, and Welles more often than not plays the megalomaniacal villain without stilling the calls of conscience.Just as everything about Welles was larger than life, so were all of his projects. Directing himself on the screen as Kane, Othello, Falstaff, Macbeth, directing himself on the stage as Captain Ahab, Dr. Faustus, Julius Caesar and Shylock: failing to finish movies of Heart of Darkness, Don Quixote, The Merchant of Venice, Moby Dick, Treasure Island, Cyrano de Bergerac, a movie in 1939 called The Smiler with the Knife which was based on Sir Oswald Mosley - the English fascist whom many people feared would come to power in England the way Hitler did in Germany, playing King Lear on television, potentially cosmic masterpieces on the same level as Citizen Kane hacked to bits like The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, The Lady from Shanghai. Dozens of other plans for movies that never even got started. Just looking at the prospective plans of his first few years in Hollywood is enough to make the mouth water: Heart of Darkness, Les Miserables, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Jane Eyre, The Little Prince, The Pickwick Papers by Dickens, To Have and Have Not by Hemingway, Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad, Sister Carrie by Dreiser, Mario and the Magician by Thomas Mann, biopics of Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli, The Borgias, Benjamin Franklin, Alexandre Dumas, Balzac, Jesus Christ, a movie about Paul Bunyan, a movie about Cortez's invasion of America, an adaptation of the Kauffman and Hart comedy, The Man Who Came to Dinner, an adaptation of his stage play of Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein. Later plans for movie versions of King Lear, Homer's Odyssey and Joyce's Ulysses - both at roughly the same point in his career, and a reshot last hour of The Magnificent Ambersons with the same actors. And untold numbers of completely original projects rather than adaptations. Would all of these have worked? Of course not, every artist has limitations and some of them were shelved by Welles himself when he realized they were not in his wheelhouse. In the case of the Life of Christ, Welles very well might have made the movie had he not been fired by RKO, and considering how little religious inclination Welles had, it's a little hard to believe that he could have made a version of it that didn't have a lot of empty sanctimony in it, not to mention, it was a way of Welles to crow that he was as big as Jesus Christ.
But let's just say that Welles was so incredibly gifted that given the chance, he would have made more transcendent masterpieces in the history of art than anyone since Shakespeare or Rembrandt or Beethoven. But you look at the incredible size of all these plans, and you realize exactly why Welles had trouble. These are all projects too larger than life to succeed, too grandiose, that especially in the chaos that is making movies, only a very small fraction of them could never possibly get made. Consider what Welles was up against during Citizen Kane even before Hearst's sycophants tried to destroy it: both of the actresses who played Kane's wives were pregnant, he was not on speaking terms with his composer, Bernard Hermann; Joseph Cotten had an eye infection because of the contact lenses he had to wear to play his part, and his screenwriting partner, Herman Mankiewicz was suing him in arbitration for sole screenwriting credit. Plus a whole host of more minor problems, and this was just when Welles was up to shooting. There were a number of days Welles would simply not show up, and disappear on some kind of bender with booze or a woman. After it was all done, Welles checked himself for a little while into a private sanitarium - basically a nicer version of a mental hospital.
His next movie, The Magnificent Ambersons, which somehow we haven't talked about yet, was supposed to be Welles's sojourn into a much more personal, more humane facet of his character, with a story that at least seems to be a little bit more traditional Hollywood fair. The Welles who grew up in a rich suburb of Chicago north of the Wisconsin border and no doubt had many fond memories of his childhood.
Welles seemed to be far more interested in the grandiose than the intimate, but don't let that appearance deceive you. His movies are packed wall-to-wall with intimate moments. Here's more from Sarris:
Curiously, Welles is far from being his own best actor. Actually, no actor-director in history has been as generous to his colleagues. Through less than a dozen films the roll call of distinguished performances is long indeed: (Sarris goes on to list twenty-six performers)
...The world of Orson Welles is the world of the runaway artist who pauses every so often to muse over what he has lost or left behind. Quiet and frenzy alternate in this world, as do nostalgia and adventure.... Mark Shivas has established a Welles-Hitchcock contrast both thematically and technically with observation that Welles is concerned with the ordinary feelings of extraordinary people and Hitchcock with the extraordinary feelings of ordinary people. Whereas Welles flourishes in baroque settings, Hitchcock functions in commonplace settings. To a limited extent, at least, Wellesian cinema is as much the cinema of the exhibitionist as Hitchcockian cinema is the cinema of the voyeur.I kind of disagree witht he second part of that quote. It's not that Sarris is wrong, but we never truly saw what Welles lost or left behind except in the mangled form to which The Magnificent Ambersons comes to us, with nearly an hour cut from its original running time and never again found, most of its social commentary and tragedy gone and softpedaled. It was as though Welles was so stunted emotionally after that and could never again relax to show us his inward self, and everything thereafter was a slightly garbled attempt to create something larger-than-life again like Kane or War of the Worlds. The only movie of his that ever displayed anything again like this affection for characters that were not him was F for Fake, a movie literally about fakery and artifice, the message of which that the real person is so concealed that it's impossible to tell who he is, because perhaps he's nothing at all.
Welles would later say that he believed the completed Ambersons was much better than Kane. He would often remark that there's something cheap about the Rosebud trick in Citizen Kane, and he's absolutely right. Rosebud is what Hitchcock would call the MacGuffin, the device which moves the plot forward that could be anything at all. It really doesn't matter what Charles Foster Kane lost, because we never really believe that such a bombastic narcissist ever had a core identity to lose. But even if Kane himself didn't have an identity to lose, the world he commanded very much did. The real subject of Citizen Kane is not Charles Foster Kane but Kane's subjects, his employees, his constituents and readers, all of whom he treats no better than possessions. He is an extremely lucky confidence artist, who manages to convince the world that if they put their trust in him, the American Dream will come true for them as it did for him, but he never had any intention of making any dream come true at his expense. There is no greater way to foreshadow the Trump era than this movie.
Politically, Welles was a progressive, not a socialist or a communist, which the Hearst papers went to great lengths to portray him as being, but still one of Franklin Roosevelt's further left die-hard supporters. There was no way he was ever going to portray the Ambersons as anything but an overprivileged family, naive about how their privileges had to eventually end. But that kind of pessimism was exactly what America didn't want to hear in 1942, and there were a number of walkouts during the screened preview. But Welles was too great an artist to not give the other side of the story, and portray just how 'magnificent' their way of living was. Welles himself wouldn't appear in Ambersons except as a narrator. His presence was much too epic for that movie's intimacy.
Welles would later say that after his contract was terminated by RKO, which thanks to its faith in Welles, found itself in a bankruptcy tailspin from which they never emerged, he should have done anything at all except the movies. Go back to the theater, write books, paint... and in 1944, Franklin Roosevelt even tried to get Welles to run for the Senate in his home state of Wisconsin against a little known hard-right drunk of whom he'd make quick work named Joseph McCarthy. But such was the pull of the movies, even more then than now, that there was never any question of giving up on them. When he was first approached by Hollywood after War of the Worlds in '38, Welles said no to a whole host of contractual offers until he got the offer for complete creative freedom he wanted. He feigned complete indifference to Hollywood and made it seem as though he was perfectly happy to go on indefinitely as a star of theater and radio. But in light of the rest of his career, when he could have abandoned the movies at any point and any number of other worlds would have welcomed him with open arms: the theater world, the art world, perhaps even the political world; there can't be any question that movie directing was always the end goal. The movies were the most exciting place to be in the world, and if after 1943 he had to scrap for every dollar to make a movie, that apparently was a better fate than to be the king of world theater, or a Presidential nominee that Kennedy and Nixon would both fear. Apparently for Welles, it was better to serve in heaven than rule in hell.
A Welles kind of figure works on spontaneous combustion. Perhaps today we would say that he had ADHD, and there are certain kind of artists that need overstimulation in order to work and don't have the zitsfleisch, as it's said in Yiddish, to buckle down and work on their projects methodically. After Kane was over, Welles went back to Broadway to direct a work by Richard Wright, and after then spending a little while a sanitarium, began simultaneous work on three different movies - only The Magnificent Ambersons was ever completed, and Welles couldn't prevent RKO pictures from hacking it down because he was already filming a documentary in Brazil while the film was in post-production. The projects have to be larger than life to engage artists like him, and because they have to be larger than life, they invite chaos to the kind of artist least equipped to deal with chaos, so very few of their imagined projects ever come to fruition. Francis Ford Coppola, in so many ways the heir to Welles, is a bit more recent example of this phenomenon. And the heir to Coppola is probably Guillermo del Toro.
Compare this to Alfred Hitchcock, who's perhaps not a great artist by traditional metrics - though not an 'un-great' one and certainly a craftsman of the highest conceivable genius. Unlike Welles or Jean Renoir or Bergman or Herzog who were steeped in pre-cinematic artistic traditions and knew how to convey elusive poetic truths, Hitchcock was creating something different, something baser, perhaps trashier, perhaps more commercial, but still of great artistic value in its own way. But because he didn't aim quite so high as Welles or Renoir or Coppola, he made movie after movie, year after year, with material usually lifted from a second-rate novel, because he knew exactly what he wanted by the time he was finished with the storyboard and could get it all in a minimum of time and fuss and chaos. Is Hitchcock a great artist? I'm less convinced that he is than I was even a few years ago, and that's a 'crisis of what is art' podcast in itself. His misanthropy clearly limited his ability to truly explore human nature, he so exploitative of his female characters, let alone the actresses who played them, the motivations of his protagonists often seem more like two-dimensional tricks from a jigsaw puzzle than real human motives. Think of the explanation of Norman Bates at the end of Psycho or Scottie Ferguson's obsession in Vertigo - the root of which is so easily understood. Maybe he was more a great melodramatist than a great artist. I think Hitchcock would have liked to be a greater artist than he was; his favorite of his movies is Shadow of a Doubt, which was written by Thornton Wilder, best known today as the writer of Our Town - which is probably my pick for the greatest play ever written by an American, but like the truly great craftsman he was, he knew his limitations and worked extraordinarily well within them. You can't ever deny that he was a craftsman of genius, perhaps the ultimate in cinematic genius - more even than Welles, or Spielberg, or Scorsese, or whomever else - let's try to avoid this list at least...
When you look at Hitch you see, over and over again, the first moviemaker who is completely a moviemaker and totally uninfluenced by the conventions theater. How that is is so long that it has to be another podcast, but with Welles, of course, you are absolutely soaked in the conventions of theater. Think of the party scene in Citizen Kane.
The best art is complete in itself, it's highbrow and lowbrow simultaneously, and this scene wouldn't be out of place in a third-rate knockoff of The Rockettes, while simultaneously demonstrating the hollow emptiness of such a lifestyle. But these self-consciously theatrical, larger than life, gestures, are everywhere in Welles, and because they were so theatrical, rather perhaps than cinematic, perhaps they limited his success. Compared to what Citizen Kane was in storyboard it was in fact a much smaller movie than it was supposed to be - the original plan was more than three hours long, there were a number of brothel and murder scenes that got cut, and yet even the scenes that we get have so many expansive sets and extras and gestures. What Welles did with 10 dollars is probably what Hitchcock could do with one, and the yet the ultimate proof of Welles's lack of discipline is that when he was forced to work on a shoestring budget, as he did on Mercury Radio and in whatever many later movies he completed, he was perfectly capable of doing it. But the life of yet another great Hollywood craftsman who worked within the limitations that some producer prescribed for him was something he was constitutionally incapable of doing without biting the hand that feeds him. Genius, real genius, can't help but make its own rules, he can't work for anybody else because he's already a slave to what's going on in his head. Geniuses don't operate like normal people, they have a deep kind of obsessive hyper-focus which seems to others like a lack of focus. They can only direct their extreme understanding on the things which they naturally understand, and the things which can't they will never master, no matter how much they want to. So while a producer or a studio might be temporarily convinced that they want a genius on their staff, they don't really. A real genius shakes up everything.
Ironically, Hitchcock's career in America began with his producer, David O. Selsnick, who most famously produced Gone With the Wind, constantly berating him for not creating movies out of books that are closer to the spirit of Orson Welles's radio adaptations of the same literary material. Welles and Hitchcock had very little to do with each other, but insofar as they did, they patently hated each other, because they both represented two completely different ways of looking at the movies. ed Hitch's Psycho is clearly influenced by Welles's Touch of Evil, and Welles's The Trial is probably influenced by Hitch's The Wrong Man and North by Northwest. But Welles was baked in history and culture, Hitchcock was pure film. Welles was the Genius with a capital G whose subject matters branched out in every direction, Hitchcock was the obsessive who truly only had one story, of psychosexual obsession with violence, which he filmed again and again, each time from a differing perspective. Welles saw movies as an infinite frontier, the next evolutionary step in the arts from theater and books, in which every poetic truth was possible to express. But Alfred Hitchcock saw what the movies did best: sex and violence, and he tethered the audience to those powerful narcotics with an unbreakable chain. Welles impresses you, overwhelms you, occasionally even moves you. But Hitch's movies are an out of body experience in which the pit of your stomach reaches your mouth. After Hitch, movies would never be the same again, they would become more sexual and more violent, and therefore no longer an experience that could bond an community together. America no longer went to the movies as a religion, but when they did, they went more and more often to witness humanity's darkest impulses enacted, which we all watch with pornographic fascination.
If you're forced to choose one great moviemaker from history as greatest of them all, it still probably has to be Hitch, though maybe Spielberg at this point, but either way, what a pity that is. In terms of movies that capture something elemental about the human story, Welles has Citizen Kane, Renoir has Rules of the Game and The Grand Illusion, Ozu has Tokyo Story, but Hitch has Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train, The Birds, The Wrong Man, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Dial M for Murder - not to mention all the only slightly lesser classics of his career in the 30's and 40's. Nearly every one of the flicks Hitch made between 1950 and 1963 is a modern myth, with stories so simple but so relevant to modern life that even if the truths they reveal are a little simplistic, they're so expert in how they play our unconscious fears and desires like a piano that even the snobs among us have to admit that this is still the apogee of what movies are capable of doing. Movies can convey empathy more directly than any medium ever invented, but because they can convey empathy and sympathy with the other, they can also convey fear of them, and fear is a much more powerful instinct.
Hitchcock was a phobic man; terrified of violence, of women, of the law, and of anything else that could release the destructive capacity of human beings. At the core of Hitchcock's soul is pure fear, and because he was so fearful, there is nothing in his movies that isn't calculated precisely for external effect, because to look into Hitchcock's soul is to see an extremely dark fantasy life - perhaps the closest he ever got to revealing it was Joseph Cotten's widow-murderer in Shadow of a Doubt, and that's why it was Hitch's favorite among his own movies.
There's no question that external flash and calculated effect is an enormous part of the Welles makeup, and F for Fake made plainly clear that Welles wished us to think that he had no core at all. But there was an inner core at the center of Welles. Welles could be vulnerable and extremely generous in tandem with his arrogance and irresponsibility, and he was anything but phobic. Whether or not Welles was a narcissist is an open question, but what's not an open question is his love of life, perhaps even lust for it. There was nothing of life's carnival of experiences that he did not consume with relish; and not just the obvious food and drink and sex and money, but experiences themselves. He imbibed ideas as thoroughly as he did dinner, he delighted in the company of interesting people, and even if perhaps there was some expectation of a return favor, he could be incredibly generous to other people. The most famous example is probably at the Venice Film Festival in 1948 when he withdrew The Lady from Shanghai from competition so that Olivier's Hamlet could get the Golden Lion - Welles could very much have used a Golden Lion in 1948, but there are also many many stories of his generosity in addition to the many stories of the ways he exploited people.
And because Welles loved life so much, his movies are not classics. Classics imply some kind of artificially preserved life - and we all know works of art like that, I could make a whole list of them, and these days it would obviously start with the works of Hawthorne. But Welles is alive, alive in the same way that his idol Shakespeare is. Vertigo is a classic, it has a number of dull parts, I don't understand why people think it's one of the greatest movies ever made, for me it's not even top 5 Hitchcock. Citizen Kane does not have a single dull moment. It's exactly two hours, and the whole thing moves at the speed of light from beginning to end.
Hitchcock, great as he was, was the director who began us down the path of taking the focus off of human beings and back onto visual effects. Welles, as effect conscious as he was, used his effects to highlight human experience. The real subject of Citizen Kane is not Charles Foster Kane, it's the people he conned and the hollow desire less fortunate men have to emulate him; and from that point of view, even if Welles saw the people under him as an abstract mass, he was nevertheless extremely compassionate.
Hitchcock, with all his misanthropy, became a brand as cuddly as Chaplin or Spielberg. But if Welles was a brand, then he promoted it at his greatest gift's expense. Self-promotion he certainly could do, but promotion for him to make movies was completely outside of his ability, just as it was for Coppola and del Toro and so many other artists who've worked in 20th century America. So often, these are the real geniuses who make the works that stay truly alive, and they burn out before they can give us too many of them, because they carry the weight of speaking for others as well as themselves.
Being an artist in the 20th century is so incredibly different from anything beforehand. It was already completely different between the 19th and for millenia before that, because before the 19th century, artists were thought to be servants to the truth - religious truth or monarchical truth or whatever other hierarchical order to which they served power, but with the dissolution of the unbreakable religious/hierarchical hold on the human mind, people found themselves for the first time required to discover meanings for life of their own, and into that void stepped the help of Beethoven, and Tolstoy, and Goethe, and Wagner, and Dostoevsky, and Turner, and Schubert, and Austen, and Whitman, and Goya, and Dickens, and Mozart, and Ibsen, and Keats, and Henry James, and Rodin, and Mahler, and Delacroix, and Baudelaire, and Conrad, and Schumann, and Wordsworth, and Courbet, and Shelley, and Hugo, and Mussorgsky, and Blake, and Chopin, and Byron, and Van Gogh, and Bizet, and Chekhov, and the Brontes, and Monet, and Shaw, and Stendahl, and Verdi, and George Eliot, and Renoir, and Liszt, and Balzac, and Manet, and all manner of older artists like Shakespeare and Michelangelo and Bach whom intellectuals showed to have revealed meanings to us long before poetic meaning was considered so important to the world. In the 19th century, 'art' meant revealed truth, it meant that in a universe in which old meanings have been shown false, we artists will show you true meaning.
But in the 20th century, with the invention of mechanical reproduction, the world of the arts took yet another quantum leap, and I couldn't even begin to list a small fraction the important figures in this one. In a world in which great art can be reproduced endlessly, so can a world in which the means to learn how to create great art can, so can entirely new mediums to create and distribute art, and so could it all be done in places like California which the 19th century would have considered on the edge of the earth. Perhaps another quantum leap is imminent in the 21st century, and we'll talk about that more in future podcasts as well.
Because of the ubiquity of great art, it was also in a sense cheapened. A Beethoven symphony was no longer an event to which you had to travel many hours to hear, or spend hours learning the piano to play yourself, it was something available to you at the click of a button that you could place between your ears. A one-foot-tall Michelangelo's David could stand on your coffeetable. A novel by Tolstoy that takes fifty hours to read could be done as a one-hour radio or TV show.
So little effort need apparently be put into appreciating the meaning of what makes art art, or what makes great art great, that it is very easy to say that there's no verifiable metric for us to say that a work whose dimensions can be instantly assimilated has no less claim to greatness as something that takes years to do the same. And at the same time, it's nearly as easy for educated people to say that a work that makes no concessions at all to the new reality of our popular culture contains artistic greatness.
Reality, probably as ever, is more complicated... Great artists of the 19th century, born to the bourgeois class, creating art for people who fundamentally resemble them in particulars of class, status, race, and geography, and who could live through the fallow periods of their careers on family money or the loans of wealthy friends, could take it for granted that their audiences had relatively fixed notions of meaning and worldviews and form, so if the artists were particularly brilliant people, they could find incredibly creative ways of revealing or undermining or shifting those meanings. The greatest possible success usually meant an audience of roughly a million people.
Even at its easiest, making art of quality was hard. But art in the 20th century was a still much harder task. There were many many more artists who created great work, and far less who did it consistently. There were just too many variables. Even artists born to the upper-middle-class didn't have a reliable source of money to keep making art if there was no market for what they made. The commercial success of those artists who did become successful was so great that there was no way to not engorge themselves on all the various options available to them. The 20th century was an era of abundance, and too much of a good thing is often a curse.
This is a much too large subject to explore much more today than we have already, but in the most general sense, what this means for artists is that while it is, by definition, a privilege to be an artist, it's still one of the disaster-prone lives there is. Let's just leave it there for now...