By Ladd Ehlinger Jr.
Ladd Ehlinger Jr. produced and directed the 2007 animated cult film Flatland [dvd]. The first feature film to be completely CGI animated by one person in Lightwave 3D, it received rave reviews. Phil Hall of Film Threat stated that "Flatland is a work of genius, and animation has a new force of power in Ehlinger," and Paul Di Phillipo of Scifi.com called it a "glorious mathematical mystery tour."
When Green Cine picked up Flatland for inclusion in our library, we thought it would be cool for Ladd to write a series of articles providing a filmmaker's perspective to the world of independent and classic film.
Subsequent blog articles will deal with the future of animated film; the films that most influenced him; and more.
I thought it fitting for my first article for Green Cine (or anyone else, for that matter) to start with the prime number of classic film: Orson Welles and the monolithic Citizen Kane.
A mini-industry has developed around Welles's personality. Critics and biographers, in a gross parody of leaches on a warm body, have swarmed his remains, until all that can be seen is a thick parasitic crust. The leaches chatter about how the great man fell after Citizen Kane. They chitter about the lost genius and the ultimate failure of his career. They are in need of a good dose of salt. Let us spend no more time on them.
Much has been written on the cinematic techniques of Welles's work. The wide angles, the dutch angles, the low angles; the chiarascuro, sfumato, and overlapping dialogue. Almost all of this analysis is based not on what is unique to Welle's work internally, but what can be gleaned from the surface. Any idiot can hire a cinematographer to tilt the camera, so who cares about the tracking shots and wide camera angles? What is important is this: how does one employ these tools to create great art?
Superficial filmmakers, fed by superficial film schools and film books, end up equating Welle's style with substance, and parrot these techniques blindly. The most famous example? Most likely the warehouse sequence in the first "Indiana Jones" film, reminiscent of the final sequence of "Citizen Kane." Pop-culture noted the meme that Speilberg touched, and lavished praise for his depth of movie knowledge. It struck me as a perverse form of cinematic necrophilia.
So let's approach Welles without the perversion and decadence by taking a moment to talk about Rene Magritte's painting, The Treachery of Images.
"Ceci n'est pas une pipe" translates to "This is not a pipe."
So if it is not a pipe, what is it? It is a representation, an image, of a pipe. The word "pipe" is equal to or equivalent to "image of a pipe." Both perform the same function. The title of the painting is certainly appropriate; whenever we are confronted with a representational image, we are in danger of forgetting that we are looking at an image of a thing, not the thing itself.
Magritte's painting has profound implications for us in this age of cinema, video, and YouTube. With 24, 30, or 60 images flying at us per second, the greater meaning can slip past - if we can even recognize or comprehend that there may, or can be, a greater meaning. After all, the most popular videos on YouTube feature puppies, mentos, and girls jumping on trampolines. The Treachery of Images, indeed. Western civilization is quickly devolving into a mass of unseeing eyes disconnected from comprehension.
But why bring up Magritte? As a filmmaker, I roughly categorize my colleagues into two camps: the escapists and the "pipers." We have a dearth of escapists these days, from youTube mentos munchers all the way up to Michael Bay. We are surrounded by a mob of carnival barkers happy to stuff us with cotton candy.
But there are very few "pipers," filmmakers who weave and infuse images with meaning that support the greater whole of their art.
Welles was an intricate piper, and his first film, while certainly not his best (I'll explore his greater works in later columns), was a hint of things to come. Take, for instance, the picnic scene in which Susan Alexander, Kane's second wife, has a temper tantrum in a tent and is slapped by Kane.
It starts with a funeral-like procession of cars driving to the picnic, which then opens with the jazz-dirge "It Can't be Love." An elderly Kane argues with Susan as noises from the party outside can be heard. Angered by Susan's shrill accusations, Kane leaps to his feet, looms over his wife.
Kane: Whatever I do, I do because I love you.
Susan: You don't love me. You want me to love you. Sure. I'm Charles Foster Kane. Whatever you want, just name it and it's yours. But you gotta love me.
Kane slaps her. The sound of a woman partygoer laughing in the background can be heard as Susan stares up at him.
Susan: Don't tell me you're sorry.
Kane: I'm not sorry.
The sound of the partygoer continues as Susan stares up at Kane in defiance.
Then the image dissolves to a stained glass window in Xanadu, Kane's palacial hideaway. We are trained to view such dissolves as nothing more than a way to go from one scene to another, to show that time is passing. In a pavlovian manner, we turn off our brains and wait for the next scene to come along. But note the progression of the dissolve imagery, and how it bolsters and comments on the scene:
Note how scales of justice evolve from Susan's right eye, and an omniscient / masonic eye evolves from her left. Note the other images in the window, the bird, the book, the chalice; note the fractured nature of those images, their religious nature, their secular nature. It is a jigsaw puzzle. Weeks could be spent contemplating this one moment, this incredibly labyrinthian knot in the thematic web of Citizen Kane. There are countless other examples of this sort of imagic weaving, or "piping", throughout the film, that only a very few critics or analysts have ever truly touched on. But for me, it is just these sorts of labyrinths that give the film its value.
Speaking of labirynths, Jorge Luis Borges once wrote that "...forms of multiplicity and incongruity abound in the film: the first scenes record the treasures amassed by Kane; in one of the last, a poor woman, luxuriant and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a palace that is also a museum... At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by a secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances."
To which I might add: yes, and the irony is that the film Citizen Kane achieves unity through this chaos.
As a filmmaker, I find that the greatness of Welles has nothing to do with his personality, the "stylishness" of the angles, or any of the other things that critics and analysts alike point to. No, his greatness was born from his ability to bring order to chaos through a crucial understanding, which is the great unspoken secret of all great films:
This is not a pipe.
You can contact Ladd Ehlinger Jr. at ladd at flatlandthefilm.com.
Flatland on Green Cine
Flatland The Film Home Page
Flatland on IMDB
Flatland on Wikipedia
Citizen Kane on Green Cine
Citizen Kane on IMDB
Citizen Kane on Wikipedia
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