June 30, 2008

The Hearts of Age (1934)

In 1938, a young actor and theater director named Orson Welles earned notoriety and recognition when his radio play version of H. G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" was broad-casted, shocking the nation and prompting many studios to notice Welles' talent. This success would take Welles to Hollywood where in 1941, he would direct what is now considered by many critics as the best movie ever made, the influential classic "Citizen Kane". At the age of 26, Welles had already made the movie of his lifetime, and was about to begin a career that despite the many troubles he found (mainly studio interference), managed to produce excellent results. However, "Citizen Kane" wasn't the first time this prodigy had made a movie, as before "Kane" the young Welles made 2 short films that helped him to experiment with the medium. The first one was "The Hearts of Age", a film he did when he was only 19.

"The Hearts of Age" is a surrealist film based on ideas about old age, decrepitude and death. Virginia Nicholson plays an Old Woman, sitting on a bell on the top of a house while a black servant (Paul Edgerton) rings the bell. She seems to enjoy the feeling of the bell moving with her on top as she watches people coming by, and gets angered whenever her servant stops to rest a bit. Soon, a sinister man (Orson Welles) appears, acting exaggeratedly polite to her, and becoming interested in her servant. Soon she discovers that the sinister man is Death, as he begins to do his job with some of the people she has seen. The Lady doesn't seem to care much until he decides to go after her servant, whose death would mean that the bell would stop moving. As she watches how his servant dies, she discovers that she is also on Death's list.

Cryptic and strange, this 8 minutes short film was written by Welles in an apparent attempt to satirize the surrealist movies of Jean Cocteau, or at least that's what he said about it many years later. It certainly follows the style and structure (or lack of one) of the works of surrealists (like Buñuel for example), as the plot is developed in a dreamlike fashion, often illogical and filled with metaphors about the main theme. In this case, theme is mortality, the nature of death and how people reacts to it. The movie also touches the subject of the hypocrisy of the attitudes towards black people that people of his time used to have. While this may sound like a honest attempt to satirize what Welles sees as the pretentiousness of surrealist artists, it never truly achieves that purpose and in the end it feels more pretentious and over-the-top as the movies is attempting to parody.

While of course nowhere near the movies he would make later in his career, "The Hearts of Age" does show two interesting traits that would later become trademarks of Welles' style. First, a highly creative camera-work, which even in this experimental stage already shows that Welles understands the limitless possibilities of cinema and its value to tell stories visually. The second of those traits is his stylish use of editing (sadly something he wouldn't be able to show in many of his movies), which in this films still shows a lot of influence from Soviet montage theory, but that later would evolve into the perfect complement for his cinematography. Something that can also be seen in this short film is that even at the age of 19, Welles already knew what to get from his actors, and had the skill to direct them properly into delivering what he wanted.

Considering the style of the short, this last thing may sound insignificant, but one can't deny that while certainly the movie is nothing more than a mere amateurish experiment, it shows that Welles truly had a prodigious talent despite the lack of a properly written script. The cast is good in their roles, although as written above, the main weakness in in the script. It's not that it's bad (it actually handles symbolism in a remarkable way), it's just that it seems to take itself too seriously for its own sake that it ends up making the film a but boring despite the short runtime. Welles himself considered the movie more an experiment on film-making than an actual film, and watching the results, it's hard to disagree with him, as the technical aspects are far more interesting than the artistic merit of "The Hearts of Age".

Wheter he truly intended to make fun of surrealism or actually failed in an attempt of making surreal art, it is truly an impossible thing to know for sure; but what we do know is that this first movie marked the beginning of Welles' interest in film-making as an extension for his work at the theater. An interest that would transform into an obsession that would become the force behind some of the most significant films in the history of cinema. "The Hearts of Age" is not exactly something amazing, but given its historical importance, it is a required viewing for anyone remotely interested in the career of one of the most important men in film-making: Orson Welles. Weak, confusing and a tad pretentious, "The Hearts of Age" is the proof that even giants started small.



ackatsis said...

This one is a real baffler. My interpretation is that Welles is actively satirising the surrealistic cinema of the age ("Un chien andalou," "The Blood of a Poet" etc) and so, though the film doesn't really make any sense, is nonsensicalness is quite a deliberate a move on the director's part.

I gave it a 6/10, as well. Intriguing, but rather pointless.

ackatsis said...

Any idea what happened to co-director William Vance?