A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Friday, May 27, 2016

Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

Things I don't like about Citizen Kane:

  • The "News on the March" montage. It's an efficient way of cluing the audience in to what it's about to see, but is it necessary? And was it necessary to make it a parody of "The March of Time" newsreel, down to the use of the Timespeak so deftly lampooned by Wolcott Gibbs ("Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind")? 
  • Susan Alexander Kane. Not only did Welles leave himself open to charges that he was caricaturing William Randolph Hearst's relationship with his mistress, Marion Davies, but he unwittingly damaged Davies's lasting reputation as a skillful comic actress. We still read today that Susan Alexander (whose minor talent Kane exploits cruelly) is to be identified as Welles's portrait of Davies, when in fact Welles admired Davies's work. But beyond that, Susan (Dorothy Comingore) is an underwritten and inconsistent character -- at one point a sweet and trusting object of Kane's affections and later in the film a vituperative, illiterate shrew and still later a drunk. What was it in her that Kane (Orson Welles) initially saw? From the moment she first lunges at the high notes in "Una voce poco fa," it's clear to anyone, unless Kane is supposed to have a tin ear, that she has no future as an opera star. Does she exist in the film primarily to demonstrate Kane's arrogance of power? A related quibble: I find the portrayal of her exasperated Italian music teacher, Matiste (Fortunio Bonanova), a silly, intrusive bit of tired comic relief.   
  • Rosebud. The most famous of all MacGuffins, the thing on which the plot of Citizen Kane depends. It's not just that the explanation of how it became so widely known as Kane's last word is so feeble -- was the sinister butler, Raymond (Paul Stewart) in the room when Kane died, as he seems to say? -- it's that the sled itself puts so much psychological weight on Kane's lost childhood, which we see only in the scenes of his squabbling parents (Agnes Moorehead and Harry Shannon). The defense insists that the emphasis on Rosebud is mistakenly put there by the eager press, and that the point is that we often try to explain the complexity of a life by seizing on the wrong thing. But that seems to me to burden the film with more message than it conveys. 
And yet, and yet ... it's one of the great films. Its exploration of film technique, particularly by Gregg Toland's deep-focus photography, is breathtaking. Perry Ferguson's sets (though credited to RKO art department head Van Nest Polglase) loom magnificently over the action. Bernard Herrmann's score -- it was his first film -- is legendary. And it is certainly one of the great directing debuts in film history. I don't think it's the greatest film ever made. In the top ten, maybe, but it seems to me artificial and mechanical in comparison to the depiction of actual human life in Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953), the elevation of the gangster genre to incisive social and political critique in the first two Godfather films (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972, 1974), the delicious explorations of obsessive behavior in any number of Alfred Hitchcock movies, the epic treatment of Russian history in Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966), and the tribulations of growing up in the Apu trilogy (Satyajit Ray, 1955, 1956, 1959). And there are lots of films by Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, Luis Buñuel, François Truffaut, Robert Bresson, and Jean-Luc Godard that I would watch before I decide to watch Kane again. There are times when I think Welles's debut film has been overrated because he had a great start, battled a formidable foe in William Randolph Hearst, and inadvertently revealed how conventional Hollywood filmmaking was -- for which Hollywood never forgave him. It's common to say that Citizen Kane was prophetic, because the downfall of Charles Foster Kane anticipated the downfall of Orson Welles. That's oversimple, but like many oversimplifications it contains a germ of truth.