I’ve more or less given up on American movies, or at least the stuff cur­rently being spewed by Hollywood. There seems to have been one mar­ket­ing focus group meet­ing too many of late. Movies are made by com­mit­tee, cyn­i­cally pack­aged based not on qual­ity, vision or merit, but rather on what’s likely to sell.

It’s so bad now that even acknowl­edged clas­sics are no longer safe from retroac­tive destruc­tion — by their own cre­ators! — as Lucas’s dig­i­tal rape of the orig­i­nal Star Wars series shows.

So it occurs that maybe I can help counter the trend a lit­tle by point­ing out movies that are, by cracky, worth see­ing, rather than sim­ply piss­ing and moan­ing about how much I hate, hate, hate Ben Affleck. (Oops, did I just say that?)

I think I’ll start with an acknowl­edged clas­sic, Citizen Kane.

Loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, this was Orson Welles’s first and, many say, best film. (The Third Man and Touch of Evil were both also quite good.) The film car­ries us, by dint of explor­ing an enig­matic word spo­ken by news tycoon Charles Foster Kane at the moment of his death, through the sin­gu­lar life and accom­plish­ments of an iconic American figure.

Iconic indeed; not only is Kane a sort of self-​​made mil­lion­aire story come to life, a fig­ure sim­i­lar to Henry Ford, but he’s also a vile, cor­rupt and manip­u­la­tive man — who doesn’t real­ize just how awful he actu­ally is. We do, of course; but we’re also taken, non­lin­early, through his his­tory, his life — and we can see how cir­cum­stances trapped him on the one hand, while he was instru­men­tal in his own liv­ing bur­ial on the other.

The film is a bril­liant indict­ment of plu­toc­racy, one we’d do well to study today, as we’re see­ing a kind of renais­sance of greed that began in the 1980s, com­ing now to a sort of spike that might or might not be the max­i­mum. It was Kane who helped incite a nation to war, not unlike a cer­tain politi­cian liv­ing today whose finan­cial inter­ests are being well-​​served by trumped-​​up bat­tle; it was Kane’s con­trol of news­pa­pers that helped make pres­i­dents, not unlike a cer­tain Aussie owner of a cer­tain fair and unbal­anced network.

While Citizen Kane has a way of human­iz­ing its sub­ject, it also might help us under­stand how the utterly ruth­less become that way — with­out, oddly enough, actu­ally ignit­ing our sym­pa­thies for them. For whle we under­stand Kane, we are not led to feel one way or another about him at all by Welles. We are left to draw our own con­clu­sions about his life.

The tech­ni­cal aspect of the film is superb. Kodak had recently come out with a new low-​​grain, high-​​speed film stock that allowed scenes to be lit using more or less legit­i­mate room light­ing, such as flames from gas lamps. That, cou­pled with inno­v­a­tive use of deep-​​focus lenses and muslin ceil­ing pan­els (allow­ing low-​​angle shots to be made that didn’t expose stu­dio lights, but allowed boom mikes behind the cloth to pick up dia­logue) rep­re­sented a kind of free­dom pre­vi­ously unex­plored in cinema.

To this was added Welles’s sense of the craft of film­mak­ing and the sophis­ti­ca­tion of audi­ences. He was a firm believer in the intel­li­gence of movie­go­ers, and used fear­less­ness in edit­ing, par­tic­u­larly time com­pres­sion.

In that cin­e­matic era, if a man were to need to, say, drive across town, he would first announce his inten­tions; the cam­era would then fol­low him to his car and show him get­ting in; he’d then drive away; we’d cut to an inte­rior shot of the car to show him dri­ving; finally we’d see the car pull up at his des­ti­na­tion and the man get­ting out.

A more effi­cient way, of course, would be for the man to announce his inten­tions. The scene would then imme­di­ately cut to the man walk­ing into the set of his des­ti­na­tion. Two or so min­utes of unnec­es­sary film would be cut out — and that was some­thing Welles did extremely well. In a famous scene from Citizen Kane, he shows us the com­plete dis­so­lu­tion of a mar­riage in the course of four or five thirty-​​second vignettes at a break­fast table, mon­taged together. We go from romance to indif­fer­ence to stony silence, under­stand­ing per­fectly what has hap­pened with­out ever hav­ing to be told.

Citizen Kane is a mod­ern movie in many ways because of these kinds of tech­niques and inno­va­tions. So much of what hap­pens onscreen feels so con­tem­po­rary that it’s very easy to for­get the film was released in 1939. There’s no naïveté, no drag to the story, no sense of cheese or dated ref­er­ences that ren­der the film unap­proach­able to today’s movie­goer. It is not a genre piece — it doesn’t fit into either the film noir or megabud­get music extrav­a­gan­zas of the time — which is one of the things that lends it its timelessness.

And, because the con­tract Welles got in pro­duc­ing the movie is so con­trol­ling, there is no way the film can ever be changed, either by a Ted Turner gone color-​​happy — or a Lucas with delu­sions of godhood.

It’s movies like this one that make films such as King Kong (2006) unwatch­able. That should make this weekend’s rental deci­sion pretty easy.


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