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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