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Sight & Sound and the Fury

Some thoughts in the immediate aftermath of Sight & Sound’s 2012 “Greatest Films of All Time” list…

1) Vertigo is #1, narrowly edging out Citizen Kane. What does this mean? Not a whole hell of a lot. Both movies are still great: still formally and thematically dense, still fun to watch and write about, still excellent representations of their directors’ respective skills and obsessions. But of course these poll results will still stir up a lot of shit like “Kane was overrated; glad it lost” and “Vertigo isn’t even Hitchcock’s best.” Then, over the next decade, Vertigo’s new status will probably lead some folks to ascribe “cultural vegetable” traits (you know: boring! slow! unwatchable!) to what is, more or less, a lurid thriller. So, the same old posturing and bitching that always follow huge announcements like this.

2) But here’s the thing: this is really an opportunity. Kane’s “downfall” after 50 years (though come on—it’s still at #2!) can function less as a regime change than a reality check, inviting us to view the poll less hierarchically. Because that illusory “greatest film” hasn’t changed over the past ten years; critical reputations have. Maybe without that one canonized-since-1962 title at the top of the list, it’ll be easier to see that. With a new #1 for the world’s most prestigious film poll, maybe anything goes. Vertigo’s ascendance could grant us a new perspective on the poll and recenter the experience around the sheer fun of listmaking and list-reading.

3) Because, as always, let’s not take this too seriously. Let’s take it as a spark to light up our enthusiasm. As a series of great viewing suggestions. Lest you treat the S&S poll as more than a loose critical barometer, remember that it relies entirely on consensus accumulating around certain titles; if a filmmaker (like, say, Howard Hawks) doesn’t yet have a single canonical masterpiece, it’s near-impossible for them to squeeze in. (Although, impressively, Ozu ended up with two movies in the top 15.) Honestly, I’d prefer a poll run according to Kristin Thompson’s suggestion from earlier this year:

I think this business of polls and lists for the greatest films of all times would be much more interesting if each film could only appear once. Having gained the honor of being on the list, each title could be retired, and a whole new set concocted ten years later.

Now wouldn’t that be fun?

4) Silent cinema! This year’s top 10 saw four movies (Singin’ in the Rain, Battleship Potemkin, and Godfathers 1 and 2) traded for three: The Searchers, Man with a Movie Camera, and The Passion of Joan of Arc. Which means two new silent movies! And the voting body couldn’t have selected a better pair: one a playful blurring of art and the mundane, the other an austere descent into religious mania and torture. If I may indulge my inner statistics nerd: the top 10 has grown older since 2002, with the average release year going from 1952 to 1946. (Or 1946.2, to be exact.) On the one hand, this goes along with the poll’s tendency to ignore the bulk of recent cinema. (Only 13 out of the top 50 were made post-1970.) On the other hand, I don’t mind that, because Vertov and Dreyer are so much more in danger of being forgotten than, say, Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. I still love those latter two directors, but more silents on such a prominent list can only be a good thing.

Wow, I just got so meta about film culture that I made myself dizzy.

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Yes We Kane

[The following was written for the Great Citizen Kane Debate, hosted by True Classics.]

First off, full disclosure: My middle name is Orson, after our favorite cinematic wunderkind. Make of that what you will.

Now on to the meat of the issue: Citizen Kane is a fucking incredible movie. Wanna talk broadly about its influence and artistry? OK, then: it’s a Ulysses-like encapsulation of American history spanning 1895-1941, of political/economic ambition and its downfall, of the Faustian bargain that constitutes the “American dream,” all told with wit and tragedy and chiaroscuro poetry. It’s a mad gambit by a first-time filmmaker that’s since become a byword for great Hollywood cinema.

But less loftily: It’s fun. It’s puckish. It’s one of my “raw pleasure” movies—a joy to quote and rewatch ad nauseum. I never understand it when people complain about Kane as if it’s this hulking, glacial, inaccessible art film. Are they watching the same Kane I am, the one bubbling with jokes and cute banter? Yes, it’s haunted by Charlie’s broken childhood, his spoiled dreams of high office, and his ruinous relationship with poor Susan. But it’s the very opposite of a slog.

One of Kane‘s many miracles is that it’s so dense, so full, and somehow still so light. It has Joseph Cotten at his finest, dropping self-deprecating one-liners left and right; it has Gregg Toland’s impossibly inventive camera, like the bastard child of a kaleidoscope and an angel; it has that adorable scene where Charlie alleviates Susan’s toothache through laughter; and of course it has Welles himself, a boy genius both within and without the film, laughing at the world while haunted by his past and future.

It’s so poignant, but so charming. So cynical, but so alive. It’s a romance, a biopic, an epic, a film noir, a horror movie, a political thriller, a drama set in the world of turn-of-the-century journalism… it’s such a massive, magical feat that I can’t help but react with awe and delight. I love every frame, every line, every performance in Kane. Like I said: a fucking incredible movie.

As for this “greatest movie of all time” thing? It’s a silly diversion from the movie’s true power. I have nothing against Sight & Sound‘s once-a-decade polls, the same ones that canonized Kane; in fact, I think they can be a handy barometer of critical opinion. However, these polls have also given hordes of adolescent cinephiles the false impression that calling Kane “boring” is an act of courage. Come on, everybody. We’re better than that. Cinema isn’t a horse race; it’s a cornucopia, with no single “greatest movie” looking down on the rest. Appreciate movies for their own merits, not because they have (or have not) been voted “the best.”

And while you’re at it, watch Citizen Kane. Because it’s a really funny, tender, smart, incredible movie.

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Horror is everywhere (1)

Since so much of the critical discourse around horror tends to describe it as a “ghetto genre,” stuck in the gutter of low budgets and low culture, it’s easy to imagine it as walled off from the rest of film. But, well, that’s just not the case – and the sooner we realize it, the happier we’ll be. Because the fact is, as I say in the title of this post: horror is everywhere. It’s not just in ’50s B-movies and ’70s slashers and monster rampages and gore. It’s all over the place in mainstream Hollywood cinema. It’s in austere art films. Only a thin, imaginary line separates the worlds of Herk Harvey, Lars von Trier, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Ingmar Bergman.

In order to demonstrate this point, I’ve gone through the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? aggregated list of the 1,000 highest-ranked films of all time, and picked out ones that show the influence of the horror genre. Because horror isn’t just a hidden, perverse bastard genre. It’s an impulse whose tentacles reach into all eras and regions. Horror touches all artists whether they like it or not. So here are some critically acclaimed films that deserve to be located within the tradition of horror.

Citizen Kane (1941) – TSPDT ranking: #1

Who do you think dwells in that far-off, menacing mansion? Maybe Dr. Frankenstein? Mr. Sardonicus? No, that’s Xanadu, the final home of the title character in Citizen Kane. In the film’s opening sequence, Welles invokes haunted house iconography, moving us closer and closer to Xanadu through a series of eerie dissolves; Bernard Herrmann’s creepy score accentuates the feeling. Welles was no stranger to scaring people (remember, he’d punk’d the nation with The War of the Worlds just 3 years earlier), and he knew how to make Kane seem distant and foreboding: introduce him with a dash of Gothic horror. Kane’s rigid, Karloffian outburst after Susan leaves him later in the film just drives the point home.

Vertigo (1958) – TSPDT ranking: #2

Like Welles, Alfred Hitchcock was no stranger to horror. He flirted with the genre throughout his career, producing movies that were terrifying and mysterious, but still better categorized as “suspense” or “thrillers.” Still, he made one of the earliest serial killer movies (The Lodger), and helped establish the slasher and killer animal subgenres with Psycho and The Birds. In Vertigo, often considered his masterpiece, he even dabbled with the supernatural through a red herring reincarnation story. Sure, Madeleine/Judy turns out to be a total fake, but the film still contains moments of potent psychological horror – like the wonderful dream sequence pictured above, which is easily one of my favorite cinematic nightmares.

The Rules of the Game (1939) – TSPDT ranking: #3

I’m not trying to suggest that Renoir’s playful, lusty tragicomedy is secretly a horror movie. But I just really love Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, and I love Renoir’s very theatrical take on it. This macabre little dance routine is performed by members of the nobility for the benefit of their friends, and also for us, the audience. In a movie where trivialities and misguided passions lead to serious consequences, it only makes sense that skeletons and ghosts should be reduced to characters in a brief entertainment.

The Third Man (1949) – TSPDT ranking: #30

Postwar Vienna is a scary place. At least, that’s the lesson learned by hack writer Holly Martins after he pays the city a visit. In addition to dealing with international politics, canted angles, and the maybe dead, maybe evil Harry Lime, Martins and his not-quite-girlfriend Anna have to evade this creepy little Austrian kid who’s accusing them of murder. Throughout the film (which is one of my favorites ever), director Carol Reed pours on the expressionism, to the point that you’re not sure whether Holly and Anna are coming or going. The war-damaged state of the city’s streets and buildings doesn’t help. Combine this disorientation with a demon child right out an Austrian version of The Omen, and you’ve reached the point where noir meets horror.

The Conversation (1974) – TSPDT ranking: #166

Most of Francis Ford Coppola’s least-recognized masterpiece sits in “lonely paranoid thriller” territory, very much in line with the ’70s work of others like Scorsese, Pakula, and Polanski. But toward the end, as Gene Hackman’s surveillance expert Harry Caul realizes the complexity of the conspiratorial web he’s trapped in, the movie has some hallucinatory moments of real horror. Caul glances around an empty hotel room where he suspects a murder has been committed, then innocuously flushes the toilet… and out pours blood in a Shining-style deluge. We’ve also got Robert Duvall’s bloody handprint smeared on a window.

Initially, The Conversation‘s iciness and formal refinement may seem light-years away from the off-the-cuff gruesomeness of something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But really, to paraphrase Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat, they’re “sisters under the mink.” Or, to put it in more prosaic terms, they’re “surprisingly similar after you disregard artificial notions of high and low culture.” Whether you love or hate horror movies, it’s time to set aside these false distinctions, break through the self-imposed barriers, and realize that all of cinema is interconnected. And to hammer that point home, I’ll have more “Horror is everywhere” for you each week throughout October.

Pleasant nightmares, all!

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Americana Satanica

William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) is a perfect movie for the tail end of the Great Depression. It’s about Jabez Stone (James Craig), an unlucky New Hampshire farmer, who strikes a Faustian bargain in order to stave off foreclosure. The movie is set in 1840, but the dilemma was just as familiar a century later. With its message of family values and collective action, it’s just as topical and vaguely socialist as Frank Capra classics like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. But it’s also a smart blend of fantasy and horror, featuring still-impressive special effects and a diabolical, Oscar-nominated Walter Huston in the first of the title roles.

The other title role – the non-diabolical one – is played by Edward Arnold, who’s better-known for playing Wall Street fat cats (and sometimes fascists) in the afore-mentioned Capra political dramas. Webster initially acts as a folksy mentor figure for Jabez, but as his lucre expands, he casts aside Webster’s lessons and his mother’s piety, embracing the besotted “good life” with his new maid Belle, who comes from “over the mountain.” But when time comes to literally give the devil, aka Mr. Scratch, his due, Webster is back with all his orating power to reclaim Jabez’s soul.

Superficially, The Devil and Daniel Webster is a well-crafted assemblage of cornball Americana. The film’s dialogue is obsessed with national identity, rugged individualism, and the values of the common man. It equates bourgeois luxury, like the mansion that Jabez moves into, with selfishness, foreignness, and, well, Satan. Belle, after all, is played with seductive decadence by Simone Simon, the femme fatale of Renoir’s La Bête Humaine, flourishing that sexy French accent as she tempts Jabez away from his wife and son. And Jabez’s Bible-thumping mother is Jane Darwell, who represented “the people” as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.

So when it’s plugged into the film’s early American framework, this casting is practically allegorical. Darwell is gratitude and hard work; Simone is excess and dirty fun. So the film was extremely timely, as much of an American national myth as anything John Ford was making at the time (The Grapes of Wrath included). But it was also stylistically advanced enough that it hasn’t lost any of its demonic charm. The film’s lighting and focus are manipulated to produce some very eerie visual effects.

The Devil and Daniel Webster shares its composer (Bernard Herrmann), editor (Robert Wise), and studio (RKO) with Citizen Kane, and it shows. Kane‘s richly stylized opening sequence makes Xanadu feel like a haunted house; similarly, the collision of Herrmann’s echoing score with Dieterle’s fantastic visions makes the devil’s presence surprisingly believable. But Huston’s cackling, maniacal performance sure doesn’t hurt.

Huston just steals the show with his unabashedly evil performance. (The same goes for Simon, to some extent.) During a frenzied dance, he fiddles wildly; when Ma Stone approaches during a conference with Jabez, he dashes off with bountiful energy. (Keep in mind that Huston was in his mid-fifties at the time.) He gnaws on carrots like a hellbound Bugs Bunny, and eagerly shares in some rum while debating with Daniel Webster. Huston’s Mr. Scratch isn’t grim or power-obsessed. Even when he loses the case, he doesn’t let it get him down. He heads out, steals Ma Stone’s pie, and turns his soul-searching gaze on the audience itself.

Mr. Scratch is the world’s most experienced salesman. He’s the kind of guy you could imagine selling your soul to; he makes being damned look like a damn good time. Even when Craig’s brooding and indecision get a little repetitive, when Arnold’s laid-back speechifying get a little too self-righteous, Huston is there to give the film momentum. If he got fed up and cartwheeled off-screen, it would hardly be surprising.

And now, as a final treat, here’s a none-too-subtle visual joke I noticed. Since this was 1941, they couldn’t show sexual intercourse onscreen. But through the magic of editing, they could imply so much more. In one scene, Jabez Stone embraces his wife…

Then we fade to black, and cut to:

Jabez “plowing the fields.” I think you can infer what that means. And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I make my exit.

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One Hour Mark: Citizen Kane

Learn from the best, they say. Or, in this case, steal from the best. I’m ripping off an idea from two of my favorite film bloggers, Stacie Ponder of Final Girl and Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience, and taking screenshots from one chronological point in different movies – specifically, 1:00:00. (To see where I got it from, see Final Girl’s “23:45” and The Film Experience’s “20:07” and “Halfway House”.) I think it’s a fabulous concept, and I want to employ it to 1) force myself to think about a wide variety of movies, including ones I haven’t watched in a while, and 2) go back to what should always be our starting point when analyzing films – i.e., the text itself. I just get a thrill out of close viewing, and drawing my conclusions out of how the images are constructed. Hopefully this series can be an easy & accessible way for me to do just that.

That said, our first image comes from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), which is always a good jumping-off point for projects like this. The general consensus “greatest film of all time” since the early ’60s, it’s a bombshell of modernist filmmaking that launched several careers and countless critical debates while announcing the arrival of Welles as a major force in Hollywood. (That announcement would be silenced by William Randolph Hearst’s immediate campaign of repression, as well as the wartime failure of Welles’ masterpiece #2, The Magnificent Ambersons.) With that broader context in place, let’s see what this single frame has to say about Kane‘s greatness.

This is Charles Foster Kane’s happenstance first tryst with “singer” Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), at least according to Jed Leland’s memory. It starts with a meet-cute (mud splashed on his clothes, she has a toothache) and rapidly becomes more intimate, largely due to Welles’ performance, which can shift in an instant from boyish charm to world-weariness. Kane has just asked Susan to sing for him, after they had this little exchange:

Susan: …I wanted to be a singer, I guess. That is, I didn’t. My mother did for me.

Kane: What happened to singing?

Susan: Well, mother always thought, she always talked about grand opera for me. Imagine. But my voice isn’t that kind. It’s just, well, you know what mothers are like.

Kane: Yes, I know… have you got a piano?

Kane leans back, pipe in mouth, as Susan sings/plays the aria “Una voce poco fa” (“A voice just now”) from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. This scene is at once reminiscent of Kane’s past, and his future. The comfort with which he reclines while watching Susan recalls his initial bliss with his wife Emily, and a dissolve shortly thereafter to a different angle recalls the famous breakfast scene illustrating their marriage’s collapse. This is Kane precariously located in the heights of infatuation; cynically, we can say that he’s just scoping out another project to feed his ambitions. The main difference, after all, between this scene and the earlier ones with Emily, is that Kane is now older and more authoritative. His boyishness is no longer his essence, but an attribute to be demonstrated and then set aside.

Instead, his affection for Susan is tainted by his implicit power over her, soon to be manifested in their day-to-day lives. The fact that this scene ends with Kane’s applause for Susan and segues into a crowd’s applause for Kane’s gubernatorial campaign further shows that their relationship is far from egalitarian, even in its innocent beginnings, and that Kane is fundamentally interested in giving her “love on his own terms” – the same offer he extends to the voters. By default, the complications of class, age, and gender trouble the balance of power between them. The cute domesticity of this scene is especially tragic, since this aria will soon be reprised during a tortuous singing lesson, as Kane’s domination leads Susan to hate him and herself. In that tiny verbal twist – “That is, I didn’t [want to be a singer]. My mother did for me,” – which Kane totally ignores, the couple plant the seeds of their eventual misery.

Visually, the scene is an overcrowded delight and an example of cinematographer Gregg Toland working subtly but brilliantly. All the light appears to flow from the three on-screen lamps, positioned to illuminate Kane and Susan’s faces in contrast with the rest of the room. Susan’s room is full of knickknacks, from pictures and statues to a snow globe visible in an earlier shot, and they give the room a feeling of depth and of homeliness. The warmth of Susan’s apartment, with its few clocks and figurines, will be ironically echoed in the cavernous expanse of Xanadu. Every time I watch Kane, I marvel at how tightly structured it is. Even in a shot that contains no action beyond singing, Welles is quietly paving the way for Kane’s downfall.

A quick note about the specific aria: I don’t want to read too deeply into this, but the purpose of “Una voce poco fa” within The Barber of Seville strikes me as having some nice parallels with Kane. Rosina sings about her desire for Lindoro, whom she has just met, and who is in fact the wealthy Count Almaviva in disguise. Susan sings the line, “Yes, Lindoro shall be mine, I swear it, I shall win.” Meanwhile, she’s singing to a newspaper tycoon, ignorant of his power and money, and will soon become his second wife. At the very least, it feels appropriate, and Kane is so cleverly put-together that it wouldn’t surprise me if this was a conscious decision.

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