Tag Archives: orson welles

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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Link Dump: #38

Hey, look! It’s the cutest kitty in all of science fiction! Of course I speak of Jones, resident feline of the spaceship Nostromo. He may have led Ripley to risk her life needlessly, but really, look at him. You can’t be angry with that kitty. Now here are some links:

Not much lately in the way of search terms, but I did enjoy “why copy editors are important.” In case you were wondering, it’s because copy-editing makes writing coherent and professional. Hurray for correct grammar and spelling!

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Five Reasons to Donate, for the Love of Film (Noir)

Over at Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films, the For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathon rages on, raising money for the Film Noir Foundation and the preservation of our dark cinematic heritage. However, despite all the gorgeous, noir-loving prose being churned out by the blogathon’s dozens of contributors, they’re still behind on donations. And not enough donations means they can’t save Cy Endfield’s The Sound of Fury. But all is not lost. You can help. Do you love film noir? Do you have any excess income whatsoever? Then donate. Please. I’m a poor, beleaguered college student and I still managed to scrounge up $5.

But I won’t waste your time just begging. I’ll prove to you why you should donate your hard-earned $$$ to this most worthy of charitable causes. So, properly illustrated with high-contrast images pulled from some of the best noirs that Netflix Instant has to offer, here they are: The Top Five Reasons You Should Donate to the Film Noir Foundation.

5) For the way Rita Hayworth’s curls bounce when she raises her head

And, by extension, for all the fiery, erotic moments tucked inside great film noirs. (By the way, did anyone ever resolve that pluralization problem?) This may just be a tiny, half-second-long gesture on Hayworth’s part, but it’s still one of those indelible introductions, as she vertically enters the frame (and our hearts) with an unmistakable mix of coyness and confidence. Regardless of the movie’s garbled sexual politics, we can all concur that Gilda is more than decent.

4) For narrow stairways and back alleys around the world

When the soon-to-be-blacklisted Endfield was making The Sound of Fury in America, Jules Dassin had already emigrated to England and made the grimy, beautiful Night and the City, starring Richard Widmark as cheap hustler Harry Fabian. Although it has some great demonstrations of betrayal and desperation, the film’s most memorable images are of Fabian racing across London like a trapped rat. We know he’s going to end up dead; it’s just a matter of when. Film noir has a way of taking the claustrophobia we feel on a day-to-day basis and distilling it into deliciously anxious cinema. Doesn’t that deserve your support?

3) For the eight million stories in the naked city

Noir may tend toward the pessimistic and the criminal, but it’s still a decidedly populist genre. By poking into the seedy underbelly of postwar society, noir filmmakers told stories about the have-nots who still desire, about how good people turn bad, and about what life is really like in dives and cramped apartments—albeit often through a distorted lens. It’s no coincidence that one of the first Italian neo-realist masterpieces was also a European variation on film noir, Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione. To varying degrees, film noir was about dismantling glossy Hollywood fictions and telling it straight.

(Also, I think the inclusion of two Jules Dassin movies on this list proves that Dassin is the man when it comes to noir. If Night and the City and The Naked City pique your interest, you should look into Brute Force and Thieves’ Highway as well!)

2) For future generations, so they can remember a long-gone era when men wore hats

The thugs, hoodlums, and crooked cops who populate John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle may be stuck in a cycle of violence and crime, but at least they have snazzy wardrobes! This is one of film noir’s big appeals: no matter miserable the characters are, they still make fantastic fashion choices. Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity might be riding that trolley to the end of the line (and have to wear that ugly wig), but that can’t stop her from donning angora sweaters and revealing nightgowns. Who doesn’t envy all those trench coats and fedoras? They might not be very comfy, but they look awesome.

1) For the expression on Orson Welles’s face after he realizes he’s been spotted

OK, I might be biased because The Third Man is easily amongst my three-or-so favorite films of all time. But just look at that face! Welles is so intensely charming, and that caught-with-his-hands-in-the-cookie-jar expression is the icing on the cake. (Whoops, just mixed some dessert-related metaphors there.) Add in Anton Karas strumming on the zither and a perplexed Joseph Cotten, and you’ve got a scene that single-handedly justifies donating money to the Film Noir Foundation.

So do it! Click on the Maltese falcon below and give your spare ducats to a needy cause! For the sex appeal, the rain-soaked streets, the untold stories, the 1940s apparel, and Orson Welles’s roguish grin… for the love of film noir, donate.


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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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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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