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Citizen Kane (1941)

citizenkaneThe greatest movie ever made! It’s intimidating. Not only was it intimidating to write about, but it was intimidating to even watch Citizen Kane. I kept putting it off and off. What if I didn’t like it? Didn’t get it? Became bored? Lost my self-respect as an old movie lover? Learned to doubt my judgment? Quit watching movies? Sunk into a depression!

Fortunately, nothing quite so dire occurred. I even enjoyed it a little and I wanted to share my thoughts and impressions and learn what other people think of this film, as well.

1. It’s not a movie; it’s a compendium of cinematic techniques! That’s a slight exaggeration. But what seems to make the movie stand out is how Welles synthesized – and enhanced – the various techniques available to a filmmaker at that time.

During the last years of the silent era, directors such as King Vidor, F.W. Murnau and Josef von Sternberg had reached a level of visual beauty and virtuosity that was sublime. Then sound became the norm and visual storytelling was replaced with dialogue. But just as early silent filmmakers had to learn how to fully exploit the visual possibilities of cinema, it took a while for filmmakers in the ’30s to learn how to fully exploit the use of sound.

What Orson Welles seems to have done – as a radio man – was to fully realize the aural possibilities of film and wed them with the visual possibilities. He allowed cinematographer Gregg Toland to indulge his use of deep focus cinematography and Welles employed various aural techniques familiar from radio, like overlapping dialogue in the montage sequences.

As far as I can tell, this is what makes Citizen Kane the greatest film of all. It is the finest example of all that is possible in film. Not that all movies should be like that (probably most shouldn’t – it would be too much to use every trick in the book in every single movie). The vast array of techniques employed by Welles is admittedly dazzling, but also distracting. I found myself repeatedly watching what the camera was doing rather than the actors. We never get to just look straight on at a character. They are always in shadows or in deep focus or with the camera looking up at them or down on them or peering closely into their face.

citizen-kane-welles-podiumBilly Wilder believed that if the audience was paying attention to a shot, it was a sign of bad directing, because the audience is not supposed to notice how a film is made, but only the story. I suppose that’s why we remember individual moments from Welles’ films and remember the stories of Wilder’s films.

2. During the opening when we are introduced to Kane’s enormously disproportionate Gothic mansion, I half-expected Dracula to walk by. Welles’ film is not only a summary of cinematic techniques, but is a summary of practically every movie genre under the sun except the western. There is the horror story, the drama, the journalism screwball comedy, documentary, political satire, mystery and detective story.

3. Much is made about Charles Foster Kane’s (Welles) desire to be loved and his inability to love. In fact, they hammer this point home so often that I kept thinking that couldn’t be the point of the film. It couldn’t be that obvious. But perhaps an obvious plot allows more room for layers of symbolism.

But as much as the film obsesses about how lonely and pathetic Kane is, in truth, everyone looks lonely and pathetic. Joseph Cotten as one-time friend Jedidiah Leland is alone in a retirement home, reduced to begging a stranger to smuggler cigars in to him. Kane’s ex-wife is alone, drunk, in a club, thinking back on all that was. Everett Sloan as Mr. Bernstein, Kane’s business manager, is alone in a cold office. Everyone is alone and disconnected and spend half their time hidden in shadows as if to reinforce how unknowable people are.

It’s a disconnected world that Welles’ creates, which makes everyone seem more pathetic than sympathetic. Kane’s loneliness is just blown-up in proportion because he’s rich and larger than life.

4. Charles Foster Kane was essentially raised by a bank. George Coulouris as Walter Parks Thatcher – Kane’s guardian – has no other personality outside of his bank. I thought that was funny. No wonder Kane grew up so emotionally stunted. He veers between being pathetic and insufferably arrogant and self-aggrandizing. One hardly knows whether to be irritated or saddened.

90551-050-cdc7d41f5. I can’t do a puzzle anymore without thinking of Dorothy Comingore and having an urge to shout across the room, even though it’s unnecessary.

6. My brother wondered how Kane could stand so close to that gigantic fire. The heat coming from that thing would have been intense.

Conclusion: I think, on the whole, I enjoyed Citizen Kane more than I did any other film by Welles, including Touch of EvilThe Lady from Shanghai, The Stranger, and The Magnificent Ambersons, though The Stranger runs a close second. The sheer variety of interest is compelling, if still not emotionally engaging.

I actually owe my resolution to finally see Citizen Kane to FictionFan’s Book Reviews and her excellent review of the book Citizen Kane, by Harlon Lebo. It is a history and appreciation of the movie and FictionFan recommended viewing the movie before reading the book, which I am looking forward to doing.

 
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Posted by on October 8, 2016 in Movies

 

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“Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News” – A. Brad Schwartz

downloadOn the eve of Halloween in 1938, Orson Welles’ The Mercury Theater on the Air presented a radio drama adaption of H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds, on CBS. The next day, there were headlines in nearly all the prominent papers detailing mass panic, tales of people fleeing their homes, farmers roaming the land with guns to repel invaders, frightened people shooting at a water tower in the mistaken idea that it was a Martian. The figure that was thrown around, and is still thrown around (it was mentioned in an introduction to an H.G. Wells novel I own) is that around 1 million people were frightened by the broadcast, frightened that Martians were invading America. It was cited as proof both that people are incredibly gullible and also that the radio wielded unprecedented power over the masses.

The trouble is that the hysteria was grossly exaggerated, according to A. Brad Schwartz, in his extremely engaging book Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News. His book covers a variety of topics: the radio broadcast itself, Orson Welles (which might be tedious for those who are already familiar with his life, but I knew little and found the context fascinating ), about the state of radio in America in 1938, the nature of radio and people’s perceptions of its credibility, the fallout of the “The War of the Worlds” broadcast, the state of radio censorship in 1938, research into the nature of people’s reactions to the radio and a discussion of how the panic got blown out of proportion in the first place.

The script for the radio drama was mostly written by Howard Koch (who became a screenwriter who helped write Casablanca, as well as writing the screenplay for Letter From an Unknown Woman). Most people who participated in The Mercury Theater on the Air didn’t take H. G. Wells’ book very seriously and thought that it was mostly kid stuff. To breath a little life into it. Orson Welles came up with the idea of presenting the story as a news bulletin, with frequent interruptions and news’ flashes. Koch tried to update H.G. Wells’ story, which was set in England, by grounding it in real locations in America, with the Martians landing in Grover’s Mill, NJ. He used real street and city names, which lent verisimilitude to the broadcast.

But what Schwartz points out is that most of the people who were frightened by the broadcast did not actually believe that Martians were invading earth, contrary to popular representation. Most people did not catch all of the show (and most missed the opening, where Welles announced that the show was fiction) and as a result believed that either a foreign army was invading (possibly from some nation like Germany – the world had only recently come through the annexation of Czechoslovakia by Germany, which was reported on the radio, which was new for the radio to play such a prominent role in news reportage) or that some natural disaster had occurred, like a meteor strike.

Orson Welles, after the broadcast, caught in an apologetic attitude by a photographer

Orson Welles, after the broadcast, caught in an apologetic attitude by a photographer

Not only does Schwartz explain the myriad reasons why many people were frightened, but he also shows how the entire incident was blown out of proportion, primarily by newspapers. And readers simply accepted the supposed facts reported by newspapers, mostly because it confirmed their conviction that Americans were gullible. The real hysteria, Schwartz argues, was not caused by panicked listeners, but by the reporting. Suddenly, there was discussion about the power of radio, should radio be censored, did this demonstrate how fascism could come to America as Hitler had done in Germany.

But interestingly, many people feared censorship and there were far more letters written to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) defending Welles and pleading for no censorship than there were from outraged listeners wanting the FCC to step in and prevent any abuse by broadcasting companies. The end result, Schwartz argues, is that American radio was too little regulated and that sponsors of radio shows ended up mostly dictating what was heard on air, resulting in less chances taken on diverse shows (like The Mercury Theater on the Air, which had a fairly small audience – it was allowed because broadcast companies had to prove to the FCC that they were educational).

I highly enjoyed the book and the context that Schwartz provides. It gives you a sense of what it would have been like to hear the show, what people were thinking and all the national and world news that went into the everyday understanding of people in 1938. The book also makes you think twice about accepting news, no matter how widely reported.

After the initial broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” many people wanted CBS to re-broadcast it, but CBS refused for fear that they could accidentally cause a second panic. However, it is now available on youtube. Incidentally, the music for the The Mercury Theater on the Air was composed or arranged by Bernard Herrmann…and often conducted (he composed the score for PsychoTaxi DriverThe Ghost and Mrs. MuirNorth By Northwest – not that there’s any music in this “The War of the Worlds”).

I can understand the confusion; you have to listen carefully to fully follow what is happening. There are lots of references to “the enemy,” as opposed to “martians” or “aliens.” There also isn’t a radio break until 40 minutes into the show, at which point there were a lot of relieved listeners.

And here is Orson Welles, talking to reporters about the incident. I found it interesting, in Broadcast Hysteria, to learn that for the longest time Orson Welles was primarily known for “The War of the Worlds” and the supposed mass panic and not for being a cutting edge director. It was only in the ’70s that he began to receive more general recognition for his work in films. Welles would later claim that he deliberately set up his “The War of the Worlds” so it would be taken seriously to show up radio and people’s gullibility, but Schwartz does not find that creditable. There seems to be a lot of evidence that Welles was shaken up after the broadcast by the reaction of the media and the supposed panic (he was told initially that people had died) and was even a little worried that it would ruin his career. Ultimately, it didn’t and Schwartz believes that it was his “The War of the Worlds” fame that he rode to Hollywood, even more so than the buzz he had generated from his presentation of “Julius Caesar” for The Mercury Theater, the theater company he founded with John Houseman. In this interview, he was mostly interested in damage control. He says he’s “terribly shocked to learn” that people believed that aliens were invading earth, but as Schwartz demonstrates, most people did not think that.

 
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Posted by on November 13, 2015 in Books

 

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Jane Eyre (1943)

jane2I long ago reconciled myself to the fact that no film adaptation can really do justice to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and I’ve seen six of them so far. I think the musical actually comes closest to capturing the character of Jane Eyre, because it allows her to maintain her quiet exterior, yet still express her private thoughts and feelings in song. Which is not to say that I do not enjoy some of the film adaptations, particularly the 2006 BBC miniseries, with Toby Stephen and Ruth Wilson.

And last week I watched director Robert Stevenson’s 1943 Jane Eyre, starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles and Margaret O’Brien as Adele, and I thoroughly liked it, despite its imperfections. It’s a gorgeous film, with its black and white photography and use of shadows, the fog and mist, the desolate moor, the moody atmosphere. The emphasis is definitely on the Gothic elements of the story, in a way that no color adaptation could ever achieve. Thornfield Hall is even a forbidding, brooding castle that looks like it would be perfectly at home in a medieval story.

One of the elements of the book that tends to get glossed over in most of the movies is the beginning, when Jane Eyre is a child. It is usually treated as a part of the movie to get through quickly because it’s in the book, but you can tell the filmmakers just want to get to the part where she grows up. But in this film, it is actually used to feed into the motivations of Jane Eyre, and even if those motivations are slightly different from what they are in the book, they are perfectly consistent in the film. Peggy Ann Garner plays Jane as a child, with a terrific blend of rebellion and anger with a touching desire to be loved. When Jane’s unloving aunt (Agnes Moorehead) sends her to a boarding school run by the righteously hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell – the best, most memorable Mr. Brocklehurst I’ve ever seen), Jane meets the first person who ever cares about her, Helen Burns (Elizabeth Taylor). I was struck by the scene of the two children laughing and running near the school with the vast waste of the moor all around them; a lovely visual.

Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles

Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles

The movie Jane Eyre is often compared to Rebecca: Gothic story, Gothic house, mysterious leading man, Joan Fontaine stars in both films. They both even begin with a voice-over narration by Fontaine. And when people discuss Jane Eyre, they usually dwell on the similarities between Fontaine’s Jane Eyre and Mrs. de Winter. However, I feel equating all Fontaine’s quiet roles together is like assuming all of Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatales are the same and it obscures real differences in her characterization. Quiet people are not all the same.

Fontaine’s Jane is certainly quiet (though Jane appears quiet to most people until they get to know her), and perhaps less rebellious, but she is not weak. She does what she intends to do and she speaks her mind, something Mrs. de Winter would never have dreamed of doing. She’s just not flashy about it. Her eyes don’t really flash with inner fire, either, but I’m not sure too many cinematic Jane Eyres manage that trick. Interestingly, the film doesn’t try to pretend that Jane Eyre is not pretty (since Joan Fontaine is clearly not plain). At an inn, a man openly admires her and in preparing to marry Mr. Rochester, several other people comment on her looks. Her own assessment of not being as beautiful as Blanche Ingram, though, is not inconsistent with a person who is neither fashionable in manner or in dress and who is used to being called drab. But she’s not a shrinking violet and she’s fairly no-nonsense; she’s just not spunky in the way we visualize heroines today. Mrs. de Winter has an entirely different ethos going on: intimidated, insecure, very young and naive.

Orson Welles is perhaps one of the more unexpected Mr. Rochesters in film. Not conventionally romantic (though Mr. Rochester isn’t supposed to be in the book), he makes for, at times, an intimidating presence, as he towers over Jane. With his fur-lined cloak, striding through his castle with his dog at his heels, he looks like a medieval lord. His Mr. Rochester could very well be dangerous, and yet when he’s not being volcanic and peremptory, his eyes suddenly turn pleading and tender. What threw me is how young he looks (he’s in his late twenties, Mr. Rochester is supposed to be in his late thirties). He’s the youngest Mr. Rochester I’ve ever seen and his face does not match his voice or his presence.

EYRE-JP-3-popupOne weakness of the film is that Welles and Fontaine seem like a slightly odd romantic fit and they don’t quite click. What they both do bring, though, to the film is a palpable desire and longing to be loved, which partially covers their lack of chemistry. That desire to be loved is the theme most prominent in the film, apart from the general Gothic mystery and sense of weird danger.

I did gain a new insight into the book while watching the movie. I always thought it was rather insensitive of Mr. Rochester to pretend to make love to Blanche Ingram and try to make Jane jealous, but I finally understood why (and I should have realized before). He is not sure if she loves him and he’s not really sure if anyone could love him. And he can’t tell because of how calm she is and he’s trying to elicit a reaction, any reaction, from her that would indicate how she feels. That’s why he keeps asking her questions and teasing her about her feelings on leaving Thornfield. In many ways, he’s more insecure than Jane is. She longs for love, but she’s fundamentally comfortable with who she is.

The ending is bit abrupt (I’ve always been slightly disappointing with the movie endings of Jane Eyre), but they don’t make the mistake of trying to rush through the portion where she meets her cousin, St. John Rivers. They wisely remove that entirely, turn her cousin into a Dr. Rivers and do not have him romantically interested in her at all, which keeps the movie fairly taut and consistent and prevents the film from having new characters introduced in the last fifteen minutes. In fact, the entire film is well paced and I liked how they adapted it, purist objections aside. I’ve been becoming more broadminded. Several years ago, I would have ranted about all the differences. Now, I think it is a lovely film that stands quite well on its own.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2015 in Movies

 

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