Citizen Kane (1941), or Once In A Lifetime

30 12 2009

So here we are. You know, when I thought about starting this Cinematronica thing a while back, I always knew I would have to review Citizen Kane. It is the most wonderful of all American films, to me, and although that may come as a sort of surprise from a 23 year old, and perhaps I might come off as somwhat pretentious for choosing something so obvious, it’s a film I take very close to my heart. For me, Citizen Kane is a crucial story for the American cinematic mindset; it is both blockbuster and daring independent film, a debut from a young upstart who had his own ideas as to how films would be made; a child of studio expectations and fiercely personal individual goals that ends up being freater than the sum of its parts. It tells a story that touches me to my very core, a story of loss, ambition, greed, and that most human desire to be loved and truly understood. There is something here that truly lays hands on perfection, a considerable skill, a very noticeable ambition, and a love of cinema that transforms this film from merely a film to a work of art, and an exceptional one at that.

We follow the story of Charles Foster Kane, a man who grew from humble origins to eventually amass a wealth that most people could not ever imagine. We begin at the end of his life, when a group of reporters gather together to find clues on the enigmatic man’s life, loves, and mysterious last word, “Rosebud.” The reporters interview many of Kane’s close friends and acquaintances, and discover a man who had an indomitable spirit but a terrible hunger for power that would both found a massive newspaper empire and simultaneously demolish his aspirations for anything else. But even with all the people in his life explaining who he is, they soon find Kane to have an unspoken quotient to him, something unexplainable to him that keep them from understanding him fully. Will they discover the mystery of “Rosebud”? Does it help to explain the life of a man who was larger than life but so much smaller than his own desire?

Citizen Kane is, in some ways, a treatise on the state of America in modern times. In other ways, there are definite links to Kane and legendary news tycoon William Randolph Hearst that echo throughout the film. And in other ways, one could also link, eerily, I might add, the tragic downturn of Orson Welles himself after his failure in Hollywood. Citizen Kane has the power to twist and turn its meaning through the years; it is a character study without peers, astute and wise, that seems to mean different things to different people. For me, it leaves a very individualized print on my heart that would take another essay just to explain, and I’m sure the meaning and the emotional power is found elsewhere for others. It is a film whose true value cannot be honestly appraised, and whose very meaning is neatly encased by the end of the picture but still loftier than one can begin to express before the credits are over.

The filmmaking is some of the finest I have ever laid my eyes on. From a technical standpoint, there are things going on here that are WAY ahead of its time. Deep focus is the process of making everything in both the foreground and background of a shot look sharp. Almost every scene in Citizen Kane uses this effect somehow, to my honest surprise. The effect requires massive amounts of staging beforehand, making sure things stay absolutely in focus the whole time, so this isn’t something one could just go for in 1941. But Welles does, and the effect speaks for itself. Every scene is beautiful, looking clear, crisp, fresh, and striking. The score by Bernard Hermann is one of the best of the 1940s, blending sorrowful themes with the punchy tunes of industry and drive that perfectly explains the world around Charles Foster Kane. And although Orson Welles, in his career ,would go on to direct films that to this day have yet to be equaled, Citizen Kane, his first film, was his most impressive as a director. He directs not with that Hollywood flair that was so popular at the time, but with that independent eye for evocative imagerythat would go on to dominate his aesthetic sensibilites (as well as damn his Hollywood career…). Kane, with the dynamic direction Welles utilizes, is seen less like Phillip Marlowe from The Big Sleep, but rather Kihachi from A Story of Floating Weeds.

Orson Welles knows just how to direct Orson Welles, because his turn as the mysterious Charles Kane is one which will live on forever. His face is a mask of avarice, but just beneath it is something wounded, something wanting. Although Kane pushes everyone away from him, there is a part of this character that cannot think of a more dreadful punishment than being alone. It is a complicated character, but one that Welles excels at playing, and he does justice to his own writing by acting superbly. Joseph Cotton plays Jedediah Leland, Kane’s best friend. Through his interview scenes and his real interaction with Kane, Cotten spins a wonderful character that wants what’s best for Kane, even if telling him the truth means destroying his relationship with him. His charming, smirking demeanor as a person adds a lot of spice to this character, and I, for a change, liked how much of himself he left in the character. Dorothy Comingore plays the haunting role of Susan, Kane’s mistress, and later wife. She has a great range, and I felt a great deal of sympathy for this character as she took more emotional distress from the curmudgeon Kane than she really deserved. But her intensity, that piercing gaze of hers, keeps us glued to her every moment Susan pops on-screen, and I kept hoping the longer the movie went on that she would have more scenes. She’s really quite lovely here, a joy to watch.

What else is there to say? Citizen Kane is a monolith of American cinematic history. It is simply an amazing achievement, all of it made even more amazing still when one takes into account that this was a debut feature. Orson Welles created something here that transcends lists or “Best of” segments or “pretentious” reviewers like myself prattling on about its glory. It’s just something that American fans of cinema need to experience to truly understand the language of our films and the emotional truths of our work. Citizen Kane represents the best we have to offer in terms of technical innovation, impeccable writing, and superb acting. It is an American institution, and, whether you like it or not, it has a message that is undeniably relatable and culturally relevant even today. I truly love it, and I give it an enthusiastic 10 Rosebuds out of 10! My highest recommendation!

Tomorrow is the LAST day of Cinematronica, the last leg of my 365 day journey, and the last review period I shall post for a week! Tomorrow I go back to where it all began for me. Tomorrow I watch Akira! Until then!!!

Beauty And The Beast (1946), or The Beast Within

18 11 2009

I’m starting to dislike Disney more and more. Every time I hear about a new Disney product or character, I tend to cringe or ignore it altogether. Once the innovator in mainstream (albeit slightly tame) animation, Walt Disney is now the mark of under-achievement, the badge of mediocrity. They have not come up with anything remarkable without Pixar’s golden candy-coated hand in more than a decade, to the point that their new film’s biggest marketing gimmick is that it’s-get this!!!-a hand-drawn feature! Wow! What a novel idea! On the same note, I hear they used to put Coke in glass bottles, too! What will they think of next?! Either way, the days of Disney mediocrity started long before the new millennium, reaching as far back as the early 90s. For instance, when they decided to take on the classic romantic fantasy tale Beauty and the Beast. Disney’s bland adaptation blanketed a generation of fresh minds, leading them to believe that theirs was the only film version of the tale or, worse yet, a Disney original. Little did most know that almost 50 years prior to Disney’s garish musical, legendary director Jean Cocteau, who is actually making his first appearance on the site, made what I consider to be the definitive version of this timeless fairy tale. It’s timeless, elegant, and proudly beautiful in that particular French way, and it’s hard not to fall completely in love with it.

It’s a story I think we’re all familiar with. A father makes a mistake by picking a rose from an enchanted garden, angering a terrifying beast-like man who happens to be the lord of a magical castle in the forest. The only way to curb his ire is to send back one of his daughters, so the father goes home to deliberate this terrible decision with his daughters. One of his daughters, the lovely Belle, makes the decision for him and storms off to the palace to take his father’s place. The beast sees Belle and quickly falls for her, but cannot yet bring anyone close to him and his wounded heart. He keeps her at a distance, making a bargain with her; she will stay with him as his bride and in exchange her father is as good as forgiven. She is given nearly free reign of his magical, mysterious castle, and begins to adjust to her new life as the bride of the mercurial beast. She begins to slowly uncover the tragic history of the beast and his strange castle. She might even begin to grow a fondness for him. Is there more to the beast’s heart than rage and spite? Can the beautiful Belle love somebody like the beast? And will her family, paired with the young man who tried to win Belle’s attentions before the beast took her as a bride, be able to take her away from that castle?

Jean Cocteau has somehow escaped a nod on this site, and while perhaps his estate, fearful of me disgracing his name with my mere mention, is grateful for this fact, I still need to address him. One of the forerunners of the French New Wave, Cocteau really revolutionized the way the motion picture was made. It’s one of the first examples the world was starting to see of intensely personal visions and the rise of the auteur. From the personalized title sequence all the way to the final gorgeous frame, this is completely his vision, and what a grand vision it is. Cocteau had ideas about magic and elegance that translated unbelievably well to film. My favorite parts are in the unknowable secrets of the beast’s castle. The candelabras held by hands coming out of the walls, the mysteries of the rose garden, the brilliant white horse Magnificent, and the fantastical objects in Belle’s room are marvels of cinema, and they easily swayed my youthful heart with their whimsy.

The two leads are incredible. Josette Day as Belle is a knock-out! She’s a strong fairy-tale character with opinions and ideas. She’s an altruist, a selfless daughter, and a real sweet gal. Day plays her with a sense of wonderment and delightful curiosity that complemented her innate bravery well. This was still a time when most of an actor’s work was done in the face, so keep an eye out for the subtleties in Josette Day’s facial features, especially during the touching finale. And Jean Marais! What a treasure! This guy was unfathomably talented, and in his performance you got the full width and breadth of the beast’s pain and tortured soul. He is both the villain and the hero, a figure worthy of Shakespeare, and his love for Belle is conflicted with his pain and his lack of trust in humanity. This all comes through Marais’s thick facial prosthetic, which made him look like a mix between a lion, a bear, and a Furby.

You really ought to see this. This is an amazing adaptation of the story, and a charming romance from the 40s that still speaks to us even today. The score is tantalizingly sparse, the visuals are out of this world, and you might never come across a more appropriate on-screen pairing than Marais and Day, two pros with the theatrical gravitas to make this a surefire success. Jean Cocteau was a man before his time, so perhaps it’s best to take this displaced film and view it in the context of the future. Yes, it’s subtitled, yes it’s black and white, and no, I don’t care if that bothers you. This is something that you should enjoy for what it is; it’s not a musical with quaint musical numbers, bright colors, and 2-dimensional characters in more way than one. It’s a fantastic romance with depth and beautiful mise en scene that you should experience yourself first-hand. I give Beauty and the Beast 9 1/2 hand-held candelabras out of 10! A high recommendation!

Tomorrow I’ll be watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind! Until then!