Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Great Citizen Kane Debate Comes to a Thrilling Conclusion

So, The Great Citizen Kane Debate is over and the wonderful ladies over at True Classics have tallied the results. As follows:

First Place: The Mythical Monkey, from A Mythical Monkey Writes About the Movies, for his entry Citizen Kane: Best Ever?
Second Place: Rachel, from The Girl with the White Parasol, for her entry Citizen Kane Takes the Stand
Third Place: Jill, from Sittin' on a Backyard Fence, for her entry Wait a Minute, There's No Cane in Citizen Kane 

Wow! I got second place, guys! That is, I mean to say, this is such an honor and...oh, just think of something really eloquent and pretend that I said it. It feels pretty special to stand up there along with two such talented and insightful bloggers as the Honorable Mr. Monkey and Jill. They both wrote excellent entries, so please, if you haven't already, go over and read them. And while you're at it, just go back to the list of entries for this debate and read them all. I was amazed by the effort and ability that went into this event and the way that everyone rose to the challenge. And for everyone who came over here to comment and debate, I just want to thank you all. You guys hold me to a high standard and I wouldn't have it any other way.

There's a reason my blog is littered with blogathons and contests and it isn't because I like getting shiny awards (well, I do like getting awards but I promise that isn't the main reason). It's because I can't resist the chance to connect with other bloggers and when the topic on hand is as rich and divided as Citizen Kane, it's a double treat. I know I walked away from this event with a whole new perspective on this film and its audience. When I watch it again (which probably won't be for at least eight months--I need my Citizen Kane hiatus), I'll be thinking about this debate and the varied but brilliant ideas that people brought to the table.

In short, thank you, fellow bloggers. Since I was watching The Great Man's Lady last night, I'll let Joel McCrea sum up the rest of my feelings.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Citizen Kane Takes the Stand

"Citizen Kane is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may seem even fresher. A great deal in the movie that was conventional and almost banal in 1941 is so far in the past as to have been forgotten and become new."
~Pauline Kael, Raising Kane

"For me (Orson Welles) is just a hoax. It's empty. It's not interesting. It's dead. Citizen Kane, which I have a copy of — is all the critics' darling, always at the top of every poll taken, but I think it's a total bore. Above all, the performances are worthless. The amount of respect that movie's got is absolutely unbelievable."
~Ingmar Bergman, interview with Jan Aghed

Well, a challenge has been extended. Those three fine ladies, Brandie, Carrie, and Nikki over at True Classics have thrown down the gauntlet to the blogosphere: Make your case for Citizen Kane. Is is the greatest film of all time or the most overrated? And if it is "just a hoax," as Ingmar Bergman would have it, is there a film out there that can take its place as Greatest Film Ever Made?

My own position on the matter can be stated in two parts. And the first is this: any attempt to rank a single film above all others is a complete crock. For one thing, nobody's ever been able to see every movie ever made. Even if by some miracle, a person could sit around for the rest of their life, doing nothing but watching movies and carefully ranking them according to cinematic value, they would never be able to even come close to seeing every film. The Internet Movie Database, for example, lists over 400,00 films, a number which doesn't even take amateur productions into account. Let's say this miracle person watched 5 movies a day, every day of the year, for 80 years. Then they would have seen a mere 146,000 by the end of their lifetime. Most cinephiles eventually come to terms with the fact that not only will they not get to see every movie ever made, they won't even get to see every great movie.

The deeper problem with ranking films is, even if you make the assumption that you've seen every worthwhile piece of celluloid out there and are now free to hand out merit badges, is that art just can't be assigned value that way. I know that we movie lovers have an obsession with making lists. And then arguing about the lists. And then rewriting the lists. 

But while those lists do have plenty of value for sparking controversy and discussion, they have no power to assess a movie's worth. If you believe that both The Lady Eve and Strangers on a Train are great movies, how do you go about deciding which one should be ranked higher? How much weight are we supposed to give to technical and visual merit versus story and content? Does the beauty of something like Triumph of the Will make up for its appalling purpose? Do we have to ration out how much space we give to John Ford on our list so that Douglas Sirk can have room? Actually, I enjoy pondering these questions because they force me to think deeply about the films I love. I think list-making is good exercise but then again, so is jogging on a treadmill. In either case, you shouldn't expect to get anywhere.

But here we come to my second point which is a little more complicated. Citizen Kane is not the Greatest Movie of All Time, but if we do have to arbitrarily assign a movie this title, then I think Citizen Kane makes as good a case as any and better than most. Birth of a Nation was more technically innovative, Gone with the Wind was a bigger movie event, and Rashomon redefined our ideas of how a story is told, but Citizen Kane is, for me, one of those rare movies that combines all the elements we look for in a film. Visual mastery, an exciting story, a talented cast, and most importantly, the ability to be rediscovered. Every time I see Citizen Kane (and I ration out my viewings), it feels like I'm seeing it for the first time.

On my last Citizen Kane re-watch, I was struck by what a strange, strange film it is. Even in just those first few moments. The establishing shot of Xanadu, the light that flashes in the window, the snowglobe, those monstrous lips uttering the word "Rosebud"...some people compare Citizen Kane to a horror film but for me, the opening owes more to the Surrealists. The story is set up as a relatively straightforward mystery: what is the meaning of Kane's dying word, "Rosebud?" The telling, however, is anything but straightforward. We are handed off to various narrators (Kane's loyal employee Mr. Bernstein, his embittered friend Jed Leland, his second wife Susan, his butler, his banker) but even as the facts pile up, nothing is really explained. The narrators are bitter and biased, their stories roam beyond what they themselves witnessed, and they never come close to answering the real question of the film: Who was Charles Foster Kane?

I once had the pleasure of watching Citizen Kane with a friend who had never, ever been told about the ending. When we finally reached the secret of Rosebud, my friend gasped, jumped up in his chair, and proceeded to complain for ten minutes about what a crap ending this was. Rosebud was the sled? What a cop-out. As fun as it was to watch my friend flip out over a sixty-odd-year spoiler, it did make me think that if you take it as a mystery, Citizen Kane is an utter failure. It's a mystery that tells you flat out that all its clues lead nowhere. It's an end with no beginning.

I've had a theory for a while that Citizen Kane is the cinematic equivalent to Hamlet. Both works stand at the head of their respective canons, whether people believe they deserve it or not. Everyone who loves movies has to deal with Citizen Kane and everyone who loves English literature has to make their terms with Hamlet. Both works are essentially shaggy dog stories that purport to be about one thing (Hamlet's revenge against Claudius, the mystery of Kane's last word) and resolve in a way that makes this one thing seem incredibly hollow. Both stories center on one very powerful and mysterious person and their slow descent into self-destruction. And both works seem to attract a lot of the same criticisms, that they're boring, the protagonist is unlikable, that nothing gets resolved. But I believe that both Hamlet and Citizen Kane have something of the same irresistible appeal for people: they force the audience to question themselves. The mystery is not in the events of the plot, but in pondering the question of what lies at the heart of a human being.

And I think that emphasis on the individual is also part of the reason why Citizen Kane is so often ranked higher than its American competition, higher than Casablanca or Gone With the Wind. It strikes at the great American fascination with the self-made man, a myth that's dominated our culture from The Great Gatsby to The Social Network. Like The Great Gatsby, Citizen Kane is essentially a demolition of that myth. Charles Foster Kane doesn't "make" himself; his fortune is thrust upon him. His fantasies of using that money to do good prove weak, his patriotism is exposed as war-mongering, and even the simple right of telling his own story is taken out of his hands. While this kind of story isn't necessarily more valid or worthy than any other narrative, nevertheless, it's the kind of story that Americans tend to claim as being most, well, American. And tied in with Citizen Kane's search for success is of course, the story of its own creator, Orson Welles, his blazes of glory, his failures and thwarted endeavors. Casablanca is the ultimate cinematic escape and Gone with the Wind is the ultimate cinematic event, but Citizen Kane is the ultimate cinematic quest.

I've dwelt more on Citizen Kane's story more than its visuals, probably because I find it easier to go after narrative than I do picking apart Welles' gorgeous, fascinating camera work. When I watch Citizen Kane, I'm always in danger of losing myself in one particularly weird or beautiful shot. Just look at the way Welles and Toland light those reporters in the newsroom, with beams of light echoing around their faces and hands. Or the Thatcher Library, which looks like it should be the set for a medieval miracle play. Susan Alexander's jigsaw puzzles, the sharply angled ceilings, Kane thunderously clapping into empty space. This is the reason why I don't watch Citizen Kane very often; I don't ever want to reach the point where its images fail to shock me.

Citizen Kane is often touted as a cinematic pioneer, blazing new trails and techniques in creative filmmaking. Welles and Toland's use of deep focus, their experiments with camera angles, wipes, montages, matte paintings, and animation all play a part in making Citizen Kane's reputation as one of the most technically innovative movies of all time. But what makes me marvel isn't that these filmmakers pioneered so many new methods, but that even now, Citizen Kane still looks exciting and new. So many times, a work of art that was once fresh and ingenious turns stale after those same innovations are recycled a thousand times over. It isn't just that Citizen Kane looks different from every movie that came before it. It looks different from every movie that came after it.

I'm going to end my commentary on Citizen Kane with a personal confession. The reason why I named my blog, "The Girl with the White Parasol." Anyone familiar with Citizen Kane knows Mr. Bernstein's famous speech in which he remembers one fleeting glimpse of a girl with a parasol, years and years ago. "I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl." When I chose that quote and title for my blog, I worried for a long time that people might think I was calling myself after that long-lost girl. And wouldn't that seem like the height of arrogance? No one ever questioned me on the subject but here is my chance to set the record straight. The girl with the white parasol isn't me. For me, the girl represents a brief flash of beauty in a person's life. One of those brief moments that stay with us forever, no matter where we end up or what we do. The reason I watch films is so that I can find those moments of beauty, whether they come from a Technicolor image or from the throb in an actor's voice or from a string chorus. That's why I named my blog, "The Girl with the White Parasol." That's why I love film. And that's why I love Citizen Kane.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

5 Movie Costumes I Love (Fall '11 Edition)

So...dear readers. It's been three weeks since my last post and for me, it feels like three years. My absence had nothing to do with my feelings about blogging, classic movies, or my fellow bloggers. It had everything to do with my personal life, my family, and some major upheavals that have been going on (and are still going on) throughout these last few weeks. Even if I'd had the time, I'm afraid I had little spirit for blogging.

I can't promise that it will be smooth sailing from here on in. Quite frankly, I think my participation in the blogosphere is going to be somewhat erratic for awhile. Never fear though. I have no plans to desert this blog. It means a lot to me to have this as my escape from everything else right now. I still love talking about movies and I still love talking to all of you.

With that explanation out of the way, I thought that now would be a good time for another edition of my Favorite Movie Costumes list. This is an ongoing series where I gush over five of my favorite costumes from classic film. I'm doing it in the same format as last time, with the same three restrictions.
  1. Absolutely no costumes from an Alfred Hitchcock film.
  2. No costumes worn by Grace Kelly.
  3. No costumes worn by Audrey Hepburn.
Get it? Got it? Good. Let's begin.

1. Bette Davis in The Letter
Costume Design by Orry-Kelly
("The Lace Veil")

I'm not sure who had the idea to put Bette Davis in a veil for one of The Letter's most memorable scenes (Orry-Kelly? William Wyler? Davis herself?), but it was a brilliant touch. During one unnerving, near-silent sequence, Davis' character Leslie goes to buy back the crucial letter from the Eurasian wife (played by Gale Sondergaard) of Leslie's former lover. The same lover that Leslie had killed. The women meet face to face in a standoff as cold and tense as any Western shootout. The addition of the veil makes an already mesmerizing scene even more heavy with meaning. There's the mocking evocation of a bridal veil (note that Davis kneels before Sondergaard). It's a bitter joke of course; Leslie is the illicit lover and far from innocent. There's the way the deceptive and repressed Leslie is veiled while the openly enraged Sondergaard appears with her hair scraped back and every muscle in her face visible. There's the connection to Leslie's character and her own obsessive lace making. But above all else, it makes for a beautiful image in one of Wyler's most visually stunning films.

2. Joan Bennett in Scarlet Street
Costume Design by Travis Banton
("The Raincoat" and "The Black Gown")

Okay, I'm cheating here and listing two costumes from the same movie. But I can't help it. I absolutely love the first sight we get of Joan Bennett in that transparent raincoat. It's cheap and sexy, exactly right for the character of Kitty "Lazy Legs" March. Kitty, a masochistic prostitute with little brains and no heart, is one of the most wonderfully nasty femme fatales ever put to film. Appropriate then, that she first appears to us in an outfit that puts everything on display, without being too overt about the nature of her profession. And I dig her little striped handbag; it looks like a giant bonbon (a reference to her character's love of candy). However, while the raincoat is a more iconic image, I can't leave Scarlet Street, without putting in a word for Joan Bennett's black gown. That one wins for sheer sex appeal. Hell, just check out how closely Travis Banton skirted the lines of Code-approval with that bodice. And that slit skirt. Every femme fatale deserves at least one dress this seductive.

3. Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Costume Design by Edith Head
("The White and the Black")

(second photo credited to Dial V for Vintage Blog)

And speaking of femme fatales (I guess I'm in a film noir mood this week), I want to put in a mention for one of my favorite Barbara Stanwyck characters, the complex and conflicted Martha Ivers. Martha's one of the more unusual femme fatales out there because we actually get to know her backstory and why she acts the way she does. She's a vamp, sure, but she's also tormented by guilt and the lust for power. She longs to return to her more innocent past (as personified by her childhood love Van Heflin), but it's clear she doesn't know how to be that girl anymore. She's the Lady Macbeth of femme fatales.

Edith Head designed Stanwyck's wardrobe for this film and Stanwyck looks smashing throughout but there's one moment that just makes me catch my breath every time. And that's the scene where Martha, encased in this smart black and white outfit, arrives at Van Heflin's hotel room. Lizabeth Scott (as his girlfriend Toni) is playfully showing off her figure for her man, but the minute Martha appears, the air is sucked from the room. Stanwyck appears almost snakelike here, her hands covered in long black gloves, her neck hidden, a hood over her hair; she looks every inch the predator. And the way that black detail marches up and down the lines of her dress, like a line of factory-approved rivets (Martha controls the town's industry). It's dramatic, it's stylish and it proves that a lady can walk in, all covered up, and still steal your man.

4. Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember
Costume Design by Charles Le Maire
("The Orange and White Chiffon")

Anyone remember all those times in the Anne of Green Gables books where Anne Shirley would go into a fit of melancholy because she was a redhead and couldn't wear pink? Too bad she never got to take a look at An Affair to Remember because in this film, Deborah Kerr breaks all these so-called redhead rules and blazes out gloriously in pink, red, and orange. And don't we love her for it! (Although for my money, she should have steered clear of the taupe. But nobody's perfect). My personal favorite is this gorgeous orange and white chiffon gown. The unusual work on the bodice, the elegant drape of the fabric, the striking all combines to make one fascinating dress. I'm not sure what budget Terry McKay the singer is supposed to be working with, but who could question a woman so stunning?

5. Susan Harrison in Sweet Smell of Success
Costume Design by Mary Grant
("The Fur Coat")

"This coat is your brother. I've always hated this coat."

Poor Susie Hunsecker, trapped by her sadistic, controlling brother, just as she's trapped by this luxurious, oversized fur coat. As the night runs long in New York City, Susie walks around town in a coat that makes her look like a little girl playing dress-up. This is a case not just of what a character wears but how they wear it. In Susie's case, you only have to watch how Susan Harrison buries herself in that fur, the way it slips off her shoulders. All Susie wants is her independence and her love, but she'll have to fight for it. This is one bit of costuming where you can instantly imagine the backstory. No doubt J.J. Hunsecker gave his sister this coat after she told him she was tired of being treated like a little kid. Ostensibly to prove that he knew she was an adult, but really because he enjoyed watching her struggle with something that didn't fit her, making her look more like a child than ever. The moment when Susie finally, decisively, gets rid of this coat is one of the most triumphant costume changes on film.

P.S. Five points for anyone who spots the Danny Kaye reference.