Just because Citizen Kane is often cited as the greatest film ever made or the most important film of all time and just because you might have had to watch it in an "intro to film" class does not mean it’s homework. Unlike other landmark filmmaking oldies such as Birth Of A Nation or Battleship Potemkin, Citizen Kane is not a snoozer - it’s really amazingly entertaining. (Actually the "Odessa Steps" scene in Battleship Potemkin is a rather gripping piece of editing, but the rest of it is rather boring.) With his first film, Citizen Kane, the twenty-something wunderkind, Orson Welles, took on the Hollywood establishment (as well as William Randolph Heart’s publishing empire) and changed film, but most importantly made a fun, fun movie that still holds up quite well today.
The complicated plot of Citizen Kane famously mirrors the life of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. As a boy Charles Foster Kane is taken from his mother when he inherits a small newspaper. Eventually he grows up to be Orson Welles. The film follows him from a cynical kid fresh out of college who thinks it would be fun to run a newspaper, to old age when he dies a miser and an extreme treasure hoarder. But what really made Citizen Kane revolutionary in 1941 was the way the story was told (besides Gregg Toland’s groundbreaking camera work). It opens with a long Newsreel documentary after Kane has died which tells his life story (though a press eye view). On his deathbed his last word was "Rosebud" and” a group of reporters sets out to find what or who was Rosebud. They interview the key people in his life, each telling different versions of Kane’s story, in flashbacks, from their perspective.Continue Reading
The writer, Meyer Levin, had attended the University of Chicago at the same time as Leopold and Loeb. Compulsion, his "non-fiction novel" (years before Capote coined the phrase) renamed all the players and was seen through the eyes of a school reporter, Sid (Levin himself?) and his innocent girlfriend. As adapted for the screen by Richard Murphy (Panic In The Streets), Artie Strauss (Bradford Dillman) and Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) are a pair of well off college brats with brilliant minds. Artie is the more outgoing, while the even more genius Judd is an introvert. They plan and almost pull off the "perfect crime," the murder of a young neighbor. Unfortunately, Judd leaves his glasses at the crime scene and Sid (Martin Milner) finds them. As the young men think they are toying with the cops using Nietzsche's superman theory, they slowly spins more webs, getting themselves in deeper and deeper, until finally the cops crack them.Continue Reading
Cradle Will Rock
Cradle Will Rock belongs to that class of movies that don’t particularly offend anyone or bomb big enough to become a notorious flop; nor was it greeted with a ton of enthusiasm. Considering the talent involved with the film—Tim Robbins, Bill Murray, John and Joan Cusack, and Susan Sarandon, to name but a few—the mild applause the film seemed to generate upon its release was kind of like damning with faint praise. I never understood this because I find Cradle Will Rock to be a whole lot of fun, while at the same time serving as a pointed critique of the political apathy prevalent in art today.
The film tells the story of one of the most mythologized theatrical events of the 20th century. No surprise that Orson Welles was directly involved then. We’re in New York in 1937 and the city seems to be the epicenter of a massive upheaval in society at large. There is labor unrest, growing unease about global fascism, and a gnawing sense that capitalism has failed the common interests of the average citizen. (Hey, maybe the film is due for a critical re-appreciation after all…)Continue Reading
Make Way for Tomorrow
One of the things I love about discovering old movies is finding something that seems well ahead of its time. It’s always revelatory to find cinematic evidence that not every film can be easily placed into an obvious time frame. Sometimes the writing or acting can just seem more modern than one would have thought for the era in which the film was released. Citizen Kane changed everything about what one could do with a movie and it looks even more incredible when viewed in comparison with the other films that were released at the same time.
Make Way for Tomorrow, in a modest kind of way, is such a film. It’s a family centered drama about a rather unremarkable situation and that alone is rather unique when compared with the kinds of historical epics and glamorous escapist fare that was the norm for what people expected when they went to the movies in 1937. It’s a film that has more in common with the films of, say, James L. Brooks than anything that was contemporary with the film. An elderly couple loses their home and each must move in with one of their adult children. Their separation and the agony it causes them are barely understood by their children with their own families who live in different parts of the country and seem entirely oblivious to the sadness the situation has caused their parents.Continue Reading
The tough-minded vision of a master filmmaker fighting the odds to bring his vision to the screen has made for some truly memorable documentaries over the years. The almost mad mavericks Francis Ford Coppola directing Apocalypse Now in Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse and Werner Herzog’s epic struggle to make Fitzcarraldo in Burden Of Dreams - the documentaries are almost as good as the films themselves. Another interesting film is Lost In La Mancha which chronicles Terry Gilliam's attempt to get the unbearable looking The Man Who Killed Don Quixote started and completed, the latter never happened. These are three men devoted to filmmaking with grand goals. The documentary Overnight is about another filmmaker, Troy Duffy, trying to get his first film, The Boondock Saints, made. Unfortunately for this maniacal egomaniac his visions are mostly about himself and how cool his sunglasses are.
Back in the '90s Harvey Weinstein and his film company, Miramax Pictures, were riding a wave of good fortune and good will after making an overnight sensation out of a video store clerk turned happening director/screenwriter, Quentin Tarantino. Suddenly everybody had a script ready to go and were ready to be discovered by Weinstein. Unfortunately, it also made Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction two of the most imitated films of their day. Hip dudes spewing cool dialog and then nonchalantly taking part in extreme violence and gunplay. (Does anyone want to sit through Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead, Very Bad Things, Love & A .45, The Salton Sea or 2 Days In The Valley again?) One of the worst Tarantino clones was The Boondock Saints. Overnight is the story of how The Boondock Saints' production was hot, then cold, and then barely got made.Continue Reading
Prodigal Sons tells the too-strange-to-be-fiction story of a family from Montana with some really fascinating problems. Daughter Kimberly used to be a man named Paul who was the star quarterback of his high school football team. Paul was popular and dated girls but he never felt comfortable in his skin. He moved away to San Francisco and, in the process of figuring out his gender identity, he decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Paul became Kimberly and decades beyond her former life she is, in many ways, a completely different person.
Now living in New York, working in media, and in a long-term lesbian relationship Kimberly decides to go back to Montana for her high school reunion. She makes a documentary about her trip and the reaction of her former schoolmates to her new identity. She will also reunite with her estranged brother, Marc, who was in the same graduating class. Marc has an interesting story in his own right, though the fascinating details don’t emerge until midway through the film. Marc is Kimberly’s adopted brother and though he is essentially a good person he is also a very troubled man with a violent temper and Kimberly is nervous about what it will be like to see him.Continue Reading
Searching for Sugar Man
Like a real life Eddie & The Cruisers this British documentary by a Swedish director (Malik Bendjelloul) about a Detroit folk singer named Sixto Rodriguez who became an icon to a generation of white South Africans is both an in-search-of mystery and an inspirational tome to the power of music and survival. Searching for Sugar Man is another one of those documentaries that if it didn’t have “true story” stamped on it might be too crazy to believe. Not to mention that for someone my age to know that this person existed (and in my own childhood backyard of Detroit) and, like most of the world, am only now becoming aware of the stunning music that he created, it’s sad that Sixto Rodriguez's beautiful songs haven’t been on my heavy rotation all my life. But since seeing this movie they have become ingrained in my head and will never leave.
Coming out of nowhere for a handful of music business types in the late sixties, Mexican American Detroiter Sixto Rodriguez sounded like he could be the next big thing. He had a clear voice (that reminds me of Donovan) with sophisticated lyrics about love, heartbreak and socio-political ills in the Bob Dylan tradition. He recorded two albums and both were commercial flops. So Rodriguez (as he was known) went back to being an inner-city guitar-toting day laborer (and, of course, was screwed out of royalties for his songs). And that’s the end of that story. Or was it? Copies of the albums made their way into South Africa where they became massively popular to a generation of white Afrikaners who were coming of age and questioning the system of apartheid in which they grew up. A total police-state boxed-out from the rest of the world, South Africa was a little behind the times culturally and cut-off when it came to music information. The rebellion and loneliness in Rodriguez’s lyrics spoke to them. The rumor was that Rodriguez had dramatically killed himself on stage, putting an end to any kind of personal contact South Africans might have hoped to have with their idol. But the music lived on and came to define the decade for many.Continue Reading
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
A deeply weird thriller as exotically perverse as they come, The Lady from Shanghai is a solitary entry in the exclusive canon of "maritime noir." Much like The Big Sleep -- in that the plot is so utterly convoluted it becomes impossible to figure out who is double crossing whom -- yet is doesn't matter because the film succeeds as a glamorous nightmare, a proto-Lynchian exercise in atmospheric dread. It is less than a full vision of Welles's inimitable imagination because, as usual, the studio hacked away at the movie, adding corny musical cues, and soft-focus close-ups of Rita Hayworth where they didn't belong. But it mostly works because the images are so original and inspired and because Welles and Hayworth bring a genuine spark of sexual chemistry to their roles. Even when it's painful to notice the studio's inane additions to the film in compromise of Welles's artistry it's hard to regard the intense, dreamy, fragmented bits of brilliance the film is comprised of as a complete tragedy.
Welles plays Mike "Black Irish" O'hara, an "able-bodied seaman" for hire in New York. Mike's a romantic - a tough guy who writes poetry and killed a Franco spy fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He's a brooding, sexy tough guy with depth. He meets Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth), the wealthy wife of a crippled trial lawyer, Arthur Bannister, one night in Central Park. After rescuing her from an attempted gang rape in the park he is later propositioned by her husband to work on their yacht as they sail to Mexico. Mike can't say no to Elsa and soon they're sailing to Mexico. It's here where the film is most memorable as the landscape changes from a back lot version of Manhattan to actual location shooting of the ocean and a Mexican fishing village. As the characters are revealed to be more sinister the cinematography gets more and more darkly beautiful. Welles gets great things out of his cast and crew, and the result is unlike any thriller from the period. It's noir but in Welles's hands it transcends genre trappings.Continue Reading
Touch of Evil
Touch of Evil is one in a long list of artistic triumphs for Orson Welles that was scandalously treated as a failure from the “lost years” of his post-Citizen Kane free-fall of a film career. Nowadays the film has been accorded the status of an absolute crime film classic usually referred to as the last real film noir of the original cycle. But try telling that to the dumb dumbs at Universal who decided to ignore his 58 page memo on crucial edits to the film and instead cobbled together their own sanitized version of his deliriously sleazy border town saga—a baroque mixture of pulp noir and Shakespearian tragedy as only Welles could envision and execute. Touch of Evil was meant to be Welles’ Hollywood studio return to form after a decade spent in European exile chasing money to fund his mostly dead-ended film projects. But as with so many events in Welles’s Hollywood career the end result was a cold, stilted, even hostile reaction to his exhilarating achievement. He could never shake his reputation as the enfant terrible of tinsel town and this black cloud of notoriety had a habit of eventually destroying any opportunities that lay ahead of him no matter the evidence to the contrary that he generally worked on time and under budget.
Nothing seemed to dispel Welles’ legend as a colossal money and time waster. We might wonder why he got these deals in the first place if the studios were given to losing faith in him so predictably, but such is the enduring mystique behind the life and work of Orson Welles. He was the real deal, the consummate auteur whose technical and narrative innovations in film we have still not yet caught up to and perhaps because of this he was someone Hollywood was never going to trust. It’s not easy starting at the top of your game with a film like Citizen Kane—still generally considered the greatest film ever made and, as such, something he was never allowed to top. Though his outsized life left us with more questions than answers what we do have is his fascinating body of work or what’s left of it. The uncut version of the Magnificent Ambersons is lost to history courtesy of the malicious meddling of RKO and likewise The Lady From Shanghai will never be seen as he intended due to Harry Cohn’s celluloid butchery over at Columbia. His footage of Carnival in Brazil that he shot for the still unfinished documentary It’s All True is rotting in a studio vault as I write this. The list of legendary lost films goes on and on.Continue Reading