Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Roads Not Taken

One is never wrong if they call Citizen Kane the greatest American film of all time.

Unfortunately, this safety net has in fact come to work against the film in recent years. Many people coming to the film for the first time are so overburdened with expectations concerning the picture’s sizeable reputation that their first viewing inevitably leaves them both disappointed and rather curious what all the fuss was about to begin with. Others resist labeling Citizen Kane ‘the greatest’ for other, more obvious motivations: They want to be different and buck the convention wisdom. 

 Neither condition applies to me.

I first encountered Citizen Kane in a high school film class and I found its perspective, wherein a newspaper reporter interviews several characters about Kane and the narrative of the picture leaps between time periods in an almost disjointed fashion, completely enthralling. For me, the richness of the film’s themes, its technical achievements and its overall artistic vision have not dulled with time, either. This is quite simply the greatest American film ever made, no matter what criteria one is asked to consider, and it will remain such, I believe for eternity.

Indeed, there are so many angles one can come at when discussing Citizen Kane—a testament, I believe, to its greatness—that one almost does not know where to begin. There are its many technical achievements, in which set design, costuming and makeup reached hitherto unforeseen heights in film. There is the cinematography. Never before had light and shadow been used so effectively, actors positioned in such crucial ways and cameras positioned in such strange and wonderful places (Orson Welles famously cut the floor out of some sets to shoot up and at his actors from their feet to make them appear larger than life).

However, the construction of the film’s narrative and the underlying themes that narrative contains are where I believe Citizen Kane is at its greatest.

Orson Welles, a man who needs no real introduction to contemporary readers, for better and worse—mostly worse, if you know anything about Welles—was at the height of his powers when he made Citizen Kane and the choices he makes as a storyteller are inspired. I have no evidence Wells read William Faulkner or James Joyce, but the notion the conventional narrative underwent a serious revision in the 1930s and 40s should be apparent to even the most casual reader of American and world literature from that time period.  Furthermore, Welles in his infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast had already demonstrated during the 1930s that he had a penchant for turning the conventional narrative on its head through the innovative use of established mediums.

His application of this in Citizen Kane is clear in that he takes the traditional film noir narrative of a mystery in need of solving (in this case about Kane’s last words), fatalism and trust and betrayal and enlarges the genre to tackle nothing less than the entirety of the American dream and what it means to gain and lose things (people, power, love, adoration, hate and prestige). In a film so about narrative, it is telling we never hear from Kane himself. Rather, he is a corpse from the very first frame of the film and instead we hear from those who knew him at his best and his worst, as the narrative leaps here and there and provides sharp and soft shards of a man’s life, who by his own account could have been a great man, but was not.

And yet, for all the cinematic bells and whistles (and what a movie this is JUST to watch, even on mute), for all its tricks of camera and flashes of brilliance, this is at its heart a film about people and their failure to interact with another, to love one another and to live to meaningful lives. All of the characters in Citizen Kane are haunted ghosts, empty reflections of a former “greatness” that when peeled away turns out to be far more prosaic and ordinary than we first believed. Kane’s longtime sidekick still remembers a nameless woman he never spoke to but glimpsed on a New York pier, Kane’s best friend just wanted to write an honest review of Kane’s wife because he could not remember how to do anything honest. 

These are small, simple acts (or non-acts) and yet they all had more impact than Kane’s failed gubernatorial bid or the Second World War on all of those involved. That is because in the end, Citizen Kane is about the roads not taken or the decisions made or not made and what each of those moment renders in the years that follow. What is a life but the fragments of where it touched other people? Kane’s physic interior can be guessed at, but never known. What can be known, both by him and all the other characters, is the decisions they all made and how those decisions created their lives and formed them into the people they became. Thus, Kane’s “Rosebud” was a sleigh ride never taken, a life of complete ordinariness in Colorado wilds that was never possible after his mother sent him East with his millions.

That he seemed willing to trade all the subsequent moments, all the subsequent decisions and outcomes for a chance at that lost life is the tragic nostalgia at the heart of Citizen Kane’s power as a film. For who among us believes every path we chose was the correct one? That all of those roads not taken were truly unworthy of exploration? 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Glamour, Unapologetically

Films do not come more luxuriant than 1955’s To Catch a Thief.

Flush with splendid vistas from the French Riviera, lavish hotel interiors populated with beautiful people and a plot that revolves around priceless jewels and culminates in a costume party, the film as it unfolds almost literally bubbles and sparkles like a cool glass of champagne. Even so, I cannot help but imagine that part of the film’s success is the result of an unintentional contrast brought about by time. In this I mean that if filmed today, such an endeavor as To Catch a Thief would likely come across as opulent and irritating, but under the astute and tasteful direction of Alfred Hitchcock the original retains a unique charm, despite its almost paper-thin plot and rather predictable resolution, that many other films hunger for but more often than not fail to achieve.

The critical difference, I suppose, is glamour and how we understand it and what it meant --- both then and now --- and how Hitchcock was able to harness the glamour of an exotic location and two Hollywood legends in such a pleasing manner. In the case of the former, I doubt the Riviera has ever filmed poorly, but at the same time, I do not think Hitchcock made his choice by happenstance, either. Rather, I believe he chose the sunny coast of South France because it was about as far away as possible, in aesthetic terms, as the soundstages that represented the courtyards and alleyways of 1954’s Rear Window, the masterpiece of film that Hitchcock made just prior to To Catch a Thief.

Indeed, To Catch a Thief is something of an ethereal twin to Rear Window, if you ask me. (The bright, shiny side of Rear Window's dark half of the coin?) Consider, both films essentially track a courtship between an action-oriented, somewhat roguish leading-man and a leading lady -- played on both occasions by Grace Kelly -- who is refined, erudite and wealthy. In both cases, the female is attracted to the man, in part, precisely because of his circumspect employment (freelance photographer in Rear Window, former cat-burglar in To Catch a Thief). To further the comparison, in Rear Window we see grubby alleyways and the confined, interior courtyard of an apartment building, whereas in To Catch a Thief we are outdoors for the vast majority of the movie, swimming in the ocean, riding in open-top cars or moving dangerously across rooftops. If Hitchcock, a man ever prone to boredom, wanted to make a film almost the polar opposite of Rear Window, he did a decent job in selecting this lighthearted romp.

That is not to say the Hitchcock touch is absent from this film. Indeed, a good many of the traits are on display here and part of the reason why the film works so well is that it remains in the hands of master craftsmen. Had another director, paired with another set of stars, made this picture, it simply would not have worked as well. In this sense, the fact that Hitchcock himself abandoned the deeply psychological themes of 1954’s Rear Window and settled on proverbial cinematic, champagne bubbles cannot be held against him if we simply adjust our expectations and allow ourselves to relish the results onscreen.

This is a majestic picture, with much to look at and enjoy, not the least of which is Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. It would be difficult under any circumstances to dislike the two and almost impossible here, where they shine together with real chemistry and purpose. That both are beautiful, charming people is even more obvious in their placement together (I always though James Stewart a bit to parochial for Kelly in Rear Window, whereas Grant seemingly was born in a tuxedo.) The absent power of yesterday's stars is again affirmed, in that if you try to imagine Grant and Kelly's counterparts today making such a film, you simply cannot imagine it being worth watching.

The death of old Hollywood at the hands of tabloids has made the modern day greats less mysterious, in that we know too much about them, and consequently more annoying. If you cannot catch my meaning hunt down the famous bit where Grant during a television interview quips something along the lines that everyone wants to be Cary Grant even Cary Grant wants to be Cary Grant. Back then, the persona and the person were inseparable and that only adds to the fireworks, which in this case, Hitchcock took pains to physically depict on the screen.

As is the case in North by Northwest, Grant is almost entirely a passenger to the plot here and he simply reacts wherever he is thrown. Although Hitchcock utilized this method in quite a few of his films because it put the audience and the protagonist on equal footing, I have always felt Grant seemed the master of the method, perhaps because he made so many comedies, such Arsenic and Old Lace, that required such physical, reactionary acting. Here, he is accused of returning to his former thieving ways and decides the only way to clear his name is by "catching" the thief himself, a feat he almost literally achieves when he grabs hold of the cat burglar on the rooftop of a swanky French villa that has just hosted an equally swanky party.

Of course the real "thief" being "caught" is Grant himself and the person doing the catching is Ms. Kelly, who for the second Hitchcock outing in a row will essentially snag the unmarried, action-oriented bachelor through a combination of glamour, flirtation and mystery. There is then some interesting dissection in the film about feminine virtue, which often appears in Hitchcock’s films with leading actresses of the blond persuasion. That is, Kelly throughout presents herself as graceful and strongly effeminate. Although she is not virginal, she is virtuous. In contrast, the film's true antagonist --- in both the crime and the courting --- is Brigitte Auber's young Frenchwoman, who clearly is not virtuous. Her sexuality, unlike Grace Kelly's, is flouted openly, and therefore is presented as tawdry and insincere. Although Auber's character clearly has some feelings for Grant, it is also apparent she is willing to manipulate him and sacrifice him for herself. The opposite of this, Grace Kelly is honest and supportive, even as she too nudges Grant towards an idea he himself might not have thought of: Marriage.

The results, as I have said, are sumptuous and fun. If this is a "weak" effort of Hitchcock's it can only be thought of as so given the enormity of the man's stronger pictures. The plot twists here are fairly appreciable before they arrive and the thieving itself a rather flimsy and far-fetched excuse for some excellent diversions. Lest we forget, this is courtship on cinema, and as such, the majesty of an allegory feels appropriate. That Hitchcock still chose crime and mystery as the vehicle for his romantic comedy certainly says a great deal about him, but it also works so well here in all of its finery that I doubt viewers complained too loudly.