Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Labyrinth With No Center

Jorge Luis Borges called Citizen Kane a labyrinth with no center.

We are planning a "double feature" party this weekend with a couple of friends. We're going to watch Citizen Kane and F For Fake both directed by Orson Welles. Kane is Wellle's first movie and Fake is his last movie. I wanted to find some stuff written about the movies and I was able to find Pauline Kael's intense essay called Raising Kane online. Kael's essay is probably the most famous piece of movie criticism ever written. (The second might be the expose of Bonfire of the Vanities production?)

The first time I saw Citizen Kane was in a film class structured like a literary criticism course and I had no idea what Citizen Kane was about, I hadn't even heard of it before. The professor guided us with the topic of "unreliable narrator" a term I also had never heard of before. Sometime later I bought a cool book with the shooting script of the movie. This book also had the 70 page essay by pauline Kael and it was a revelation of reading and criticism to me at the time. Kael made a fantastic set of arguments that the movies greatness was precisely due to it's so-called flaws and banal styles and "theatrical flamboyance".


"Apparently, the easiest thing for people to do when they recognize that something is a work of art is to trot out the proper schoolbook terms for works of art, and there are articles on Citizen Kane that call it a tragedy in fugal form and articles that explain that the hero of Citizen Kane is time—time being a proper sort of modern hero for an important picture. But to use the conventional schoolbook explanations for greatness, and pretend that it’s profound, is to miss what makes it such an American triumph—that it manages to create something aesthetically exciting and durable out of the playfulness of American muckraking satire. Kane is closer to comedy than to tragedy, though so overwrought in style as to be almost a Gothic comedy. What might possibly be considered tragic in it has such a Daddy Warbucks quality that if it’s tragic at all it’s comic-strip tragic. The mystery in Kane is largely fake, and the Gothic-thriller atmosphere and the Rosebud gimmickry (though fun) are such obvious penny-dreadful popular theatrics that they’re not so very different from the fake mysteries that Hearst’s American Weekly used to whip up—the haunted castles and the curses fulfilled. Citizen Kane is a “popular” masterpiece—not in terms of actual popularity but in terms of its conceptions and the way it gets its laughs and makes its points." from Pauline Kael

I also found a terrific obituary/article about Kael in Slate Magazine...

Pauline Kael..."offers some clues about why these touches leave current audiences so cool. If you'd been lucky enough to ask Kael, she'd probably have told you a bit impatiently that the film prompts that reaction because it's meant to. In its grinning cynicism, in its distrust of sweeping narratives told in the 80-point type of tabloid headlines, Citizen Kane mocks the very idea of an audience feeling warm and fuzzy about a movie character—or indeed any kind of larger-than-life figure, whether he's on celluloid or newsprint."

..."easily the most exhaustive, piece of criticism Kael ever wrote. "Raising Kane" appeared in The New Yorker 30 years ago, sprawling across a total of 68 pages in consecutive issues of the magazine. The essay celebrated and dissected Orson Welles' film debut Citizen Kane, which was itself 30 years old in 1971.

As it happens, Kael's death and that double anniversary coincide with the release of a commemorative edition of the film on DVD. Citizen Kane will be the first building block in the collection of any self-respecting film buff, of course. But watching it on DVD re-raises a lingering if heretical question: Why does the film so often ranked as the greatest ever made strike so many viewers as cold, as oddly soulless? It's easy to appreciate or admire Citizen Kane but hard to revel in it. Put another way: It's just about the last movie you'd want to watch on a rainy night.

In many ways Citizen Kane would seem tailor-made for contemporary sensibilities—at least as those sensibilities existed before Sept. 11. In a languorous voice-over commentary on the new DVD (Roger Ebert provides another, somewhat less breathy one), Peter Bogdanovich says Citizen Kane was 40 years ahead of its time when it appeared in 1941. I'd say 50 or 55 years is more like it. If the movie was forward-looking in terms of narrative structure and shot-making, it was even more so in its supreme self-awareness. It anticipates the age of irony in the way it keeps emotion at arm's length and tends to be more clever than wise. The newspaper headlines Welles uses to such great effect in the film put words in jocular quotation marks (KANE MARRIES 'SINGER') more typical of the late 1990s than the early '40s." from Slate Magazine: "Rosebud Remix".

8 comments:

DILLIGAF said...

Citizen Kane was based to a large degree on newspaper mogul W R Hearst and his live in lover, the actrees/comedienne Marion Davies.

He was so incensed with the movie that he attempted to have it destroyed prior to its release.

Fortunately he couldn't bully the studio into destroying it and an extraordinary film was saved.

Welles was given little opportunity to work in Hollywood again though for many years....

* (asterisk) said...

As a young acting student, I decided to watch Citizen Kane when it was playing at a small legendary rep cinema on Sunday afternoon. It was my first time, and it blew me away. Kane and Raging Bull contain probably the best lead performances ever committed to celluloid -- arguably all the nutrition a growing drama student needs.

Candy Minx said...

Hi Four Dinners, yes there is an idea that Welle was blocked by Hearst's power and influence. It is fascinating to me and kind of reminds me of some of the celebrity meltdowns we see today.

Asterisk, I had no idea you were so affected by C.K. I am very glad to hear it. And I'm so glad to see you stop by and tell that memory of being a young acting student. The first time I saw C.K. I also was blown away. it was embarassing because I cried in the film class! I was so blown away by the portrayal of "end of childhood" in the movie.

hey if either of you guys wants to jump in to our discussion here is the url:

http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/288641-citizen-kane

DILLIGAF said...

Ahhh!!! Raging Bull!!!...nuff said

mister anchovy said...

Hey, why not make it a triple bill and watch A Touch of Evil too! I remember seeing Orson Welles when I was a kid and he was doing guest spots on tv talk shows doing bad card tricks, and thinking who is this guy and why do they keep letting him on their shows.... much later, I saw his films and thought, nevermind.

Greg S. said...

Hope you had a great party. There should be a wine guide for films, just as for food. For CK I'd recommend a red burgundy. Better yet, go straight to tequilla, heh.

Candy Minx said...

Mister Anchovy, you know what we just happened to watch "Touch of Evil" about 3 months ago. What a movie!!! I forgot how orson Welles used to show up and do card tricks. You really triggered a memory. I should go see if I can find some of those as clips at YouTube could be fun. He once introduced and episode of "Moonlighting" as he was friends with Cybil Shepard.

Hey Greg, S, maybe some wine.I love me some tequilla though. Probably after the movies. We are all inspired by your movie lists and have been going crazy around here catching up on great movies.

* (asterisk) said...

Touch of Evil is tainted for me due to the circumstances in which I saw it. I have given it a go since, and it helped, but a bit more time needs to pass first, I think! I remember enjoying The Magnificent Ambersons, though...