Monday, June 7, 2010

Citizen Kane

Directed by Orson Welles.
1941. Not Rated, 119 minutes.
Orson Welles
Joseph Cotten
Dorothy Comingore
Ray Collins

In an attempt to come up with a fitting eulogy for the famous and wealthy Charles Foster Kane (Welles), a group of reporters investigate the man’s life hoping to discover the meaning of his last, dying word – rosebud. Many believe this film to be a thinly veiled commentary on the life of William Randolph Hearst. This includes Hearst himself who then set out to destroy the movie. On the surface, it tells a great story of a man consumed by his own ego. The metaphors are just explicit enough to let you know there’s more beneath the surface. Somehow, despite its age it still feels fresh. That’s mainly because this movie pioneered techniques still in vogue today. The easiest of these to spot is the non-linear telling of the story. It jumps back and forth in time often and effortlessly without ever blatantly putting a date on the screen. The most subtle of these innovations and perhaps most effective is Welles’ use of the camera. He simply does things directors today still aren’t as proficient at implementing and directors of his era, or viewers for that matter, had never seen before. He positions the camera and moves it in such a way that doesn’t merely suggest a mood, it forcefully puts you there. He’s particularly brilliant when using low angles. To help you better understand I’ll use Michael Bay's Transformers as a reference point. In that movie there’s the now famous scene of John Turturro being “lubricated” by one of the giant robots. At that moment director Michael Bay, and/or his cinematographer basically have the camera on the ground, or close to it, looking up at the two characters. Turturro looks large and authoritative standing over the camera. Picture yourself as a small child being scolded by a parent towering over you. Behind Turturro is the robot who is substantially larger and again appears even more so with the camera below him. When he “lubricates” Turturro not only is it funny but the director suggests to you that human authority figures are meaningless in an epic battle for the universe. Well, meaningless at that particular moment. In CK there’s a scene where Kane walks across the room and slaps his wife. During that scene the camera is positioned seemingly about knee-level in the middle of the two. As he walks toward her, not only does she retreat but the camera does as well. It seems to drift to the farthest right corner of the room and lower to the floor. The effect is Kane appears to grow physically becoming more and more menacing by the second while she and you as the viewer seem to shrink and get weaker. You actually feel as if you’ve been backed into a corner. Nothing suggestive about it, Welles shoved you in that corner. That may be too technical to digest and you probably won’t notice it but you’ll feel it. Things like that are why CK will always be studied by prospering directors but that’s enough film-school. The one thing that does make it feel dated, aside from the black-and-white picture, is the dialogue will occasionally sound a little cheesy or a little too polite for what the character is actually trying to say. Other than that it does everything well and my favorite part, of course, is it gives us an ending we can interpret a number of ways.

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