Posts Tagged ‘Citizen Kane’
It’s always satisfying when a story comes full circle, or when a moment near the end of the narrative reveals a pattern of symbols or themes that was only dimly visible before. This kind of structure requires both careful planning and some degree of luck: a story that is too obviously structured can seem artificial or contrived, while the best kind of deep structure can take even the author by surprise. More often, however, a writer will reach the end of a project only to find that its structure is shapeless or absent, with a story that seems like nothing but a series of loosely connected events. The smart thing to do at this point would be to throw out the whole thing and start again—something that few of us have the courage to attempt. The alternative is, well, to fake it: to look for a few quick fixes that will make the story look more structured than it really is, in hopes of fooling the casual reader or critic. Is it cheating? Sure. But it’s a form of cheating of which nearly every artist has been guilty at one time or another, and once you’re aware of it, you start to see it everywhere you look. With just a few simple tricks, soon you, too, will be faking it with the best:
1. If you can’t find a theme, pretend it’s there anyway. Ideally, theme ought to arise organically from the events of the story itself, rather than being conceived beforehand or imposed after the fact. Sometimes, though, you wind up a theme that seems thin or nonexistent. The answer, if you’re determined to fake it, is to pick a theme that seems appropriate and mention it on the slightest pretext. The great recent example is Pixar’s Brave, which repeats the word “fate” so insistently that it clearly hopes that nobody notices that it doesn’t have much to do with fate at all, or at least has little of interest to say on the subject. I’m not above this kind of thing myself: when the title of my second novel was changed at the last minute to City of Exiles, which I selected more or less because it sounded good, I went back and tweaked the draft in places to tease out the theme of exile wherever possible. Hopefully, this kind of retouching should be invisible, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find a real theme lurking there after all. In storytelling, as in jazz, sometimes you just need to fake it till you make it.
2. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. History, as Mark Twain says, doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. So, too, does a good novel: elements that occur early in the story can, and should, come back to play a larger role. As before, we’d like to believe that this is the result of serendipity or good planning, but I’ve found that it doesn’t hurt to go back, when you’re nearing the end of a writing project, to see if there are elements that could be profitably reintroduced. A character who appears only once and never returns, or a detail introduced in the book’s early pages that doesn’t play a part later on, is an annoying loose end; bring them back again at an unexpected time, and you start to look pretty smart. In City of Exiles, for instance, an unscrupulous solicitor named Owen Dancy appears early in the book, only to never be mentioned again. This struck me as an oversight, so not only did I bring him back, but I had him play a crucial part in the epilogue. As soon as something occurs twice, it starts to look like structure, and three times is even better. This kind of systematic mining of one’s work for meaningful repetitions is something that every writer should do. Like the Plains Indians, we try to use every part of the animal.
3. When in doubt, go back to where you started. When we see the NO TRESPASSING sign at Xanadu for the last time at the end of Citizen Kane, it feels like a circle has closed; the same is true of the picket fence and red roses in the opening and closing shots of Blue Velvet. At its best, this kind of bookending reflects a ring or circular structure that has been part of the work from the beginning, but sometimes only the illusion of symmetry is required. You see this in movies, like the original Spider-Man, that repeat the opening narration again at the end: it feels like a recurrence of deeper themes, when it may just be a simple editing trick. (At a higher level, you have a movie like Raging Bull, which reportedly didn’t work at all in test screenings until a snippet of the closing scene was appended to the beginning.) A true ring composition demands detailed planning, while mechanically opening and closing on the same phrase or image requires no skill at all—but if you aren’t sure how to end a story, even the fake version will often get you ninety percent of the way there. Because it’s always satisfying when a story, or a blog post, comes full circle. Isn’t it?
I don’t know how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher. I just try everything I can think of.
Exactly seven years ago, on August 6, 2005, on the blog that I used to maintain with several of my college friends, I wrote the following:
In about seven years, the British magazine Sight and Sound will conduct its next critics’ poll of the greatest movies ever made, which has been held every decade since 1952. It’s always hard to handicap these things, but I have two predictions: 1) Vertigo will finally unseat Citizen Kane from the top of the list. 2) More than one critic, maybe a bunch of them, will name 2046 as one of the best movies of all time.
I’ll need to wait until next week, when Sight & Sound publishes the full results of its critics’ poll, to verify my second prediction—although at this stage In the Mood for Love is clearly the Wong Kar-Wai film to beat. And while my prediction about Vertigo, which did indeed top the latest list, may seem impressive, it isn’t quite as smart as it seems: last time, Vertigo came in second to Kane by only five votes. All the same, I’m almost never right about this sort of thing, so you’ll excuse me if I take some satisfaction in this rare display of prescience.
Still, in some ways, it’s a shame, because Vertigo deserves better than the crushing weight of expectation that such an honor inevitably confers. It’s undeniably a great movie, certainly one of the best of all time, but it’s also a film that gradually imbeds itself in your subconscious, growing in your imagination over the course of many years, with levels of meaning that can’t be fully appreciated after an initial viewing. I have the sinking feeling that a lot of people are going to watch Vertigo for the first time because of this poll and come away wondering what the big deal is about. It took me years to sort through my own feelings about Kane, a cheeky, flashy, shallow masterpiece that has been unfairly suffocated by its own reputation. Eventually, perhaps, we’ll be able to watch Vertigo again in the way it deserves. But probably not for a while.
I’ve written about Vertigo numerous times on this site, so for my full thoughts on this extraordinary movie, please see here and here. It missed my recent rundown of my own top ten films, but only by the narrowest of margins, and while it may not be my favorite film overall, its greatest moments soar higher than those of any other movie I can name. In particular, as I’ve said before, the hotel room scene culminates in the greatest shot in the history of cinema, and its third act is among the most emotionally overwhelming. For the moment, then, let’s give the obligatory nod to Hitchcock while also acknowledging the film’s other makers, especially the screenwriters Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, who adapted the novel D’entre les morts and added the crucial shift in point of view that lends the movie much of its impact, and the composer Bernard Herrmann, who delivered a score that contributes, more than any other I know, to the movie’s hypnotic spell.
As for the rest of the poll, it’s exactly what it should be: an endless source of surprise, argument, and inspiration. Everyone will have their own list of omissions—mine is that there’s nothing by Powell and Pressburger and no sign of Casablanca—but overall, these are fascinating movies that provide enough imaginative fuel for a lifetime. For me, it’s a reminder that I need to watch more Tarkovsky (I hadn’t even heard of Mirror, which made the top ten on the directors’ list) and finally finish Metropolis, which has remained paused halfway through in my Netflix queue for years. But more than anything else, the list is a reminder of how inexhaustible the world of great movies really is, even for those of us who care about it deeply. As I’ve written before, when I discovered the 1982 edition of the Sight & Sound poll sometime in the third grade, it changed my life forever. Thirty years down the line, it hasn’t lost any of its power.
Done, as a certain social media company likes to remind us, is better than perfect. Not everything we do can be flawless in every respect, and in many cases, it’s better to take shortcuts where possible in order to focus on what really matters. Yesterday, I quoted the historian Arnold Hauser on the pragmatism of Shakespeare, who took certain creative approaches “only because they represented the most simple, convenient, and quickest solution of a difficulty to which the dramatist did not find it worth his while to devote any further trouble.” This Olympian ability to zero in on what counts, rather than becoming distracted by side issues, simply magnifies one of the qualities that we find in nearly all great popular writers: the willingness to use a shortcut, or even blatant sleight of hand, to get from one point in a story to another, and the understanding that such measures not only don’t detract from the quality of the work, but may even add to its richness and unpredictability.
One obvious example is the use of stock characters, which remain as useful today as they did in Shakespeare’s time. Stereotypes have no place among one’s leads, of course, but it’s hard to think of a complex work of art, from the Iliad to Downton Abbey, that doesn’t rely, to some extent, on stock types to people its world. For one thing, it saves time. Here’s Roger Ebert on The Godfather:
Although The Godfather is a long, minutely detailed movie of some three hours, there naturally isn’t time to go into the backgrounds and identities of [all the] characters…Coppola and producer Al Ruddy skirt this problem with understated typecasting. As the Irish cop, for example, they simply slide in Sterling Hayden and let the character go about his business.
Every writer sometimes finds it necessary, when pressed for time, to let a stock character go about his business without further introduction. And while most of us don’t have the chance to “simply slide in Sterling Hayden“—if only we could!—there’s no reason to feel guilty about using stock types in small parts. If anything, a fully rounded character in an insignificant part can be a flaw in the narrative: if we mention that the clerk at the hotel where the hero is staying is named Bill, for instance, this sets up an expectation in the reader’s mind that Bill will return in some significant way. If he doesn’t, it’s an unnecessary distraction, when an anonymous clerk would simply have been accepted as part of the fabric of the story.
The same rule holds for many of those clichés or conventions that can annoy attentive readers, as chronicled exhaustively on TV Tropes. We all have our own private list of the amusing ways in which fiction diverges from reality: the fact that the hero can always find a parking space, for instance, or inevitably has the correct change for a taxi. As William Goldman points out in Which Lie Did I Tell?, however, all these conventions have something in common: they’re all about speed. They save time. And they allow the story to get on with it, gliding past what isn’t important to focus on what is. And although such shortcuts may irritate nitpickers after the fact, if we’re caught up in the story, we don’t care. Once again, it’s about knowing what matters, as in editor Walter Murch’s famous Rule of Six, in which everything from continuity to visual logic is subordinated to the emotion of the moment. Because emotion is the one place where shortcuts can’t be taken.
And if the emotional aspects of a story are sound, the remaining shortcuts can create pockets of space for the reader’s imagination to explore. This is true of nearly all great works of art, which, on closer examination, resemble Citizen Kane, which evokes the vast spaces of Xanadu with a bare set, lighting, and a few simple props, and in the process creates a place that feels much more real to us than all the lavishly detailed sets of Cleopatra. In a similar way, Conan Doyle manifestly didn’t care about the continuity of small details in the Sherlock Holmes stories, like the location of Watson’s wound, which only allowed his readers to furnish the rest of the world on their own. A work of art in which every detail has been determined by the writer, if it sees the light of day at all, will often seem airless and uninviting. But if the writer takes the right kind of shortcuts, not only will he reach his own destination, but the reader will come along for the ride.
Like all great films, but much more so, The Red Shoes—which I think is the greatest movie ever made—works on two levels, as both a story of life and a story of film. As the latter, it’s simply the most inventive movie ever made in Technicolor, second only to Citizen Kane in its abundance of tricks and flourishes. These range from small cinematic jokes (like its use of the scrolling title Forty-five minutes later, subsequently borrowed by Scorsese in The Aviator, to indicate the passage of time within a single shot) to effects of unforgettable emotional power (like the empty spotlight on the stage in the final scene). It’s the definitive work by a pair of filmmakers who had spent the previous decade on an unparalleled streak, making more great films in ten years than five ordinary directors could produce in an entire career. And The Red Shoes was the movie they had been building toward all along, because along with everything else, it’s the best film ever made about the artistic process itself.
And even here, it works on multiple levels. As a depiction of life at a ballet company, it may not be as realistic as it seems—Moira Shearer, among others, has dismissed it as pure fantasy—but it feels real, and it remains the most romantic depiction of creative collaboration yet captured on film. (It inspired countless careers in dance, and certainly inspired me to care deeply about ballet, an art form toward which I’d been completely indifferent before seeing this movie.) And as an allegory, it’s unsurpassed: Lermontov’s cruelty toward Vicky is really a dramatization of the dialogue between art and practicality that takes place inside every artist’s head. This may be why The Red Shoes is so important to me now: from the moment I first saw it, it’s been one of my ten favorite films, but over the years, and especially after I decided to become a writer, my love for it has increased beyond what I feel toward almost any other work of art. Yet Vicky’s final words still haunt me, as does Lermontov’s offhand remark, which stands as a permanent warning, and enticement, to artists of all kinds: “The red shoes are never tired.”
“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper,” writes Charles Foster Kane to his guardian, Mr. Thatcher, only to confess in the following scene: “I don’t know how to run a newspaper—I just try everything I can think of.” In those two lines, Citizen Kane captures the romance of what it means to be young, gifted, and boundless of ambition, and in particular, what it meant to be Orson Welles, twenty-five, already famous, and given the keys to the greatest train set a boy ever had. This honeymoon wouldn’t last forever, of course, and Welles barely survived two more years in Hollywood. But the memory of those days lives on, in Kane and in much of The Magnificent Ambersons, with Kane in particular serving as both the most lasting movie ever made in America and a bittersweet emblem of what might have been.
Kane is famously the film that inspired the careers of more directors than any other, and even for those of us who express ourselves in other ways, it’s a shining example of what can be accomplished when respect for the lessons of craft is combined with a reckless disregard of the rules. Most of the great innovations in the arts and sciences come when an individual of genius changes fields, and with Welles, with his unsurpassed training in theater and radio, Hollywood not only got a genuine boy wonder, but gave him the freedom and resources he needed to do great work—a lucky combination that would never happen again. Welles came to RKO with a willingness to try everything once and, more importantly, to listen to the likes of Gregg Toland and benefit from their skill and experience. Without this bedrock of craft, Kane would be a mess of inspirations; without inspiration, it would be pointless technique. But for once, blessedly, a Hollywood film had both. And the movies would never be the same.
Tomorrow: The best of all recent Hollywood movies.
It took me a long time to love Citizen Kane. When I first saw this most famous of all movies, which was finally released last week on a gorgeous Blu-ray, I was maybe ten years old, and already steeped, believe it or not, in the culture of such movie lists as the Sight & Sound poll. (I got an early start at being an obsessive film snob.) And my first viewing of Kane, which I knew had been universally acclaimed as the best film of all time, came as something of a shock. Looking back, I think my biggest issue was with the film’s insistent humor, since I had assumed that all great art had to be deadly serious. Xanadu and its brooding shadows were fine, but when we got to the moment when the stagehand holds his nose at Susan Alexander’s operatic debut, I didn’t know what to think. What kind of masterpiece was this, anyway?
Needless to say, in the years since, this sense of fun has become one of my favorite things about Kane, as it was for Pauline Kael and so many others. Like Hamlet, with its ghosts and swordfights, Kane is both popular and sublime, and it’s one of the first movies to directly communicate to the audience the director’s joy in his craft—the sense that a movie studio was “the biggest electric train set a boy ever had.” As Kael points out in “Raising Kane,” the movie is almost a series of blackout sketches, full of tricks and gags, and that underlying pleasure still comes through, especially in the earlier newspaper scenes, which feel like a glimpse of the RKO set itself: the Inquirer, with its exhausted but grateful staff, becomes a dream of all creative collaboration, the warmest memory in a movie that ends with the line “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”
And yet, as I’ve grown older, I’m also struck by the undercurrent of sadness and loss, which prompted David Thomson to say, in Rosebud: “This is the most moving picture ever made…Or ever will be.” More than any other film, Kane grows with time, both in the context of film history and in its viewers’ own lives. For one thing, it’s hard to watch it now without seeing it as a prophetic version of what would happen to Orson Welles himself, still only twenty-five and a little more than a baby in the few times he appears in his own face. Welles was a greater man than Kane, but he was already preparing his own warehouse of memories, that incredible mass of stories, myths, and unfinished projects that he carried with him like an invisible Xanadu. Of all great directors, only Coppola—with the ghosts of Zoetrope and the Corleones lingering at the Rubicon estate—can claim to be so haunted.
But Kane isn’t really about Welles himself, but all of us. There’s a reason why such disparate figures as Charles Schulz and Ted Turner have seen themselves in this story: among other things, it’s our best movie about youth and aging. Now that I’ve long since passed the age at which Welles made this film, I’m convinced that there’s no way I could fully appreciate it until now: when you’re twenty-five, the movie seems like a goad, or an exemplar, and it’s only when you’re a little older that you notice its preemptive nostalgia for the promise of youth already lost. I expect that the movie will continue to evolve and show different aspects as I get older, a hall of mirrors, like the one Kane walks through in his very last appearance. It’s an inspiration and a warning, a labyrinth without a center, as Borges writes. And yet running that newspaper still seems like so much fun.
Oh, I get it, it’s very clever. How’s that working out for you?
Earlier this week, I finally finished London Fields by Martin Amis, a novel that I grudgingly respected and intensely disliked. Amis is undoubtedly a genius, and the level of craft on display here is often stunning, but the deliberate flatness of its lovingly caricatured characters and its endless hammering away at a handful of themes makes it feel like reading the same smug, acerbic, glitteringly intelligent page five hundred times in a row. By the end, I was almost physically exhausted by the relentless progression of setup, punchline, setup, punchline, and the result, like Amis’s The Information, strikes me as a work of great misdirected talent. For all its ambition, it ultimately exemplifies, more than anything else, what Amis’s father Kingsley once called the “terrible compulsive vividness in his style…that constant demonstrating of his command of English.” And, I might add, of his cleverness.
Cleverness for its own sake, I’ve become increasingly convinced, is a pitfall for all gifted artists, especially novelists and filmmakers. It’s hard to say what cleverness means, at least in its negative sense, but I’d describe it as any artistic decision or flourish that doesn’t serve to advance the story, but only to be admired in isolation. Its defining characteristic is that it can be easily detached from the underlying narrative and inserted elsewhere in the story—or another story altogether—with minimal changes. At its worst, it feels less like ingenuity in service of narrative than a laundry list of interchangeable ideas. Watching a movie like Fight Club or reading a book like London Fields, I have the same feeling that the music critic Anthony Tommasini recently described in his review of Francesca Zambello’s San Francisco production of Das Rheingold: “I wish she had made a complete list of her ideas and eliminated a third of them.”
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for an occasional isolated flourish, like the moment in Citizen Kane when the photograph of the Inquirer staff comes to life. And there are some great films, like Casino, that aspire to be nothing but those flourishes. But the best sort of cleverness, like every other aspect of craft, is for the sake of story, which means that it’s almost invisible. Hitchcock is a fine example of both extremes. We remember the obvious effects of his style, like the distorting optical process in Vertigo, but far more clever is the structure of Vertigo itself, which takes place entirely from the perspective of the lead character until the last half hour, when it breaks from his point of view at a decisive moment. (This is a departure, incidentally, from the original novel, which, with its surprise ending, is clever in a more conventional way.)
The real trouble with cleverness is that it can easily be mistaken for the deeper qualities it can only superficially imitate: narrative ingenuity, humor, and organic inventiveness. In literature, it leads to novels that imitate the postmodern tools of Barth or Borges without ever having really engaged the earlier works on which they were founded. In film, you get a style like that of Tony Scott at his worst, in which every shot is tilted or saturated for no particular reason. And in comedy, it results in a mode of humor in which pop cultural references and winks to the audience have replaced real comedic situations. For this last manifestation, which is probably the saddest of all, I can do no better than quote George Meyer, the legendary writer and producer for the best years of The Simpsons: “Clever,” Meyer notes, “is the eunuch version of funny.”
Today on the A.V. Club, an article by critic Noel Murray has inspired a nice little discussion on the problem of spoilers, an issue on which I have some mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’ve been spoiled before. I had the death of a major character on The Wire spoiled for me by a clue in the New York Sun crossword puzzle, of all things. (Why, Peter Gordon, why?) And it always stings. On the other hand, I also believe that avoiding spoilers entirely can make it hard to read any kind of serious criticism. In some cases, a detailed plot summary can make it easier to get through a challenging work of art, whether it’s Game of Thrones or Andrei Rublev. And a good work of art is, or should be, more than the isolated details of its plot. It’s impossible to spoil a movie’s visual aspects, its director’s style, or the details of a great performance—although it’s certainly possible, alas, to spoil a joke.
In fact, you could make the argument that a defining factor of great art is its immunity to spoilers. And the opposite also holds: once a bad work of art has been spoiled for you, there’s rarely any reason to seek it out. Like a lot of people, I enjoy reading detailed plot summaries of horror movies that I never intend to see, to the point where I could probably give you a pretty good description, sight unseen, of the plot of Saw II. And I don’t think I’ve missed much—which is not the case for The Descent, for instance, not to mention The Shining. The same is true, unfortunately, of many works of mystery and science fiction. All too often, such stories are little more than delivery systems for a twist or an interesting idea, which could be conveyed as effectively in a paragraph as in an entire novel. (That’s why I like Borges, who pretends that the novel he wants to write already exists, and gives us the essential points by writing a review of it.)
A really good novel or movie, by contrast, has qualities that can’t be expressed in summary form. And it’s still possible to enjoy such works of art while knowing how they conclude, if the artist’s craft is strong enough to return you, at least temporarily, to a state of narrative innocence. One of the most striking examples is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Everybody “knows” what happens in that story, so it’s startling to read it again, as I did a few weeks ago, and remember that the original novel, unlike its many adaptations, is structured as a straight mystery. Stevenson saves the revelation of Hyde’s true identity for the end of the ninth chapter, and the effect, if you can put yourself in the position of a reader experiencing it for the first time, is stunning—the only detective story, as others have pointed out, where the solution is more horrible than the crime.
The same is true of many classic movies. I’ve lost track of how often I’ve watched Psycho—I’ve seen it on the big screen three times, twice in the past two years alone—and yet the structure of that movie is so strong, with its brilliant opening mislead, that the first appearance of the Bates Motel, through its dark curtain of rain, hasn’t lost any of its original power. (Seeing it with an audience also helps, especially when it comes to that wonderful second murder, which has rarely, if ever, been spoiled.) The same is true, to a lesser extent, of the end of Citizen Kane: I’ll never be able to experience it the way it was intended, but by the time that moment comes, I can glimpse at least a shadow of what it might have been. Is it good enough? Yes. But I’d still give anything to experience it, just once, the way it was meant to be seen.
Yesterday I finally got around to reading Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker piece on Middlemarch—by all odds the most intelligent novel ever written—and its influence on her own life. If you’re a subscriber, Mead’s article is well worth reading in full (especially for her discussion of an inspirational quotation inexplicably misattributed to George Eliot, a subject on which I have some strong opinions), but I was struck in particular by her thoughts on how her attitudes toward the book have changed over time. Mead writes:
I have gone back to Middlemarch every five years or so, my emotional response to it evolving at each revisiting. In my judgmental twenties, I thought that Ladislaw, with his brown curls and his callow artistic dabbling, was not entirely deserving of Dorothea; by forty, I could better measure the appeal of his youthful energies and Byronic hairdressing, at least to his middle-aged creator, who was fifty-three when the book was published.
This, of course, is the measure of a great work of art: its ability to reveal new perspectives as we approach it at different times in our lives. Most of us, I imagine, have a book or movie or album that serves as a similar sort of milestone, with our evolving feelings toward it charting how much we ourselves have changed. For Roger Ebert, it’s Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. In an article first published two years ago, he writes:
In 1962, Marcello Mastroianni represented everything I dreamed of attaining…Ten years later, he represented what I had become, at least to the degree that Chicago offered the opportunities of Rome. Ten years after that, in 1982, he was what I had escaped from, after I stopped drinking too much and burning the candle at both ends.
And now Ebert has left the movie behind entirely. Recently, he wrote movingly of the fact that he will no longer be able to discuss the film shot by shot at the Conference on World Affairs at Boulder, as he’s done on four separate occasions, and concludes:
Well, now I’ve outlasted Marcello. I’ve come out the other side. He is still standing on the beach, unable to understand the gestures of the sweet blond girl who was his waitress at the restaurant, that day he was going to start his novel. He shakes his head resignedly and turns to walk back into the trees and she looks after him wistfully. I am in the trees with Marcello.
As for the equivalent work in my own life, I’m tempted to say that it’s the Pet Shop Boys album Actually, which has slipped imperceptibly from the imagined soundtrack of my adulthood to a reminder of a period I’ve already left behind. Or perhaps it’s The Phantom Tollbooth, which has evolved, as I’ve grown older, from escapist fantasy to handbook for adult life to the book that I’m most looking forward to giving to my own children. I suspect, though, that it might actually be Citizen Kane, which I once saw as a challenge and call to art, and which currently seems—now that I’m five years older than Welles was—more like a warning, or a rebuke. Or perhaps all of the above. What about you?
Essential films: Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons, F for Fake
I have to admit that it took me a long time to come around to Kane. Few other movies have been so unfairly suffocated by their own reputations: advance expectations run so high, for the officially certified greatest film of all time, that it nearly overwhelms what is really, as Pauline Kael points out, the fastest and frothiest of all newspaper comedies. At least, that’s how it plays at first. But as time goes on, thanks largely to David Thomson, I’ve found depths in Kane that probably weren’t evident even to its creator, who was, in fact, the secret subject of his own movie. Citizen Kane is a prophetic foreshadowing of the career of Orson Welles, the boy wonder who plays only a handful of scenes in his own face, and its power grows all the greater as the years take us further away from the incredible physical fact of Welles himself.
And the movie wouldn’t be able to sustain the weight of such baggage, or scrutiny, if it weren’t so intricate and beautiful a toy—a labyrinth without a center, as Borges notes. Of all the faces in Kane, the one that stays with me most is that of George Coulouris, as Thatcher, scowling, at the end of the closing credits, “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.” No other film has made the art of movies seem like such mischievous fun for boys, and though Welles’s vision darkened over the years, that sense of delight is never entirely gone. It’s there throughout Touch of Evil, and it’s wonderfully evident in F for Fake, his last film, a feat of sleight of hand that even Exit Through the Gift Shop can’t hope to match. In the end, Welles’s life remains, as David Thomson says, “the greatest career in film, the most tragic, and the one with most warnings for the rest of us.”
Tomorrow: Akira Kurosawa and the triumph of storytelling.
Essential films: The Red Shoes, A Canterbury Tale, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going!
Over the course of a single decade, from 1940 to 1949, the writing, producing, and directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced ten masterpieces, beginning with Contraband and ending with The Small Back Room. This amazing run, conducted in the face of World War II and the difficult years that followed, is unparalleled in the history of movies, and deserves a great book on the subject. (Powell’s own autobiography, A Life in Movies, goes only part of the way toward filling that need.) Even more impressive is the dazzling range of stories on display. Some are naturalistic, while others are outrageously weird; there’s comedy, suspense, history, war, romance, melodrama, even excursions into science fiction and fantasy. One of their greatest films, A Canterbury Tale, doesn’t seem to be about anything at all, until we realize that it’s actually about everything in life that matters.
And yet every one of these movies is recognizably the work of the Archers. A film by Powell and Pressburger doesn’t look or feel like anything else: it’s the result of a very British mixture of humor, common sense, visual and narrative ingenuity, superstition, and a genuine curiosity about how the world works. If The Red Shoes had nothing to offer but dancing, music, and art direction, it would still be a classic, even an object of religious devotion. The fact that it also has a richly detailed story, fine performances, gorgeous locations, and cinematic inventiveness to rival Citizen Kane—and in color!—makes it seem almost inhumanly generous. Add this to the fact that it’s the best movie ever made on the creative process, and you have the work of art, after a lifetime of moviegoing, that has inspired and consoled me more than any other film.
Tomorrow: the dangerous example of Stanley Kubrick.
The publication of the fifth edition of David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the best book ever written on the movies, is cause for celebration, and an excuse for me to talk about one of the weirdest books in all of literature. Thomson is a controversial figure, and for good reason: his film writing isn’t conventional criticism so much as a single huge work of fiction, with Thomson himself as both protagonist and nemesis. It isn’t a coincidence that one of Thomson’s earliest books was a biography of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy: his entire career can be read as one long Shandean exercise, in which Thomson, as a fictional character in his own work, is cheerfully willing to come off as something of a creep, as long as it illuminates our reasons for going to the movies.
First, a word about the book’s shortcomings. As in previous editions, instead of revising the entries for living subjects in their entirety, Thomson simply adds another paragraph or two to the existing filmographies, so that the book seems to grow by accretion, like a coral reef. This leads to inconsistencies in tone within individual articles, and also to factual mistakes when the entry hasn’t been updated recently enough—like the article on George Lucas, for instance, in which the latter two Star Wars prequels still evidently lie in the future. And the book is full of the kind of errors that occur when one tries to keep up, in print, with the vagaries of movie production—as when it credits David O. Russell with the nonexistent Nailed and omits The Fighter. (Now that this information is readily available online, Thomson should really just delete all of the detailed filmographies in the next edition, which would cut the book’s size by a quarter or more.)
And then, of course, there are Thomson’s own opinions, which are contrarian in a way that can often seem perverse. He’s lukewarm on Kurosawa, very hard on Kubrick (The Shining is the only movie he admires), and thinks that Christopher Nolan’s work “has already become progressively less interesting.” He thinks that The Wrestler is “a wretched, interminable film,” but he loves Nine. He displays next to no interest in animation or international cinema. There’s something to be outraged about on nearly every page, which is probably why the Dictionary averages barely more than three stars from reviewers on Amazon. And if you’re the sort of person who thinks that a critic whose opinions differ from your own must be corrupt, crazy, or incompetent—as many of Roger Ebert’s correspondents apparently do—then you should stay far, far away from Thomson, who goes out of his way to infuriate even his most passionate defenders.
Yet Thomson’s perversity is part of his charm. Edmund Wilson once playfully speculated that George Saintsbury, the great English critic, invented his own Toryism “in the same way that a dramatist or novelist arranges contrasting elements,” and there are times when I suspect that Thomson is doing the same thing. And it’s impossible not to be challenged and stirred by his opinions. There is a way, after all, in which Kurosawa is a more limited director than Ozu—although I know which one I ultimately prefer. Kubrick’s alienation from humanity would have crippled any director who was not Kubrick. Until The Dark Knight and Inception, Nolan’s movies were, indeed, something of a retreat from the promise of Memento. And for each moment of temporary insanity on Thomson’s part, you get something equally transcendent. Here he is on Orson Welles, for example, in a paragraph that has forever changed how I watch Citizen Kane:
Kane is less about William Randolph Hearst—a humorless, anxious man—than a portrait and prediction of Welles himself…As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent…Kane is Welles, just as every apparent point of view in the film is warmed by Kane’s own memories, as if the entire film were his dream in the instant before death.
On Spielberg and Schindler’s List:
Schindler’s List is the most moving film I have ever seen. This does not mean it is faultless. To take just one point: the reddening of one little girl’s coat in a black-and-white film strikes me as a mistake, and a sign of how calculating a director Spielberg is. For the calculations reveal themselves in these few errors that escape. I don’t really believe in Spielberg as an artist…But Schindler’s List is like an earthquake in a culture of gardens. And it helps persuade this viewer that cinema—or American film—is not a place for artists. It is a world for producers, for showmen, and Schindlers.
And, wonderfully, on what is perhaps my own favorite bad movie of all time:
Yet in truth, I think Kevin [Spacey] himself is the biggest experiment, and to substantiate that one has only to call to the stand Beyond the Sea, written, produced and directed by Kev and with himself as Bobby Darin. The result is intoxicating, one of the really great dreadful films ever made, worthy of an annual Beyond the Sea award (why not give it on Oscar night?), as well as clinching evidence that this man is mad. Anything could happen.
The result, as I note above, is a massive Proustian novel in which nearly every major figure in the history of film plays a role. (Thomson has already written a novel, Suspects, that does this more explicitly, and his book-length study of Nicole Kidman is manifestly a novel in disguise.) Reading the Dictionary, which is as addictive as Wikipedia or TV Tropes, is like diving headfirst into a vast ocean, and trying to see how deep you can go before coming up for air. Although if it really is a novel, it’s less like Proust than like Pale Fire, in which Thomson plays the role of Kinbote, and every article seems to hint darkly at some monstrous underlying truth. (In that light, even the book’s mistakes seem to carry a larger meaning. What does it mean, for instance, that Thomson’s brilliant article on Heath Ledger, in which he muses on “the brief purchasing power” of fame, was “inadvertently dropped” from the fifth edition?)
And what monstrous truth does the Dictionary conceal? It’s the same truth, which applies as much to Thomson himself as it does to you and me, as the one that he spells out, unforgettably, at the end of Rosebud, his study of Orson Welles:
So film perhaps had made a wasted life?
One has to do something.