Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Orson Welles

The low road to Xanadu

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Orson Welles in Citizen Kane

It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote of Donald Trump: “He’s like Charles Foster Kane, without any of the qualities that make Kane so misleadingly attractive.” If anything, that’s overly generous to Trump himself, but it also points to a real flaw in what can legitimately be called the greatest American movie ever made. Citizen Kane is more ambiguous than it was ever intended to be, because we’re distracted throughout by our fondness for the young Orson Welles. He’s visible all too briefly in the early sequences at the Inquirer; he winks at us through his makeup as an older man; and the aura he casts was there from the beginning. As David Thomson points out in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film:

Kane is less about William Randolph Hearst—a humorless, anxious man—than a portrait and prediction of Welles himself. Given his greatest opportunity, [screenwriter Herman] Mankiewicz could only invent a story that was increasingly colored by his mixed feelings about Welles and that, he knew, would be brought to life by Welles the overpowering actor, who could not resist the chance to dress up as the old man he might one day become, and who relished the young showoff Kane just as he loved to hector and amaze the Mercury Theater.

You can see Welles in the script when Susan Alexander asks Kane if he’s “a professional magician,” or when Kane, asked if he’s still eating, replies: “I’m still hungry.” And although his presence deepens and enhances the movie’s appeal, it also undermines the story that Welles and Mankiewicz set out to tell in the first place.

As a result, the film that Hearst wanted to destroy turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to his legacy—it makes him far more interesting and likable than he ever was. The same factor tends to obscure the movie’s politics. As Pauline Kael wrote in the early seventies in the essay “Raising Kane”: “At some campus showings, they react so gullibly that when Kane makes a demagogic speech about ‘the underprivileged,’ stray students will applaud enthusiastically, and a shout of ‘Right on!’ may be heard.” But in an extraordinary review that was published when the movie was first released, Jorge Luis Borges saw through to the movie’s icy heart:

Citizen Kane…has at least two plots. The first, pointlessly banal, attempts to milk applause from dimwits: a vain millionaire collects statues, gardens, palaces, swimming pools, diamonds, cars, libraries, men and women…The second plot is far superior…At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by any apparent unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances…In a story by Chesterton—“The Head of Caesar,” I think—the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film is precisely that labyrinth.

Borges concludes: “We all know that a party, a palace, a great undertaking, a lunch for writers and journalists, an enterprise of cordial and spontaneous camaraderie, are essentially horrendous. Citizen Kane is the first film to show such things with an awareness of this truth.” He might well be talking about the Trump campaign, which is also a labyrinth without a center. And Trump already seems to be preparing for defeat with the same defense that Kane did.

Everett Sloane in Citizen Kane

Yet if we’re looking for a real counterpart to Kane, it isn’t Trump at all, but someone standing just off to the side: his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. I’ve been interested in Kushner’s career for a long time, in part because we overlapped at college, although I doubt we’ve ever been in the same room. Ten years ago, when he bought the New York Observer, it was hard not to think of Kane, and not just because Kushner was twenty-five. It recalled the effrontery in Kane’s letter to Mr. Thatcher: “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.” And I looked forward to seeing what Kushner would do next. His marriage to Ivanka Trump was a twist worthy of Mankiewicz, who married Kane to the president’s daughter, and as Trump lurched into politics, I wasn’t the only one wondering what Ivanka and Kushner—whose father was jailed after an investigation by Chris Christie—made of it all. Until recently, you could kid yourself that Kushner was torn between loyalty to his wife’s father and whatever else he might be feeling, even after he published his own Declaration of Principles in the Observer, writing: “My father-in-law is not an anti-Semite.” But that’s no longer possible. As the Washington Post reports, Kushner, along with former Breitbart News chief Stephen K. Bannon, personally devised the idea to seat Bill Clinton’s accusers in the family box at the second debate. The plan failed, but there’s no question that Kushner has deliberately placed himself at the center of Trump’s campaign, and that he bears an active, not passive, share of the responsibility for what promises to be the ugliest month in the history of presidential politics.

So what happened? If we’re going to press the analogy to its limit, we can picture the isolated Kane in his crumbling estate in Xanadu. It was based on Hearst Castle in San Simeon, and the movie describes it as standing on the nonexistent desert coast of Florida—but it could just as easily be a suite in Trump Tower. We all tend to surround ourselves with people with whom we agree, whether it’s online or in the communities in which we live, and if you want to picture this as a series of concentric circles, the ultimate reality distortion field must come when you’re standing in a room next to Trump himself. Now that Trump has purged his campaign of all reasonable voices, it’s easy for someone like Kushner to forget that there is a world elsewhere, and that his actions may not seem sound, or even sane, beyond those four walls. Eventually, this election will be over, and whatever the outcome, I feel more pity for Kushner than I do for his father-in-law. Trump can only stick around for so much longer, while Kushner still has half of his life ahead of him, and I have a feeling that it’s going to be defined by his decisions over the last three months. Maybe he’ll realize that he went straight from the young Kane to the old without any of the fun in between, and that his only choice may be to wall himself up in Xanadu in his thirties, with the likes of Christie, Giuliani, and Gingrich for company. As the News on the March narrator says in Kane: “An emperor of newsprint continued to direct his failing empire, vainly attempted to sway, as he once did, the destinies of a nation that had ceased to listen to him, ceased to trust him.” It’s a tragic ending for an old man. But it’s even sadder for a young one.

The prankster principle

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Totoro in Toy Story 3

In an interview with McKinsey Quarterly, Ed Catmull of Pixar was recently asked: “How do you, as the leader of a company, simultaneously create a culture of doubt—of being open to careful, systematic introspection—and inspire confidence?” He replied:

The fundamental tension [at Pixar] is that people want clear leadership, but what we’re doing is inherently messy. We know, intellectually, that if we want to do something new, there will be some unpredictable problems. But if it gets too messy, it actually does fall apart. And adhering to the pure, original plan falls apart, too, because it doesn’t represent reality. So you are always in this balance between clear leadership and chaos; in fact that’s where you’re supposed to be. Rather than thinking, “Okay, my job is to prevent or avoid all the messes,” I just try to say, “well, let’s make sure it doesn’t get too messy.”

Which sounds a lot like the observation from the scientist Max Delbrück that I never tire of quoting: “If you’re too sloppy, then you never get reproducible results, and then you never can draw any conclusions; but if you are just a little sloppy, then when you see something startling, you [can] nail it down…I called it the ‘Principle of Limited Sloppiness.’”

Most artists are aware that creativity requires a certain degree of controlled messiness, and scientists—or artists who work in fields where science and technology play a central role, as they do at Pixar—seem to be particularly conscious of this. As the zoologist John Zachary Young said:

Each individual uses the store of randomness, with which he was born, to build during his life rules which are useful and can be passed on…We might therefore take as our general picture of the universe a system of continuity in which there are two elements, randomness and organization, disorder and order, if you like, alternating with one another in such a fashion as to maintain continuity.

I suspect that scientists feel compelled to articulate this point so explicitly because there are so many other factors that discourage it in the pursuit of ordinary research. Order, cleanliness, and control are regarded as scientific virtues, and for good reason, which makes it all the more important to introduce a few elements of disorder in a systematic way. Or, failing that, to acknowledge the usefulness of disorder and to tolerate it to a certain extent.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

When you’re working by yourself, you find that both your headspace and your workspace tend to arrive at whatever level of messiness works best for you. On any given day, the degree of clutter in my office is more or less the same, with occasional deviations toward greater or lesser neatness: it’s a nest that I’ve feathered into a comfortable setting for productivity—or inactivity, which often amounts to the same thing. It’s tricker when different personalities have to work together. What sets Pixar apart is its ability to preserve that healthy alternation between order and disorder, while still releasing a blockbuster movie every year. It does this, in part, by limiting the number of feature films that it has in production at any one time, and by building in systems for feedback and deconstruction, with an environment that encourages artists to start again from scratch. There’s also a tradition of prankishness that the company has tried to preserve. As Catmull says:

For example, when we were building Pixar, the people at the time played a lot of practical jokes on each other, and they loved that. They think it’s awesome when there are practical jokes and people do things that are wild and crazy…Without intending to, the culture slowly shifts. How do you keep the shift from happening? I can’t go out and say, “Okay, we’re going to organize some wild and crazy activities.” Top-down organizing of spontaneous activities isn’t a good idea.

It’s hard to scale up a culture of practical jokes, and Pixar has faced the same challenges here as elsewhere. The mixed outcomes of Brave and, to some extent, The Good Dinosaur show that the studio isn’t infallible, and a creative process that depends on a movie sucking for three out of four years can run into trouble when you shift that timeline. But the fact that Pixar places so much importance on this kind of prankishness is revealing in itself. It arises in large part from its roots in the movies, which have been faced with the problem of maintaining messiness in the face of big industrial pressures almost from the beginning. (Orson Welles spoke of “the orderly disorder” that emerges from the need to make quick decisions while moving large amounts of people and equipment, and Stanley Kubrick was constantly on the lookout for collaborators like Ken Adam who would allow him to be similarly spontaneous.) There’s a long tradition of pranks on movie sets, shading imperceptibly from the gags we associate with the likes of George Clooney to the borderline insane tactics that Werner Herzog uses to keep that sense of danger alive. The danger, as Herzog is careful to assure us, is more apparent than real, and it’s more a way of fruitfully disordering what might otherwise become safe and predictable. But just by the right amount. As the artist Frank Stella has said of his own work: “I disorder it a little bit or, I should say, I reorder it. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to claim that I had the ability to disorder it. I wish I did.”

How I like my Scully

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David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

Note: Spoilers follow for “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster.”

Dana Scully, as I’ve written elsewhere, is my favorite television character of all time, but really, it would be more accurate to say that I’m in love with a version of Scully who appeared in maybe a dozen or so episodes of The X-Files. Scully always occupied a peculiar position on the series: she was rarely the driving force behind any given storyline, and she was frequently there as a sounding board or a sparring partner defined by her reactions to Mulder. As such, she often ended up facilitating stories that had little to do with her strengths, as if her personality was formed by the negative space in which Mulder’s obsessions collided the plot points of a particular episode. She was there to move things along, and she could be a badass or a convenient victim, a quip machine or a martyr, based solely on what the episode needed to get to its destination. That’s true of many protagonists on network dramas or procedurals: they’re under so much pressure to advance the plot that they don’t have time to do anything else. But even in the early seasons, a quirkier, far more interesting character was emerging at the edges of the frame. I’m not talking about the Scully of the abduction or cancer or pregnancy arcs, who was defined by her pain—and, more insidiously, by her body. I’m talking about the Dana Scully of whom I once wrote: “The more I revisit the show, the more Scully’s skepticism starts to seem less like a form of denial than a distinct, joyous, sometimes equally insane approach to the game.”

And this is the Scully who was on full display last night, in Darin Morgan’s lovely “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster.” Morgan is rightly revered among X-Files fans as the staff writer who expanded the tonal possibilities of the show while questioning many of its basic assumptions, but it’s also worth noting how fully he understood and loved Scully, to an extent that wasn’t even true of Chris Carter himself. If you’re intuitively skeptical of the show’s premises, Scully is the natural focal point, since she’s already raised most of the obvious objections. What Morgan created, especially in “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “War of the Coprophages,” was a character who both acknowledged the madness of her situation and took a bemused, gleeful pleasure in navigating it with dignity, humor, and humanity intact. Morgan’s vision of life was often despairing, but he grasped that Scully saw the way out of the dilemma more truly than Mulder ever could. In a world where everyone dies alone, regardless of whether it’s because of a monster attack or suicide or heart disease, we can’t do much more than retain our detachment and our ability to laugh at its absurdity. (This incarnation of Scully belonged to Morgan, but Vince Gilligan did a nice job of simulating it in episodes like “Small Potatoes” and “Bad Blood,” which suggests that X-Files writers ought to be judged by how well they understood her at her best.)

Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

Objectively speaking, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” isn’t one of Morgan’s finest efforts, and it’s probably the most minor episode he’s written since “Humbug.” Its central premise—a monster who turns into a man when he’s bitten by a human being—is the best pure idea he’s ever had, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. The plots of Morgan’s classic episodes don’t sound particularly promising when you reduce them to a capsule description: they’re more an excuse to ring a series of variations on a theme and to wander down whatever weird byways he wants to explore. The twist in “Were-Monster” is so clever that it seems to have handcuffed him a little, and as goofy as the episode often is, it’s surprisingly straightforward as a narrative. (This actually becomes a gag in itself, as the monster lays out his backstory in a ludicrously detailed flashback that is so informative that even Mulder has trouble believing it.) But it’s also possible that this wasn’t the time or place for an installment like “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” which pushed against the conventions of a show that was still cranking out an episode every week. It’s been twenty years since “Jose Chung,” and I think that Morgan intuitively understood that there was no point in undermining something that no longer existed. “Were-Monster” isn’t a subversion, but a renewal of a certain vision about these characters that has been lost for decades. As David Thomson said about Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, after filling a page with a list of its shortcomings: “Still, it was done.”

And although it tracks the Night Stalker version of Morgan’s script fairly closely, in the small details, it feels just right. There’s something here that wasn’t always evident in his earlier work: an obvious affection for the characters, including Mulder himself, for whom Morgan seemed to have little patience. Morgan has always spoken about his stint on The X-Files with a touch of ambivalence, and it’s doubtful that he ever felt entirely comfortable in the writer’s room. With the passage of time, he seems to have realized how much the show meant to him, and “Were-Monster” plays like an act of reconciliation between the series and the writer who provided it with its finest moments. It’s full of touches that I’d be tempted to call fan service, except that they feel more like Morgan’s notes to himself, or a belated acknowledgment that he loved these characters even when he was ruthlessly satirizing them. At one point, Scully glances up from an autopsy table and says: “I forgot how much fun these cases could be.” Watching it, I said aloud: “Me, too.” And it’s a message from Morgan to the fans who have revisited his episodes dozens of times. It doesn’t reach the heights of his best work—although I reserve the right to revise my opinion—but it does something even better: it reminds us, in a way that the previous two episodes did not, of why this show meant so much to us for so long. Later, after listening to a particularly screwy rant from her partner, Scully smiles to herself and says: “Yeah, this is how I like my Mulder.” And even if we never see these versions of them again, for now, they exist. It was done. And it’s a miracle.

Written by nevalalee

February 2, 2016 at 9:22 am

The orderly disorder

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Orson Welles

Sometimes what seems disorderly has a perfectly logistic purpose. But in order to explain why I’m changing the scene would take ten minutes of conference. So I don’t explain, and it looks as though I am being capricious. When I’m outside, the position of the sun determines everything: I’ll suddenly jump from one sequence to another, even go into a sequence that wasn’t planned for that day, if the light suddenly becomes right for it. The sun is the most beautiful light in the world, and the way to make it beautiful is to film it at its moment; so that means jumping. Those are the technical reasons for the orderly disorder. Then sometimes the actors aren’t right on that day, you see that they need another day, another mood. The thing isn’t working. Then you must change, and the change does everybody good. Sometimes, when all the lights are in one position, in order to move logically to the next scene as planned creates an enormous waste of time. And rather than lose time in moving the lights, I confuse everybody else by jumping to the next thing I know we can shoot. I think you will agree that the disorder doesn’t mean that we work slowly. I think it is terribly necessary to work quickly.

Orson Welles

Written by nevalalee

December 13, 2015 at 7:22 am

Posted in Movies, Quote of the Day

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My ten great movies #5: Citizen Kane

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“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 movie about writing ever made.

Written by nevalalee

May 18, 2015 at 9:00 am

My ten great movies #8: The Third Man

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Even for passionate movie lovers, two things tend to date the classic films of the thirties and forties: their sets, with the inescapable smell of the studio, and their orchestral scores, which to modern ears tend to sound depressingly alike. It’s quite possible, then, that we have both the city of Vienna and Anton Karas to thank for the fact that The Third Man still seems so fresh. The zither score, combined with the extraordinary locations, result in a film that seems both utterly of its time and completely modern—and one that requires less of a mental adjustment to enjoy than any other movie of its era I know. Combine this with Graham Greene’s great script, with its uncredited contributions from Orson Welles and others, and we have what is both the breeziest and darkest of noirs, a film I love so much that I steal from it directly both in my novelette “Kawataro” and the conclusion of my novel City of Exiles.

Everyone knows how completely Welles dominates the movie with only a reel or so of screen time—which, while delicious, seems much more of its period than the rest of the film—to the point where our memory of Harry Lime tends to overshadow the rest of the cast: Joseph Cotten, the very moving Alida Valli, and especially Trevor Howard as Major Calloway, who contributes perhaps the film’s most stylish performance. The big moments—Harry’s entrance, the ferris wheel scene, the great closing shot—are deservedly famous, but I also like the small touches: the wizened little boy with the ball; the moment when Sgt. Paine (the wonderful Bernard Lee) loads the picture of a rhinoceros into the slide projector by mistake; or the glimpses we get into the work of hack writer Holly Martens though the eyes of his admiring readers: “I never knew there were snake charmers in Texas.” But as Carol Reed’s great film reminds us, there are certainly snakes in Vienna. And they’re very charming.

Tomorrow: The triumph of the studio system.

Written by nevalalee

May 13, 2015 at 9:00 am

The films of a life

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Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita

The other week, while musing on Richard Linklater’s Boyhood—which I still haven’t seen—I noted that we often don’t have the chance to experience the movies that might speak most urgently to us at the later stages of our lives. Many of us who love film encounter the movies we love at a relatively young age, and we spend our teens and twenties devouring the classics that came out before we were born. And that’s exactly how it should be: when we’re young, we have the time and energy to explore enormous swaths of the canon, and we absorb images and stories that will enrich the years to come. Yet we’re also handicapped by being relatively inexperienced and emotionally circumscribed, at least compared to later in life. We’re wowed by technical excellence, virtuoso effects, relentless action, or even just a vision of the world in which we’d like to believe. And by the time we’re old enough to judge such things more critically, we find that we aren’t watching movies as much as we once were, and it takes a real effort to seek out the more difficult, reflective masterpieces that might provide us with signposts for the way ahead.   

What we can do, however, is look back at the movies we loved when we were younger and see what they have to say to us now. I’ve always treasured Roger Ebert’s account of his shifting feelings toward Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which he called “a page-marker in my own life”:

Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw La Dolce Vita in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom “the sweet life” represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello’s world; Chicago’s North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello’s age.

When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was ten years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him.

Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

And when we realize how our feelings toward certain movies have shifted, it can be both moving and a little terrifying. Life transforms us so insidiously that it’s often only when we compare our feelings to a fixed benchmark that we become aware of the changes that have taken place. Watching Citizen Kane at twenty and again at thirty is a disorienting experience, especially when you’re hoping to make a life for yourself in the arts. Orson Welles was twenty-five when he directed it, and when you see it at twenty, it feels like both an inspiration and a challenge: part of you believes, recklessly, that you could be Welles, and the possibilities of the next few years of your life seem limitless. Looking back at it at thirty, after a decade’s worth of effort and compromise, you start to realize both the absurdity of his achievement and how singular it really is, and the movie seems suffused with what David Thomson calls Welles’s “vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent.” You begin to understand the ambivalence with which more experienced filmmakers regarded the Wellesian monster of energy and ambition, and it quietly affects the way you think about Kane‘s reflections on time and old age.

The more personal our attachment to a movie, the harder these lessons can be to swallow. The other night, I sat down to watch part of The Red Shoes, my favorite movie of all time, for the first time in several years. It’s a movie I thought I knew almost frame by frame, and I do, but I hadn’t taken the emotional component into account. I’ve loved this movie since I first saw it in high school, both for its incredible beauty and for the vision it offered of a life in the arts. Later, as I rewatched it in college and in my twenties, it provided a model, a warning, and a reminder of the values I was trying to honor. Now, after I’ve been through my own share of misadventures as a writer, it seems simultaneously like a fantasy and a bittersweet emblem of a world that still seems just out of reach. I’m older than many of the characters now—although I have yet to enter my Boris Lermontov phase—and my heart aches a little when I listen to Julian’s wistful, ambitious line: “I wonder what it feels like to wake up in the morning and find oneself famous.” If The Red Shoes once felt like a promise of what could be, it’s starting to feel to me now like what could have been, or might be again. Ten years from now, it will probably feel like something else entirely. And when that time comes, I’ll let you know what I find.

Written by nevalalee

July 23, 2014 at 9:30 am

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