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Kill Your Idols: "Citizen Kane"

Discussion in 'Anything goes' started by Dick Whitman, Jan 8, 2013.

  1. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member

    I mentioned on the movie thread that I had watched "Citizen Kane" over the weekend - for the first time in about a decade, and about the third time overall. Obviously it is a true classic, and the consensus greatest film ever made.

    I said on that thread that I'd like to start a stand-alone "Kane" thread, so here it is. I thought perhaps we could do it as a kind of running theme: "Kill Your Idols." We'll see how this goes, but perhaps every so often, we could dissect a sacred cow a little bit, be it a movie, classic album or CD, or television series or season. Anything goes. Nothing off limits. Everything is up for scrutiny. Shed your inherited knowledge and look at them again.

    Can't think of a better place to begin than this one. We have a lot of film buffs on here, so I'd love to start a discussion about why people love it, why they think it's overrated, why they think it does or doesn't stand the test of time, or perhaps even enlighten the board about what makes this such an accomplishment that others may not have noticed (i.e. the significance of "deep focus.")

    Some thoughts just to get things going:

    * I mentioned on the other thread that the news reel is a narrative device that deserves some discussion. I felt like, in a way, it drains some of the dramatic tension out of the movie. We know that this is going to be a man's rise and fall - and we even know many of the particulars of the fall. Did it work for you?

    * I thought the actress who played his second wife, Susan Alexander, may have been the weakest link in the entire production. She's shrill and generally awful to watch. Was this typical of the era, or was lack of subtlety a particular affliction of this particular actress or director? It seems like it was an era thing - I also think that the lead's performance in "Sunset Boulevard," for example, is glaringly dated.

    * The media stuff is fascinating and about as relevant today as it was then. At one point, Kane attempts to convince the world, via his newspapers, that his wife is a great opera singer. She actually stinks (as the two guys in the opera house indicate.) Is this really any different than the way that today, for example, Dick Morris goes on Fox News and predicts a landslide Mitt Romney victory against all evidence? Or Rivals.com writers at a site all picking their team to win the big game, despite all evidence to the contrary?

    * The Orson Welles age make-up is better than the DiCaprio make-up in "J. Edgar." Way better.

    * The scene where Kane breaks down and begins throwing everything and destroying the room was pretty gut-wrenching, and really well-staged for that time or any time. I bought it.

    * What do people think of the slap of Susan Alexander? I saw two startling movie slaps this weekend: That one, and the father-daughter slap in "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Was it untoward at all in 1941? Shocking at all? Acceptable? Domestic violence was pretty much pooh-poohed back then. Was Welles trying to shake that complacency out of people? Or was he just portraying how people like Kane acted back then toward women?
  2. waterytart

    waterytart Active Member

    Susan Alexander:

    It's hard to evaluate Dorothy Comingore's performance compared to her body of work, because it was very spotty. I don't know if she was shrill elsewhere. She's one of those actresses who gets discussed for her biography (blacklist, alcoholism), not her work.

    Welles denied Alexander was based on Marion Davies, the actress who is the obvious parallel in Hearst's life. There are no other candidates in his life for her to be based on, though, so that's too disingenuous by half. Davies was a film actress, not a singer. She was a good comedienne, who handled the transition to sound well. Check out The Patsy or Show People to see her, if you're comfortable with older movies.

    Supposedly, Hearst wanted her to be a dramatic actress. I've never seen her in any of those performances, so can't speak to whether they're as bad as Citizen Kane implies.

    The slap:

    Usually, violence toward women in old movies is restricted to "bad guys" but that's not universal. Cary Grant shoves Katherine Hepburn to the ground in Philadelphia Story, a comedy.

    I can't speak to attitudes in the '40s, but I can give you an anecdote from the '70s, when I was in college. A woman from my dorm was dating an abuser. Her close friends knew that, but the rest of us didn't. That changed the day he beat her up in the dorm loudly enough to be heard throughout the building. Not one of us did anything. I'm not saying we thought it was OK. We thought she ought to leave him, but the assumption was it was none of our business, so everyone pretended it hadn't happened.
  3. Greenhorn

    Greenhorn Active Member

    The Kane dvd set I have comes with the late Richard Ben Cramer's documentary "The Battle over Citizen Kane" which I found more engrossing than the film itself. Welles was a first-rate talent, but Kane can be a bit cold.
  4. DanOregon

    DanOregon Well-Known Member

    I read a good article on classics that people watch for the first time and don't understand what "the fuss is about."
    The point the author made is that movies like Citizen Kane and others were ground breaking because they introduced techniques/methods/plot devices that hadn't been done before and have become commonplace since.
    Such as "the end" of Citizen Kane being the first scene.
  5. TowelWaver

    TowelWaver Active Member

    I love this film. I think it may lend itself to a "what's the big deal?" reaction now, but consider it in the context of its day. Even if you only look at the technical aspects, consider what's being done with the camera (zoom-ins through the top of the nightclub and through the table in Kane's childhood home, digging a hole for the camera in the floor in the office to get an upward shot of Kane and Leland, Toland's use of deep focus to make certain characters look small and insignificant, and so on). There was nothing else remotely like that in terms of camerawork or effects back then. Be sure also to watch it with Roger Ebert's commentary at least once--it's like a mini-film school. The only technical flaw I can think of off the top of my head is the superimposed screeching parrot near the end (with its accidental dead eye) and it's still somewhat endearing.

    In terms of characterization, the acting is superb (Dorothy Comingore can be a bit grating, I'll admit), but it all comes down to Welles/Kane himself for me. I don't think I had understood the character of Kane himself half as well as I would after I discovered my sister-in-law had been taken in by someone who turned out to have narcissistic personality disorder. Now I can't watch that movie without thinking about thinking about that man and the constant emotional manipulation he'd put her and others through, all as part of his power games--just like Kane himself, it was always about him and his needs. It's both infuriating and tragic, and seeing that in Kane (and how it destroys his family, his friendships, and ultimately him) and how I witnessed something similar play out in real life has given the film a different meaning for me since then. Welles' performance was absolutely spot-on throughout Kane's life and evolution.

    Just an incredible piece of filmmaking, some 70 years hence.
  6. Iron_chet

    Iron_chet Well-Known Member

    It has been a while since I have watched it but what amazes me about Kane is how phenomenal of a job Welles does as both director and actor. Given the cutting edge film making he was doing as well as turning in a stunning performance without the aid of today's technology is what blows me away.

    I realize that Keaton did the same thing earlier as writer, director, actor but the material was not the same.
  7. Norrin Radd

    Norrin Radd New Member

    Never seen it. But there's this:

  8. Azrael

    Azrael Well-Known Member

  9. Versatile

    Versatile Active Member

    Interesting note: Only PCLoadLetter ranked Kane among his 10 favorite movies in that thread.

    Anyway, I really enjoy Kane. It's one of the oldest movies I can say that about, and it's probably the only dark movie I like from any earlier than 1960. I wish I had it to rewatch, but I lent it to a friend about two months ago, and you know how that goes.

    There is stiffness inherent in most acting from the era. I love that about The Graduate, the contrast in acting method between Dustin Hoffman/Katharine Ross and Anne Bancroft/William Daniels. It could be a remnant from theatre training, where voiced actors in the 1920s, '30s and '40s learned the craft. You're told to annunciate more and make bolder gesticulations on stage because your actions need to be seen and words understood from hundreds of feet away.

    But Kane doesn't seem as stilted to me as, say, Tyrone Power movies. The credit goes to Orson Welles, who handled the lead role with a deft touch but more importantly softened the right scenes and racheted up the intensity on others as director. As much as Kane doesn't seem quite as acted as many of its contemporaries, it seems far more carefully directed.

    Regarding on-screen violence: We seem to be on very different pages with this, Dick Whitman. You have mentioned in the past a sensativity to violence in movies. I don't take much to heart about it. In my world view, it's realism.
  10. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member


  11. Bubbler

    Bubbler Well-Known Member

    I think its pretty brilliant. It's a creative way to set up the basic plot device that we know all about the man, but what do we really know?

    The character was a naive, vapid, proto-form of a trophy wife who, through Kane's vanity, is thrust into the limelight. She's supposed to be shrill, especially when you consider that the movie is one long fuck you to William Randolph Hearst and that Susan Alexander = Marion Davies.

    Are you confusing the character with the actress?

    They called it yellow journalism for a reason. Hearst was one of the masters of the form. History repeats itself. Hearst would probably have loved Fox News.

    The age make-up on all of the characters is pretty damn good. George Coulouris, who played Thatcher, might have the best age make-up of all considering he was 38 at the time of the movie's release.

    (It shocked me when I saw him in the famous chessboard episode of The Prisoner, the British show from the late 60s. I thought Coulouris had to be in his 50s when Kane was shot. He was in Papillon too, but don't remember who he played.)

    Great scene. I like the coda where he walks madly through his estate.

    Domestic violence was poo-poohed back then? Not neccessarily. Women were expected to stay in their place. Not that it was condoned either, but if a man slapped his wife, he faced far fewer repercussions then than he would now.

    I don't know how shocking it would have seemed in 1941 on film. It's instructive to remember that the Hays Code, which enforced censorship from the early 30s to the late 60s was still in its infancy at the time.

    Some of the pre-Hays Code movies could be pretty risque (including nudity) and violent. At least some parts of the Kane audience would've had a recollection of those late 20s/early 30s movies.

    As a self-styled student of film history, I love Kane, because it was immensely innovative, but I think it can be loved beyond that level of wonk.

    It's a fascinating story of a man's rise and downfall, and if you know who it's about, one of the best fuck you movies ever made.
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