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The AFI Top 100 Films: Citizen Kane (#1)

The AFI Top 100 Films: Citizen Kane (#1)

Entertainment 150Citizen Kane (1941)
Starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten and Dorothy Comingore
Written by Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles
Directed by Orson Welles

This has been a really hard review to write; I’ve had to think a LOT about Citizen Kane and why I thought about it the way I did. I completely understand why the American Film Institute has crowned it the greatest American film of all-time, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling curiously cold every time I think of it. Citizen Kane is, without a doubt, a technological masterpiece — but there’s an emotional distance that keeps me from truly engaging with it.

The film opens with the death of its protagonist, Charles Foster Kane. Alone in a tremendous mansion, he drops a snow globe and whispers the word “Rosebud” as it crashes to the ground. A newspaper reporter, curious about why the last word of such an important figure was so cryptic, tries to get to the bottom of the mystery. He interviews a number of friends, lovers and associates of Kane to get a feel of his life — and we learn about the man himself through the remembrances of the people he came into contact with.

So much of what we have come to take for granted in modern cinema — time-bending narratives, montages that cleanly track the change of characters over long periods of time, cinematographic composition — came from this movie. It’s mind-boggling to think how many staples of American cinema were conjured out of whole cloth here. Credit where it’s due: Citizen Kane created an immense chunk of film history when it arrived.

But maybe there’s something about its greatness that will always hold me at arm’s length from the work itself. Logically I know that what I’m seeing on the screen is genius, but it’s hard to be engaged by it. It feels like so much focus went into how the story was being told that the effect of the story suffers a bit for it.

I don’t doubt that Orson Welles, as co-writer and director, told the story exactly the way he wanted to tell it. In fact, his fight for creative control of his vision is legendary. Every shot was constructed in an exacting fashion, and he went to great lengths to make sure the story unfolded on the screen with the pace he wanted. You have to admire the certainty of his vision, and the uncompromising nature of its realization.

Charles Kane, however, is hardly a sympathetic figure. He starts out with the best of intentions, running for office and taking over a local newspaper under the ideals of populism, but his ambition and ego get the better of him in short order. It’s interesting that Kane’s dedication to his ideals wills him to great things, but his pride over his accomplishments warp those ideals to the point that they become far more self-serving. His ego is there from the beginning, where it comes off as high-spirited and charming, but even with the first bit of success you can see the road he’s headed down. And there’s not quite enough sympathy for him to wish something better for him. You see the dark side of his personality come out and instead of seeing him as a tragic hero, you think “Of course that was bound to happen. It really couldn’t have gone any differently.”

 

There is really nothing little about you.

“Awww shucks, I’m just one of the little guys!”

The central conceit — why did Kane say “Rosebud” with his dying words? — doesn’t quite provide me with enough motivation to care about the mystery being uncovered. Perhaps there’s a fundamental idea that I either don’t understand or don’t agree with, but the answer we’re given and its meaning fails to garner any sympathy or sense of tragedy from me, either. Kane lived the life that he chose to live, without sufficient self-awareness to know how he alienated everyone he had gotten close to. His circumstances were sad, sure — but you never get the sense that this weighed on him. When you come down to it, Kane is a man of naked, almost endless, ambition, and it doesn’t feel like there’s more to him.

And the movie lives and dies on this outsized figure. Perhaps upon repeated viewings I’ll see him as more of a complicated, sympathetic and tragic character, but this time around it simply feels like he has these ideals that are incompatible with the reality he’s in. His stubborn refusal to accept things as they are leads him to his professional success. But it’s also devastating for his interpersonal relationships; he treats people with the same inflexibility that he does the institutions he’s fighting against. His friends and lovers crumble the same way the powers that be do under his persistence, but the end effect is a lot less admirable.

Perhaps it’s the fact that he has this power — and it quickly corrupts him — that makes him less sympathetic than most. You never get a sense of the man behind the will, or at least attempts to humanize him don’t come across that well. From what I know of Welles himself, this makes sense. He, too, was a man of enormous ambition and drive.

And what that got him was an institution of a film that deserves its accolades and historical regard. Personally, though, there’s just not a lot here to embrace.

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Grapes of Wrath (#21)

Entertainment 150The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Starring Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell and John Carradine
Written by Nunnally Johnson (screenplay) and John Steinbeck (novel)
Directed by John Ford

One of the things that’s slowly and steadily been removed from our cultural identity is a sense of place. The world has gotten smaller and borders have become a bit more mutable. Families move from place to place because of work or circumstances, and with the housing market the way it is it’s impossible to imagine one family owning a home that’s passed down from generation to generation. It’s strange to think that this is a relatively recent development, that losing one’s home was a much bigger deal “only” 80 years ago.

The Grapes of Wrath follows a farming family as they’re removed from their land by the bank and sent packing to California, where they hope a land of new opportunity awaits them. We identify with Tom Joad (Fonda), the eldest son, as he goes back home after a stint in prison. He’s just in time to see the last gasp of his farming community — the Dust Bowl has ruined the land and made it impossible for anyone to grow enough food to sell. They can’t make enough money to keep the land, so the bank has been steadily taking homesteads for their own ends.

Tom meets up with his family just as they’re packing up an ancient, creaking car to make the long trip out west. The trip is hard; Tom’s grandfather dies and they are forced to bury him near a river. His grandmother soon succumbs to the rigors of the journey as well. Once they arrive in California, they’re bounced from camp to camp trying to find work and finding conditions much less favorable than they’ve been lead to believe. Those with power and resources take advantage of those without, trying to squeeze as much labor as they can for as little pay as possible. Yet despite all of this, the Joads end up in a camp that’s not so bad (provided by the government) and Ma Joad (Darwell) ends the film with a pragmatic, optimistic monologue about the survival of the clan. Considering all they’ve been through, how much they’ve lost, it’s genuinely affecting. Her hope is hard-won.

There are so many memorable sequences here; the family trying to defend their homestead against a neighbor’s kid on a Caterpillar, forced to raze the houses in his community to make a living; the crazed homesteader who chose his land over his family, and slowly succumbed to mad loneliness on his own; Ma Joad feeding as many children as she could in the first migrant camp they come to. What unfolds is a story of a family that is poor but proud, and won’t be treated like dirt by those in power. They move through their worsening predicament with as much dignity as they can muster, and they bear their misfortunes with a quiet, contemplative grief.

At the same time, they’re willing to fight back against obvious injustice. They speak up when something’s not fair, and they help other people where they can. The Joad family serves as something of a model set of citizens — wherever they go, they create community just by being decent, open people. It’s impressive that the rigors of the road and the cruelty of some people they meet don’t harden them. Ma Joad becomes especially fearful, but she doesn’t let it skew her moral compass.

It’s no surprise John Ford won an Oscar for his direction, or that Jane Darwell received the Best Supporting Actress award for her role. Ford really knows how to bring out the best traits of a character — his handling of Stagecoach was similarly impressive, but several steps higher here. Darwell exemplifies his approach; she’s stoic, vulnerable, hardy and soft-hearted all at the same time. A scene where she sits in the empty house she’s lived in for so long, burning the keepsakes she can’t take with her, is mostly silent but breath-takingly effective.

The story takes these mythic themes and brings them down to an earthly, even vulgar level in a way that I simply love. The Joad clan, for all their dirtiness and lean hunger, represent some of the highest ideals of civilization. In a world that seems to be crumbling all around them, growing harsher by the minute, they’re firm enough to demand better treatment and kind enough to give it to the people they meet. What’s best is that they don’t make any fuss about it; the charity they give and receive is given automatically, in quiet moments where “thank you” and “you’re welcome” are silently spoken in the looks they give one another. One can only hope that you can manage such quiet, simple grace in similar circumstances.

I can’t compare this film to the novel it’s based on, but I hear they’re quite different especially in the back half. Thanks to the movie, the novel has earned a place on my to-be-read pile; I’ll have to see just how different it is. If you’re a fan of Steinbeck (who isn’t?), then this is a great thing to see. Even without reading this particular book, I can say it retains his sense of humanity and the things that make us great.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Maltese Falcon (#23)

Entertainment 150The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet
Written by John Huston (screenplay) and Dashiell Hammett (novel)
Directed by John Huston

Chances are when you think about the quintessential film-noir detective, you’re thinking about Humphrey Bogart from The Maltese Falcon. On the off chance that you aren’t, the person you’re thinking of owes a great debt to Bogey, who invented the mold. The Maltese Falcon wasn’t the very first film-noir to hit Hollywood, but it was the first one that garnered major attention and inspired an entire movement of style in popular culture. We’re getting to that point in the top 100 where just about every film is a major inspiration or marked a significant turning point in the history of cinema. It’s fascinating to watch these movies; they’re either the skeletons of an entire genre that you can see being built through the films that follow or they’re the fully-formed gold standard, the movie that exemplifies what we’ve come to think of when we say “mob movie,” or “film noir”.

This is a combination of the two; Humphrey Bogart stars as Sam Spade, a private investigator based in San Francisco. He’s approached by a woman named Ruth Wonderly (Astor), who hires him to follow a man she believes is involved with her missing sister. He takes the case and his partner decides to do the leg-work; later that night, Spade gets the call that his partner’s been murdered.

The man his partner was following — Floyd Thursby — was murdered too, and now Spade is implicated. He has the motive, certainly, and the means. This is just the gateway into the story of the Maltese Falcon, and soon Spade is caught up in this weird war with three players all vying for a priceless, lost bird. Joining Wonderly — who renames herself O’Shaughnessy once the jig is up — is jovially dangerous Gutman (Greenstreet) and fastidious worry-wart Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre). The trio tries to use Spade as a pawn to their own ends, but he does a remarkable job of somehow slipping right through their control. No one’s quite able to get a handle on him; he thinks fast and manages to exploit a lucky turn astonishingly well.

Bogart plays Spade as a wily, cagey bastard who can’t help but needle the people that get on his nerves. There’s no filter between his brain and his mouth, which gets him into quite a bit of trouble in the most amusing ways. Spade is either competent or quick enough to get himself out of the scrapes he causes, and it gives the movie the feel of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Well, it would if everyone smoked cigarettes and adult themes were allowed.

Hold very still, there's something on your nose.

His fist is a metaphor…for violence.

The plot is convoluted, of course, but it’s also fairly easy to follow. The trouble with noir is that the narrative often gets so twisted it’s difficult to keep track of the players in the game or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Even though there are a lot of moving pieces here, crosses and double-crosses, you never quite lose the thread of the story. I think it’s a testament to the writing: John Huston, adapting from the Dashiell Hammett novel that’s been brought to the big screen twice before, really had a great handle on what made the story pop and kept his focus tight on the gallery of characters that would each be engaging enough to remember even with limited screen time.

I think that’s what makes The Maltese Falcon so successful, ultimately. With so much noir (and stories inspired by it), authors fall into the trap of creating archetypes instead of actual characters. So much attention is given to the plot that the characters end up as faceless pieces on the chess board, only there to make moves that bring the story to its endgame. Here, every character is distinctive. They give the impression of a rich inner life beyond the confines of the story, so they’re rather easy to identify. The audience really gets to know them as people, not pieces in service to the plot.

It’s such a surprise that Huston nails this basic truth so early in the genre, and the feat hasn’t been duplicated quite as well since. Of course, since my knowledge of noir is admittedly limited, maybe I just haven’t seen the right stuff. But The Maltese Falcon is a wonderful example of an intricate, twisting plot inhabited by rich and memorable characters. Even though all of the characters feel the tightening noose of fate around their necks, they never seem blind to it. They know when they’re in trouble, and they’re smart enough to try and get out of it. The trouble is, Sam Spade is almost always smarter.

Rating: 8/10.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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