Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Orson Welles - Citizen Kane

Let's mention this early in the piece before I get carried away on my main topic. The best eye cream for dark circles is a subject I know nothing about, but that doesn't stop me writing a little. I'd be a bit surprised if cream could remove dark circles, but someone obviously thinks it can, and says so. So there.

I've been reading a book by a couple of Frenchmen called Orson Wells at Work. (It's a Phaidon publication, so there are heaps of photographs, and the weight of the book is such that you can't read it except by lying it on a table.)

I've read a Welles biography in the past and it struck me that he was both talented to the max - and chaotic to the same degree. Whether it was that he just took on far too much continually, with expectations that he'd finish everything (he rarely did), he left behind him not just a legacy of some superb movies but a sense of actors, technicians and others who both loved and hated him because he was so unreliable. He was reliable unto himself, but that isn't quite the way the world works for the rest of us.

The consequence of his chaos was that some great movies were never finished (Don Quixote is the best known example, but there were several others), some movies that would have been greater were undercut by producers who couldn't stand the strain of waiting for him to finish his work (or were running out of money, something Welles himself did constantly), and Welles was also forced to act in a number of second-rate movies (especially in Europe, where he lived in a kind of self-imposed exile for many years) instead of in movies in which he could have been brilliant.

The book goes into detail about the production not only of the better known movies, but of all the others that didn't quite survive Welles' approach to work. As he grew older he filmed in a more and more haphazard way - haphazard to the rest of us; Welles knew exactly what he was doing at all times, and film he might shoot in three different countries is put together (as in Othello, for example) as though it was all shot in one location. Often the actors would never do the reverse shot of a scene - Welles would use a double in a different country (often with a different crew) and finish the scene that way. He would dub all sorts of actors, famous and not famous - often with his own voice! When the producers complained that the audience would never understand the Scottish accents he'd got his cast to use in Macbeth, he dubbed practically the entire film again, using not only his own voice, but in some cases the voice of one cast member for another. He treated the film and the sound tracks and the music score as items to be set against each other, rather then necessarily fitted together as they were originally intended. Thus a composer might find that his carefully crafted score, timed to the second, would be chopped and cut and splattered across the film in bits. It worked, but it wasn't quite what the composer thought would happen.

Anyway, as a result of reading this book, I had another look at Citizen Kane, which I've had on DVD for a while but not got around to seeing again. It remains extraordinary. Okay, 'Rosebud,' the thing everyone is trying to discover throughout the movie, is a bit of a McGuffin in that in the end it barely matters what it was - it's only a hook to hang the story on. And it may not help to know the 'secret' of Rosebud. Knowing that takes away a bit of the suspense. But there's so much else to admire, that this is a small matter.

The fact that this movie was achieved by a young man of 24, who'd had little experience of making movies (the one he began with RKO before this was never completed) is astonishing. Even today, after nearly seventy years, it stands up strong and solid, with little sense about it that it's a product of its time. In fact, it isn't a product of its time. It was so far ahead of its time that it took other movies years to catch up.

I'd forgotten the extent of the production values in it: this is no cheap wet-behind-the-ears production. It gets the full Hollywood treatment, with massive sets and crowds of people, and heaps of 'stuff' throughout (all part of Kane's extravagance). And then there's Welles' performance in the middle of it (matched by several others of the Mercury Players who were brought into movies for the first time). Even in the 'newsreel' at the beginning of the film, we see him age back and forth from youngish to mature to old, and he does it without a sense that he's performing as a young man, trying to be old. He just does it. The make-up is there, but it's the movement that's right. In the scene late in the movie when he smashes up his departed wife's boudoir, it isn't a young man going hammer and tongs at destruction: it's an old man. He struggles to lift certain things, gets caught up in a power cord, has to have more than one attempt at pulling things off the wall, has to exert effort in order to achieve what he wants. A young man would sail around the room with ease. This man can't.

In this film Welles hasn't got into his later approach of general chaos: here the script is well-organised, the dialogue is actually spoken by the actors and things work as they would in a 'normal' movie. Except that all the time Welles is trying out stuff: when the reporter goes to read Thackford's diary about Kane in the former's monumental library, everything is overwhelming: the space, the thick walls, the huge doors, and so on.

The scene when Kane's second wife is debuting at the opera is justly famous for the apparent slide of the camera up away from the stage into the flies and finally up to where a couple of stagehands are standing (telling each other that the singer stinks). Welles is like Hitchcock, always experimenting to see what he can get away with, what he can try that will be out there, beyond what everyone else has done. We've become so used to so many of the things that were innovations in Citizen Kane that when we see the film afresh we don't recognise them as innovations. But they were. And the Phaidon book brings them to the fore in considerable detail.

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