Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Musical Explanation 4/5: Citizen Kane in the Age of Vertigo

Citizen Kane is seventy-five. The movie that spans an entire lifetime is now a lifetime old. It was nearly aborted in pregnancy, nearly killed by starvation in infancy, neglected in its childhood and adolescence, then quite suddenly feted when attaining maturity as the greatest of all movies, the feting remained until Kane reached its biblical three score and ten. In its dotage it begins to fade into the same sad obscurity that Charles Foster Kane did. It is seen by so many as a sad artifact of what cinema used to be: a pretentious relic from the era when movies were not only movies, but a synthesis of drama, literature, art, music, science, and philosophy. To many in our era, Kane is more burden than movie - a silly exercise in the grandiose during an era so flooded with Kane's innovations and insights that few can properly take the measure of how much this movie shaped our lives. 

What can you expect from a movie so routinely hailed as the greatest movie ever made by poll after poll, magazine after magazine, critic after critic? No work of art can survive that kind of universal praise without seeming vastly overrated. The pendulum had to swing back, and it's only begun to. I expect it'll take at least another generation for the wheel of fortune to revolve back in Kane's favor. In an era flooded by visual stimulus, by abstract ideas about social consciousness rather than the real thing, by verbal inarticulacy, by an aversion to realism (who'd have thought Kane could be undone for being 'too realistic...') Kane's primacy has been deposed. More and more, tastemakers and movie lovers are leaving the lure of the human behind for the lure of the inhuman. Visually minded movies with little dialogue are starting to ascend up the famous Sight and Sound Poll: cold and inhuman movies like 2001, Man with a Movie Camera, Rashomon, Battleship Potemkin, and especially Vertigo, find themselves with ever more supporters. Meanwhile, movies that are no less visually stunning, like Kane, Rules of the Game, Tokyo Story, Bicycle Thieves, and The World of Apu, find themselves with ever less supporters because, so these critics reason, a movie that smudges its visual austerity with messy human concerns cannot possibly be as profound. 

This isn't to say that a colder movie can't be just as great. Who could ever deny Vertigo's greatness? I would probably come closer than most. It's unquestionably great Hitchcock - but among the greatest movies of Hitch, it's also his least funny, his least comprehensible, his least interested in any human concern but obsession. Hitch was always a terrible obsessive, but his obsessiveness was usually offset by his humor and intelligence. There is a sickliness to Vertigo that puts his psychopathology straight into our view with no redeeming quality.  

And yet Vertigo is the movie which most critics center upon today rather than Kane as the greatest of all. It's the perfect movie for our age: so single-mindedly focused on visual effect that dialogue goes radio silent for fifteen minutes at a time. It is so focused on male desire to control women that it never think to explore about the personality of the controlled. It is so much a technical exercise and dreamscape that nobody ever stops to remember that the plot makes hardly any sense whatsoever. A great movie Vertigo certainly is, but it's not THAT great.

Htich's stock is higher than ever. I don't begrudge Hitch his high standing, I think I love Alfred Hitchcock as much as anybody does, but I can't help thinking I love him for different reasons. I love the humor that almost always exists just beneath the surface for anyone willing to look, I love the subtle way he tries to create modern myths - Psycho is like a Greek Tragedy written backwards, North by Northwest and The Wrong Man are Kafka stories about people stripped of identity masquerading as entertainment, Rear Window and The Birds are fables about the casual cruelty we partake in without even realizing what we do. But I think most people today love Hitch for the visual sense and glamor, for the way he addressed the captivity of women (without realizing that he looked on it with partial approval), for the unmatched perfection of his craft. Hitchcock's movies are amazing, gravity-defying leaps of cinematic imagination.  In his generation, Welles was probably his only equal as a genius of moviemaking, but Welles can sometimes seem bound by the conventions of theater and literature - trying too hard (for some people at least) to delve into the messy human motivations that can ruin a perfect craft. Not so in Hitchcock, his movies are pure cinema - perhaps the first pure cinema, and his characters exist to advance the story.

It's Hitch's world we now live in, not Welles's. The would-be Welleses of the next generation who wanted to begin where Citizen Kane left off are dying. The great auteurs of the screen are now to be found almost exclusively on television - influenced more by Welles's children than by Welles himself. Kubrick's been dead for almost twenty years - Dr. Strangelove is over a half-century old, and 2001 is very nearly there. Altman's been dead for more than ten, and while his best movies deserve far greater renown, they won't get further renown until the mostly European masters who influenced him are similarly remembered. Cassavetes has been dead for nearly thirty years, his movies almost completely forgotten. Coppola is now in his late seventies, The Godfather inches slowly toward its half-century and Apocalypse Now is nearly 40, it's enough to embed any career into the high water marks of history, but what has he done of note since 1980? Even the movie lovers who venerate Oliver Stone have to admit that their hero is twenty years past his best work. Spielberg and Scorsese currently straddle the sides of seventy, still adding movies to their storied careers, in their differing ways the flourishing success stories that were denied to the cinematic forefather that for all their differences they both clearly share. Other would-be-Welleses of that generation with the ambition to turn film upside down - Bogdanovich, Forman, Polanski, Kauffman, Cimino, Friedkin, De Palma, Boorman, Ashby, Fosse, - retreated into silence or mediocrity so long ago that they seem to us now like relics of an era almost completely forgotten. In our own era and country, movies are a tired artform. Even the best are more focused on visuals and irony and homages to former movies (the ultimate sign of an artform past its sellby date) than exploring the crevasses of the human soul: Tarantino, Lynch, Cronenberg, Fincher, the Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson, PT Anderson, Soderbergh, Spike Jonze, Tim Burton... There are individual exceptions in their outputs, and great moviemakers of their generation like Alexander Payne and Richard Linklater and Jason Reitman and Sofia Coppola to balance against them, but by and large, this is a generation of moviemakers so concerned with not selling out to the currents of modern life that they sell out life itself. The skill of these film brats is what you get from moviemakers who know everything about film and nothing about life. Their skill doesn't illuminate humans with insights, it exploits us with cruelty. If you want to find life portrayed in all its teeming vitality and diversity, find your remote.

In fact, the criticism that stays with me of Welles the most comes in precisely the other direction from Ingmar Bergman, who called Welles's movies empty hoax. In a sense, he's absolutely right. Welles was not a natural investigator of the human, he was at heart a self-aggrandizing showman - a magician who wanted above all to make the audience feel awe. After Kane, he would dream up enormous project after enormous project - it wasn't enough to simply make movies, every one of them had to be a masterpiece that would top Kane in grandeur: the Life of Christ, Moby Dick, Don Quixote, Heart of Darkness, The Little Prince, The Great Gatsby, The Pickwick Papers, Treasure Island, Catch-22, Cyrano... One suspects that Kane got made because he (just barely) disguised his world-conquering ambitions with the veneer of doing a totally original project. 

But movies don't allow for the transcendent genius who views greatness as rightfully his the same way a hunter views the animals he shoots, not yet at least. The list of creative volcanoes that burn out or are tossed out of the business are far too long to list in this post. A director may be the principal author of his film, but a film has hundreds of authors, and a director has to collaborate with every one of them. Careerwise, film rewards the competent professional who delegates and doesn't impose his vision too strongly. So many of the great directors of Welles's generation: not just Hitch but Ford, Hawks, Keaton, Chaplin, Capra, Cukor, Curtiz, Minnelli, Sturges, Ray, Sirk, and Preminger, would have utterly blanched at the idea that they were artists. In their eyes, they were artisans, craftsmen working on deadline, little different than chefs or potters. Perhaps they were entertainers, but art was something made by New York snobs. 

Welles didn't aspire to great art that illuminates the human, he aspired to gigantic-size art - the type you get from Michelangelo and medieval Cathedrals and Shakespeare (or at least the more bombastic side of Shakespeare). He wanted an art that was synonymous with magic, that overwhelms the watchers and turns their knees to jelly. Such achievement is only possible on the scale of duomos, frescoes, tragedy, epic, historic portrayals of great men.  

Kane is a movie that endorses the 'great man' theory of history in an age that wants to kill the 'great man' theory off. But Citizen Kane itself is proof the 'great man theory' of history is true, or at least some revisionist version of it. Through a mixture of luck, force of personality, and psychopathic ego, there are some historical figures so titanic that the world must look different without their presence. To past generations, Citizen Kane was not only a monument of cinema, but a monument to an era of American History that was definitively over. The age of the robber barons and moguls was replaced by a mid-century era of generals who presided over peacetime and late-century diplomats who plotted wars. But look around you. Who can look at the early 21st century and not notice how much it looks like the early 20th. Ostentatious robber barons are everywhere, the presence of the corporations influencing media is everywhere, self-centered liberals selling out the working class are everywhere. Conspiracy theorists have it exactly wrong: the world is run not by a shadowy cabal but by a minuscule and extremely visible superclass with unimaginable wealth who can create and destroy tens of thousands of lives at a whim, just as feudal lords once did. We even have a superrich demagogue running for high office today labeled by half the country as a fascist and half the country as a traitor to conservative principles. This may not be a generation that appreciates Kane sufficiently, but perhaps that's because ours is a generation that lives Citizen Kane as no generation has since the first to see the movie. Forgetting the lessons of Kane may indirectly be what's lead us to this historical moment. The world will eventually come back to Kane, it can't afford not to. 

Aside from the jaw-dropping technique with which the movie was made in every sense from cinematography to editing to script to acting to music, what strikes you most in Kane is how every detail of the production is subordinate to the state of this twisted man's soul. The fluid camera work of the early scenes capturing the vitality and hope and gracefulness of youth, the overwhelming production design of the final scenes representing the entombment of old age - like the world's most elaborate mausoleum. This post is already much too long, perhaps Kane requires another post to do it justice, but it'll suffice to say that seeing Kane in the theater as Der Fersko and I did yesterday is an experience that adds an entirely new dimension to what one sees on television. On television, Kane can have plenty of the dramatic impact - hitting us in the pit of our stomachs like a great page-turning novel. On the movie screen, Kane is the Sistine Chapel. Is Kane the greatest movie ever made? I have no idea. I have no idea if it's even the greatest American movie ever made. But it is a Michelangelo-like edifice, a towering 20th century monument to what was an entirely new artform that will define the 20th century for all time. 

1 comment:

  1. Wm. R. Hearst occasionally attended family reunions in Missouri -- he handed out silver dollars to the kids, and my uncle Richard Hearst received one. Richard's children, my cousins, think "Citizen Kane" is a somewhat dull confusing movie -- they don't understand why it is so highly regarded. I seem to be the only cineaste in the family who enjoys its exuberance. However, my cousin Janice received special treatment when she visited Hearst Castle. I think Welles's "The Magnificent Ambersons" is also worth repeated viewing (despite having about 50 minutes deleted by RKO because its early showings did not "test" well). Maybe the Rosebud subplot is a superficial gimmic, but I think "Kane" is exuberant fun to watch. It never bores me. Ditto for "Vertigo," most of the films of Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks's "Twentieth Century" (1934) with John Barrymore giving perhaps the greatest comedic performance of all time (with great support from Carole Lombard and Walter Connolly).