Hi all! I wanted to start a segment of this dedicated to sharing favorite movies, music, books, or works of art. I’m especially excited to share some really amazing films. Cinema is an art form that I think is often overlooked or brushed under the rug for being ‘commercial,’ but there are some truly thought provoking and incredibly artistic films out there. I’m hoping to share some of my favorites and some critical favorites as well (both from Hollywood, and abroad—though, mostly Europe). It could be fun if others wrote up little pieces about their favorite movies as well, so that we could have a list of potential recommendations to get people excited about this wonderful art form (though, all kinds of art are welcome as well!). Thanks!
And so, I’ll begin with what many consider to be the peak of Hollywood film—Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece, Citizen Kane.
Citizen Kane is one of those films that is, in contemporary audiences, often thought of as being more ‘influential’ than ‘good,’ with many viewers these days And while it is true that the film was markedly influential—the film left its indelible mark on everything that came afterwards—it is an absolute fallacy to say that the film is not ‘good.’ Citizen Kane is not merely a good movie, it is a great one. It is certainly one of the greatest. It is not for no reason that the film constantly ranks near or at the top of critics’ and directors’ ‘Greatest Films of All Time’ lists—it is because it deserves to be there. It is a remarkable feat of narrative film—blending genres and reimagining the medium as a dynamic and rich art form, capable of both brilliant storytelling and delightful visuals.
Of course, one would be remiss to not discuss the influence that the film had. While the film is a masterpiece in storytelling on its own, it is doubly significant for the way in which it shattered the glass ceiling that was thought to be a limit on the capabilities of narrative film. Though Kane did not invent many of the techniques it popularized—deep focus cinematography (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep_focus ) was already in use, notably conspicuous in Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece, La Règle De Jeu (The Rules of the Game); the newspaper montage (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montage_(filmmaking); https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_montage_theory )Welles employs is indebted to early Russian films, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera—however, what makes Welles unique is his synthesis of all of these techniques into one film. He utilized them to advance the narrative, rather than to serve as cinematic experiments. Welles became cinema’s ultimate auteur—creator of technically advanced works of art, in which the technical properties operated subservient to the narrative, rather than for their own sake. Kane is to films what Joyce’s Ulysses is to novels. Ulysses snatched the different modes of literary storytelling that came before it—plays, newspaper articles, Catechism-like question and answer—and brought them together to tell one story (and tell it remarkably, one might add). Welles does a similar thing with Citizen Kane, bringing together newsreel, montage, flashbacks, frames narratives, and more to tell a single story.
Welles use of non-linear storytelling in Citizen Kane would influence the world of cinema for years to come. What’s incredible about the film is how fresh it still feels, 76 years later. Welles’ storytelling techniques—his use of a frame narrative, the mystery surrounding the film’s protagonist, his interpolation of newsreels—all could very easily fit into a modern film. There are certain ways the film seems dated, of course—these were the years before method acting had really taken off, so the acting can seem hammy and perhaps mildly over-the-top at times—but for a film of its age, it holds up remarkably well.
And that is not even to comment on how beautiful the film still looks. Gregg Toland—Welles’ cinematographer—was an absolute master of the trade, and it really shines through in the look of this film. The deep focus photography is biting in its clarity, and the film is beautifully grainy, shot on 35mm. Perhaps one of the most interesting visual tricks the film employs [besides some of the remarkable pan shots—the one that goes up through the opera house is iconic at this point; it is the long shot that begins at 1:38 of this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFAq27TK9l8. Notice how one expects to see the lights or see the set end, but it keeps going. Perhaps it is a comment on Welles extending of the cinematic language into reality, or of the blending of art and life—there is no Hollywood set here to see and the opera house doesn’t ‘end,’ yet the pulling away from the stage to the ‘behind-the-scenes’ is a subtle meta-narrative wink at the fact that we are still watching a movie] is the constant use of low angle shots. Notice in this scene how the camera sits in the floor--https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vaD6LoeJbs. This perspective allows for the viewer to see the ceilings in the room—a novelty in filmmaking at the time—and further allows the moviegoer to suspend his or her belief, blurring the distinction between film and reality.
And if technical advancements and brilliant cinematography are not enough to sell you, then I should add that the story is also wonderful. It is a fascinating character study of a troubled man—Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper magnate, politician, and intensely scrutinized public figure. The narrative deals with a mystery—the mystery of Kane’s famed last word: ‘Rosebud.’ The film begins with Kane’s death and follows a reporter’s endeavors to uncover the significance of this lone, troubling word, told mostly in flashbacks from interviews of Kane’s former associates. Without spoiling too much (and to be fair, I knew the ending of this film before I saw it for the first time—it didn’t ruin anything and it was still wonderful), Kane’s final words may be a key to his most genuine desires.
If you consider yourself a movie fan, or even a casual enjoyer, Citizen Kane is a must see. It is a remarkable feat in narrative form, and one of the films that made the industry what it is today.
Please send me your favorite films at firstname.lastname@example.org! Thanks!
The trailer for Citizen Kane is a bit odd and certainly unconventional by modern standards!