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Allen Tackles His Usual Themes in a Tongue-in-Cheek Shakespearean Comedy
Falling between films such as "Manhattan" (1979), "Stardust Memories" (1980), "Zelig" (1983), "Broadway Danny Rose" (1984), and "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985), "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" (1982) might come off as a mediocre minor work in the oeuvre of director Woody Allen. The film presents the director's usual themes, style, and narrative without developing them into anywhere near the insights of, say, the subsequent "Zelig". Nonetheless, "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" offers a pleasant viewing experience for any Woody Allen fan as well as those who appreciate subtle comedy which puts more emphasis on the matters of the heart and the intellect rather than those of mere physique.
The story, lending little more than the idea of blending relationships from William Shakespeare's most-celebrated comedy "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1590-7), concerns an inventor (Woody Allen) and his wife (Mary Steenburgen), whose sex life has been suffering recently, who invite two couples to their summer residence: a professor who despises metaphysics and theology (Jose Ferrer) and his wife-to-be (Mia Farrow), who had a budding relationship with the inventor in the past, and a physician who is more open-minded when it comes to philosophical questions (Tony Roberts) and his young expendable sweetheart (Julie Hagerty). This simple set-up offers many directions for a comedy of errors, misunderstandings, and changes of heart which Allen develops in his usually amusing and stimulating fashion.
Although the story and its events may not bear that many resemblances to those of Shakespeare's play, one is enticed to look for them from the moment one hears the music of Felix Mendelssohn, who composed the most famous music for the play in question in the 19th century. The most striking similarity is that both the film and the play portray characters who escape into nature where they are subjected to the powers of the heart or, alternatively, of the subconscious. What is more, both the play and the film juxtapose reason and emotion (or imagination) in the drama. In Shakespeare's play, the city which the lovers escape from represents reason and its domination over emotion, whereas the forest with fairies and magic represents emotion and its freedom from or, possibly, domination over reason. In Allen's film, this juxtaposition is captured by the character of the arrogant, naturalist-minded professor (whose counterpart in Shakespeare's play might be Egeus or Theseus), representing reason, and the other characters and the surrounding natural milieu, representing the powers of emotion. As Allen's narrative playfully takes sides with the latter, the spectator witnesses the inventor's discovery of a machine which allows to peek into the super-sensible world with spirits from the past. Above all, Allen's "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" tackles the ancient theme of lust versus love. Other characters contemplate whether love without lust is possible, others whether lust without love is. This theme can, obviously, be seen as a development on the theme from Shakespeare's play.
One of the film's greatest strengths is its subtlety which is a common denominator in Allen's comedy. Allen's extensive use of the off-screen space, the long take, and the mobile camera constantly imply that there is more than the eye can see. This gives elegance to the cinematic expression while also articulating the central theme of the film.
Overall, like Shakespeare, Allen is able to use multiple sources, ideas, and themes to concoct an amusing and intellectually as well as emotionally stimulating piece of cinema which lasts with its viewer. Maybe not as sharply and distinctly as "Zelig" or "Manhattan", but it can be dug up every once in a while.
Circus World (1964)
An Extravagant Elegy
"Circus World" (1964), a grandiose Cinerama film directed by a Hollywood veteran Henry Hathaway, is a paradoxical case. The film was a big production, it had great stars, an acclaimed director, a highly appreciated screenwriter (Ben Hecht), and an even more celebrated writer behind the story (director Nicholas Ray), but yet the film has been, for the most part, forgotten. This is arguably justified since many do not feel that the film has the quality one might hope for. To my mind, the film's peculiarity is mainly due to its strange nature where the elegiac longing is combined with an extravagant approach. The story is very simple (an untold past tragedy casts its shadow on the present as a circus director, played by John Wayne, tries to create a successful show in Europe where he is reunited by his former lover, played by Rita Hayworth), but there's more than that to the film.
By this I do not mean that Hathaway had elaborated a subtle subtext to the film in question or anything like that. I am merely talking about the art of history. First of all, "Circus World" is a film directed, written, and starred by old Hollywood legends. It was also made half a decade after the old studio system started to crumble. Many contemporary critics have later felt that films such as "The Searchers" (1958), "Rio Bravo" (1959), and "North by Northwest" (1959) were the last ones of a kind. "Circus World", on the other hand, is as though a posthumous legacy, in a somewhat similar sense as "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1961). Moreover, the film takes place in the early 20th century and dives into the nostalgic world of the circus which often represents a carefree existence of play and work (closely studied in the film of Federico Fellini, for one). While the historical setting seems to echo the film's own production time in this sense (reminiscing about the good old days before the world wars, semi-analogous to the good old days of Hollywood), the film's melancholic tone is further enhanced by the fates of its leading stars. It is well-known that "Circus World" was not only the last film John Wayne made before his lung cancer operation but also the first film where Hayworth's alleged Alzheimer's disease started acting up, causing numerous problems with production. It is as if everyone involved had been through their best days, inevitably casting an impact on the quality of the film in question as well, but still came together to perform in the wild circus world.
This is why, in my opinion, the film's slow pace, effortlessly simple style, and naive story seem appropriate. It all seems to speak to the spectator on another level, so to speak. The film begins with emptiness and ends with fullness. "Circus World" is a film where an old world is softly breathing with modesty and ambition combined.
Les Girls (1957)
Rashomon in Hollywood
An old school Hollywood filmmaker, George Cukor dives right into the most profound questions of humanity in "Les Girls" (1957), an MGM musical from the golden days, with an arguably tongue-in-cheek mentality which is, however, too often and too quickly taken as a loss of ambition and artistic devotion. The film discovers its peculiar place in between of conventional romantic comedy and philosophical tragedy. It consists of three flashback sequences linked together by a trial concerning a defamation suit. While all of the testimonies try to tell about the same time, place, and events in Paris around springtime when three female dancers were working for an American dance producer, the things the camera witnesses in each of the stories are wholly different from one another. The grandiose mise-en-scène, the Cinemascope aspect ratio, and the mobile camera as well as the complex narrative give the story an almost epic quality, thus creating poetry out of pulp prose.
"Les Girls" is a very modern film. It has inter-textuality and its narrative shows signs of self- awareness. Although a concept laden with many meanings, modernism is often associated with something called perspectivism, meaning that all of events are filtered through the subjective perspectives of the characters which, in modern fiction, are juxtaposed with one another. "Les Girls" presents the spectator with three stories about the same time and place -- that is, they are intentionally directed to a same spatio-temporal point in the past -- but actually contain different events. This is due to the fact that all of the stories are, as all intentional experiences for that matter, about something from a perspective. "To see is to see from somewhere," wrote the French philosopher, Maurice Merleau- Ponty. Although the final testimony offered by the man involved at first seems to be the most plausible account and a certain final truth on the subject matter, it is very soon questioned by the third girl whose point of view was never heard. To see is always also to avert, and to uncover is always also to cover.
This theme of the subjectivity of truth, and the integral role of perspectival perception in understanding and knowledge, connects "Les Girls" to the masterpiece of modern cinema, Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" (1950) which also consists of different stories about the same event from different perspectives. All the characters have experienced things from their own point of view -- which is both physical and mental, one might add -- and give a different account of them to the judge and the jury. Understanding is further problematicized in one scene where a Spaniard in a train compartment cannot linguistically understand the English dialogue between the main characters; yet he, too, arguably has his own point of view to the events. Cukor even seems to joke about this in the title of his film (deriving from the musical act the girls and the man are performing), combining the French definite article with an English word in a satirical slur (which never takes itself that seriously, however) towards Hollywood films where French people cannot speak their mother tongue -- only English in a French accent.
In the end, as in "Rashomon", truth remains an issue. "Truth can make lovers of enemies, but lie can make enemies of lovers," one of the girls summarizes. Lie, in this sense, might be closer to primordial truth than truth itself; or, "art is a lie that makes us realize the truth," as Pablo Picasso once expressed. Truth remains a very concrete issue in the sense that the characters (quite literally) keep stumbling upon the immortal question "what is truth" carried around the courthouse by a man as if he was carrying a billboard for the latest scoop, an ironic comment on the capitalist modifications of truth, perhaps, working also as a certain chorus of Greek tragedy, making Cukor's "Les Girls", once again, a very modern film. The final beauty of the film lies, I suppose, in its brilliant courage to mix things, to throw outrageous comedy with poignant tragedy, menial stories with intelligent insight in the same pot of pondering humanity.
Shan he gu ren (2015)
Departing Borders and the Flux of Change
Jia Zhangke is a prominent figure in contemporary world cinema as one of the leading directors of the so-called sixth generation of Chinese filmmakers. He has become known for his personal films which discuss social transition in modern China through the experience of the individual. Zhangke's latest film "Mountains May Depart" (2015) continues this in an essential, if not exactly surprising, fashion. Like "A Touch of Sin" (2013) and "Still Life" (2006), the film has an episodic structure, but narrative is much more conventional and straight-forward. While there is a lot of change in narrative focalization, "Mountains May Depart" is strongly structured around the protagonist Tao, played by the director's muse Tao Zhao, whose life unfolds before us in three distinct periods: 1999, 2014, and 2025. Thus Zhangke takes a look behind, reflects on the present, and anticipates the future of the Chinese society.
As a social film, "Mountains May Depart" studies the individual in the grip of a changing world. It tackles the difficulty of communication to the extent where parents need interpreters to talk to their children. Globalization, capitalism, and the new freedom of the 21st century do not offer comfort or help, but rather appear as rootlessness, alienation, and solitude in the lives of people.
All of Zhangke's films are, more or less, about change, but in "Mountains May Depart" this theme manifests itself clearly on the level of style and narrative. Zhangke's narrative includes a modernist combination of perspectives, creating a simple complexity which is never disorienting, as different characters are followed throughout the film, enhancing a pluralist sense of multitude and change. While Zhangke's style has been known as consisting of long takes and complex camera movement, "Mountains May Depart" presents a greater variety in style. Zhangke's camera keeps a short distance to the characters, mainly on the level of the medium shot, but there are also memorable establishing extreme long shots which highlight the minuteness of the individual in a vast landscape. The camera does move a lot, though perhaps subtly, but the editing rhythm is not strikingly slow. One of the most conspicuous stylistic elements of the film is the changing aspect ratio. The first episode is shot in the letterbox 4:3 ratio, the second in the contemporary standard 16:9, and the last in the widescreen format 2.35:1. This constant widening of the aspect ratio of the image reflects not only the globalization of the Chinese society and the characters moving outside of their homeland but also a more primordial experience of change that is constant in human existence. It embraces the Heraclitean flux.
Thus Zhangke poeticizes the experience of change in a cinematic fashion; that is to say, he utilizes cinematic means to articulate a profound, existential experience of change. This he does by combining features that change (the aspect ratio, the focalizing perspective) with perpetual elements such as recurring songs ("Go West" by Pet Shop Boys), dramatic motifs (the dog, the keys), and the intimate cinematography. Like the characters, Zhangke's style and narrative seem to be searching for a red line, something that gives meaning and coherence in a world of change.
While "Mountains May Depart" might feel like a minor work in Zhange's oeuvre, it does redeem itself for a patient spectator. Like Zhangke's other films, it too looks at the contemporary Chinese society, the inevitable transition from the perspective of the individual, and modern identity in an ever-changing world. Although there certainly is sadness to all this, Zhangke's film is also quite optimistic and bright in comparison to his previous, darker film "A Touch of Sin". Mountains may depart -- the very borders of the image may broaden -- but something will endure. It is, in fact, as if higher levels of discourse were trying to find unity amidst variety: something that remains in the perpetual flux of change.
Ingeborg Holm (1913)
An Exceptional Beginning
Victor Sjöström's early feature film "Ingeborg Holm" is not only considered by many the first film in the golden age of Swedish cinema lasting from 1913 to 1924 but also the real beginning of Swedish cinema in general. A film scholar, Peter Cowie, for one, claims that the film marks the highest achievement of the seventh art before David Wark Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) which was to follow two years after. Although "Ingeborg Holm" is not as well known as many of its contemporary films, it surely stands out from the crowd to anyone who has seen more than a few films from the period. "Nothing like this was being made in 1913," writes Peter von Bagh, a Finnish film historian, capturing the historical importance of the film. The film's authenticity, realism, and moral seriousness have even been seen to bear far-reaching connections to Italian neorealism.
As many of the films of the Swedish golden age, "Ingeborg Holm" is also based on a literary source. It is based on a play by Nils Krok. The story concerns a married woman, Ingeborg Holm whose husband dies just after earning credit for establishing his own business. After the death of her husband, Ingeborg falls to the bottom of the society, loses her children to foster parents, and eventually ends up in an asylum.
The film is very raw and poignant in showing the grim consequences of social actions. It never, however, turns its back on the individual. Although it can be seen as a story of one woman's abasement, it grows into an intimate treatise on the sickness of a society that lacks humanity and tenderness. The shot of Ingeborg losing her children as a bureaucratic official calmly signs the documents in the background is definitive to say the least. The social reality as well as the psychological turmoil and suffering ignored by the society are relayed in a stark and riveting fashion. The scene bears a visual parallel to an earlier scene in which Ingeborg's husband dies in the foreground, while their children are innocently playing in the background of the image -- in another space, almost as if in another time, too.
Already the first film of the movement gives us its basic lessons: acting is more realistic than theatrical (to as large an extent as one can imagine given the film was made in 1913), moral themes are presented with the utmost seriousness, and emphasis lies on the simplicity and careful precision of mise-en-scène. Above all, the power of light is vital which was to be consummated in Sjöström's subsequent films such as "Terje Vigen" (1917) and "Körkarlen" (1921). In the beginning of the film, Ingeborg tries to continue her late husband's business, but fails, and we see the darkness in the grocery store almost swallowing her whole from the scarce source of light in the space.
Overall, and quite surprisingly, "Ingeborg Holm" lacks a sentimental or overly melodramatic tone. Sjöström's tone is subtle and restraint which once again reminds one of Italian neorealism. Although the film has no drama of nature which one so closely associates with the golden age of Swedish cinema, it uses a lot of outdoor on-location shooting, and its grimness, sobriety, and artistic excellence bring the style of the movement to mind very vividly. All in all, the film stands as a perfect instance for Peter Cowie's seemingly exaggerated claim that "there is no more stirring feat in the entire history of silent film than the Swedish achievements between 1913 and 1921." Sjöström's "Ingeborg Holm" is precisely this to any film enthusiast: something utterly stirring.
Killer's Kiss (1955)
Kubrick Makes Pulp
Since the rediscovery of "Fear and Desire" (1953), "Killer's Kiss" (1955) no longer bears the curiosity status as Stanley Kubrick's earliest film, and it hardly fits into the Kubrick canon anyways, so to speak. It is, however, an interesting film both from the perspective of its genre and its creator, thus remaining as an enduring meeting place. Although "Killer's Kiss" might be your standard B-movie with a low duration which was probably produced just to accompany a bigger production, it still has its striking moments of poetic intuition. Its finale among abandoned mannequins could very well be a classic.
The story as well as its representation have the basic traits of film- noir, the darker crime genre which crystallized in post-war American cinema. The majority of the film consists of a long, mainly uninterrupted flashback sequence as a boxer recalls the past days that have led him where he is now. He became involved with a beautiful woman living next door who has a violent, jealous gangster boyfriend. The boxer and the woman find their reflections in one another. They are two hurt, lost, and lonely souls wandering the streets of New York. Boxing rings, rooftops, apartments, and dark alleys serve as the primal settings of the genre, while a desperate loner, a femme fatale, and a gangster as its archetypes. Strong contrasts in lighting characterize Kubrick's expressive mise-en-scène making several shots prime examples of the film-noir aesthetics.
Although "Killer's Kiss" surely has the trademarks of film-noir, it does feel a little bit off, yet not in the masterful sense of "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955). This is most likely due to the film's low budget which, however, also gives the film its gritty touch. One simply gets similar enjoyment from watching the characters walking the streets of New York as in Cassavetes' "Shadows" (1958). Moreover, some of Kubrick's visual decisions with regards to composition and camera angles feel conspicuous. In other words, despite potential weak points in the film's style, it also had the edge and piquancy which give the whole of the film its poetic dimensions.
Overall, one might characterize "Killer's Kiss" as poetic pulp. Its stylistic touches rise above its mediocre content. While the film might strike like a sore thumb in a director's oeuvre who later became famous with his sublime and breath-taking images of grandiose awe, it also has the benefit of strangeness which is why it will continue fascinating film buffs.
The Player (1992)
Altman at His Lightest Is Still Brighter Than Standard Hollywood
Robert Altman is one of the rare American directors who have succeeded in keeping loyal to their own style and vision while also being able to carry on for quite a long time. Altman began directing in television in the 1950's, had his cinematic breakthroughs in the 1970's, and kept working hard until his death in 2006. He always kept a healthy distance to Hollywood, but it seems that he -- like so many others -- had a twofold relationship with the dream factory. The influence of classical Hollywood, which the director adored, is apparent in Altman's cinema, but at the same time he expresses great frustration and even loathe towards Hollywood. Both of these attitudes emerge powerfully in his witty, insightful, and lightweight satire of Hollywood, "The Player" (1992) which is filled with references to film history.
The story focuses on a Hollywood studio executive, Griffin Mill (played by Tim Robbins) who starts to investigate an abandoned screenwriter sending death threats his way. After murdering the writer more or less unintentionally, Mill falls in love with the writer's girlfriend, but his new life is once again threatened by the police investigating the murder case. In the meantime, Mill's studio is producing a new film whose director wants something else than standard Hollywood entertainment, but the studio has different plans. The line between reality and unreality, fiction and non-fiction begins to blur as Mill's life starts bearing a resemblance to all those film-noir movies whose posters hang on the studio's walls.
This is the core of the story to which Altman anchors all the multiple story elements that he enjoys developing. Inter-textual references, satirical jokes, and celebrity appearances might at times feel too much, though they all serve a purpose. The abundance of the film is fragmentary, but this episodic nature of the film does not need to be seen as a flaw, since Altman skillfully keeps it all together. To my mind, the beginning of the film nicely introduces Altman's stylistic program and summarizes this ability of his to keep many threads together. The film begins with a long tracking shot, recording the life inside a Hollywood studio from casual dialogue about movies to awkward pitching producers have to listen to, which seems like a direct reference to Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" (1958) and its famous opening. Like this opening shot, the narrative of "The Player" is overall very self-aware; that is, the spectator is invited into taking the representation to account. One is often paying attention to the way things are structured rather than the things themselves. This might be at times alienating -- and intentionally so -- but Altman also strongly focalizes his narrative to the subjective point of view of his protagonist, enhancing the absurdity of the milieu and its surrounding events.
All of these narrative elements serve Altman's purposes of criticizing Hollywood. His criticism, though stark and poignant, is hardly hostile, however. Overall, "The Player" is a veritably lightweight film in the sense that it doesn't have the emotional heaviness of "3 Women" (1977) nor the structural complexity of "Nashville" (1975). The film does have its depth, but it is less striking -- for better and worse. All in all, "The Player" is a very enjoyable film, but it might be a slight letdown for people familiar with the director's earlier work. Nonetheless, a viewer who loves Altman's films will most likely cherish this one as well, perhaps in a fashion similar to Altman's relationship with Hollywood.
Move Over "Charade", "Gaslight" Is the Best Hitchcock Film Hitchcock Never Directed
George Cukor's "Gaslight" (1944), based on a play by Patrick Hamilton, was the MGM studio's attempt to overwrite history and replace the British film adaption of the same name made four years earlier. They succeeded. Few have seen Dickinson's "Gaslight" (1940), and most remember Cukor's. And it is indeed quite a treat. It's simply a well- made piece of cinema. British suspense has often been well translated into Hollywood and Alfred Hitchcock is probably the best example of this popular phenomenon. Cukor's film's British nature is veritably strong since it takes place in Victorian England, it has British humor and its share of Hitchcockian elements.
The basic set-up of the story is that a woman, Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) has lost her closest and dearest relative, a famous opera singer, at a very young age and now, as an adult, returns to the very place of crime with her husband, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). The familiar environment brings back memories and mysteries involved with the death of Paula's aunt. The strangely secretive marriage of Paula and Gregory as well as their few public appearances draw the interest of Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten), a former fan of Paula's aunt, who thinks that Paula might be in danger.
Overall, the story is very simple. The classical narrative works extremely well with a tight structure supported by a conventional style. To some, the film might seem utterly predictable, but in a way that's the whole point, and this is yet another parallel to Hitchcock. For the essence of Hitchcockian suspense lies in build-up rather than surprise. The viewer knows the mystery of "Gaslight" but is nonetheless excited to see the development of its revelation to the characters.
As many know, the English expression "gas-lighting" refers to mental abuse where information is distorted in such a way that the person who receives it is made to think that she has lost her mind. This supplies the story with its basic motif, the gaslight, which strongly belongs to its historical milieu and is, despite its seeming narrative significance, left ambiguous in deeper meaning. Given this set-up, it is easy to see how "Gaslight" is really a film about power and imprisonment. On a historical-social level, it can be seen as an ironic comment on marriage as a prison for women who have been sentenced to a lower social status in comparison to their husbands. (Interestingly, Robert Siodmak's "The Suspense" (1944) reveals a situation where murder is the only escape for the husband from his Victorian-age marriage). On a general level of psychology, the film might also be seen as a story about being imprisoned by one's past, whereas, on a more private level, it can be seen as a story about the tormenting experience of manipulation. There is one scene in particular that deserves attention. Gregory has reluctantly taken Paula to a social get-together where he is able to make Paula believe in her kleptomania as well as in the urgent need of keeping her locked up, away from the eyes of the public. The private anxiety of Paula as she is surrounded by a large number of people is pure Hitchcock, whose films often feature brilliant sequences where characters feel most alert in crowded spaces.
Although the film is hardly an imitation, its subtle sense of film-noir, the powerful presence of Ingrid Bergman, and its story about a frail woman being terrorized by a deranged man draw immediate associations with Hitchcock. For one, Hitchcock made his share of such stories in the 1940's, most notably "Rebecca" (1940), "Suspicion" (1941), and "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943). The films also bear a similar "predictability". If Stanley Donen's "Charade" (1963) is the best pastiche of the later Hitchcock style, "Gaslight" is a wonderful reflection of Hitchcock's style in the 1940's. Overall, and despite these parallels, Cukor's narrative in its classical nature is quite different from Hitchcock's perpetual desire to regenerate cinematic narrative and stands strongly on its own. The film is very worth seeing simply for the divine pleasure of watching the story unfold in a tight, precisely considered structure, making one yearn for Hollywood in the 1940's.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Why Is "Citizen Kane" the Best Film of All Times?
Anyone who sees "Citizen Kane" (1941) for the first time today does so because he or she has heard that it is the greatest film ever made. One simply doesn't come across the film by accident on TV, watching it "for what it is," so to speak. The common approach of seeing it to believe it can be at best exhilarating and at worst hostile. Unfortunately, the latter is usually, although quite understandably, the case. For how can one do anything but look down at a film that elitist snobs have praised for years and years? One simply must prove oneself right by falsifying the critics' claims, leaving the theater or the living room with a shrug and a condescending comment: "it was okay." This will not do. It is a great tragedy if "Citizen Kane" suffers from these kinds of incidents since it ought to be treated with the same kind of respect as Shakespeare's "Hamlet" or Beethoven's "9th Symphony". In order to make this happen, or perhaps enhance someone's viewing experience, I would like to try and explain not why "Citizen Kane" necessarily is the best film, but rather why people have considered it to be. There are over a thousand reviews of the film on this site, and mine will probably drown in the vast sea with them, but hey what can I lose, and who doesn't love talking about Welles and "Citizen Kane"?
One might begin with the basic fact that "Citizen Kane" wasn't immediately praised and considered the best film that has blessed the silver screen. It was a financial risk for the RKO studios to give free hands to the novice prodigy Orson Welles, who had gained quite a reputation with the radio show of H. G. Wells' "War of the Worlds", and not surprisingly it didn't pay off. Despite the praises of a few critics, "Citizen Kane" was soon forgotten, and the film wasn't, for example, screened at American cinemas during the late 1940's and early 50's. In France, however, the film was just discovered after the war, and the leading critic of the country, André Bazin hailed it as a masterpiece of the postwar stylistic tendency he characterized as spatial realism. Bazin's disciples, who we all know now as the nouvelle vague directors, followed and adored Welles' masterpiece. François Truffaut proclaimed that "everything that matters in cinema after 1940 has been influenced by 'Citizen Kane'." Thus the film's reputation grew and its new found reputation slowly found the other side of the Atlantic as well. But why did this happen? Why wasn't "Citizen Kane" forgotten, and why, for one, did it arouse the interest of Bazin?
First, it ought to be highlighted that the story of "Citizen Kane" is excellent. Loosely based on the life and times of media mogul William Hearst, "Citizen Kane" tells the story about a lonely giant who conquered the American media. It's a story about a man who dedicated his life to possession, but tragically became to be possessed by it himself. As one might have noticed, I am using the past tense, and such is the nature of Welles' narrative in "Citizen Kane". The film begins with the protagonist's death, and then portrays the attempts of a journalist trying to figure out the meaning of his last words -- "Rosebud" -- by interviewing people who knew the man. "It will probably turn out to be a very simple thing," he supposes. This kind of structure was not considered the done thing back in the day. Although the basic structure of finding out a person's past goes back to Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex" as well as numerous detective stories, the uniqueness of "Citizen Kane" lies in the use of different perspectives, creating a non-linear narrative that has echoes from ancient drama and epistolary novels.
Yet it wasn't really the intricate story that most fascinated Bazin. What Bazin emphasized was the film's style. Although all scholars have given up on the phoenix myth of "Citizen Kane" and its innovative use of various cinematic means, it is simply a fact that the film made the style public, thus standardizing it for Hollywood. The aesthetic features of the so-called spatial realism, which Bazin adored, supported by the technological innovation of the BNC camera, include deep-focus cinematography, sequence shots, and deep-space composition. These had been used before, but hardly with similar, dare I say, philosophic unity. This stylistic tendency is enhanced by Welles' relentless use of heavy low-angle shots and dynamic montage sequences. There are innovative cuts that spark imagination and soundtrack solutions that open the story and its characters to new dimensions. "Citizen Kane" is often celebrated as a bravura of the art of mise-en-scène since it puts a lot of emphasis on pre-filmic elements such as setting and lighting, but the real gist of the film's brilliance lies in the unity of these together with cinematographic and post-filmic elements.
More remains to be said, but space is running out. The end of the matter is, I guess, that none of the individual elements of "Citizen Kane" are, precisely, individual. They have not been distinguished from one another, but rather resonate luminously together in a unique fashion. Technological innovation goes hand in hand with aesthetic inspiration and both support the whole of story, theme, and style. Such unity may not have been present in Hollywood before 1941. From the groundbreaking use of the BNC camera to themes of power, loneliness, and defeat, which are reflected on the level of style, using setting and editing, for one, to reflect the emotional distances between the characters or their existential experience of emptiness, "Citizen Kane" remains a gem to any lover of cinema. It's up there with immortal works of art from poetry, music, and painting. It is, like all great art, a tightly and beautifully sealed original whole which is why (instead of one big nameable innovation) the film has been considered to be of such magnificent proportions.
45 Years (2015)
The Sudden Emergence of the Past
Andrew Haigh's latest film "45 Years" (2015) is one of the big film events of this year and not least because of the memorable performances of its two leading actors, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. It's a very simple film, granted, but exceptionally good as such. Both performers do an excellent job. Haigh's narrative is character-driven and never self-aware. All seems to be subjected to what is going on inside these characters. The film has been shot in the beautiful English countryside whose unreliable and unpredictable weather plays an integral role in the drama of untold memories, hidden emotions, and their appearance. It is a moving film about time and the complex relations between the past and the present.
The story centers around a retired, childless couple, Kate (Rampling) and Geoff (Courtenay) who have been married for 45 years. One day Geoff receives a letter telling him that the body of his ex-lover before his marriage, Katya, has been found fully preserved in the Swiss glaciers. This event as well as the approaching arrival of their 45th anniversary coerces the couple into re-evaluating their relationship, the choices they have made in life, and their deepest desires.
This story, based on a short story by David Constantine, is itself great in its simplicity, but Haigh also deals with it in an exquisite fashion. He has chosen not just the perfect performers for the roles but also the perfect milieu of the English countryside which works as a barometer for the characters' emotions. Haigh utilizes a moving camera and lingering, though not strikingly long, shots. He uses a wide range of different shots ranging from long full shots of the landscapes to medium close-ups of Kate's seemingly calm face which encapsulates her powerful eyes where a lot of emotion is going on that she is unable to express in words or gestures. Repeatedly, Haigh places Rampling wandering in the milieu, defining the character's relationship with the space that surrounds her. These scenes may strike as excessive to some, but one ought to relate them to the 45 years, to the time that is embodied in these five days before the anniversary celebration.
The title of the film refers to a time gone by, but the film takes place strictly (that is, flashbacks are excluded) in the present. The past finds form in the memory of Katya, the ghost in the couple's life who Kate never really knew. Katya, as the embodiment of the past, is a threat to the presence. It is as if she mocked the living in her death that has saved her from aging unlike Kate and Geoff. Geoff also takes a sudden interest in climate change, a powerful symbol not only for the slow eruption of drama for the couple but also the emergence of Katya, the past, beneath the surface. In a key scene, where Kate goes to their attic to study Geoff's old travel photos from the trip to Switzerland where Katya died, the slide projector -- offering the truths from the past -- is the only source of light and sound in an otherwise dark and silent present. In the long take, which covers the whole scene, we can sense the danger of the past swallowing the present, the danger of Kate falling into the glacier that once engulfed Katya.
Overall, "45 Years" is an extremely simple film. It bears no social nor metaphysical connotations. Formal elements serve the development of drama and character psychology. One can't really, however, talk about the subordination of style for the service of story because the external story is veritably marginal. It is, above all, an inner drama, taking place inside the characters. In all its simplicity, "45 Years" is a subtle, yet emotionally bursting film about the fragility, incompleteness, and vulnerability of life and love which have already lasted through a lot and grown in the process.