Archive for Citizen Kane

Crossfade

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2014 by dcairns

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Thanks to David Wingrove for recommending PAYMENT ON DEMAND (1951) — I think we were discussing theatrical tropes in film and he mentioned this Curtis Bernhardt flick — co-written by Bernhardt himself, unusually enough. Bette Davis plays a tyrannical homemaker whose husband leaves her, prompting a reassessment of their lives via flashback — the really interesting part of the film. There’s a good bit afterwards where Davis ruins hubby in the divorce settlement, and then a rather unconvincing bit where she has to redeem herself, which is a depressing thing for Bette to have to do. With the new look dresses comes a new conformity. In the old days she would have fallen under a train or something, but at least her vivacious malevolence would be undimmed until the final fade-out.

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Bernhardt’s framing and cutting are sharply expressive. In the best scenes, every shot brims with tension, and clashes boldly with its predecessor and postdecessor (well that ought to be a word).

But those flashbacks are remarkable. Here’s how Bernhardt gets us into the first, which shows the young Bette (“Not too close!”) plotting elopement with future hubby (Barry Sullivan).

Present tense: Bette was all dressed up to go to a party, but since it turns out her husband is leaving her, she begs off. Sitting at the dressing table, she removes her jewelry and grows wistful. A soft focus effect fades in, blurring her surroundings in luminous mist. I think how you do this is an in-camera effect — there’s gauze — possibly a bit of silk stocking with a hole in — over the lens, but it doesn’t show up until the light hits it. So it’s a Death of a Salesman type lighting change effect, and not the last.

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Then, rather than do a straight dissolve, Bernhardt mixes through ever so slowly, keeping Bette’s head and shoulders solid as her environment melts away and is replaced by the past. This is either a complex optical involving a circular wipe to remove Bette’s background, or it’s simply a lap dissolve over a shot in which Bette’s surroundings have been faded down on a dimmer, a spotlight keeping her face illuminated so that it cuts through the dissolve and remains dominant (the CITIZEN KANE approach). I suspect it’s optical, and a bit of an afterthought, since ideally you’d have Bette’s bedroom, around her head, disappear much earlier, and this would be perfectly easy to do with faders on the set.

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But wait! This is where it gets really interesting, and beyond anything anyone else was doing at the time. As Bette’s pensive visage disappears, we find ourselves looking at a peculiar inside-outside environment. A barn interior with a silhouetted buggy. Behind it, a farmhouse seen from outside. As Bernhardt slowly dollies in towards “teenage” Bette (“Not too close!”) and “teenage” Sullivan proposes that, since it must be the 30s, they should run a way on a freight train and she should disguise herself as a boy (he’s very keen on this part) like in WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (Plan B: she can say she’s his sister, like DAYS OF HEAVEN), something very strange happens.

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An openly theatrical lighting change causes Bette and Barry to emerge from the shadows (“Not too clearly!”) while a wall fades in to obscure the farmhouse. We’re now in an enclosed set. The farmhouse was only visible due to the kind of X-ray vision that Bette Davis has in her memories, apparently. This means that during the Old Hollywood scenes in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, Bette’s character can see everyone naked. Bear that in mind next time you watch it.

Since the camera is in motion, we know this isn’t a dissolve (since motion control hadn’t been invented yet, though Howard Hawks rigged up something similar for the fake 360° pan in RED RIVER — a motorized pan — and on careful examination we can see faint traces of the planks of the barn wall visible over the farm exterior. So that whole wall is painted on translucent gauze, and becomes opaque in as the lighting changes. A technique unseen until Coppola revived it for ONE FROM THE HEART, unless I’m forgetting something.

At the end of the scene, Bette’s mother starts calling from the house, an echoing offscreen spoil-sport like the mothers in PSYCHO and KING OF COMEDY, and Bernhardt renders the barn see-through again to visualise her — a great black building with staring bright windows. Bette is a tiny outline in the foreground. Then we dissolve back to New Look Bette in 1951.

And this is just No. 1 in a cluster of flashbacks, all of which contain some similar trick — lighting changes that melt walls away, impossible inside-and-outside perspectives, theatrical as hell but inhabiting that strange space where the theatrical becomes the cinematic. OUR TOWN (1940) is the only earlier example that comes to mind, though RED GARTERS is a weird parallel from three years later. I do suspect Death of a Salesman, staged in ’49, is the key influence. I also suspect that Bernhardt got a little carried away with the opportunities for this technique and rushed ahead before he’d worked out his story properly. I’m not even convinced the flashbacks happen in the right place. But they’re magnificent.

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These two totally different frames are actually from the same angle, with only a slight pull-back. Bette’s beau and her partner are revealed digging roads since their law practice hasn’t taken off yet. They enter what seemed to be a shadowy diner and it lights up and becomes a kind of site office, the back wall materializing at the same time to close it off for a more naturalistic scene which plays out in a single shot, returning to the astral-ghost perspective at the end.

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Panels of miniature hillside — the little one on the right is a mirror. Crossfade lighting so that night falls outside and the bedroom appears, Bette hoisting her offspring.

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The baby is crying, I think, because she’s the only one who’s noticed they live in a square tent made of translucent gauze where the lights keep dimming up and down.

 

Mondo Kane 9: Rosebud

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2013 by dcairns

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The final part of our journey through The Second Greatest Movie Ever Made (pah!).

Paul Stewart’s brief flashback is the only one that dovetails into a substantial new scene, picking up his factotum character Raymond with Thompson on the grand staircase at Xanadu and following them into a sequence detailing the inventory of Kane’s vast collection of objet d’art and general junk. (“That’s a lot of money for a dame without a head.”)

“Part of a Scotch castle over there but we haven’t bothered to unwrap it yet.” It’s exciting to think that Xanadu might contain all the sets for all Welles’ future productions. This one would obviously be MACBETH, whose “Scotch castles” always did look somewhat incomplete. The reference to Spanish ceilings could mean MR ARKADIN or DON QUIXOTE…

“I wonder… you put all this stuff together [...] What would it spell?” Here, Thompson is hinting towards Borges’ parable, not yet written — “A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.” Interestingly, Borges disparaged KANE as “a labyrinth without a centre” — yet it seems to have inspired this memorable mini-narrative, with its echo of Kafka’s The Parable of the Law, visualized by Welles in THE TRIAL. (Borges’ claim that KANE owed its cleverness to Sturges THE POWER AND THE GLORY is fatuous, whether Welles had seen the earlier film or,as he claimed, not. The brilliance of KANE stems from the application of its audio-visual, formal qualities to that structural idea. William K. Howard’s direction of TPATG does not approach these qualities. Borges is reviewing KANE as if it were a novel.)

Alan Ladd gets a line! I never really notice him here, and I find him a little bland for my taste. But the perky, bespectacled girl reporter character (Louise Currie, who died September 8th this year) should’ve had her own movie series. Thompson as romantic interest? Perhaps not.

When William Alland, who plays Thompson, took over Universal’s sci-fi monster department in the fifties, he ought to have hired Welles. Those movies should look like TOUCH OF EVIL, not the flatly lit and composed, static things they are. I wondered at this, and thought maybe Alland wouldn’t have wanted to hire his own boss because how would he exercise authority over Welles? But then I learned that Alland named names for the blacklist, so he and the pinko Welles would mutually have wanted to keep away from each other, I guess. And thus we were deprived of Orson’s version of THE MOLE PEOPLE.

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Welles is using camera flashes — often in the form of inserted white frames — to teleport about his big set. The formal ploy of tying the flashes to the edits is a genuinely experimental technique unheard of in ’40s cinema, yet it doesn’t get mentioned much in discussion of the film’s innovations, possibly because, like the abstract snowglobe opening, it didn’t immediately lead to anything. Whereas low angles, noir lighting, overlapping dialogue, atmospheric echoes, etc, were picked up and run with.

The trek through Kane’s collection allows for lovely echoes of previous moments in the movie, as the jigsaws, statues and the trophy from Inquirer employees get to reappear. This narrative replay, a sort of slight return of the opening newsreel, is picked up again by Welles’ closing credits…

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Thompson’s speech, intended as the only moment when he gets to be a real character instead of an audience surrogate (“The embodiment of your desire to see everything,” as Walbrook puts it in LA RONDE) becomes instead a bit of editorializing by Welles and Mankiewicz, both keen to “take the mickey out of” their MacGuffin, Rosebud. By having Thompson claim that Rosebud’s identity wouldn’t have explained Kane, they’re trying to diffuse accusations of what Welles called “dollar-book Freud.” So we can see the sled as the answer to the emptiness in Kane (not in itself, but in the childhood and mother-love he was deprived of) or we can simply see it as a missing piece of a puzzle, still scrambled and incomplete.

“I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life.” ~ Thompson. “What does it matter what you say about people?” ~ Tanya.

In the excellent doc The RKO Story, Ed Asner wanders through the studio scene dock, which incredibly still houses props from the 1940s. Maybe that’s why this last scene always feels like the employees packing up at the end of a studio shoot. A great way to end a movie, with the actors leaving the partially deconstructed set. But there’s more –

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Slow, funeral glide over the array of boxes — see also TOO MUCH JOHNSON, which has a chase through a maze of stacked crates, likewise taken from a high angle. Amazing the visual continuity in that early work with Welles’ later masterpieces. The end of this movement takes us to the heap of “junk,” most of it recognizable as the stuff from Mrs Kane’s boarding house which her son had put in storage. Interesting arrangement of a china doll embraced by a plush toy chimpanzee in the crate at centre here. Next to it is a picture of the adult Kane, presumably kept by his mother, along with all his toys. There’s an image of Agnes Moorehead with Sonny Bupp (young Kane) too.

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“Throw that junk!” orders the unobservant Paul Stewart, uttering the last line of the script. Rosebud seems to be going up in smoke along with several violin cases of unknown provenance.

I think none of us really put a lot of store in what Welles told Barbara Leaming, that “Rosebud” was Hearst’s affectionate term for his mistress Marion Davies’ genitals. As well as being a way of further “taking the mickey” out of the plot gimmick of KANE, this may have been Welles’ rebellion against the movie which had come to define him and must have seemed something of a millstone around his neck. Kind of like drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. But where did Welles get the Georgia O’Keefe-style flower-vagina connection from? I didn’t think that one needed explanation, but then just as I was finishing this piece I found an answer anyway ~

I was reading Robert L. Carringer’s essay The Scripts of Citizen Kane and I think I have the answer. Carringer’s source is the biography William Randolph Hearst, American.

“Finally, the strongest of all of Kane’s attachments to mother and youth may also have been inspired by Hearst. One of Hearst’s childhood friends was a neighbor, Katherine Soule´, called “Pussy” by her playmates. She and Hearst often played together in the Hearst walled garden as Phebe Hearst tended her flowers. Miss Soule´ recalled to Mrs. Older: Willie Hearst was conscious of all beauty. When his mother bought new French dishes he pointed out the rose buds to Pussy. One day his head appeared at the top of the fence and excitedly he called, “Pussy, come and see the ‘La France’!” Pussy had never heard of a La France, and so she hastily climbed the ladder to see this new exciting object. “Why,” she exclaimed, “It’s just a rose!”

EXACTLY. It’s just a rose, Orson.

Magnificent Bernard Herrmann music and effects shot as Rosebud comes out the chimney as a death-like black cloud. And Welles repeats a few of his opening shots to pull us out beyond the No Trespassing sign. Welles loved signs.

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The end credits are lovely — MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS improves on them, though. But by bringing his cast on for curtain calls like this, Welles gives the film’s last line to George Coulouris, and who can begrudge him? Note also that it’s a different line reading from the one earlier in the movie.

“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”

Mondo Kane #8: Xanadu #2

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 16, 2013 by dcairns

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Let’s talk about the script. There’s been an EC Comics horror-retribution thing going on with perception of it. First, we are told, Welles tried to bribe Herman Mankiewicz into giving up credit. Despite H.M. very properly retaining his name on the film, critical discourse tended to favour the genius and ignore the man perceived as a hack, or at best, someone with the status of a Buster Keaton co-director, performing a technical function to support the true creative work,

Then Kael wrote her essay, Raising Kane, and quoted Mankiewicz’s secretary who said Welles didn’t write a word. The idea of shining a light on Toland, Mankiewicz and other collaborators was a perfectly noble one, but this didn’t have to be at Welles’ expense — at any rate, had Kael spoken to Welles, or Welles’ secretary, or even Houseman (a Welles enemy by this time, but one who was always willing to concede Welles’ script role), or studied the various drafts, she could have discovered for herself Welles’ sizable contribution.

Welles, in his later years, would also say that John Houseman also deserved co-writer status.

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Now, things have swung around a bit — Welles is the one people are mostly interested in, and the lingering effect of all this intrigue is the stain on his character concerning his attempt to “rob” Mankiewicz of credit (really an attempt to BUY the credit, but still a bit disreputable). It’s something that rankled — when Welles asked a commercials director to annoy him, so he could have the correct emotion for a scene, the guy teased him about his weight to no effect, but the question “Why did you try to steal Herman J. Mankiewicz’s writing credit?” apparently provoked a colossal strop — he had GONE TOO FAR.

Simon Callow, in The Road to Xanadu, observes that Mankiewicz’s contract explicitly stated that for legal purposes the author of any screenplay would be Mercury Productions, with Mank as a mere employee. I expect that was fairly standard practice, because the industry has never been comfortable granting screenwriters the kind of moral rights artists normally have — if they did, an objection from some ink-stained wretch could hold up the whole titanic machinery of production.

He also observes that Welles was in the midst of a savage game of telegram tennis with a man who wanted to publish the script of the War of the Worlds broadcast, and credit Howard Koch as writer. Koch, in his own memoir, describes the writing process for the radio shows as something like (a) He would work all day and all night to adapt the chosen literary source for that week’s broadcast (b) Houseman would edit (c) an assistant would begin rehearsals (d) Welles would come in, take over, and breathe his magic into it.

But he also admits that Welles would be involved at the start of the process, too — War of the Worlds came with an instruction to dramatize it in the form of news bulletins.

Koch, receiving just seventy-five dollars a week, was happy to cede credit — for the first time in his life, he could call himself a professional writer. Mankiewicz, understandably, at his time in life, preferred a substantial credit to a substantial cheque. But considering his previous working practices, and his reputation, and his own contract which stated he was to write, produce, direct and star in a film for RKO, Welles’ rather shady action becomes at least understandable. Like many directors (John Ford: “A screenplay is dialogue, and I hate dialogue,”) Welles possibly undervalued the work of the screenwriter. Yet those who want to give Mankiewicz all of the credit for KANE have to willfully overlook or trash the other films Welles undoubtedly DID co-write or write entirely.

And check out the credit Welles finally DID give Mank (top).

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And so to another shifty character, Paul Stewart as the shifty butler is introduced via an abrupt dissolve to the big K sign (Herrmann accompanies it with what sounds like an anvil strike) and then an equally quick dissolve to Stewart just as a match light his face and his cigarette. Then we’re plunged into shadow again, as if Stewart was trying to out-silhouette our intrepid boy reporter Mr Thompson.

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These speedy cross-fades have been leading up a real quick mix to the screeching parrot — as if Robert Wise wanted to invent direct cutting twenty years before the nouvelle vague pretended they did, but couldn’t quite bring himself to go there. So what should be a shock cut as jarring as the one to the lighting-bolt-lit Susie Kane poster, is instead a dissolve of just a few frames, with the sudden whiteness of the parakeet, the jolt of its squawk, and the peculiar quirk of superimposition that’s robbed it of an eye, all compensating for the unwanted gentleness which the lack of a hard cut tends to produce. It also helps, in a perverse way, that the parrot appears frames ahead of its background, as if it were teleporting in from Long John Silver’s shoulder.

I guess because a bird’s eye is very dark, effectively black in a monochrome film, it came out transparent while the rest of the parakeet, being white, bleaches out the background. They should have jammed that damn snowglobe into the empty socket.

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The squawker was never scripted, and no record that I know of exists explaining how it came to flutter into the film — seemingly an edit room afterthought like the statue of Thatcher. What it obscure is an atypically planimetric composition with an unconvincing rear-pro beachfront. The weird Xanadu mix of architectural styles is nice here, but I can imagine Welles rejecting the stable, flat, full stop of a shot and grasping around for some way to jazz it up. A shrieking jungle bird fit the bill nicely.

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The following shot, though equally rigid, is a stunner, with the kind of smashing perspective Welles liked. Can a lateral view be vertiginous?

Welles trashes Susie’s room, the only scene obviously filmed with two cameras, to minimize re-takes. It may even have been a one-take wonder, since re-setting and repairing the bedroom would have been quite an operation. John Houseman suggests that Kane’s tantrum was based on Welles’ own furious reaction to Houseman’s dissolution of their partnership, in which case the scene may be part of Houseman’s amorphous but widely-acknowledged contribution to the script (although his script work on the radio shows was more editorial than creative). Welles for his part reported feeling genuine emotion as he smashed up the set, a rare occurrence for him. And yet, the real emotion doesn’t actually photograph, and Kane appears more the lumbering automaton than ever. This works fine, don’t get me wrong — it just may not be what was intended.

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“Rosebud.” Not the snowglobe’s first appearance — it can be seen, prominently positioned, in Susie’s love nest during the Leland flashbacks. So it’s Susie’s trashy taste, but it has an emotional effect on Kane greater than all of his art collection — it reminds him, during this moment of loss, of the original loss, his mother who sent him away to be educated.

Suzie’s ceiling beams have their own menagerie — the The Birds of the Air! The fish of the sea! But no sign of an unconvincing octopus or flamingo-pterodactyl.

Kane pockets the snowglobe, absently, as he wanders off, and presumably installs it by his bedside from now until his death as a constant and painful reminder that he can’t have what he really wants. As he walks past his startled staff, he disappears from frame and is replaced by his own reflection. A walking shadow. And then he’s fragmented into an infinity of reflections, as if lost in a maze of illusions or in the shards of the snowglobe that shatters at the instant of his death.

“Sentimental fellow, aren’t you?”
“Mmm, yes and no.”

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This is the only flashback sequence that opens out into a whole other scene, the dismantling of Xanadu (like a movie set being taken down after the production is over). And that will form the subject of our final installment…

“You can keep on asking questions if you want to.”

Citizen Kane – Screenplay formatted for Kindle
Citizen Kane – Screenplay formatted for Kindle

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