The Tyranny of Continuity

December 11, 2007 § Leave a comment


By Lars Trodson

I was watching Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” the other day, and he certainly nailed the look and feel and dynamic of those old movies that I have now come to know as “grindhouse” pictures – those earnest, if not completely competent, cinematic endeavors made by people who may have loved the movies but didn’t necessarily have the craft to make them with the spit and polish we have come to expect out of Hollywood.

There are certain examples of these movies, such as “Death Race 2000” and “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” and even an old Nick Adams movie about drag racing in the south that I had seen as a kid but can’t remember the name of, that completely captivated me because they were insanely entertaining. I didn’t care then and I don’t care now that they were, as one would say, poorly made. That isn’t the right definition. I liked them, and I didn’t care if they had mistakes in what we now so imperiously call “continuity.”

Somewhere, some time ago, someone had the bright idea that they would begin to catalogue the “mistakes” that we can see in films. You know, “continuity” is whether one of the extras in ‘Spartacus’ is wearing a watch. Why does George Bailey have a wreath over his arm when, in the scene before, he had placed all the wreathes on the counter of the old Building and Loan. Why does the level of liquid in the glasses fluctuate in the glasses on the table during a conversation in…well…any number of movies? That’s why I guess you see so many actors drinking out of empty paper coffee cups now. You don’t have to worry about those liquid levels from shot to shot.

But the truth of the matter is, some of our most beloved movies are a nightmare of continuity. On a purely technical level, “The Wizard of Oz” is a mess. So is “The Departed.” In one scene Jack Nicholson is walking toward the actor playing the young Matt Damon and in the shot from behind he’s smoking a cigarette and when it reverses to the front of Nicholson the cigarette is gone. There’s a bunch of that kind of thing in the movie and nobody cares. I don’t care. That movie is hands down one great achievement.

I couldn’t tell you one mistake in continuity in “American Gangster”, especially in the fact that it didn’t fail to bore me from beginning to end. What can I say?

There is a certain craft, of course, to getting details right. You don’t want some nightmare of continuity to so throw off the audience that they disregard the story. But do I care that the dove that Roy Batty releases at the end of “Blade Runner” flaps up into a clear blue sky when the scene when he releases it in takes place at night in the rain? I do not. I guess this has been fixed in the latest reincarnation of that picture, but even so it was a masterpiece before the amendment.

When we have made our own little pictures here in New Hampshire, the filmmakers I worked with were obsessed with continuity, and I could not have cared less about it. My feeling was if that these little details are noticed, then we lost the audience any way. I thought sometimes it was easier for us to fixate on those problems, the technical ones, that were approachable, rather than concentrating on the hardest part, which is the performances and nuance.

But to say that we will have lost the audience is not so true today. The film geeks out there will kill you if you screw up your continuity — look at those dumb idiots, they’ll say — while at the same time, I would imagine, some of them revere the same European and American classics that all filmmakers do, despite the multitude of technical glitches seen so obviously within the frame.

Even “Citizen Kane”, if you look closely enough, has a few glaring sound synchronization problems that would drive you crazy if you actually cared about them. So the armies of bloggers and writers and film pundits decided some time ago to focus on what they could understand — the “continuity” of a picture. As a result, we have a cascade of sleekly made Hollywood product made by hordes of script supervisors who have made sure the scarves are on exactly right from frame to frame, without caring that the actors wearing those scarves are delivering the most mundane dialogue in wooden positions.

If we didn’t care so much about this, we would be able to concentrate on what we most remember from movies, which is the story and the words and the acting, and if we love a movie, then we will forgive its little idiocyncracies.

Tarantino was right to blow through these petty expectations in his recent “Grindhouse” movie. I only saw the “Death Proof” half, and he caught the continuity problems that were a hallmark of those old cheap pictures perfectly.

But it isn’t Tarantino’s particular form of craftsmanship that we should take away from that movie. It’s rather that he understood such glitches should never, ever get in the way of enjoying a movie. More often than not, we remember and embrace the wildness and rawness of these films, because they were made by enthusiastic people hellbent on doing their own thing, hoping that in the end we would enjoy it.

One thing I think is true, despite what you may think of his own movies, is that Tarantino loves movies, loves people who make them, and loves the idea that you can bring to an audience a kind of entertainment even if you do not have all your gaffing and continuity ducks in a row.

The lesson from “Grindhouse” is to embrace the exuberance of moviemaking, the pure adrenalin joy of it, and forget about worrying whether the cigarette ash is the same length from one shot to the next.

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Good Grief, Or Maybe Not

November 9, 2007 § 1 Comment


By Lars Trodson

The opening shot was of the aged face of Charles Foster Kane whispering the word “rosebud.” At first I thought I had tuned in to the wrong program, because I wanted to watch the American Masters biography of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. But then the picture changed, and we were shown the famous strip in which Linus is watching “Citizen Kane” for the first time, and Lucy says, as she walks away, “Rosebud was his sled.” Linus reacts in that famous Peanuts’ way: “Aaaargh!”

But I wondered what in the world “Citizen Kane” had to do with Charles Schulz, and then we were told that Schulz was obsessed with the film. He watched it, by the accounts of the people in the biography, some 40 times. At one point, one of Schulz’s sons says something like this: “Watching a film 10 times I can understand, but 15 times is excessive. Forty times? What was he looking for?”

It was interesting to me that the show emphasized Charles Schulz’s melancholy nature, and his search for love. We now know how much of Schulz is in Charlie Brown – although we really shouldn’t be surprised. I guess what people never knew was how truly autobiographical a comic strip could be – especially one where the title character seemed such an outcast and always felt so sad.

All Charlie Brown wanted was to be loved, most certainly by the Little Red Haired Girl – who I guess was a true love of Charles Schulz when he was younger. Maybe Charlie wanted to be loved by just about anybody.

So I don’t think Charles Schulz was looking for something he couldn’t find in “Citizen Kane”, but obsessed with the notion of what he saw. I think he saw what I wrote about in my earlier essay on this site. I wrote that Charlie Kane spent his entire life looking for a love he couldn’t have – looking for someone to love the poor poet inside the rich man’s persona. Certainly, it seems to me, Charles Schulz remembered a time when he didn’t feel loved, before he became rich and famous, and of the time when the girl he truly loved didn’t love him back. And then the fame came and maybe it seemed like all of a sudden everybody loved him. You can hear him think what Charlie Kane thought: Why didn’t anybody love me when I was a nobody?

That’s why Charlie Kane fell in love with Susan Alexander; after all, she loved him, or at least liked him, the night they met. That was when she had a toothache, and he was covered in mud, and Susan didn’t have any idea who Charlie was. As I said at the time, Charlie kept the snowglobe that he took off Susan Alexander’s bureau, and I think he took it because she once loved him without reservation and he wanted desperately to remember that time. He took the snowglobe and kept it until the moment he died because it was a reminder of the one true moment of love he had.

The parallels between Schulz and Kane are unmistakable; and anyway, very few of us actually have the same perception of ourselves that the outside world has. Little Charlie Brown might be the Charlie Kane that never grew up to be rich.

There’s a scene in “Kane” when Charlie wonders what he would have been like if he hadn’t been born rich. “I might have been a really great man.”

“Don’t you think you were?” Asks Walter Thatcher, his guardian.

“I did pretty well under the circumstances,” says Charlie Kane, who laments that he always “gagged on that silver spoon.”

I think Charlie knew his wealth stopped him from being an artist; he didn’t have the discipline to follow through with anything.

I think Charlie Brown – if it doesn’t seem too silly to say it – is a great little fellow. Optimistic, he doesn’t hurt anyone; he muddles on and stays true to himself. He doesn’t ever change to curry favor with the people he so desperately hopes will accept him into their circle.

I’ve seen “Citizen Kane” maybe 20 times myself. Excessive? Almost certainly. Obsessive? Perhaps. While I have nothing to offer anybody except myself – I have no riches to bestow on anyone, nor will anybody be impressed with my stature in society – I think the yearning of both Charlies is the same. We have all felt like Charlie Brown or Charlie Kane. We want to be loved for who we are. And we have sometimes wondered, for some people out there, maybe even the person that we have fallen in love with, why that isn’t enough.

I think maybe if we had seen Charlie Brown grow old, the last thing he would have said was the name of the Little Red Haired Girl, and the thing he probably would have held on to was the little paper Valentine’s Day card he had gotten from her in class, all those years ago, even if he knew in his heart she didn’t really mean it.

Kane’s Rosebud – It’s not as simple as you think

July 22, 2007 § 2 Comments


“All he really wanted out of life was love. That’s Charlie’s story — how he lost it.”

— Jed Leland

By Lars Trodson

More than 65 years after the release of “Citizen Kane” it’s time to reevaluate the significance of that sled — the famous “Rosebud.”

After all, Charles Foster Kane essentially threw “Rosebud” out — he had put it in storage, and was careless enough about it so that it was incinerated. But there was something more essential he held onto: the glass ball, that snowglobe we first see in the apartment of the woman who was to be his second wife, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore).

Rosebud wasn’t a physical representation of something Kane had lost — it was a reminder. He hadn’t lost his innocence, or his childhood — he had lost himself, and he had thrown away the only chance he had at love. That is what he meant when he breathed that last word, “Rosebud.”

Orson Welles is one of those rare public artists whose reputation keeps increasing — he looms larger and larger with each passing year — and it seems the appropriate time to examine perhaps the most prominent element in a film most people regard as the greatest ever made. An element, by the way, that Welles himself called a cheap trick. And if he called it that, why should we believe it?

Three things keep throwing the audience off about just why the snowglobe should be the more significant symbol. One is of course the obvious and rather bland fact that the sled itself is named “Rosebud.” We know that, fine. The other two are this: inside the globe there is a scene reminiscent of Kane’s childhood in Colorado, a snowy, desolate landscape. It’s evocative of scene where we seeing him use the sled. The third is the fact that when Charlie destroys Susan’s room in Xanadu after she leaves him, the one thing he doesn’t smash is this snowglobe. When he holds it amidst the wreckage he has caused, Charlie whispers the word “Rosebud.” We are being led to believe that he is remembering his more innocent childhood and the love of his mother. We are led to believe the snowglobe is reminding him of Rosebud, and his childhood, but really he is thinking of the night he met Susan. He is thinking of that the moment she walks out the door and how he lost his chance.

There are countless reasons why “Kane” holds up as the most deliriously entertaining films ever made — and we don’t need to go into them here. But one of the most important reasons why we return to the movie over and over again is that this is a film of multiple mysteries, both large and small, and the audience is teased into trying to figure them out. Movies that are too obvious — M. Night Shayamalan’s film “The Sixth Sense” comes to mind — don’t require multiple viewings. But films with a deep sense of the unknown, such as “Kane”, certainly do.

Given that, why would we ever expect the real answer in the film would be as obvious as “Rosebud” the sled? In a film this complicated and sophisticated, why would it not be something more sly and obscure?

These questions are important, because the film is essentially the unraveling of a puzzle. We try to figure out just who Charlie Kane is, and what he means to us, and how we think of him. That we still debate these questions is one of the miracles of this strangely enigmatic film. Just who Charlie Kane is remains a mystery even though almost every single conversation in the film is about Charlie Kane — even when Kane himself speaks it is more or less about himself. That we never get tired of the probing or the self-examinations is tribute to the liveliness of the script (credited to Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz).

The entire scenario unfolds so seamlessly, so fluidly, so languidly or joltingly, that the riddle of the story doesn’t tax us. The film is an examination of Charlie Kane’s life, but it’s not psychoanalytic, and that allows the audience a wide opportunity to form its own interpretations.

Yet eminent critics such as Roger Ebert have always had only one interpretation. Ebert once wrote: “’Citizen Kane’ knows the sled is not the answer. It explains what Rosebud is, but not what Rosebud means.” That has been the line of thinking for 66 years.

Wrong.

Welles and his entire production team at some point decided not to emphasize just how the glass ball came into Charlie’s possession — all we know is that he is holding it on his deathbed. As he is dying, he holds the ball with his lifeless arms outstretched at his side — he is not (thank goodness) looking at the ball as he says the word “Rosebud” — which would have been too much. And then Charlie Kane, the famous Charles Foster Kane, dies and the ball slides out of his fingers and explodes as it hits the floor.

Then we are off on the journey. “Rosebud,” says the news editor after they have watched the “News on the March” newsreel that opens the movie. “Dead or alive. It could turn out to be a very simple thing.”

No — not for us, or for the history of the movies.

The magazine writer Jerry Thompson (William Alland) then heads out to unravel the mystery of Rosebud. Thompson treks to Atlantic City and the boardroom of the Kane empire, and the hospital and eventually to that “coliseum”, Xanadu, that Charlie built for himself and Susan Alexander. We never get a very clear picture of Thompson’s face — he’s always in the shadows. That was a way for cinematographer Gregg Toland to express the fact that Thompson didn’t really care about Kane. The life of Kane was just a job to Thompson.

No one has a satisfactory answer for the “Rosebud” question, of course — and as we know it is never revealed for the participants within the film.

Welles himself said the idea of “Rosebud” was a deception, a “mickey”, but he was simply deflecting the real idea behind Kane’s pain. Pain that Welles undoubtedly felt, and pain the rest of us feel: most of us do not want to be revered, or feared, or respected, all we really want to be is loved, and to love.

And we want to be loved for who we know ourselves to be, not how others interpret us. The adult Kane was loved in the cheapest way: by his staff, and by Bernstein (Everett Sloan) and Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton), and he was only a status symbol, one would guess, to his first wife, Emily Norton (Ruth Warrick). The rest of the people around him either used him, or took him for all he was worth.

But it was Susan Alexander, on the first night they met, that truly liked him, and loved him, for who he was, and not for the person that the rest of the world thought of as Charles Foster Kane.

Susan and Charlie meet because he is standing (improbably) on the side of the road on some lower Manhattan street, waiting for… waiting for what? A trolley? But a carriage splashes into the mud, we hear the sound because of the extraordinarily crisp soundtrack, and as Susan emerges from the local drugstore with her aching tooth, she laughs at the sight of the man in the expensive suit drenched in wet dirt.

They are both vulnerable in this scene. She’s in pain, and he looks ridiculous. The script makes imminently clear that the one thing Kane does not appreciate is the idea of looking ridiculous.

Charlie accepts Susan’s seductive invitation to clean his suit — “I can give you some hot water… if that’s what want… hot water…”

It is during the following playful interlude in Susan’s apartment that Charlie is at his most likable. He shows her shadow puppets to alleviate her pain. He asks her: “How old did you say you were?”

“I didn’t say,” she replies.

“I know you didn’t. If you had I would have remembered.”

She tells him she’s almost 22 and he says, nicely, “That’s a ripe old age.”

He rhetorically asks her what he was going to do before he ruined his “best Sunday suit”, and he goes on to say he was about to go on a kind of “sentimental journey.” He was headed to the Western Manhattan Warehouse to see the contents of his old house in Colorado. Charlie and Susan talk briefly about the importance of the love a mother can give to a child. (Charlie’s mother is played by the great Agnes Moorhead, in a stunning performance.)

This is another point in the script where Welles and Mankiewicz throw us off track. Because he’s going to the warehouse on a search for a memory, and because of the way the film plays out, we believe he’s on his way to recapture his youth, and to find the sled, which will remind him of happier times.

But it is also during this scene where we first see the snowglobe. It’s sitting unobtrusively on Susan’s dresser. We see the globe twice in this scene, but of course we never see any scene in which Charlie is either given, or takes, the snowglobe.

It doesn’t matter, because it is in this scene, in Susan’s boardinghouse room, that Charlie Kane is liked for his own self, his own person, by this unassuming, lovely young woman. “I bet I’ve heard your name a million times,” she says, adding that she’s “pretty ignorant” and that Charlie probably already knew that. I would guess that her unworldliness was an immense attraction to this worldly man, as was her desire (her mother’s desire) for her to be a singer.

And that’s also what caught Charlie’s attention.

There is no real reason for this, other than the mysteriousness of the script, but I have always thought of Charlie as having the soul of an artist, an ambition that was aborted by the autocratic Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris), who probably beat that sensibility out of him. So it makes sense for Charlie to run a newspaper — it is an outlet where he can be creative, but in a business milieu. And it is also why he has an obsessive appetite for collecting art: if I can’t make it, Charlie thinks, I’ll be close to it. I’ll collect it.

In that regard, Susan was much closer to his inner sensibility than the politically motivated Emily Norton ever was, and it was Susan that sensed Charlie appreciated her modest dream, and that was why she, at first, loved him. The most important aspect of the relationship between Charlie and Susan is not that he loved her — but rather that she loved him without reservation. At first.

It makes it all the more poignant — and bitter — when she says to him late in the story, during the picnic in Florida, that he never gave her anything she really wanted. She knows that Charlie had a chance to escape with her, at the beginning, but he didn’t take it. He could have just continued to love her. But he was not courageous enough, inwardly, to embrace the simple boy that he truly was, the boy who could do magic tricks and wiggle his ears, and who was at his heart a sentimental old fool. He was too wrapped up in the person that the world had told him to be.

And so he kept the snowglobe to remind him of the night Susan fell in love with him. The most important symbol in Charlie Kane’s life couldn’t have been the sled — because that life in Colorado was wrenched away from him. You cannot argue the fact that his mother gave him away, sent him away, gave him up. Who would not harbor some resentment about that? The most important symbol is the snowglobe, which represented the only time he was loved for who he truly felt himself to be.

In one of the last interviews for the magazine, Thompson feels a moment of humanity. He tells Susan in that terrible Atlantic City nightclub that he “can’t help but feel sorry for Mr. Kane.”

And she says, “Don’t you think I do?” She knew what they had, and what they had lost. And what Charlie had lost.

Welles was a nostalgic filmmaker, right from the beginning. He was always acutely aware of the passing of time, and the toll that it takes on people. So if we wholly identify that loss with the sled, with “Rosebud”, then I think we are missing the point.

But if we rather focus on the fact that Charlie held onto the snowglobe, we recognize that we all surround ourselves with mementos from the past — books, pictures, pieces of art — and that all of us are sometimes desperate not to lose the things and people we love. But no matter how rich, no matter how influential or powerful, we are all helpless from keeping those people that we love, and are about to love, from slipping away into the past.

The lesson that “Citizen Kane” teaches us, one that is always buried beneath the dazzling filmmaking, beneath the heavy myth of the film itself, is that we need to love those people while they are here. That’s what Charlie wanted to say to us, if he was to be honest. But, as always, he had a hard time doing it.

Worldwide Pants

June 18, 2007 § Leave a comment


By Lars Trodson

A week or so ago ABC had to apologize because it showed a picture of former Washington DC Mayor Marion Barry as it was teasing the story about the judge, Roy Pearson, who is suing a dry cleaner for $54 million for losing his pants.

“We are deeply sorry for this mistake,” said ABC in a prepared statement.

How nice.

While I am certain both Mayor Barry and Judge Pearson were discomfited by the wrong identification, the deeper, more grievous wound to the general public is the fact that ABC is devoting any of its precious news resources on the pants suit (oh, the wordplay abounds!) to begin with.

There’s war, global instability and a U.S. Government that seems incapable of getting out of its own way — while all the while news department budgets are gutted.

To paraphrase Mr. Thatcher in “Citizen Kane“: It must be fun to run a news department.

The other sad thing is that these news departments on TV think they’re hip for covering the Pearson story because it broke on the Internet. But the web users who heard this story first had long ago moved on as the TV people were just getting around to it.

Keep at it, you network boys and girls. You’re killing us.

Orson Welles — Role Model

June 3, 2007 § Leave a comment


By Lars Trodson

I once was at a film festival in Maine and saw a kid there wearing a T-shirt with Orson Welles on it. I must have been in a cynical mood, because I said to myself, “wrong role model, kid, wrong role model.”

I was thinking that Welles, despite the gargantuan talent, had shot himself in the foot, and as a result he may have created a legend but also left behind too little work. I was thinking if you wanted a career in movies, don’t look to Welles, because you might not get anything done. You’re better off with John Huston or Howard Hawks as your man of inspiration.

Now I feel much more warmhearted toward Welles. I wonder how much we should ask any one person to create. Isn’t “Citizen Kane” or “Touch of Evil” enough? In the same vein, should we deride a playwright like Arthur Miller for never having produced a second “Death of a Salesman” — when the existence of that one work of art should be enough from any man or woman?

But no, we always ask for more and more from our artists. And the truth of the matter is that Welles did more than just create the flashy “Kane” and the kinetic “Touch of Evil.” There is also the abysmal — no matter which version you see — “Mr. Arkadin” — and the fluid “The Stranger” and the lyrical “Chimes at Midnight” and the lovely, truly remarkable, exotic “F For Fake.” This last one may turn out to be my favorite Welles film of all. He presages MTV-style editing a decade before anyone knew what that was, and he also creates moments of pure cinema out of pieces of film that never had any right to have any life in them at all.

Because of this, and because of the singular failure of so many promising filmmakers to sustain any career momentum at all, Welles, over time, has begun to look like a model of consistency and reliability — particularly given the astonishing ingenuity of his work. This is also true given the fact that for the last 20 years or so of a relatively short life (he lived to be 70) he did not do very much.

Except of course that he was trying to finish this legendary film with the mysterious title, “The Other Side of the Wind.” For years, anyone with an interest in Welles wondered about its existence. In a Playboy interview with John Huston from the early 1980s, Huston, who starred in the film, had a simple question: “Why doesn’t he just finish the damn thing?”

“Wind” has been caught up in some strange litigation for years — I think I read once it was in a vault in Iran — but I am certain I know nothing really about where it is or what is holding it up. I think there have been various efforts by such Welles friends as Peter Bogdanovich (who also is in the movie) to get it out in public.

But now through the YouTube site we can at least see some of what Welles was up to. Go on the site and search for “The Other Side of the Wind” and you will see clips from this most elusive film. There is a long clip from a Spanish television which excerpts Welles getting his American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement award — even though, ridiculously, he was only about 60 years old.
http://www.youtube.com/v/LRN9lbuLv2M
And then we can see two clips: the first is a dazzling show of editing while the Huston character (a movie director named Jake Hannaford) celebrates a birthday.

It would seem to me that when Welles showed this clip to Hollywood in the mid-1970s it must have scared that crowd just as “Kane” had done 35 years before. While Welles was seemingly hibernating with this endless production, he had actually come up with a new form — mingling editing and sound mixing and seemingly off-hand glances to create a dazzling mixture of pure film that has been mined ever since. I wonder if the reason he wasn’t given financing to finish it was because the other Hollywood hacks simply figured it would be cheaper to rip it off. It turned out it wasn’t cheaper; it took another 20 years for the kind of raucous uninhibited editing that Welles employed to become part of the mainstream Hollywood product.

The second long clip from the film shows Welles in a mood we rarely, if ever, saw from him before. Welles the director never seemed terribly interested in sex. He wigged out Rita Hayworth – a woman of incredible sexual appeal — in “The Lady From Shanghai” so that she lost a good part of her allure. There is some leering in “Touch of Evil” – he wasn’t shy about showing off Janet Leigh, a bosomy, brittle beauty — but it is an adolescent approach to sex and women.

In “The Other Side of the Wind” we see an extended, silent clip as a woman seduces a young man in the back of a car while another man silently drives in a rain storm. We hear nothing but the rain and tempo of the windshield wipers. The silent, beautiful woman unbuttons the young man’s pants, and while we see not much more than the woman’s breasts, and even those are only glimpsed in a kaleidoscope of light as the car travels through the night, Welles is surprisingly graphic in his approach.

He was also able to articulate — as many directors are not — the difference between eroticism and pornography, and the “Wind” scene is undeniably erotic, enhanced because he has imbued it with some mystery and tension — neither of which are inhibitors to sexual desire. When the scene is over you let your breath out because you realize you haven’t been breathing.

What we may never know, however, is how these two mini-movies work within the larger context of the entire story. This was always one of Welles’ perceived problems — creating classic set pieces that sit clumsily within the larger story arc.

But at least the movie is not so much of a mystery any more. Tantalizing, certainly; but you also get the feeling, thanks to the postings on YouTube, that “The Other Side of the Wind” is also less lost.

And I also realize that as the Welles legend continues to grow — and as his richer, more popular and well-rewarded contemporaries fall away in memory — he has also emerged as the ideal role model. For anyone aspiring to be an artist of any sort, you can look to Welles and see that he never gave up, never stopped thinking about his craft, and was always striving to improve himself, even when — most importantly — everyone else had stopped caring.

Buy it here:

F for Fake – Criterion Collection

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