Saturday, August 18, 2012

With friends like these.. Peter Bogdanovich and Citizen Kane

I've been thinking about the latest Sight and Sound poll and the surprising rise of Vertigo from relatively minor Hitchcock* to the "greatest film of all time." But there's another side to the story. Since 1962, the top film on the once a decade poll was Citizen Kane. Kane's fall to the number two spot is certainly less dramatic than Vertigo's rise, but if Kane has slipped in critical estimation, I wonder if some of the blame rests with Peter Bogdanovich.

Bogdanovich certainly didn't set out to undermine Kane. Orson Welles was one of Bogdanovich's closest friends, a fact that the younger director routinely referred to (if asked "do you want paper or plastic?" there's a better than even chance that Bogdanovich's answer would involve Welles). But Bogdanovich, for reasons too complicated to go into now, has made downplaying the role of William Randolph Hearst an integral part of his defense of Kane. Here, in an interview about the Cat's Meow, is a representative quote.

He also felt his film "could get closer to Hearst" than Welles ever did, chiefly because he claims Citizen Kane was not entirely based on the newspaper magnate. "It's what people can't get through their heads! It was a combination of characters. It wasn't just about Hearst. That's a misconception everybody has that has come from the press and the mythology and people getting it wrong."

I've never seen an interviewer call Bogdanovich on this, which is unfortunate for two reasons: first because it's very much in dispute and second because taking Hearst out of the picture guts the film's political context and undermines many of its best moments.

Citizen Kane is, of course, a work of fiction, not a docudrama and Charles Foster Kane is not supposed to be William Randolph Hearst. (Kane is probably closer to Hearst than Richard III is to the protagonist of Shakespeare's play, but that's a topic for another day.)

But while there are aspects of Kane based on other press lords (making his 'mistress' a singer instead of an actress for example), all of the thematically important similarities and most of the highly recognizable ones were purely Hearst (many of the best remembered moments -- "I'll provide the war" "I'll have to close this place in... 60 years" -- were taken directly from Hearst's bio).

The makers of Citizen Kane play against the persona of Hearst in a similar fashion to the way Condon plays with McCarthy in the Manchurian Candidate. The result is politically rich and incredibly economical film making (for example, the shot of Kane and Hitler played on Hearst's complicated history with the dictator, a relationship that would have been fresh in the minds of everyone in the original audience -- it was a big deal at the time).

By obscuring the context of the work, Bogdanovich has done more damage to Citizen Kane than Hearst and company ever managed.

* Wikipedia: "In the 1950s, the French Cahiers du cinéma critics began re-evaluating Hitchcock as a serious artist rather than just a populist showman. However, even François Truffaut's important 1962 interviews with Hitchcock (not published in English until 1967) mentions Vertigo only in passing"

Arrested (cinematic) Development

From Roger Greenspun's 1969 review of Out of It:

Paul Williams's "Out of It" opened yesterday at the Festival Theater, but it was made in 1967, according to the distributor, and it looks and feels just a bit older—say 1963—even allowing for South Shore cultural lag.

I just caught some of Out of It on ThisTV (which has a knack for digging up these interesting, half-forgotten films), and Greenspun has it exactly right. If you had asked me to date the picture, I probably would have guessed '63 as well (Maltin's compares it to an Archie comic). I certainly wouldn't have said the late Sixties.

But reading the review, it struck me just how much things have changed, or more accurately, how much things have stopped changing. Can you imagine seeing a film today and saying to yourself "I know it was made in 2010 but stylistically it feels like 2006"?

For the first fifty years or so of the sound era, it really did make sense to talk about movies in half decade increments. You could have a meaningful conversation about the difference between the films of the early Forties and the late Forties.

Today we still have trends and fads that set apart the movies of today from those of five years ago, but in terms of distinct, evolving styles, things change more slowly these days. As for why that happened and whether or not it's a good thing, those are topics for longer posts.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Note to under-occupied filmmakers

Roger Zelazny's "Divine Madness" would make an excellent short film.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The lost (and found) episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents

NBC originally refused to air The Sorcerer's Apprentice because it was deemed too gruesome. Now its in the public domain and it's one of the most widely distributed episodes. From the pen of Robert Bloch: