Monday, November 9, 2009

When Genius Collaborates... CITIZEN KANE

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


The release of a new print of Citizen Kane (1941) has re-opened the debate as to whose genius was responsible for the film’s enormous critical success. Many, many Best Films of All Time lists have it in the top ten, and several even list it as the greatest film ever made. When one mixes into this the still-extant hegemony of the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) and its auteur theory, we are primed for screenwriters to take a new wave of hits.

The Irish Independent.IE has recently weighed in with an article by Paul Whitington: 

“In the early 1970s the New Yorker magazine's legendary, fearsome film critic Pauline Kael set the cat among the pigeons when she claimed that Herman Mankiewicz, and not Orson Welles, deserved most of the credit for Citizen Kane. 

“Kael's attack on (the) masterpiece sparked a furious debate that has never quite been resolved. The release of a new print of the 1941 film... gives us a good excuse to re-examine it. 

“The new Kane print will be shown this month at the IFI, Temple Bar, as part of a Welles season, and is as breathtaking an achievement today as it was when first released. The question is: does Welles deserve the lion's share of the credit for it or not? 

“In an interview just prior to the film's release, Welles had remarked, almost in passing, ‘so I wrote Citizen Kane’. But in a darkened study in Hollywood sat a quietly fuming screenwriter who saw things differently.

“Herman J Mankiewicz was a sophisticated East Coast former newspaper columnist and wit who arrived in Hollywood in the late 1920s and subsequently put his literary stamp on films as diverse as The Front Page, Dinner at Eight and The Wizard of Oz. His brilliance as a screenwriter was well known to Welles, who went to pay the writer court in 1939.

“Orson had been toying for a while with the idea of a film about a public figure who would somehow encapsulate the American experience. 

“Mankiewicz had also been planning a screenplay about a celebrity of sorts that would be told by those who knew him (The Last Reveal’s italics)... It was Herman Mankiewicz who came up with the idea of William Randolph Hearst as a model...

“Pauline Kael would later claim that Mankiewicz had been planning to write a film about Hearst as early as 1925, but it was his collaboration with Welles that provided the spark. Once they'd hit on the plan, Welles was happy to let the screenwriter do his magic, and Kael would later dig up a former secretary of Mankiewicz's who claimed that Welles had not written a single word. 

“He may have made the odd change, but it seems certain that the lion's share of the writing was done by Mankiewicz, who was not best pleased when it emerged that RKO was not planning to give him a writing credit. On the finished film they got a co-credit, but many would later forget Mankiewicz's contribution.

“Pauline Kael wanted Herman Mankiewicz to be given due credit as one of the great creative forces of the 1930s and 1940s, and used the Holy Grail of Citizen Kane to make her case. Among those principally outraged by her actions were director and film buff Peter Bogdanovitch, who became a fierce advocate on Welles's behalf. 

“The new print of Citizen Kane will be released on November 13.”

Lest there be reader confusion, let me state that I take the position that commercially-presented films are inevitably and always, collaborations, comprising the contributions of any number of artists, technicians, production, releasing, distribution, publicizing, and exhibiting personnel. This can range as far afield as to include the projectionist of the re-release of the digitally re-mastered director’s cut re-dux, i.e., anyone involved in putting the film before an audience. And this said, I believe that this does not diminish any contributing artist’s genius. Film authorship is not a zero-sum game.

Author and screenwriting “guru”, Robert McKee described Citizen Kane as: 

“...a bloated exercise in razzle-dazzle spectacle, populated by stereotypical characters, twisted with manipulative storytelling, stuffed full of self-contradictory Freudian and Pirandellian clich├ęs, made by a heavy-handed showoff out to impress the world...”Story, HarperCollins, 1997, pp. 359 - 60. 

He may have been playing devil’s advocate. But I strongly doubt it, because he just takes his shot and never sets the record straight afterward. 

Nonetheless, he cannot deny the radically different approach Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles took with their film back in 1941. It’s well-known who Kane’s principle characters represent (William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies), so such criticism as stereotyping is dubious. Most of the supporting characters played small enough roles that the criticism is nearly irrelevant, anyway. And those that weren’t, the newspaper people, could no more be called stereotypes than could their colleagues in His Girl Friday, or The Harder They Fall, films which escape McKee’s ire. 

Welles’s systematic use of faster film stock, deep focus, and low-angle shots that included ceilings were in sharp contrast to the films of the time. Hollywood’s films in the 1930s and 1940s were not only shot mostly on sound stages, but they were shot as though on a stage, with three walls and nary a ceiling, as though under a theater’s proscenium arch. They exuded artifice.

Kane’s non-traditional narrative construction was, nonetheless, consistent with the subject matter and entirely ground-breaking in its formal usage. And this narrative approach, it is well-established (see Marc Norman’s history of screenwriting, What Happens Next, for example), was contributed by Herman Mankiewicz. 

The film, at one minute less than two hours (a not unheard-of feature-film running time), is called by McKee a “bloated exercise.” Perhaps he means “bloated” because of what he sees as its trivial subject-matter: merely the worth of a man’s entire life.

These techniques went on to be used in many films McKee lauds in his book and seminars, yet their first substantial use in a major Hollywood film is considered by him to be “razzle-dazzle”.

McKee holds far greater respect for another film from that period in Hollywood’s history, Casablanca. This film, in which the shooting was begun with only half a completed script, was written by, depending on which memoir or interview you read: 
  • Howard Koch, a self-admitted, fairly wet-behind-the-ears (at that time) screenwriter who never ever approached its level again in a long Hollywood career (see his book, Casablanca, Script and Legend, Overlook Press, 1973).
  • Brothers, Julius and Phillip Epstein (Julius Epstein claimed they wrote all but Casey Robinson’s “terrible” line, “A franc for your thoughts”, including saying what intersection (!) they were at when, in their car, they thought of the long-sought-after ending; Epstein claimed that Koch’s pages were never used; and said about the script that “There wasn’t one moment of reality in Casablanca, and it was “slick shit”, in Patrick McGilligan’s book, Backstory 1, University of California Press, 1986, p. 171 and p. 185).
  • Casey Robinson, who, also in McGilligan’s book, Backstory 1, p. 306-8, claimed, 1.) to have originally found the source play, Everybody Comes To Rick’s, 2.) was responsible for re-setting it against World War II, and, 3.) made Laszlo and Ilsa refugees. Then he claimed he came in after the Epsteins and Koch, and wrote the romance scenes and the ending (and can also say where he was when he wrote it!), though he magnanimously allows that Hal Wallis came up with the line “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” that ended the film.
Casablanca is a film that escapes McKee’s charge against Citizen Kane of manipulation, despite putting dueling national anthems before its wartime audience, among other jingo-isms. Casablanca is said by Alan Fisk, whose mother lived in the real Casablanca at the time (see, to have caused laughter and ridicule on its debut due to its ludicrous depiction of the white city. Nonetheless, that 102 minute “exercise” receives a trim (or dare we say, bloated?) 360 minute shot-by-shot workout in McKee’s seminars. 

That all said, understand that I take no position as to Mr. Epstein’s assessment of the film that won him and his brother an Oscar. For my part, I like Casablanca, though it can’t hold a candle to Citizen Kane, the “Cult of Bogart” notwithstanding. And, no, I have not drunk the Welles Kool-Aid either.

Let’s consider a few of the primary innovations attributed to Citizen Kane:

Deep Focus - This cinematic stylistic approach puts its subject into his/its environment. It does this by using lots of light, a small aperture, and, often, a wide-angle lens so that the story subject is simultaneously in focus along with the depth of the physical world he/she/it is within. This, rather than being the only detail in focus with everything else softer or out-of-focus, thereby isolating the subject in the shot, and separating it from its environment. Its use in Citizen Kane was consistent with the story as told by individuals and episodes from the subject’s life and environment. It was a “deep-focus” narrative. Contributors – Cinematographer, Gregg Toland; Director, Orson Welles. 

Narrative Style - Charles Foster Kane is unknowable (as, in truth, is anyone). He is seen through his behavior as interpreted by us, and through the people that knew him, multiple viewpoints only, therefore. As we’ve said, this is a narrative version of deep focus, as it is a life in situ, or in its milieu. Contributor – Herman Mankiewicz 

Expressionistic Lighting and Camera - This cinematic stylistic exaggerates the visual impact of the imagery. It intensifies the deep focus effect by using camera angles that accentuate and/or subordinate the film’s visual subject for dramatic impact. It intensifies the dramatic effect by using lighting and shadow to lend mystery and surprise, as well as visual depth to the otherwise flat deep focus field. Contributors - Cinematographer, Gregg Toland; Director, Orson Welles.

Welles came to Hollywood at underdog-studio, RKO’s bidding after setting the New York drama scene afire with his all-black-cast production of MacBeth, and his infamous radio production of The War of the Worlds. His genius was legendary. RKO wanted it for its cachet. So Mankiewicz was used and discarded. But, lest we let our sympathies control us, his wasn’t the genius responsible for this great film. 

After auteur critic and New Wave director, Claude Chabrol, had been directing awhile, he found himself asked, once more, about the movement of which he had been a part. His answer? 

“There are no waves, there is only the ocean.” Chabrol to Andrew Sarris, Interviews With Film Directors, Avon, 1972, p. 75. 

Having been immersed in the collaboration, he knew something about who did what.

Critics spend all their time worrying about the who and never considering for very long, the what. Films are what audiences come to see, not evidence of some artist’s worth at the expense of others. Critics need personality to dominate because beyond the “text” (the film itself), they need to have a subject that’s inherently greater than it’s source and so, transcending the material, they can relate it for us, the “great unwashed,” to its world. After all, the film has already covered the film’s subject better than they ever could. One could see it as symbiotic, but between the critic and the audience, only one party really ever benefits, and that's the one who is doing the observing (the  lying?). So, “symbiotic”? Or perhaps... because of its “shelf life” and therefore superficial worth… popular film criticism might be better seen as parasitic prior to its ultimate fate as “fish wrap” on the way to the landfill.

So, who is responsible?

As always in the movies, it is the collaboration. With CITIZEN KANE there was a fortuitous convergence of talent that super-charged a group of individually-luminous artists. Each, himself, could be seen by his prior work to have aspects of genius about him. Together, in KANE, they became what can only be seen as a “super-genius".

It comes down to this: What is the truth of someone? Is it what that someone says about him or herself? Is it what someone else who knows them says about them? Is it what many someones or everyone says about them? Is it the commonalities from among them all? Or the commonalities plus the contradictions? When we look into a room and we see a teacup, the rest of the cup’s surroundings are in view but out of focus and only in our peripheral vision. Do we see the “truth” of the cup? What if, on the other side of the cup there is an inscription that says “Coffee-Only”? Does this mean it is not a teacup, or that it is a teacup that is, instead, meant for “Coffee-Only”? Has tea ever been in the cup? If we could see the entire surroundings of the cup in equal focus, but there is no mirror showing the inscription on the opposite side, do we know the truth of the teacup? What is its truth? So, what, then, is the truth of Charles Foster Kane? What can be the truth of anyone? And so, what is the truth of CITIZEN KANE? All we have is the certainty that a group of people came together once and a superbly effective film resulted that had several remarkable, ground-breaking features. Gregg Toland operated the camera, picked the lenses, chose the faster film stock, and where to put and not put the lights. Or did Orson Welles direct him on some of the details? Or every detail? Which? Or did it come out of discussion? For us, then, while the parasites feed, it can only be the collaboration.

If collaboration-as-genius disheartens some who prefer the comfort of seeing Welles or Mankiewicz as the film’s sole genius, try looking at it this way: Welles was a genius; so was Mankiewicz, so were lighting-cameraman Gregg Toland, and also composer, Bernard Herrmann. There is no "zero-sum" about it as some critics would have us believe. It was as though the JUSTICE LEAGUE itself made a film: superheroes all. If genius collaborates… genius can result, even super-genius. #


Lee A. Matthias

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post Lee. I'm one who unfortunately HAS guzzled the Welles Kool-Aid. Touch of Evil, Lady from Shanghai, and especially Ambersons, I have nothing but unabashed adoration for them all. And while I certainly agree that the 'total auteur' theory is alternately limp wristed and ham fisted, it could be argued that Welles is the pilot light and you know what happens to the furnace when THAT goes out...

    My admiration for Welles is always cloaked in such sadness though, felt mostly through the studio tampering and ultimate financial failure of The Magnificent Ambersons. Considered a complete debacle upon release, it would seem that one of our greatest cinematic storytellers was never really allowed to work his magic appropriately again.