CITIZEN KANE ON CAMPUS (And Then There Was Hollywood: Tenth Rumination)

Citizen Kane (1941)
D. Orson Welles

Notes on attending Kane on campus last night….

1)   Watching it for the first time in a while–first time in decades with an audience–I was struck by how little its prescience has been noted by the crit-illuminati and/or their journo-politico fellow travelers re our recent political upheavals. I’ve seen Donald Trump compared to Adolf Hitler, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln (by himself), P.T. Barnum, Huey Long, Ross Perot, Ronald Reagan, Calvin Coolidge, etc. Never once have I seen him compared to Charles Foster Kane. I’m sure it must have happened. But, as closely as I’ve been following along, I have to believe such comparisons have been few and far between. Now why would that? Hold on, I think I may have an answer way, way further down…

2) The main reason I go to watch classic movies on college campuses whenever I can is to participate in–and gauge–audience reactions. This was one of the rare times FSU’s Student Life Center was running a film in 35mm, so it was extra treat. (The Center, incidentally, is named for Reubin Askew, former Florida governor who was the only Democrat my mother ever considered voting for. In the end, she didn’t, citing her contempt for his running mate, though I always suspected she just couldn’t make the leap to the idea that the “New” Democrats were anything more than the Jim Crow scoundrels who had ruled her Southern childhood dressed up in sheep’s clothing. She was wrong about the thoroughly decent Askew–but had she lived just a little longer she would have spotted Bill Clinton for the smooth, duplicitous son of Pitchfork Ben Tillman he was right off, and taken some gently sardonic satisfaction in noting which one rose to the White House.) Re Kane, though:The reactions this time were….interesting.

3) The film was introduced by a couple of genial, slightly goofy student-age dudes, one of whom was evidently in charge of the theater’s programming, the other the projectionist (this being a rare modern occasion when one was required). They gave us an entertaining five minutes, during which I kept thinking “If this was Moore Auditorium in 1983, these guys would be chum for the sharks.” We won’t win any more wars, but the world was meaner then.

3) The main new thing that struck me in the movie–it’s one of those movies which will always reveal new things–was that when Joseph Cotten’s Jed Leland returns his copy of Kane’s “Ten Principles” (along with a $25,000 check torn to pieces), it’s not a comment on Kane’s journalistic or political honor (Leland was the first to know he didn’t have any), and therefore must be meant to strike at his betrayal of his marital honor–the only kind he’s really broken faith with. I don’t think the college kids around me quite got this (though they knew it was a big deal of some sort–it elicited the only gasps and “o-o-o-h-h-h-s” of the night). There’s no reason they should have, of course, marital honor no longer being a thing. But I was ashamed of myself for not noticing years back, when it still was a thing.

4) When it was over,  a girl in front of me turned to her friends and said “It was good.” They all nodded along. The relief was palpable.

5) There was a moment during the film, when the kid behind me said “This is going on right now.” I honestly can’t remember which scene he reacted to, because I was pretty much thinking that about every scene.

6) It became obvious to me for the first time during this viewing that Welles didn’t screen Stagecoach forty times while he was making Kane so he could understand more about deep focus cinematography or how to film ceilings (those being two of many theories, some endorsed by Welles himself, of what he was after). He screened Stagecoach forty times so he could learn how people move and talk on screen and to understand film-rhythm.

7) For all that–and all its technical perfection (one understands why it knocks ’em over in Film School)–it still doesn’t pack the emotional punch of Gone With the Wind or The Searchers, the reasonable competition for Hollywood’s greatest film. It might be a greater film from a purely technical standpoint and it’s certainly formidable as a Narrative. But if Narrative is the prime value of story-telling–and it should be–it still comes a little short. I should add that this says more about the other films than it does about Kane, which is still a moving experience on every level. And more so, I find, with age.

8) I’ve never bought that it was one of the great Hollywood blunders for John Ford and How Green Was My Valley to have won Best Director and Best Picture for 1941. All in all, I might pick Welles and Kane, but it’s a close run. He was robbed of the acting Oscar, though. Gary Cooper–almost inevitably with war clouds looming, then breaking, during awards season–won for a fine performance in Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (Ford’s own stated choice for best picture and director). But Welles gave one of the half-dozen signature performances in film. The only greater injustice in the history of the acting category was John Wayne being denied so much as a nomination for The Searchers. Welles was at least nominated.

9) Did I mention kids are so much nicer now? In the bathroom afterwards, three guys were talking about how “It wasn’t bad for 1941.” And another said, “I mean, it’s not something I’m gonna tell my friends they have to see.”

10) I was otherwise occupied, and thus robbed of my chance to share my Citizen Kane story with the younger generation. Had I been able to leave the stall a little sooner, I was planning to say something like this:

So I was sitting with my Dad about fifteen years ago, a few years before he died, and he puts down his newspaper and says ‘John, what is the significance of “Rosebud?”‘ I then proceeded to explain to him that it was a reference to the movie Citizen Kane (of which he had vaguely heard–my dad saw a movie about once a decade). I told him some of the plot and the presumed symbolism of it turning out to be the name of Charles Foster Kane’s childhood sled, the one he was playing with when he was taken from his parents.

My dad listened patiently to all of that, and, when I was finished, he looked off into the distance for a minute and finally nodded and said “Oh yeah. Old Hearst’s mistress.” Then he went back to reading his paper.

Mind you I hadn’t said a thing about Kane being based, in whole or in part, on William Randolph Hearst, let alone anything about Rosebud being his pet name for Marion Davies’ private parts and that being the more or less real reason Welles got more or less run out of Hollywood.

The only thing I could ever figure was that in Dad’s Carny days, perhaps through his friend and business partner “Cy,” who was an intimate of Red Skelton’s (they having grown up together in the mob-owned night clubs of the Midwest–there were certain towns in Illinois from which it was necessary for Cy to absent himself from the show for a week or two), he had picked up some piece of stray gossip that stayed with him all those years and flashed to the top of his mind as the shortest, straightest way to sort out all the nonsense I had been babbling on about.

I’m not sure how much of that I would have had a chance to share with my fellow bladder-emptiers last night. But if, by chance, they hadn’t fled, I was going to finish with a flourish and say:

“Now you should probably go watch it again and see what you missed.”

Ah well. Their loss.

And I still can’t blame them because, for all its purported “modernity,” Kane’s fall is straight out of the oldest trope in Western Civilization: Pride goeth before a fall.

Today’s twenty-somethings could be forgiven for thinking that’s all a lot of hogwash.

[Addenda: To answer the earlier question….The crit-illuminati and journo-politicos will catch on to the similarities between Donald Trump and their “fictional” Welles-ian hero when the Security State arranges for The Donald to be found in Mar-a-Lago, with a snow-globe falling from his dying hand as he lies on his big brass bed and Melania is discovered by a maid, locked up in the bathroom, murmuring, “I never wanted it. He wanted it for me!” The reports of the event won’t suffice to awaken them, but the note from the boss will do the trick. You know, the one that begins “Our friends at CIA have requested…”

O YE OF LITTLE FAITH (At the Multiplex: January, 2017)

Hacksaw Ridge (D. Mel Gibson)

Mel Gibson is, rather famously, a devotee of a brand of right-wing Catholicism (that no one believes has subsumed mainstream Catholicism), which is a rough equivalent of the Protestant Fundamentalism which is now supposed, by all the best people, to have subsumed mainstream Protestantism. This may have been why he was drawn to the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who, as a WWII conscientious objector, became one of that war’s great heroes in a manner very different than Alvin York, the conscientious objector who had been a great hero of WWI.

Whatever Gibson’s reasons, I’m not sure he was the right person to tell this story.

Or, to put it more directly, I’m not sure that the Mel Gibson who has been striving mightily these last few years to get back in Hollywood’s good graces, was the right person to tell this story.

Mind you, what is here is good. It punches all the buttons a non-Christian audience would expect to have punched and a few that folks who don’t mind a little Christianity might expect as well. The acting is good (especially by Andrew Garland as Doss and Vince Vaughn as his hard-ass sergeant). Gibson’s direction is mostly crisp and unfussy, only straying when he reaches here and there for inspiration (artistic, not religious, though if you can’t find one, it’s unlikely you’ll find the other). And the principal action scenes, which follow Doss as a medic who, without benefit of a weapon (which he refuses to carry), delivers body after wounded body from a nightmarish no man’s land which has opened up between Japanese soldiers and American G.I.s during the brutal fight for Okinawa, are tense and moving. The movie even ends with snippets from a documentary about the now-deceased Doss, in which he and some of the seventy-five men he saved confirm bits of the improbable story we’ve just seen and it makes for a lovely, understated coda.

But I found the movie more than a little disappointing for what it did not do, which was depict Doss as a man of a specific faith that must, by its very existence in a believer’s life, transcend any secular notion of redemption or honor.

That is, it does not really seek to understand the one really important thing one would expect from a director who has previously worn his religiosity so explicitly–one might say garrulously–on his sleeve.

Namely, why religion?

And why this particular religion?

That Doss is a man of faith is pounded home, you might say, religiously. But the source of his faith is shown to be not divine inspiration but, via a flashback that comes near the end of the film, a mere extension of an “event” of the sort which is common enough to have led men in a host of different directions (one such man, Bill Clinton, even went into politics). In other words, Doss’s particular conviction is shown as his own choice and a choice of convenience at that–an option among therapies that one can forgive a Virginia hillbilly for not recognizing as a crutch in a time and place where shrinks were in short supply.

As any believer knows, though, your choice is only half the equation. The part where God reaches out His hand (which must be at least as familiar to Seventh Day Adventists and Opus Dei Catholics, as it is to, say, Baptists like myself) to offer the sinner a redemption he could not otherwise hope to find, is curiously missing.

Back when Hollywood was principally in the business of telling stories, they knew better. Watch Sergeant York, Ben Hur, The Robe, The Nun’s Story (the latter three made by Jews who escaped the Holocaust, Ben Hur by a man whose family did not) and, whatever one thinks of them, they all acknowledge the primacy of the hero’s (or heroine’s) conversion. Having had a dust-up with your old man in your teenage years, however horrific the details, does not explain an unarmed man’s willingness to defy an order to retreat from one of the most hellish battlefields man has ever created on God’s earth, so that he can rescue the wounded.

For that, you probably need to have seen the light.

Obviously, the light itself can led different men down different paths. Desmond Doss won his Medal of Honor for saving men, Alvin York won his for killing them. My father, who hailed from the same part of the woods as Doss’s western Virginia and York’s east Tennessee, was sent to a firefighting unit (a more normal assignment for C.O.’s, even those who, like my dad, had their status rejected by the draft board) and shortened his time after VJ day by volunteering for psychiatric experiments. Then again, he didn’t really see the light until the late sixties when he rejoined the faith and wound up becoming a missionary.

So it goes. But one thing all three men could have told you is that the story of a Christian without reference to his specifically Christian conversion is a story with a hole in its center. Without that, Hacksaw Ridge is just a well-made war movie and amounts to little more than Mel Gibson’s self-conscious (and, to all appearances, successful) attempt to get back in the good graces of a Hollywood which seems now willing to forgive his anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, et al, just so long as he doesn’t pretend those crazy Christians are motivated by their Christianity (as opposed to seeking “comfort” within it)–that any acts of heroism they may have committed are coincidental to their faith, as opposed to a feature.

Hacksaw Ridge is hardly without value–if Casey Affleck really is the competition for Best Actor, and really is going to be bypassed for his Clintonesque sins, my feelings would not be hurt if Garfield won it instead.

It’s just not what it might have been if Mel Gibson had found forgiveness for his own real sins and put his heart back in his chest where any true believer knows it belongs.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Holding Patterns and Subterranean Connections Generate Mild Disturbances in My Brain…I Strive to Move Forward)

Rio Grande DIrector: John Ford (1951)

American Sniper Director: Clint Eastwood (2014)

Sergeant York DIrector: Howard Hawks (1941)

Zero Dark Thirty Director: Kathryn Bigelow (2012)

RIOGRANDE1

This sort of thing usually starts innocently enough.

I’ve been taking a break from Ford. For me, that means going maybe three months without watching any of his movies for the umpteenth time. So this week I got back around to Rio Grande, the austere, black-and-white finishing touch on the Cavalry Trilogy, made on the quick as the price for getting Republic Pictures’ famously penurious Herb Yates to back The Quiet Man, which Ford had been nursing for years, if not decades.

As always, when I’ve been trying to push Ford to one side, half-convincing myself that some of those lean, mean, craftsman-helmed westerns from the Golden Age that make the genre so bottomless (recent go-to’s include Rawhide, Yellow Sky, The Law and Jake Wade….one could go on) are so good Ford can’t really be all that much better, I’m shocked all over again once I let him back into the center.

Rio Grande has to run fast and hard to make it into Ford’s top fifteen…one of his “jobs of work.” But, as always the jump from everybody else’s top drawer to Ford’s middle ground is dramatic, like going from a set of finely wrought short stories to a great middle-length novel plucked from a shelf full of even greater novels. I know there are people who think short stories are a higher, purer form than novels and all I can say is, well, everybody has a right to be wrong.

But even as I was noticing new elements in Ford’s way with narrative, all the obvious things he chooses to leave out not merely to speed things along in the usual style or even to evade obviousness but to validate the breadth of his canvas, to effectively say, “I can go anywhere with this and even if I don’t, it’ll feel like I might have,” my rock ‘n’ roll mind, forever at work, suddenly churned up the notion that Ford was Bob Dylan (stark, jagged, dissociative, barbed, weird)  and Howard Hawks was the Beatles (clever, puckish, organized, forthright, orderly). Or, if you like, Dylan and the Beatles were Ford and Hawks brought forward.

Now, you can kick something like that around until you kick it to death or you can leave it alone and let it sit until it either hangs together or falls part under persistent intellectual mastication disorder. For now, I’m leaving it alone (though the notion of Ford and Hawks as twinned engines pulling in opposite directions has been on my mind for a while), but since I finally made it to a theater at a time when American Sniper was playing (third try, long story, my own stupid fault, let’s move along) and since, in my heart of hearts, I suspect Clint Eastwood would be John Ford if he possibly could and that maybe he hasn’t even quite given up on the idea, I can’t leave it entirely alone.

Not with the world on fire and everything.

AMERICANSNIPER1

I had some awareness of the “controversy” surrounding American Sniper and any relation it might have to how we’re all supposed-to-feel, are-feeling, might-feel, do-feel, can’t-feel, don’t-dare-feel, don’t-dare-not-feel about the “Iraq War” or the “Second Iraq War” or the “War on Terror” or “The Mistake” or whatever that particular phase of our quarter-century and counting conflict in the Middle East that happened to coincide with Chris Kyle’s tours of duty is being called this week.

I also had a strong sense that the controversy was breaking down along the usual lines.

You know how it works: the Right believes we’ve finally got a pro-American Iraq War film on our hands and the people are proving their support for the war that was by flocking to the box office, while the Left believes the Right just might have a dreadful point so let’s all go to our respective corners and come out shadow-boxing until our arms get tired and weasel-honor is satisfied. It’s all okay.

I mean, as long as nobody threatens the pre-existing assumptions.

Don’t worry. No one has.

Look. Ford always matters. A decade or so back, the great critic Molly Haskell wrote about fretting over a showing of The Searchers organized for inner-city kids. Living in a world where lots of film school profs at elite universities report kids being bored by Ford or even (per Tag Gallagher) getting angry and walking out of class, she worried they wouldn’t like it, wouldn’t get it, wouldn’t connect, etc.

Her fears were, perhaps unsurprisingly, unfounded. Turned out kids who had been raised on Biggie and Tupac got Ethan Edwards, Chief Scar and ten-thousand-year-old male honor codes quite well. I suspect they would have had no trouble understanding Rio Grande, either, with its main theme of a single mother willing to go any length to protect her only child from a world defined by violence.

Still, it might have only been serendipitous that I started thinking specifically about Ford and Hawks while watching Ford during the week I happened to catch American Sniper (and, incidentally, also happened to catch Sniper star/producer Bradley Cooper and screenwriter Jason Hall on Charlie Rose, where Hall said the whole thing clicked during an early conversation where they thought of it specifically in terms of a western).

Then again, it might be a case of the bleeding obvious. I mean, the subconscious isn’t necessarily subversive or indirect or freely-associative just because it lies beneath. It might just be trying to tell you something. In this case, probably something like, “Hey, you’ve been trying to see American Sniper since it came out and you’ll probably actually make it this week, doofus, so it’s not exactly a stretch to assume that this is going to be a modern version of Sergeant York, which is one of the two attempts (Red River, which Ford helped edit, being the other) that Hawks made at being Ford-ian, so think about linking all that up will you?”

SGTYORK

Seriously, I was prepared to leave it alone, subconscious or no subconscious, but then American Sniper turned out to be, at least on the surface, a pretty straightforward modern take on Sergeant York.

Clint Eastwood trying to be John Ford by imitating Howard Hawks imitating John Ford.

So–o-o-o?

Well, like Sergeant York, American Sniper is a well-crafted-not-quite-great film about a war hero. Like Chris Kyle, Alvin York was a southerner raised on religion and hunting. Like York, Kyle was a freakishly superb shot and a bit of a roustabout. Both movies make a stab at tying each man’s heroics to the particulars of his upbringing and the moral conclusions each man reached (in their respective movies but, on the evidence, also in life) were markedly similar.

Killing is terrible.

The only thing worse is watching other men kill your friends because you failed to stop them. So both movies are fundamentally about men trying to define their honor through religion, courtship rituals, family loyalty and, finally, the cauldron of warfare.

There’s one big difference, of course.

Alvin York fought in an actual war, one which had the only object actual wars ever have, which is to take and hold all the ground that’s necessary for your enemy to give up hope.

Chris Kyle, who likely saw even more (and more intense) combat, fought in a shadow war, a sort of kabuki-theater-of-the-absurd where he was continually asked to supply the purpose the culture he volunteered to represent and the political leaders he volunteered to serve denied him with malice aforethought.

The sensible question to ask about Eastwood’s film then, is this: Does it capture what its like to fight in such a war.

In short, for any flaws it might have (and it certainly has them) it does this one essential thing superbly.

Whether or not they might have shared my experience of passing a television in the lobby of the theater on the way out that was tuned to CNN and showing the headline “Obama Asks for War Powers Against ISIS,” in front of Wolf Blitzer’s perpetually benumbed expression, anyone who emerges from this film thinking gee, I want a piece of that, is either seriously delusional or psychotic.

Because, in truth, any similarity to Sergeant York is superficial, just as any similarity between York and a Ford film is superficial.

1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty

A much better comparison is between Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty, a film which raised similar conversations (and similar evasions) on both sides two years back, though the roles were rather neatly reversed, thanks to director Kathryn Bigelow being perceived as reliably Liberal in the same way that Clint Eastwood is perceived as reliably Conservative.

However much Chris Kyle had in common with Alvin York, in life or on film, he had/has a much deeper bond with Zero Dark Thirty‘s heroine, Jessica Chastain’s “Maya,” a fictional character based on a real life CIA operative.

He ends by understanding what she understands to begin with:

Shadow Wars produce Shadow Warriors….and Shadow Results.

That’s what all those various pronouncements of “victory” that have linked Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama really mean.

Nothing.

Well, that, and anybody who serves will be forced to play the Shadow Game one way or another.

Whether that’s what Eastwood meant, or even what Bigelow meant, is impossible to tell. Whatever they ever have or ever will talk about, it never has and never will be about that. War is not an option for either our culture or our political leadership. Neither is Peace.

That’s the difference between the No-Peace-No-Honor America we now all inhabit and the one Ford, the old-fashioned, out-of-step throwback, alone among Hollywood directors in forever looking backwards to better see around the corner, knew could so easily come to pass.

For what its worth, there’s a $300 million smash at the box office, which, knowingly or unknowingly, is carrying the same basic message all those “anti-war” flops carried.

We’re all Shadow Warriors now.

And even Clint Eastwood knows, as we prepare to retake some piece of Iraq yet again so we can give it back yet again, that we will win no more wars.

Which means there’s only one way for this week to end around here…a long way past the Beatles or even Dylan. Past everyone mentioned here. Except, you know, John Ford.