March 27, 2012

Cine-Smackdown: #1-#10

All done! Just one more cine-smackdown to go -- and the hardest one of all, for sure. How do you deal with this line-up!? But I've played this game nine times now, and so this has to be just as ruthless. It's the only way to get it done.

1. Citizen Kane 
2. The Godfather
3. Casablanca
4. Raging Bull
5. Singin' in the Rain
6. Gone with the Wind
7. Lawrence of Arabia
8. Schindler's List
9. Vertigo
10. The Wizard of Oz

Of these ten, the only one I hadn't seen before was Lawrence of Arabia.

Of these ten, which would I move further up the list?
Oof. Well, this is where this gets tricky, because they can't go any further up the list than this. It's funny, I was just arguing against quantifying art. Hmm. Is it cheating to say The Wizard of Oz, since it's at the bottom of these? I arguably consider that film more of a classic than the three directly above it, and that its place in American cinema outranks those others.

Of these ten, which would I get rid of?
There's a couple of ideas here. Technically, Lawrence of Arabia has no business being on a list of best American films since its director, main actor, screenwriter (well, one of them) and production company are all European. That's not to say that it's not a good film, but it's a little meandering even when compared without its heritage in mind. I wasn't as taken by Casablanca or Raging Bull as I was with the others, so I might move those, too. But for argument's sake, let's say Lawrence gets banished to the desert.

Who in these movies do I want as my best friend?
I think it's obvious that in this situation you choose The Wizard of Oz. A legion of straw, tin and cowardly buddies! Also, Melanie in Gone with the Wind: loyal to the end.

Who in these movies do I want to have my back in a bar fight?
Vito Corleone (The Godfather) would have it outsourced, but it'd get the job done. But he and Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull) will spill a little too much blood, even for the situation. Something makes me want to say Cosmo Brown (Singin' in the Rain) since he'd dance-confuse my enemies and then pack a punch.

Who in these movies is your worst frienemy?
Scarlett O'Hara (Gone with the Wind) is the classic frienemy. She basically inspired Mean Girls. End of story.

Who do I take home to Mom?
When I look at this list, the men options are mostly tortured, lonely, egomaniacs or Nazis. I don't know if my mom would want me dating a scarecrow, either. God, it leaves me with Don Lockwood (Singin' in the Rain) -- but boy, what an option!

You're going on a date with these movies. Who do you agree to meet for coffee but never call again?
Lawrence of Arabia: too much sand in my ass. The food was good, though. I have to make that Moroccan winter squash stew again.

Who do you agree to meet for coffee, and then say you'll call but never do?
Casablanca: I would just end up saying something hurtful, like how I didn't give a damn.

Who do you agree to meet for coffee, and then not show up?
Raging Bull. No explanation necessary.

Who do you meet for a first date, ends up staying the night and makes you breakfast in the morning?
Singin' in the Rain would even make me a big star!

Who do you meet for a first date, ends up staying the night and then leaves in the morning without saying goodbye ... and steals your favorite sweater?
Citizen Kane -- and our torrid affair would show up on the front page of the Inquirer. I swear to God, if he calls me a "singer"...

What other questions would you have asked about these movies? I'd love more ideas! Leave your thoughts, reactions, passionate defenses and harsh critiques in the comments!

#1: Citizen Kane

And finally we made it to the top. Citizen Kane. Orson Welles was 25 years old when he filmed this masterpiece of world cinema -- and as Bret so succinctly put it, "how old were YOU when you filmed your first best movie of all time?" Well, I was 24 when I started this blog and I'm 27 now. I can't hardly believe that, but it's true. And luckily, I don't think my best work is behind me -- but I can't imagine topping Citizen Kane as a writer, actor and director, and though Welles had an amazing career, he hit his peak at 25. The film premiered just before his 26th birthday. Wow. I spent my 26th birthday overserved at some dive bar, but that's neither here nor there. Onward!

Company: this came up quickly as I was called off from rehearsal, but several friends still made it! Bret, who cried at the end of this movie when he was a weird little 8th grader ("All he wanted was his childhood!"); Joe, art hound; Hannah, film fanatic; Matt, always up for cinematic adventure; Kecia, sunstroked from the weird March warmth and guzzling water; Ali, aloe-dispensing nurse; Paul, newly engaged but without his wonderful partner Ryan tonight; and Katie, once she got off work.

Cuisine: it was the last go around, so we made it a feast! Chips and salsa, M&Ms, several cheeses (hard and soft), salami and basil, fennel crackers, white grapes -- and Ali's raspberry almond cupcakes with roses on top. Themed! A fantastic and filling way to end this project.

Okay, two minutes in and we're treated to a shot like this? Oh my eff.

Citizen Kane topped this list the first time it was compiled in 1998, and again in 2007. It's just the ultimate combination of elements, and broke many conventions along the way. Where to begin? To start, Welles completely eschewed the idea of linear narrative, beginning near the end of the story and then doubling back to tell the story of the life of Charles Foster Kane (played remarkably and at various points throughout his life by Oscar nominee Welles), an egomaniac newspaper tycoon who made news and was news. Movies do this all the time now (I'd love to go back and count how many of them are on this list!) but Kane marked one of the first times this was done so successfully.

Now is as good a time as any to point out something Bret mentioned: the major plot hole in the movie, which is that Kane's last word ("Rosebud") is muttered in solitude. No one is in the room to hear him say it, but the film explores the world's fascination with this cryptic final message and the search for its meaning. But I think this in fact isn't a mistake: by the end of his life, Kane's private life is so public that even words spoken to no one are still heard. Perhaps that's the meaning of citizen here: the word really means "a member of a state" -- and Kane may have meant for his life to be his own, but by bringing himself into the public eye so readily and vigorously in his youth, he could never escape public scrutiny, even on his death bed.

A large portion of the film is told as though in a comic book: the pace of it is extraordinary, and montage is put to great use. I love the two-minute scene in which sixteen years of his marriage to his first wife (Ruth Warrick) is shown disintegrating in a series of vignettes over breakfast. It's quick snippets of dialogue, and only hair and wardrobe really suggest the passage of time. There's also the brilliant "News on the March" sequence near the beginning, after Kane's death, acting as a sort of public eulogy, a cinematic obituary, with a verging-on-cartoonish voiceover. You sort of don't know what you're watching, or if the whole film will be like this -- and then bam: lights up on the screening room where the film was playing. Meta!

The film also made incredible use of deep focus, thanks to the incredible cinematographer Gregg Toland. In shots like the one above, every plane of view is in focus, even the young Kane playing outside in the snow. This is not a simple technique to achieve, and requires a lot of precision and firm decisions. Here, Welles had to stage what was happening in the foreground, and time it exactly with what he wanted to have happening in the background. While wikipedia-ing deep focus, I was glad to see many great films, including many of this list, that make extensive use of this technique. (Shout out to the only Harry Potter film listed, my favorite: Prisoner of Azkaban. I will defend that movie to the grave.)

The young Kane is essentially sold by his parents to a banker, Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), who acts as his guardian and trustee. When Kane inherits his fortunes at the age of 25, he reimagines the New York Inquirer, steals all the best journalists from other news organizations, and generally lowers the quality standard of the news he's printing, resorting to flashy headlines and sensationalized scandals instead of real news. The film documents his rise to fame and glory, the disintegration of his first marriage, and his campaign for governor.

His first marriage ends when his wife discovers he's having an affair with the "singer" Susan Alexander (a weirdly horrible but perfect Dorothy Comingore), something he'd probably secretly wish could stay private but ends up on the front page of his own papers. Their relationship isn't much better -- in fact, it's probably worse than the first, given that Kane pushes his wife into an opera career when she clearly doesn't have the chops. After all, she's a "singer."

The great irony here is that Susan Alexander doesn't particularly want a public life, yet she marries Kane and is forced into one for his personal gain. He doesn't want to be made a laughing stock by his untalented wife, but rather than allow her to step out of the limelight, he pushes her to near-total exhaustion. She wasn't built to be a public citizen the way he was, and their marriage crumbles because, well, it's lonely at the top, Charlie.

His whole life, as the film portrays it, is framed in his pursuit of wealth and glory, but by the end, after two failed marriages and without a real friend, Kane is left alone at Xanadu, the unfinished pleasure palace named after a similar one built by Kublai Khan in the 13th century, with all of his stuff. This extended mirror shot, visualizing Kane's solitude, is something of a cliche today, but notice the deep focus! That's crazy.

Rosebud is in there somewhere.

Well, for those of you who don't know the twist about Rosebud at the end, I won't spoil it for you like it was spoiled for me as a child by this Peanuts comic strip. Seriously, how could I have known?! Needless to say, it's one of the great twist endings of all time, summarizing the entire moral argument of the film in one image. It's genius.

So let's see... Sensationalized news. Public scandal. Tortured childhood. The pursuit of wealth. Rags to riches. Failed marriages. Spiritual poverty. Unsolved mystery. Mediocre artistic talent. What isn't American about this movie? They got this one right, folks. It's no accident that Citizen Kane ranks as the masterpiece of modern cinema. Is it perfect? It's close, maybe as close as they come. It certainly has a lot to recommend, and very little with which to disagree. Do you love Citizen Kane, or do you think it's overrated? Does it deserve this #1 spot, twice over?

YOU GUYS. I made it to the end! A little under 27 months later!

Well, now what?? A cine-smackdown for the top ten on this list -- then a retrospective or two -- then maybe a poll about what to do for the next project! Thank you all SO much for reading, it's been fantastic to see all these movies. But I'll wait to wax about this for the retrospectives. On!

March 13, 2012

#2: The Godfather

Francis Ford Coppola may have done something for American cinema that no one had done before him. He redefined it. It seems to me that the more I talk to people about movies the more I hear the phrases "old movie" and "new movie," but I can't manage to pinpoint where the switch occurred. After watching The Godfather once again, I think maybe it happened in 1972. The French new wave was underway in America already and cinema was certainly changing with the times but something about this movie changed how we all think about how it should be done. This period (roughly 1967 to 1975) is maybe my favorite roughly-decade in all of cinematic history, and this movie's a major reason why.

Company: now, we hosted a fantastic Italian feast when we watched The Godfather Part II for the blog last May, but that time we watched both films, in order to get the context for the second. Not everyone made it through -- it's a big commitment -- but lots of friends were more than willing to play again! They included Matt, the only survivor of both movies from the last Corleone blog; Katie, his mervie-lerving gurlfurnd; and Kecia, who is really not a fan of Apollonia Corleone. Add to this the newly engaged Paul and Ryan, Kecia's beau Jeremy and dear sweet Adam and it was a full living room!

Cuisine: spaghetti ("spaghett!") and meatballs, Caesar salad, garlic bread, wine to beat the dickens, and even cannoli from some place in St. Paul! Bene.

I have to say first: this film and its two sequels are all adapted from one novel by Mario Puzo from 1969 and I'd highly recommend it, even if you've seen the films. It's fantastic. Okay, I said my piece.

Both films begin the same way: with the head of the Corleone family listening to someone asking for interference. In the second film, Michael as the Don listens to bribery, but in simpler post-WWII times, the Don Vito Corleone (Oscar winner Marlon Brando in one of cinema's great performances) listens to a man whose daughter has been abused. He wants justice, and knows his daughter's godfather is the man to bring it. This scene sets up the calm and unflinching nature of Vito Corleone as well as the scope of his power. Ask him for someone and it shall be done, not by him of course, but by one of his hired men.

This all takes place at his daughter Connie's (Talia Shire) wedding, where we are introduced to the entire Corleone clan -- the Don and his wife, his three sons (Oscar nominees James Caan and Al Pacino, and the wonderful but overlooked John Cazale) and his adopted son and consigliere Tom Hagen (Oscar nominee Robert Duvall) -- in one incredible half-hour-long sequence. That's one-sixth of the movie right there.

Oh and I forgot. The outsider of the family: Michael's girlfriend and someday fiance Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). It's easy to forget her because everyone in the family does at some point, even Michael. The second film chronicles their marriage but the first begins with the young lovers with an insurmountable obstacle. Michael can't let Kay know the extent of his family's business without putting her in jeopardy. Does he keep it from her to protect her, or perhaps because he's a chauvinist asshole who believes she couldn't understand? The movie honestly doesn't answer this, but Kay is nevertheless kept outside of the story, much as we the audience are.

Leave the gun, take the cannoli.

So it usually comes as a surprise to us that such brutal and fantastically executed crime happens right before our eyes, as in this scene where we've been lulled into complacency as an audience with talk of cannoli and then... blam. Coppola doesn't spend a lot of time explaining, he just launches us head first into this world's logic and expects us to keep up. We can't ever quite catch up to him, much as the police are never quite able to catch up to the Corleones (unless they've been bribed not to). I love that in the shot above, the Statue of Liberty is in the background -- liberty and justice, no doubt -- and even more importantly, that her back is turned to us. Don't look now.

The film follows the family's exploits and the eventual transfer of power from the aging Don to his most trusted son Michael, who returns to the country after his murder of a drug lord and a corrupt police captain. Pacino is amazingly only 5' 6" -- this wouldn't be important except that his tiny frame has never been so prominently featured in a film, nor has it ever in my knowledge been so menacing as it is here. All three supporting Oscar nominees from this film (Duvall, Pacino and Caan) lost to Joel Grey for his performance in Cabaret, but they might have won in any other year. Plus, this is not a movie that needed Oscars to be lauded for all of movie history to hear. Let that be a lesson to you, Harvey Weinstein.

One of my favorite shots in the whole film is this one, in which the aging Don warns his son against further violence. The shot almost tricks the viewer visually into believing that the men are looking each other in the face, but eye contact is never made here, and unfortunately for the Corleone's, Vito's warnings are too little, too late for a man whose elder brother and Sicilian wife were both murdered by the mob. The sequence at the end which splices Michael's revenge with the baptism of his own son is one of many phenomenal achievements in editing, contrasting the beginning and ending of life, the birth of innocence and the death of compromise. Michael's ruthlessness knows no bounds.

He even goes to great lengths to convince his sister's husband that he has forgiven him for abusing her, but justice is swift. As swift as a kick to a windshield.

This blog entry didn't function as most of them have, as a recap of events. I've seen this movie more times than most on the list, and I'm not only anticipating the ending, but also fully aware that this movie will continue to expose new, exciting discoveries to me as I see it again and again. But there are some things I will never know, just as Kay (and the audience) is shut out of the private conversations we so long to eavesdrop on. She can't know, and if the second film is any indication, maybe it's better if she doesn't. But boy, it makes for a thrilling story. I have to read this book again!

Only one left. There's no way that's even possible, but it really really is. Citizen Kane. That's it. I will have seen all 100 movies. Then... onto a new project? I suppose!