Friday, 15 February 2013

How to talk about movies that you haven't seen - Volume I: Citizen Kane

We've all been there. In the middle of a discussion about a very famous and important movie that you should have seen, but you haven't.

Let's face it. We lead busy lives. Watching a movie takes a lot of time. And, often, watching a classic movie takes a lot of brain power. There's a lot of pressure, too, watching a movie that's generally beloved and respected. Sometimes it's better to watch a lightweight movie. Or an episode of a television series.

Or five episodes of a television series. Mmm, Bunheads.

But that puts us in the awkward position, when people we're talking to start discussing, say, The Godfather, of having not seen the movie.

And thus we have two choices. We can either tell the truth, say we haven't seen The Godfather, and spend the rest of the discussion alternatively being berated for not having seen SUCH A CLASSIC MOVIE!!! and being told to go and watch said movie AT ONCE. Or...we can lie. Pretend we've seen The Godfather. Use the accumulated knowledge floating around in popular culture, and a zillion references from The Simpsons, to flub our way through the conversation. Peppered with vague comments like, "Oh, yeah, it's such a classic!", of course.

And this is where I come in.

I have been flubbing my way through these kinds of discussions all my life. Even in university film classes. Trust me, it's easier than it sounds.

Don't get me wrong. I love movies. I love watching them, I love talking about them, and for awhile there I even dreamed of making them. And even when I haven't seen a movie that I happen to be pretending I have seen, I intend to watch it eventually. I'm just time poor.

And really addicted to television shows.

Mainly Bunheads.

But I truly believe that you don't have to have seen a movie to be able to talk about it. Really, you just need to know three things: the basic plot of the movie; general pieces of information about cast, director, etc; and where the film fits in the history of cinema.

I'm not encouraging cheating. I'm encouraging research. If you don't have time to watch the movie, you surely have a few minutes to do a bit of internetting. Right?

Ok, you may not have time for too much internetting. So I'll do the work for you.

Let's start with a movie frequently cited as the greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane. The first time I saw Citizen Kane, I hated it (and the guy sitting next to me slept through it). The second time, I thought that it wasn't as long as I remembered it being the first time around. A definite improvement. But the third time, I finally got it. It was beautifully shot! It had a great plot! It had Orson Welles! ORSON WELLES!

Now, you many not want to give it three chances the way that I did. You may not even want to give it one chance. Or you may not have time to give it one chance. It's a loooong movie (119 minutes).

Fear not, dear reader. Here's my version of all you need to know.

The basic plot

Here be spoilers...don't read this section if you want to keep the plot a surprise.

Though, seriously, if you don't know by now who Rosebud is, then I'm guessing you've never watched The Simpsons, Family Guy or a ton of other television shows and movies that parody Citizen Kane. Please tell me where your rock is and how I can apply to live under it. I need a hideout.

So Charles Foster Kane, a millionaire and newspaper tycoon, is on his deathbed. His last word is "Rosebud". The rest of the movie sifts through his life, through reporters interviewing people from Kane's life to try and figure out just who "Rosebud" is. Dude was a bit of a douchebag, treated the people in his life badly, and got rich, got poor(ish) again, and died alone. Typical tycoon, yes?

Rosebud is the name of a sleigh he owned as a child, seen first in a scene early in the movie where young Charles plays in the snow before being parted from his parents, and then seen again at the end of the movie when Kane's house is being packed up, and some dudes throw it in an incinerator. So basically, to quote the movie, "He was a man who got everything and then again lost everything. Rosebud must've been something he lost or something he wanted but never got".


General information

Orson Welles produced, co-wrote, directed and starred as the titular character in Citizen Kane. He was only 25 at the time. Way to be young and successful, Mr Welles.

There's also a ton of awesome camera stuff in this movie. The camera angles look up at powerful characters (Kane especially) and down at weaker characters. They even dug trenches to put the cameras in to give them a lower angle for some scenes. Welles and the cinematographer Gregg Toland pioneered 'deep focus', which in layman's terms means that the lens allows everything in a deep shot to be in focus. Imagine a long dinner table, with the camera shooting from the head down the table. With deep focus the foreground, middle area and background would all be in focus, unlike shallow focus where the foreground would be in focus but the background would be out of focus (blurry), or vice versa. There's other stuff too, but them's the basic things you need to know.

The story is told in a non-linear fashion. That basically means that instead of beginning-middle-end being the story structure, it's told in flashbacks from individual people's points of view. Sounds normal nowadays, but at the time it was revolutionary. Especially the multiple narrators bit.  The characters are classified as 'unreliable narrators', kiddies, cos the story is relying on their memories. See how much you're learning?

The character of Kane is believed to be based on many men, but mainly William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper tycoon at the time. Hearsty was not happy about the movie at all, and even tried to buy the film in order to destroy it. You're So Vain, anyone?

Also, Kane's house is called "Xanadu", which is awesome. Mainly cos I imagine Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly roller skating/dancing under neon lights somewhere in the house.

Where in cinematic history does this movie fit?


As well as being nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning for Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Citizen Kane was innovative and influential (and continues to be influential) in its cinematography and narrative structure. See section above, basically. It was a box office failure at the time of its' release, despite critics raving about it, but has become one of the most beloved and admired films of all time since then. It was released in 1941, and still looks awesome. And it's commentary on the media and those who run it still applies to the media today, which is pretty cool too. Does that make the media timeless? Hmm.

It's pretty important, as far as movies go. It's nice to look at as well, which always helps. Personally, I feel that it's a movie that sticks with you, whether it is because you remember the movie and its details and think about them for years to come, or because of the sheer amount of references to it in popular culture. But a word if warning. This breakdown will help you talk about Citizen Kane, for sure, but you probably won't get a billion snowglobe-related sight gags unless you see the movie.

So see the movie.

When you have some free time. Of course.

No pressure.

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