Tag Archives: citizen kane

Shame (2011)

Director: Steve McQueen

Writers: Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Behari

Expressionism & Realism

I don’t really know where to start with this film since it is so beautifully layered. It’s hard to believe that it’s only Mr. McQueen’s second feature. The level of accomplishment and the confidence that exudes from each frame is astonishing. Perhaps it’s what Orson Welles attributed to the artistic cinematic success of his first two features: the brash ignorance of film technique married to the proficiency and success in another visual art medium (theatre for Welles, photography for McQueen).  The resulting Shame is the type of film and the kind of film-making you wish was more popular or acceptable but, at the same time, understand why it is not. With it, Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender and, to a lesser degree, Carey Mulligan have crafted an exquisite piece of film art that blends realism and expressionist subjectivity (like Mr. Welles particularly did in his first film, Citizen Kane)  to powerful, resonant effect.

On the surface, the subject of this film is Brandon’s (Michael Fassbender) sex addiction, but this seems more of a categorizing and way of promoting the film. Sure, Brandon has a sex compulsion to the point of it controlling the way he lives his life. The sex is not wanton or erotic. Like all addictions it leads Brandon to loneliness and isolation. His apartment is stark, his nakedness spartan and fitting in to the minimalist aesthetic; his job is nondescript and his habits are those requiring solitude (Internet pornography and masturbation).

The loneliness is drawn out by the expressionist qualities of the film. The opening scenes in Brandon’s apartment are especially expressionist with frigid and sterile blues and greys. The opening shots of Brandon lying on his bed make his face skeletal and his form dismembered in the way the sheets cover his body. Brandon’s clothing is plain and muted (pale glen plaid coat, pale grey scarf, pale blue shirts). His state of mind is as washed away and as dead as the environment he lives in. It’s not until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves in that colour disrupts his world. Upon coming home to discover Sissy in his apartment, Brandon picks up her purple-pink boa with the end of a bat rather than with his hands. Red is the colour that becomes most explicitly linked to Sissy (her Annie Hall-esque hat and her lipstick as she croons “Ney York, New York” ).

The suggestion of the colour is not as a contrast to Brandon’s sterility in terms of vibrancy, but instead it suggests danger and sex. Sissy is, of course, a danger to herself as well as to Brandon’s mode of living. Toward the end of the film she attempts suicide and stains Brandon’s environment and his self with blood. Just prior to this Brandon’s compulsion for sexual anonymity has taken him into a gay sex club which is awash with expressionist red. Brandon’s sexual desire and frustration is at its highest, most dangerous point. It could be that red, already associated with Sissy, is being used again to connect Brandon’s compulsion to his desire for and sexual frustration toward his sister. Mr. McQueen’s targeted use of expressionism in lighting and colour draw attention to Brandon’s character and his motivations.

The realism of the film is brought to the fore in Mr. McQueen’s favoured  use of  a single-camera set-up (static, pans, and tracking shots) and long takes. In Hunger (2008), this technique was used most notably in the scene between Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and the priest (Liam Cunningham) — one take, one camera, no camera moves. Shame doesn’t use it to such an extreme, but when it is used (such as Brandon’s morning routine or his stalking through his own apartment while Sissy is with his boss in the bedroom or the attempted sexual encounter between Brandon and Marianne) it leaves the audience as transfixed as the camera is on what is happening. I can easily see many viewers being uncomfortable with something so stationary (which is partly the point). There’s no illusion of action, there’s only the person or people in the frame and their sense of confinement and, of course, the power of Mr. Fassbender’s fierce performance. Holding to a single camera and a single take allows Mr. McQueen to take full advantage of his lead actor’s ability to weep out, to sweat out, to excrete the essence of his character through his body, his mouth, and his eyes. How Mr. Fassbender was ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (AMPAS) for an oscar nomination is ridiculous.

Shame is a virtuoso example of cinema. It is crafted with confidence and complexity (I haven’t even gotten into the film’s main themes) and uses the full repertoire of cinematic syntax: camera work, montage, light & colour, performance, and sound & music (which I also haven’t dealt with). As long as Steve McQueen continues directing films (and especially if he continues his collaboration with Michael Fassbender) then the type of film that should be more popular and should be seen by adult/grown-up/intellectually mature audiences will continue to be made. It’s the type of film and film-making that demands our support.

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Overdose: Orson Welles, Part Two

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

On first impression, The Magnificent Ambersons was a real surprise. I came into the film on the back of watching Citizen Kane for the first time in decades, but that was not what was influencing me the most in my expectations. Instead, I was expecting a film more tonally along the lines of the film it probably most heavily influenced: Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).  The opening of the film, while clearly emulated in style (and Wes Anderson is nothing if not at least a cinematic stylist) by Mr. Anderson, offers the first hints that Mr. Welles’s film will not strike the breezy irony that Mr. Anderson’s films have become so identified with. Mr. Welles’s voice over narration is sombre and serious in a way that Alec Baldwin’s deadpan delivery is not, and neither is it leavened by pop orchestration of a “Hey Jude” cover. Mr. Welles is offering a history and a context for the eponymous  family rather than just the history of  the individuals that make it up. Both, however, do serve their respective films very well. Still, with the comic missteps of Eugene Morgan and his double-bass, I was still on the path of mis-expectation. As the film unfolds, it slowly and gently pulls the viewer into its sad morality tale. Then, with signature deep focus shots and long takes, the viewer is compelled to view the downward spiral of the Ambersons from the outside. As the title directs, they are magnificent and clearly separated from the ordinary citizens who are, of course, the diegetic audience while we, the cinema audience, remain even further removed. Made immediately after Citizen KaneThe Magnificent Ambersons is clearly its very close relative, but they are not twins. If Kane is a hybrid of European expressionism and good ol’ American realism, Ambersons is, to me, a study in Bazin’s cinematic realism. Narratively, Kane is fractured and subjective; it’s a story told in a series of flashbacks and flashforwards from six narrative points-of-view. These narratives, while presented pretty chronologically, are bookended by sequences that are highly expressionistic with noir-esque cinematography, horror film allusions, dramatic use of music, and employment of distortion and canted angles. The Magnificent Ambersons on the other hand is detached in its perspective and with those long takes (the final ball of the Ambersons is such a beautiful use of camera and set working together) and the deep focus shots it asks the audience to coldly observe. While George is a young boy and young man we partake in the expectation the townsfolk have of relishing his comeuppance, but when it does arrive the citizens have forgotten and we, now the only audience remaining, are left with ambivalence as we watch not what is expressed, but what is being reported to us.

A lot has been written and said about how Mr. Welles, through circumstances mostly out of his control — the Pearl Harbour attack, for one — The Magnificent Ambersons that has been left with us is not the film its director would have delivered (about 40 minutes is missing from Mr. Welles’s original cut). However, precisely because these losses have been so lamented, Mr. Welles’s intent is easy to place in the viewer’s mind and the film’s original spirit can be evoked, especially if watched shortly after a viewing of Citizen Kane.

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Overdose: Orson Welles, Part One ~ Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941)

A Note on Overdoses:

The idea is a blatant theft of the Filmspotting podcast’s Marathons. Every once in a while I will either gorge myself on or shame myself into (usually) a director’s work that I love or want to love. I thought the first Overdose was going to by Jean-Luc Godard (as it states on the Coming Attractions) page. However, while I did watch four Godard films over my winter break in January, I still have three more on my list to watch. And so, the honour of being the subject of my very first Overdose goes to the man who may just be responsible for the existence of the American Auteur and whose work is the greatest influence on many of my favourite films and film-makers: Orson Welles.

Not by coincidence, the class I am teaching this semester is opening our screenings with Welles’s first two films. I had seen Citizen Kane many years ago, but The Magnificent Ambersons is new to me. The whole experience (from discussing the basics of shot making and cinematography to watching the films) thus far has been thrilling. I am so glad that students approached me to open this course and grateful to the students preceding them that inspired me to strive for more. I’m also very lucky that I work at a high school that has a curriculum flexible enough to allow students to request courses that meet their own academic interests.

Now, on to Citizen Kane

It is perhaps difficult to appreciate Citizen Kane without paying attention to its mastery and innovation of film craft. That’s not to say that the narrative isn’t compelling; it is, and full of wonderful performances (Welles himself is charismatic, bombastic, blustery, commands the attention fitting to a character as large as Kane; Dorothy Comingmore is pitch-perfect as the increasingly hysterical Susan Alexander Kane; and Agnes Moorehead, as Kane’s mother, has only one scene (but what a scene!) in which to deliver to the audience her conflicted nature that is as icy as the weather beyond to window of the Kane ancestral shack). When you pause to consider the interaction between this narrative, the deep focus photography, the low-key cinematography, the sound, and the use of both long takes and montage, the true pleasures of the film are unfurled. There is far, far too much to be written about this film in a single blog post, so I will save myself and focus on what occupies my mind at this time: realism in narrative.

The narrative is told not in a straightforward, chronologically sequenced manner. This may not be such a big deal to audiences today with their familiarity with such looping and unreliable narratives as Memento(dir. Christopher Nolan, 2000) and Pulp Fiction (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1994), but I’m going to guess it was pretty ground-breaking in 1941. The difference, of course, is one of time, but not just of time; it is a difference of purpose or philosophy. Whereas, Pulp Fiction to a great extent  is a postmodern pastiche of winking self-awareness, Citizen Kane is a piece of modern direction in which the camera informs the narrative voice as much (if not more so) than the characters actions and words. Starting with it omniscient opening sequence of shots and then shifting from character narrator to character narrator, backwards and forwards through time, never giving the viewer anything other than one kind of or one person’s truth until the very end. Even then when we retreat out of Xanadu, borne away by Welles’s camera at a god-like perspective, we are given no real resolution. We have the identity of Rosebud, we have the fractured pieces of Kane’s life as told by the fractured parties who dealt with him, but we are also given the ambiguity of the film’s penultimate lines:

Female reporter: If you could’ve found out what Rosebud meant, I bet that would’ve explained everything. 

Thompson: No, I don’t think so; no. Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything… I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a… piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a missing piece.

And, it’s final words: “No Trespassing”.

Put together, the dialogue, the final frames, and the camera perspective provide a perfect example of Chekhovian irresolution. There are no answers here; Welles has aksed the questions and left us to contemplate and provide our own conclusions.

In Overdose: Orson Welles, Part 2The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil.

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A Return to School

This past week has seen the start of a new school year, and while it’s an unwelcome end to vacation time, I always look forward to reconnecting with students as they move up a grade and welcoming new students to my classroom. This year I’ve changed my non-credit film discussions classes to a more formalized credit project studies course called “Elements of Film”. I’ll be leading two groups of students (one in grade 11 and the other in grade 12) through a basic introduction to aspects of cinema in discussion-based seminars with the goal of each student producing a quality piece of film criticism at the end of the semester in June.

Here is the basic outline of the course:

A: Elements of Film Production

  • composition & cinematography
  • editing
  • performance
  • design & sound

B: Elements of Film Authorship

  • writing
  • directing

C: Elements of Film Criticism

  • realism
  • auteur theory
  • other perspectives — genre, psychoanalytic, cognitive, gender, gay

SCREENINGS

Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, dir. Orson Welles)

The 400 Blows (1959), Jules et Jim (1962, dir. François Truffaut)

A Hard Day’s Night (1964, dir. Richard Lester)

The Graduate (1968, dir. Mike Nichols)

Harold and Maude (1971, dir. Hal Ashby)

Mean Streets (1973), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990,  dir. Martin Scorsese)

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