Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Best Film of All Time?

kaneEven though most of the students at EHHS haven't actually seen Citizen Kane (yet), I'm sure all of them have heard of it and its monolithic reputation as one of the best movies ever. Why is that? Why so highly regarded, so reverently spoken of, so ubiquitously mentioned in lists of top ten whatevers? Well, we here in Film History class are in the process of finding out.

I know when I first saw this film, I thought, "What's the big deal about that? It was kinda boring. Not like The Shining. Now that's a great movie." But actually, when you think about it, there are more than a few similarities to The Shining and Citizen Kane. Both have a huge emphasis on setting and tone. Both show the process of a man destroying himself and everything that's important to him. Both show someone getting killed by an axe in the chest. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if it weren't for Orson Welles and Citizen Kane, Stanley Kubrick would have instead never even gotten interested in film. Instead he would've studied chemical engineering, and then gone into teaching, inspiring hundreds of teenagers to dive into the mysteries and beauties of science. He would've used his talents for good instead of evil. But thanks to Orson Welles, a young Kubrick bought his first movie camera, pulled off his first dolly shot, and went on to inspire countless youths to ride their bigwheels inside the house, to hit their siblings with a giant bone, to wear their underwear on the outside and assault their elders... Why? Why, Mr. Kubrick, why? I wish you were still alive so I could come visit you in England and punch you in the throat.

Wait... sorry... back to Citizen Kane. kane2

Here's some things to think about while writing your response:
1. So is it just coincidence that we watched this right after The Grapes of Wrath? (No, it's not. I planned it that way. But it's up to you to figure out why.)
2. We know Welles was a huge admirer of John Ford. We also know that he used the same cinematographer, Gregg Toland (who he admired so much, he put Tolan's name on the same title card as his own, sharing the spotlight as it were). How does the cinematography compare in both films? How was it used symbolically?
3. I know those of you in Mr. Thomas' english class have been talking up this whole American Dream thing. What does Citizen Kane have to say about that? How does it compare to Grapes of Wrath? Or your own version of that dream?
4. What's the big deal about this film? Why such a high reputation?
5. What's up with rosebud?

plenty of things here to keep your minds and pens busy for a page or two.

Ladies and Gentelmen, Mr. John Ford

When asked by and interviewer in 1967 which directors he most admired, Orson Welles (director of Citizen Kane) answered that he liked "the old masters. By which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford. With Ford at his best, you feel that the movie has lived and breathed in the real world." Previously he had said, "John Ford was my teacher. My own style has nothing to do with his, but Stagecoach was my movie textbook. I watched it over forty times."

Who is this John Ford? Turns out most of you (with the exception of Kody and Patrick) had no idea. Even though he made over 50 films, and won 4 Academy Awards, not many people tend to see his films these days. Well, kids, thats a shame, and it's my duty to put a stop to this nonsense.

If you haven't received one already, you can download the handout here: John Ford Handout

John Ford was known mostly as a director of westerns. Some of his masterpieces include Stagecoach, My Darlin' Clementine, The Searchers, and The Man who Shot Liberty Valance. But he also did quite a few "prestige" pictures, based on famous literature or historical happenings such as How Green Was My Valley, They Were Expendable, and The Grapes of Wrath. A lot of these might seem a little Old Fashioned now, maybe at times even a little hokey (largely due to the choice of music, which was a problem for the majority of films in the pre-60's), but at the time he was comparable to someone like Clint Eastwood or Martin Scorsese. In the 1940's and 50's if you wanted to see a sweet action film with morally complex characters and beautifully crafted imagery, you waited til the next John Ford film came out. And once you get used to it, there are few directors as satisfying to the soul.

After watching a few clips from previously mentioned films, we watched The Grapes of Wrath in its entirety, and wrote a response to it.

Great Films

What makes a "great film?"  It's useful to look at any given top 100 list and try to figure out why some films are on there and why others might not be.  Take the American Film Institute's top 100 films - tremendously flawed, but probably the most well-known of such lists.  Why in the world are "Titanic" and "King Kong" on there?  What's the big deal about "Citizen Kane?"  And even though Quiz Show and The Shawshank Redemption are far superior to Pulp Fiction or Forrest Gump, but they aren't on there.  What gives?  Well, here's some general reasons for what we consider "greatness."

Some films are Aesthetically innovative.  This means they have a unique style or vision, they were really well made, they influenced the look and style of later films.  This would apply to "Citizen Kane" and "2001" and "Raging Bull."  Those films don't look like anything else and have a unique feel to them.

Other films are Technologically important.  "King Kong" was one of the first to combine animation with live action.  "Toy Story" was the first computer animated feature.

Some deal with important social or political issues.  "Do the Right Thing" deals with race relations in New York and America.  "The Shawshank Redemption" deals with issues of poverty, corruption, and criminal justice.

Others are historically important, such as "Schindler's List" or "Saving Private Ryan" that portray historical events that we need to remember.

We also find movies that are culturally significant.  When "Gone with the Wind" came out, nearly everyone in America saw it.  Likewise with "Star Wars" and "Titanic."  These films were such a phenomenon at the time they were released that they had a huge impact on the culture.

So, the assignment is to take a look at the list, and think of five films you think should be on there, and give some reasons why, how they pertain to these five categories.

Downloads: AFI top 100 films