A few weeks ago, I celebrated a pretty momentous occasion: I saw Citizen Kane for the first time.
When I saw the announcement in the local paper that our library would be screening it, I almost didn’t go. For years, the movie has just existed in my life as a towering pop culture reference, especially in cartoons like Animaniacs & The Critic.
Also, I had recently been less-than-overwhelmed by the last time I viewed a classic movie. It was Seven Samurai & while I got the influence of the film & found some truly inspiring moments, the experience wasn’t as moving as I thought it would be. I originally had a sneaking suspicion that Citizen Kane would turn out the same way.
I was wrong.
In an auditorium filled with six other people, I was the youngest person there. (I have a feeling I was also the only one seeing it for the first time, but you never know.) I won’t bore you with phrases like “best film ever made” or “timeless classic”. All I can say is that by the time the camera led us out of Xanadu, I was in love.
My attention never wavered; the sets & the actors were so detailed & specifically arranged that I constantly found my eye drawn deeper & deeper into each shot. The cuts & dissolves paralleled the movement of the action flawlessly. There were a ton of shots I recognized from other movies but I found myself enjoying the original. (For example, the scenes between Mandy & Arthur in Velvet Goldmine are pretty direct copies of the scenes between Susan Kane & the reporter.) The high contrast lighting creates a constant sense of menace & ambiguity.
And of course, I totally lost it over Orson Welles & his expressive eyes.
I would say that seeing Citizen Kane was probably one of the best film experiences of my life if that honor didn’t already go to seeing an original print of Sunset Blvd on the big screen. I’m not a hardcore movie buff; just call me an avid fan. I am a product of my generation & movies are a pretty meaningful part of my understanding. Or maybe even that statement is wrong, because Joe Gillis mentions that sense of fascination & rapture in Sunset Blvd.
She’d sit very close to me and she’d smell of tuberoses, which is not my favorite perfume, not by a long shot. Sometimes as we watched, she’d clutch my arm or my hand, forgetting she was my employer. Just becoming a fan, excited about that actress up there on the screen.
In any case, after seeing Citizen Kane, I was obsessed, so my husband, wonderful loving man that he is, went out & bought me Touch of Evil. (I’ll save the girly story for the end of the post.) So, I spent another fabulous weekend watching Orson Welles at work, contemplating the spoken & unspoken ties between sex & violence in the strangling scene as well as the validity of passing Charlton Heston off as a Mexican.
I happened to mention to a friend how I spent my Saturday & when he responded, he referred to Touch of Evil as “a great text”, a term that threw me at first but seemed fitting the more I thought about it. The term “visual literacy” had always played at the edges of my undergrad education. It’s not something I really got the chance to explore although I understand the basic idea: that a specific narrative or idea is built/reinforced through the composition & power of an image, much like a written work.
With our culture relying more & more on the visual as the means of communication, now is the time to figure out the concept. Books like Amusing Ourselves to Death & The Education of a Photographer have been invaluable. Like these texts, Citizen Kane has become another resource to mine in understanding “visual literacy”, simply because I was so aware of how eager I was to see this world Welles had created. Part of the beautiful analytical disconnect occurs in the attitude that “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore”, which makes you pay attention to how & why something is being presented to you. So if I’m grateful to Mr. Welles for anything, it is not just this beautiful film he’s created but the chance to learn how to “read” films.
In short, love him!
& speaking about love, here is my totally girly story about how my husband gave me Touch of Evil. We were both worn out from our work week, so we decided to brave the rain & try a new Mexican restaurant for dinner. After the meal, my loving man pulls out a present wrapped in the most squeal-inducing wrapping paper: nature fairies wearing green dresses. Reading books. With long curly hair like mine. It was so perfect, I didn’t even want to tear the paper.
Once my curiosity got the better of me, I rip it open to see Orson Welles’ eyes staring at me over the gold letters of the title. My excited girly noises were reaching the pitch that only dogs can hear so we decided to pay the check & leave. Once we stepped outside, the rain stopped & the most perfect rainbow I have ever seen stretched over us, thick & unbroken & bright. (I’m not making this up.) It was an amazing end to the week.