Thursday, December 04, 2008

Praising Kane. And trope-a-dope?

So Tuesday night I'm frantically scanning the dial, trying to find something to calm my genius-envy of Orson Welles and his remarkable (first!) film, Citizen Kane, when I come upon a rebroadcast of the Pennsylvania 2008 Governor's Awards for the Arts. The event took place Nov. 12 in sleepy Williamsport, best known for the annual Little League World Series. Among the recipients, who also included actor and Pittsburgh-area native Michael Keaton, was so-called "jazz poet" Sascha Feinstein. Feinstein, it must be said, is one of the sweetest-looking guys you'll ever see; the photo at left doesn't begin to capture the sincerity and overall niceness he projects. He came to the lecturn and gave a commensurately earnest tribute to his "beloved" wife of 22 years; he said that while it would be more fitting for him to read a poem about jazz, for this very special occasion he'd chosen instead to read a love poem to his wife. And with those touching thoughts as preamble, he ceremoniously withdrew a sheet of paper from his pocket and commenced reading:

Dragons that spit rusted arrows....
Maybe it's me, but that imagery doesn't evoke warm, fuzzy, Hallmark-type feelings. And Feinstein wasn't kidding or being purposely ironic, that I could tell. Those were the words he chose to begin a heartfelt ode to his wife. (I was reminded of my own facetious riff on Valentine's Day cards.) I wish I could tell you what came next, but I was laughing so hard that I couldn't hear much of the verse that followed. Not that it mattered. To my ear, it's hard to redeem a love poem that begins with dragons spitting anything, let alone rusted arrows.

Now, I like poetry. I even like a lot of modern poetry, including the work of some who've been accused of soiling the genre in a characteristically misogynist waysay, John Berryman and Charlie Bukowski. (For the record, I also like softer verse, e.g. Dickenson, Whitman, and Frost. The very sentimental Nothing Gold Can Stay happens to be my favorite poem.) But when Berryman and Bukowski write a love poem,* you know it. See, they tend to leave out the rusted arrows.

Anyway, getting back to CKane, it always runs neck-and-neck with The Godfather in serious-minded discussions of The Best Film Ever Made (at least by an American director). To this day I can't get past the fact that Welles made it when he was a lad of 25. And when I s
ay "made it," for the benefit of any young'uns reading this who may not know the story, he wrote it, directed it, and starred in it...and did a masterful job at all three. Personally, I'd have to say Godfather is the bigger, better, more engrossing (and enduring) yarn. And yet...and yet...that whole "Rosebud" thing... I tell you, I've seen Kane 168 times, and it never fails to work its magic: I feel that chill taking hold of my spine as the film moves hypnotically toward the final frames, and by the time That Scene comes into focus**, I'm close to tears at the brilliance, the sheer human truth of it all. (Hell, I'm getting chills as I write this. No joke.) "Rosebud" has to be, without question, the single most compelling symbol (or "MacGuffin," as Hitchcock might've called it) ever committed to film. And the thing is, I'd imagine that lots of young people could watch that movie and just sorta shrug and say, " where's the brew at?" Because it strikes me that you have to have lived life past the midpoint, and be reflecting on its meaning, to appreciate, to truly feel, what Orson Welles is saying.

So pardon my French, but how the f**k did he make that movie at 25??

* by which I mean real love poems, not sex poems. They're two different things.
** I won't ruin it for anyone who hasn't seen the film and wants to.


Elizabeth said...

Dragons spitting rusted arrows?

That's hilarious, Steve. My computer screen froze on those very words when I was reading your post, and I was absolutely sure you were making this up, exactly in the vein of your Valentine Day's special. However, I see that you were not joking, and neither was Feinstein, apparently. Yeah, I look at that face (it can melt steel doors, I'm sure) and I too have a hard time imagining that the man knows anything about dragons spitting rusted arrows. (He does look exceptionally sweet and decent. Goodness... Do people with faces like this still exist?)

But then who knows what dragons live underneath the gentlest of exteriors, wouldn't you agree? And maybe his wife is indeed an experienced and trustworthy dragon slayer (of dragons of the inner kind). I'd like to read the rest of the poem to see where he went with it. The sheer fact that he did write a love poem for his wife, still beloved after 22 years -- and read it in public -- would earn him a privilege of permanent protection from dragons, arrows, and rust in my book of good deeds. (That is, of course, if the rest of the poem did not describe, say, those dragons devouring the wife, or their rusted arrows piercing her body or such.)

There are some unexpected love poems that take one's breath away, but my brain has been depleted on this subject for a while. I'm thinking, though, that if you like Bukowski, you'll probably enjoy Brodsky's poetry. He is a man's poet, tough and un-humble (there is a Polish word niepokorny that better describes this quality, but I can think of no good translation for it). See this poem of his, May 24, 1980 (one of my favorites, love the last four lines):

And speaking of rusted arrows (well, sorta) and nothing gold that can stay, see another favorite of mine, Thomas Hardy's (heartbreaking) Going and Staying:

I saw CKane when I was 20. It was wasted on me then. Maybe you're right, maybe one has to gray a little to appreciate it. (But he did make it at 25...Hm.)

Elizabeth said...

On the second thought, it may be Feinstein himself who is the dragon slayer in that marriage. This face says,

Just tell me what's bothering you. It can't be that bad. Whatever it is, I'll fix it, I promise.

LOL. Now if he could only un-rust the arrows...

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why all the critics love "Citizen Kane" - a really rich guy laments missing out on his childhood, right? Yawn! I didn't care for the beginning - the incredibly different buildings that were supposed to be Xanadu; the song and dance numbers that had Wells hitting his head on the ceiling; the goofy camera angles that seemed to shot from the floor looking up; and the annoying use of back-lighting and inconsistent uses of ultra-high contrast lighting. Additionally, the "aging" of the characters was pathetic by modern standards. The lighting, background, camera angles, herky-jerky timeline and the like made it look like Wells threw every gimmick in the book at an ordinary story. I did appreciate the skewering Hearst and his affair with Marion Davies.
There is a herd mentality among movie critics - they tend to all heap praise on some films which don't deserve it - The English Patient comes to mind - because it is easier to follow the pack than to use independent analysis.

I'd rather catch Schindler's List, Chinatown, Raging Bull or maybe even Goodfella's.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: Agree with you on the artistic merit of Schindler's List and Raging Bull. Not so high on Goodfellas, for reasons I've actually written about in several (non-SHAMblog) pieces. If you strip away the profanity and violence from that movie, there's no "there there." Kinda like The Departed. It still amazes me that they finally give Scorsese his Oscar for that one.

Hey, when it comes to movies and music, everybody's got an opinion, and yours is as good (or bad) as anyone else's. Just keep in mind that many of the things you cite as gimmicky cliches weren't yet gimmicky cliches when Welles used them in 1941. He gets a lot of respect for the inventive touches in that movie--the breakfast-table scenes in particular--and I think it's much-deserved.

Steve Salerno said...

Speaking of great film-making and (again) The Godfather, I was watching the third installment in that trilogy last night, and I had to shake my head at the sweep of it all and the power of film in general. Now I grant you, GF3 is by far the least impressive of those films; there are a number of false/wooden moments in the script, and that drawn-out final scene where the assassin is dispatching the various Corleone bodyguards, each in his own ingenious way...well, it's contrived and more than a bit hard to take. Still, by the end of it, as the credits roll to the accompaniment of Harry Connick's syrupy but beautiful Promise Me You'll Remember--which is letter-perfect for that film and that trilogy, and seems to be talking directly to the "nostalgia place" within viewers, along with alluding to the action in the film itself--I thought: What must it be like to have produced a body of work like that? The Godfather has become something of a race memory for people of my generation--what my colleagues in academia might call a "meme." You watch those films, any of them, and you're watching all of them (I mean that in a good way), and it's almost as if you're spending time with long-lost family who have now "moved on," or you're reliving your own life through theirs. And I don't think it's just because I'm Italian.* :)

* I should probably add that I have never shot a cop (or a capo) in a restaurant, or wired a bomb to anyone's ignition. Honest.

a/good/lysstener said...

It's a mistake for you or anyone to assume most young people are too naive or optimistic about life to understand a movie like Citizen Kane. Many of my generation have grown up with divorce (multiple times in some cases), adultery, suicide and DUI tragedies as well as the difficulty of just not quite fitting in. You've written of your son's problems and heartaches, Steve. I'm sure that by the time he was in his mid 20s he already had way too much experience in life and would've had no problems identifying with this movie. So when you run across young people who don't appreciate deep films because they don't yet understand that life is about disappointment and big buildups to big letdowns, try not to begrudge them that. Be happy their biggest problem is finding the brew. They'll grow up soon enough.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the pointer to Charles Bukowski's poetry which I have never before read.

As a woman I would class this stuff as love poetry of the highest order, he may have been a misogynist but his poetry transcends gender.

Years ago I might have swooned to Kane and his Rosebud but these days I'll take the raw honesty of Mr Bukowski.

Elizabeth said...

So when you run across young people who don't appreciate deep films because they don't yet understand that life is about disappointment and big buildups to big letdowns, try not to begrudge them that. Be happy their biggest problem is finding the brew. They'll grow up soon enough.

Nicely put, Alyssa. And a wise reminder as well to us old(er) folk who tend to be a tad too smugly superior and short-sighted in our views of younger generation(s). As if the sheer passage of time has ever given anyone the requisite wisdom to make judgments of other people's lives or the monopoly on pain and suffering. Even if fortunate in terms of external circumstances, youth has certainly its own share of grief (and I, for one, would not like to revisit mine).

However, there is one thing that getting/being old(er) confers on us -- and hardly a good thing, that. And I think this is what Steve meant when he mused on the (dubious, to be sure) advantage that age may (the operative word here) give someone watching CKane. If not, then I fully expect Steve will correct me soon enough.

It's the palpable sense of our tragically limited time, of the disappearing possibilities, the futility of our efforts if not our total existence, and the encroaching inevitability of death. It makes one reflect on and regret the mistakes, missed opportunities, and all those roads not taken. Our past has caught up with us and there is no time for second chances. That is indeed a unique perspective that one acquires with the passing of time and one that adds a layer to our appreciation of movies like CKane -- not that young people do not know and/or understand that, because of course they do (Welles was 25 after all when he made CKane). It's just that with age, the topic of our own mortality becomes painfully obvious -- how can it be otherwise? -- and one's identification with the CKane and his fate becomes that much more personal and urgent.

And, to be sure, there is no smug superiority in it -- and if it sounds this way sometimes, that's probably because we old(er) folk have to rationalize away our pain of regrets and fear of death by pretending that it is, somehow, a virtue -- as if daily staring into the ever-widening abyss was a membership of some exclusive club that only we can possess. It's called sour grapes, or lemons-and-lemonade, or whatever term we use to cover up the unpleasantness of regret -- and dying. Please try not to begrudge us that. Soon we will be gone anyway and you will rightfully take our place. :)

Elizabeth said...

And since we are on the topic of youth, old age, and Charles Bukowski,
please do read this poem of his, Be Kind (it's probably not what you expect from its title:):

sassy sasha said...

good point, 'lys, agree totally, young people today are young in age only if that makes any sense, we've seen it all or been through it all, often both! analyzed kane in detail with my film class, it is *brilliant* especially for its day. oh and yes steve, i "got" it :P

Steve Salerno said...

Looks like the youth vote has turned against me.

RevRon's Rants said...

"It's just that with age, the topic of our own mortality becomes painfully obvious..."

I'd agree that this probably represents the norm, but in my own case, I was more cognizant of my own mortality at 22 than I am at 57 (very soon to be 58... tomorrow, as a matter of fact). I'd imagine my environment at the time had something to do with that!

It's easy for us older folks to begrudge the young the years they have before them that have already passed for us. And yes, we do tend to get pretty smug about our own "wisdom," forgetting that said "wisdom" is most often a neatly brandished accounting of a long continuum of our mistakes.

I know no more about the nature of love, joy, sorrow, or regret right now than I did at five years of age; perhaps I am more adept at describing those things, placing them in a broader context, or maybe even reacting to them. But the feelings were no less real, no less daunting/exhilarating for having been tasted by a child. Puppy love sends the heart soaring just as high as does mature love, and its loss can shatter a heart as completely as can any loss in life. And the child can at least weep freely. We adults seem to gravitate more toward bitterness and the need to disseminate our pain.

There is a scene in one of my favorite films, "Flashback," with Dennis Hopper, Keifer Sutherland, and Carol Kane, that really touches the sense of what we lose as we grow older. I won't describe it beyond saying it's a home movie within the picture, but in well over a dozen viewings, it has always brought a lump to my throat and even a tear to my eye. The film is no cinematic masterpiece, but it definitely speaks to me, and to what we so often abandon as we grow older. Perhaps the regret we feel at that abandonment means we haven't really abandoned anything after all... just got a bit distracted & preoccupied.

verif: gotmons!

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, happy birthday one day ahead. My first grandchild's b-day is Sunday ("a day...that shall live in infamy.")

As for the mons...not gonna touch that one. As it were. ;)

RevRon's Rants said...

Oops... Just realized... I share the same B'day with your grandchild... Sunday, not Saturday. It's hell gettin old. Mad cow, ya know...

"As for the mons...not gonna touch that one."

Oh, man... That line just *begs* for it, Steve. But I'm not gonna do it. Really. I mean it...