Saturday, September 15, 2012

Citizen Lame

I'm teaching a film class for the first time, and I thought I would start the class by watching Orson Welles's classic 1941 film Citizen Kane. The film appears on the top of many best-of lists. It's number one on the American Film Institute's top 100 American films, number two on Entertainment Weekly's list (just below The Godfather); and while the most recent Sight and Sound list upended CK with Hitchcock's Vertigo, if you look at any other list since 1962, CK is number one (the list comes out every 10 years). So, I thought, why not start with the best and talk a bit about why critics and filmmakers consider Welles's film the creme de la creme? My idea was that we would discuss the film before opening our textbook, before learning any technical terms. I would have students evaluate and analyze the film based on their past English-class reading knowledge. While I speculated that students may not recognize every element of the film's formal style, I thought it would be a nice foundation for us to refer back as we proceeded through the year's instruction.

But as I watched the film for probably the fifth or sixth time (though the first time with students), I quickly realized I was bored, and I didn't care much about the story or the characters. My perception of the film in this viewing may have been clouded or influenced by what I thought my students were thinking while they were watching: Are they bored? Are they paying attention? Did they notice that shot? Do they regret signing up for the class?

To their credit, my students didn't sound off any displeasure or physical or emotion pain for making them watch the film. And when we spent a couple of days discussing the film and its merits, many students offered keen insights into the film's characters, themes and visual qualities. And I should qualify my grossly hyperbolic post title by saying that even though my personal reaction was one of boredom, I still recognize the film's technical qualities. It is impressive in its visual complexity; every shot seems perfectly crafted with the lighting, props, and placement of characters clearly adding complicated meaning to every scene. The editing is equally complex, not only in its overall non-linear structure but in its variation of cuts, montages, and overlapping shots. Even the makeup is impressive, especially for a film from 1941. I've seen several current films where characters are aged and the makeup looks horribly unrealistic. Finally, the film is thematically rich; it's a film about ideas, about time, power, memory, truth, and perceptions. I like big ideas, so why couldn't I get into the story this time?

Well, it could just be this particular viewing. Maybe I'll change my mind next time.

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