Casablanca and Citizen Kane: a story of an un-review
by G.T. Phillips
I always prefer to sleep on my sofa. At least these days. It keeps me feeling mobile. On the move. Never settled. All these thoughts swarm and scurry through my brain at two in the morning as I lie awake in the frustration in not being able to write a solid review of Casablanca, nor Citizen Kane. The two most heralded films in American History stand before me and I cannot even offer a gasp of a contribution to the plethora of others that have snowballed over the many years since the films’ original release.
They stand like some yin and yang in motion picture history. Both released in 1941. Both launching the careers of every person involved. Today the rights to both films are owned by Warner Brothers. And yet the #1 and #2 are two films that are very different from one another in narrative, in theme and style.
And that’s it. That’s about as far as my contributions go for either film. Dammit all. Good night ladies and gentleman. The two films were made and people celebrated them for a fuck-ton of years following. Back to the couch.
Gordon T. Phillips
I woke up the next morning early thinking that I might make some headway with the review. I fixed a pot and put on some soft jazz to get me in the right mood. The sky was overcast that morning in LA, as it had been for the past three of four. June gloom evidently carried into the twelfth of July. I think some more about Bogart. I think I may have had a dream about he and Bergman. My God, has the weight of this thing drifted that far into my mind?
I keep writing my codswallop…
Each film has become a standard for their own genres or at least style of filmmaking. Kane would lay the foundation for filmmakers decades down the road. Alfred Hitchcock was making films by then wasn’t he? And yet even he, the great auteur himself, was surely influenced by Kane, made by a man who in many ways became a director’s director. Orson Welles, a man who may very well may have been as great a man as the character he portrayed, was a child prodigy whose interests during his apprenticeship skipped across magic and sorcery to theatre. He moved to New York and launched his own troupe with the Mercury Theatre, with many of the actors that would later appear in his films. It was here that an ambitious Welles, for reasons that I still am not completely aware, stood behind a microphone and, with his lilting yet commanding voice performed the now infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, convincing thousands of listeners that America was under attack from space invaders.
This is the same man that would make the Greatest Film Ever Made. Great. That word suits him quite well. Why do so many of us, including me apparently, never fail in throwing in that War of the Worlds broadcast in the same discussion as Kane? Is it because it serves as such a useful indicator as to who this man was and what he aimed to achieve in his craft? Was he a man that wanted to do more than just tell stories? He must’ve been. He must’ve been one who wanted to shock his audiences, to jolt them from their seats and leave them with their mouths open. It was the magician in him.
Perhaps therein lies the principle difference between Kane and Casablanca. More so than even Hitchcock, Welles’ focus goes less into the story and more in how he tells it; so much so that the focus almost becomes a character itself, if not an idea that carries equal to greater significance than the narrative of the story.
The tale of a money hungry tycoon becoming swallowed by ambition and left in an echoing mansion of loneliness was an interesting concept after all, but not something unfamiliar to audiences even in 1941. No, it was Welles’ technique in Kane that made it the film that it eventually became, one of legend more so to modern filmmakers and cinematographers than to audiences. It’s safe to say that today’s audiences would be slow to notice such a degree of deep focus photography or mise en scene (the manner in which actors are positioned in a frame), though the degree appearing in Kane has been imitated by countless filmmakers in the nearly seventy years since its release.
The magician Welles looked to make magic with his camera. He acquired all the rights over the film’s production and release, an amount of control unheard of then or even now. It was the kind of license men worked years and years to obtain an inch of. Welles was in his mid-twenties, and that was something that earned him little affection from some of his older motion picture peers.
I am merely guessing at this point, but I can guess where his ambitions lie for Kane. His goal was quite simple. When the credits rolled, the audience should have their mouths open like it would after witnessing one of his magic tricks. To leave it flustered and inquisitive, as it was following the War of the Worlds broadcast. Welles was a showman, and no less of an artist either. With the two put together, he created a masterpiece that set the standard for men of similar composition.
I heard Steven Spielberg reveal once in an interview that he never had much style. His films never had any signature look, he said, that was so visible in the work of other directors like Martin Scorcese and Alfred Hitchcock. No, his sensibilities were more in line with those of Michael Curtiz, the director of Casablanca. He added that most people can tell they’re watching a Hitchcock film after only seeing 30 seconds of it. This isn’t the case with the films of Curtiz, which is an indication of the director’s greater focus on story or narrative rather than on its aesthetics. Spielberg is a storyteller, he said, “I’m all about the story.” This is a rather crude way of putting it, since it implies that Scorcese or Hitchcock or Welles didn’t care about the story. This cannot be the case of course, but it’s clear what Spielberg meant.
So is Casablanca such a film? Does it have any style? Does it have a look? Yes it does, and it lies not in the way the film is shot but instead in the feel of the characters and in the attention to the detail of the city. Among the most striking shots arrives early in the film, where the camera focuses on the crowd of refugees and citizens gazing up at an airplane bound for Lisbon and thus carrying its fortunate passengers away from the chaos of the city.
The film certainly has a feel, one that lies not in its camerawork put within the fabric of the story. We see the anguish and desperation inherent in that moment not from quick cuts and shaky angles, but through the mere power of performance; through the skill of the actors onscreen, the selection of focus by the director, and in the film’s exceptional set design.
With films like Casablanca, the power lies in story. It lies in the drama of two lovers caught in the chaos of World War II, in the pain of sacrificing happiness for virtue. It lies in the idea of one of Bogart’s many famous lines, how ‘the lives of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world’.
As Citizen Kane set the standard for premier camerawork and sharp editing, Casablanca did the same for the more mainstream, plot-driven narratives seen in so many of today’s dramas and tales of romance.
How do you even begin to approach a matter of such magnitude? What kind of journalist am I? I think now about whether it has something to do with the idea that I may not really be as affected by the films as I put on. They are great films. There is no questioning that. And I appreciate them for what they stand for and their own respective legacies, but I wonder whether I am writing this because I feel I have to. I am a film critic after all, and if I cannot write a review about the two universally accepted gods of motion pictures, then I might as well throw in the towel, right? How do you know when you’re ready for film criticism? I love film, there is no doubt there. But for a man to write a spiel about every goddamn movie is more trouble than I ever imagined. And with old films, with legends like Casablanca and Citizen Kane, the task becomes even harder due to the fact that everything has been said. So why bother? Should I spend time and energy in reassuring everybody I agree that they are monumental, that they cannot be replicated. I am left with nothing more than giving the crass label of ‘see it’ or ‘skip it’ to these films, and to movies in the future that I don’t give a rats ass about and probably won’t see again for years if ever again. I’m no film critic. Might as well watch Transformers and grab the potato chips.
Poetry. Music. Film. I have concluded that none of these things can be analyzed in any conventional, structured fashion. Not anymore. This is due to the fact that it has been done for centuries and it’s growing old. We are getting tired of it and the times are calling for a new angle. A new order of things to wake us from the slumber of complacency. Complacency is the unforeseen enemy in this approaching era, in which we find an increasing variety of ways to live on autopilot in the wake of a revolution that is as false as the neon lights of Las Vegas.
The real revolution will occur in the frontier that is the human mind, and if it has taken full effect, then I think whatever residuals take shape from the material revolution will be irrelevant.
May it begin then in how we approach creativity and art, for labels are gone now. And here’s looking at you Rosebud.
-G. T. Phillips