By Nick Alderink
“Theater is a collective experience. Cinema is the work of one single person” ~ Orson Welles
Francois Truffaut grew up with a rebellious streak that would eventually lead to his confinement in a juvenile detention center, but he once wrote home with a simple request: To be sent “jam, and my files on Orson Welles…” He is said to have watched three movies a day, studying classic filmmakers such as Welles and preparing for his eventual ascension as the most prominent filmmaker in French history. Today, Cinema Revolution continues with a back-to-back-presentation of these two filmmakers who lead the charge as exemplars of mastery and ingenuity with a genuine devotion to art, in two of their most inventive works: Welles’ Citizen Kane and Truffaut’s Day for Night.
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane when he was just 26 years old as his first feature, but being a professional theater actor he utilizing a passion for theatrics and showmanship to create his opus. The film tells the story of a media mogul named Charles Foster Kane who utters his last words, “Rosebud”, which motivates a reporter to comb through the details of the tycoons life in search of the word’s significance. But what more can be said about it that hasn’t already been said? It is often considered the greatest film ever made, tops AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list, and holds up remarkably well, almost to a fault, as some of its technical and narrative nuances have now become a standard in Hollywood.
Truffaut found inspiration for his films in his personal life to such an extent that they come across as autobiographical in many ways, including Day for Night in which he appears on camera playing a version of himself. It may not hold the same significance that his breakthrough feature, The 400 Blows, does in film history but it is perhaps Truffaut’s most delicate and honest work. It follows a film crew in production of a film-within-a-film as they deal with the internal and external conflicts that begin to arise on set. His character Ferrand, the director, says at one point, “Making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the Old West. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip. By the halfway point, you just hope to survive.” It isn’t hard to imagine this is Truffaut speaking rather than Ferrand.
These two filmmakers produced work so distinct to their creative ideology that they came share the label of “Auteur”, first formulated in the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema which Truffaut had worked for in the 1950s. In short, the “Auteur Theory” declares that the best filmmakers are Auteurs because they create films in their image and are the sole authors of their work. Truffaut expanded the idea to say the worst work from an Auteur will always be better than the best work from anyone else. Much of this theory began with studying the films of Orson Welles.
A Bit You Should Know
Orson Welles’ label as an Auteur may be given proof just in the production credits of Citizen Kane. He directed, wrote, produced, and starred in the film, but that being said, its legacy is not one without controversy. He had collaborators involved within the production whose names you should know, not to de-legitimize his status, but for you to better understand and appreciate the level of sophistication and technical prowess in the minds that built “the greatest film of all time.”
Gregg Toland – Cinematographer – Gregg Toland had already found success working behind the camera in The Grapes of Wrath and Wuthering Heights but was eager to work with a first time director such as Welles who would be naïve enough to allow him to experiment in ways a standard Hollywood director would not. Toland wrote an essay detailing his work titled, “How I Broke The Rules in Citizen Kane” and describes his philosophy entering production: “The photography should fit the story.” The story Welles had wanted to create was one that portrayed realism, so Citizen Kane’s most striking visual quality became a sharp depth-of-field to find “an approximate human eye focus”. Hollywood directors typically relied on close-up shots where the actor is in focus but the background is blurry, but you will see in the giant of halls of Xanadu, for instance, Kane remains in focus in the back of the frame while the foreground is just as sharp. To acquire this deep-focus, he had to cut off light to the lens and reduce the aperture on the camera lower than the Hollywood standard. Doing this is similar to the act of squinting your eyes to read a sign in the distance. But this also required an inordinate amount of light on set, which proved difficult because Welles insisted on building ceilings in the set pieces rather than leave them open for light fixtures above the frame. So, Toland utilized an innovation from the California Institute of Technology known as The Vard “Opticoating” System which was a method of treating the surface of the lens to allow light to “penetrate” rather than refract and scatter. Point being, Toland, who was willing to experiment and innovate using the latest technology, may be the most influential factor to the films legacy outside of Welles himself.
William Randolph Hearst – The Inspiration – A newspaper publisher and media mogul known for his overblown personality, ego, and wealth. He built a castle for himself, appropriately named Hearst Caste which Welles would mirror in Kane’s own castle, Xanadu, and had a hunger for politics but ultimately never made it past a term in Congress. Step by step, his life story played out in Citizen Kane and he called for the studio to burn all of the film before it was released. However, the studios wouldn’t oblige so he paid for its release to be limited and banned critics from reviewing it in his papers. Thus, Citizen Kane never produced enough at the Box Office to become financially successful.
Herman J. Mankiewicz – Co-writer – Perhaps the most controversial figure in Citizen Kane lore, Herman Mankiewicz was a well-proven writer by the time he took on the project. He had worked as a journalist and personally knew William Randolph Hearst, having frequented parties at the media mogul’s home, but he had also worked with the Marx Brothers and even had a hand at writing of The Wizard of Oz. Although Welles disputed every claim that his own authorship was limited, many have argued otherwise. Makiewicz’s family have gone on the record to say Welles actually wrote none of the film, but forced his co-authorship credit to receive his full salary from RKO Productions. In her famous essay, “Raising Kane”, Pauline Kale even draws parallels in the fictional story of Kane to Mankiewicz’s personal life including his possession of a sled and a bicycle that was stolen from him in his childhood, an event which haunted him for the rest of his days. When his and Orson’s script won the Academy Award, Orson accepted the award alone. Mankiewicz died a decade later due to alcoholism and never resolved his issues.
Again, none of this is to lay claim that Welles does not deserve the label “Auteur”, because his vision for Citizen Kane and what it could be made its legacy possible. Truffaut, as was one of the chief proponents of the “Auteur Theory” , after all made clear of the significance of collaboration in Day for Night. He doesn’t try to hide the help a director receives on set and the weight of the crew surrounding the faux film production is plainly seen in the opening shot. While Citizen Kane makes cinema feel grand, Day for Night humanizes the filmmaking process. It was a change of heart that lead to an interaction between Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, longtime colleagues and friends, in which Godard accused Truffaut of selling-out and becoming too mainstream.
What to Look Out For
- Orson Welles deeply believed that the viewer should forget the presence of the camera in every frame and used editing techniques to smoothly transition rather than fade to black. To conclude each scene, the camera is constantly moving to hide transitions and wipes made in the editing room.
- Remember that Orson Welles was only 25 while making the film, especially as it reaches its climax and Charles Foster Kane becomes a greyed old man. Because Welles was a professionally trained theater actor, he had a deep respect for the importance of make-up and gave his artists the time it deserved.
- Set designer Perry Ferguson created set pieces reminiscent of D.W Grittith’s Intolerance within Kane’s castle Xanadu. The grandeur of the set becomes a divide between Kane and his wife as their relationship slowly falls apart. With Toland’s expertise in deep-focus, every inch of the divide is visible in the frame.
Day For Night
- The French title of the film is L’ennui Américain, which translates to The American Boredom. The American and French titles may be completely different but both remark to the false nature of cinema as an art form (Day for Night being the effect used to makes scenes filmed in the day look like scenes filmed at night). The tagline of the film is after all, “A Movie For People Who Love Movies.” It is a more relaxed, reserved representation of Truffaut compared to his previously released art house films and one that requires less studying. Just enjoy it!
Citizen Kane will play in the Screening Room tonight at 4:00 PM and Day for Night will play at 7:00 PM. Tickets will be required for each individual screening. Get back here next week for your Quick Peek at John Cassavettes’ A Woman Under the Influence. See you at the Michigan!