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Saturday, November 12, 2016

THE CRITIC'S CHOICES

  It may be impossible to watch Citizen Kane (1941) without recoiling from some stark similarities with a certain Orange Menace currently in vogue. While often cited as the greatest movie of all time, those words are misleading because, while likely accurate, they project a kind of elitism that dampens the visual delights of this movie. Mystery, biopic, suspense drama, documentary, art film, even black comedy: Orson Welles made such categorizations irrelevant as he blended flashback vignettes from the lives of William Hearst, Sam Insull, Harold McCormick and possibly his own bad self with the hegemonic artistic license of a brilliant child with too much money and no one to contradict him. Everyone should have one opportunity to make such a film, as long as those who succeed can withstand the agony of having all the rest that they do compared with it unfavorably. 
   
  Welles was an auteur, a seer whose vision guided all aspects of a movie's creation. One could tell an Orson Welles film from some distance: floor-level shots, images drawn with negative space, misleading and beautiful visual metaphors, a recurring cast of actors and a story-line that implied as much as it spoke. Few director writers have been able to hold the often pejorative auteur moniker, but Welles took it to heart, as was his due. 
   Someone I have often believed to be the natural descendant of Orson is Robert Altman. He too preferred to operate outside the studio systems and he too took pride in the contemporary euphemism for auteur: outlaw. After years in relative obscurity, Altman's explosion blew cosmic debris throughout the cinematic landscape with critical successes and his lovely commercial failures. In the 1970s, there were no better movies than Brewster McCloudNashville and 3 Women.  Yet when Robert's attempts to build a community that would enable him to create did not properly gel, his movies embarrassed even his most ardent fans, as anyone who has ever endured Popeye or O.C. & Stiggs can attest. 
  The Player (1992) stands as Altman's greatest story ever told. While the director himself seems to have considered the movie as an inoffensive little satire, in fact The Player takes pains to offend people who might in kindness be called ignorant through no fault of their own. The nearly eight-minute tracking shot opening scene actually references Welles film Touch of Evil and no less a personage than the late Roger Ebert has claimed that the Griffin Mill lead character (as played by Tim Robbins) bears a purposeful resemblance to the young Charles Foster Kane. He certainly has Kane's early morality, especially when he shuts down new kid Larry Levy when the latter is musing over the prospects of ridding the system of writers. Griffin's comeback is pure Wellesian brilliance: "I was thinking what an interesting concept it is... to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we can get rid of the actors and directors, maybe we've got something."