I bought a book about a week ago on screenwriting called Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434, written (obviously) by screenwriter and UCLA professor Lew Hunter. I picked it up randomly at Half Price Books, which is rare for me. Usually I research a book before I buy it, but this one seemed to be just the thing I was looking for. The contents seemed to fit my needs and the author’s pedigree was authentic, as well as impressive.
I bought the book for some pretty personal reasons that I’m loathe to discuss here. But suffice it to say that I’m on an explorative journey, and the results of that journey should (if everything works out according to plan) speak for themselves. I reference the book as a segue into my next movie review; Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. At about page 15 of the book, Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434, Lew informs the reader that he or she should continue reading no further unless he or she has seen the author’s list of requisite films. That list is below.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Well, as much as I hate to admit it, I’ve only seen one of those movies and I’m sure you could guess which one.
Saw it in the theater when I was 6 and fell instantly in love with it. I mean, what kid didn’t like E.T. and Star Wars in the 80’s? The thought is downright Communist to me.
Nevertheless, despite my fervent love of things cinematic, I’m fairly remiss in the area of classic film. I simply never had much interest in it. Sure, I’ve seen classics and loved them. 12 Angry Men, Key Largo, and To Kill a Mockingbird are all black and white films that I’ve enjoyed, but the experiences of watching them have never been quite enough to move me to seek out other classics. I come by them mostly by accident and recommendation.
Well, anxious to get on with the book, I set about finding those films that I was deficient in on Netflix and placing them at the top of my queue. With the exception of Fallen Angel, which I found out was written by the author and probably included to give some sort of validity to his street credentials, I found all of the listed movies and received Citizen Kane and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid a couple of days later. Having absolutely no idea what Kane was about, Kelley and I settled on that film as the one to break the seal with.
Citizen Kane is largely considered by critics and the movie elite to be the Greatest Film of All Time. (Cue echoing, booming voice)
I have to be honest with you. I simply don’t get it.
Let me back up a bit.
From a cinematography standpoint, I found the film to be quite brilliant. Accepting the limitations that filmmakers had at the time the film was made, and considering the history of movies up to that point, I’ve no doubt that the angles and perspective used in filming the movie were groundbreaking. I recognized that while watching, even before I’d read a single word from a critic. But allowing for all of that I could not, in good conscience, state that Citizen Kane is the greatest movie I’ve ever seen.
Forget the cinematography and effects employed in the film for just a minute. The script is the primary reason that the film was recommended by the author in the first place. So, having never read the script itself I can only truly say that it was “good” from a dialogue standpoint. The way it was written using flashbacks seems a bit dated and silly now, though I know this became a standard TV and movie formula later on. The dialogue was well written, but the story in and of itself was not really all that remarkable. Characterization was weak, and poorly delivered by the bulk of the film’s actors (most were new to motion pictures), and the pacing and editing of the film was found to be wanting.
I simply didn’t give two shits about the main character of Kane or his annoying second wife, or any of the other secondary characters for that matter. I found myself yawning and wanting the film to get to the point at about the 3/4 mark. And shouldn’t that be the real test for us all when it comes to film? I don’t watch film simply as a piece of art to be examined. I want to be entertained. If I find myself becoming sleepy or bored, the film has failed on some level. Now I’m not saying that it was the worst film that I’ve ever seen. Far from it. And considerations should be made for the notion that characters were interpreted differently by actors at that time, and that certain dialogue may seem a little funny from my perspective as a result of having not grown up in that time period.
And allowing for all of that I still find the film wanting. I would be hard pressed to give the film more than 3 1/2 stars. High brow film fans and art house, fancy-pants-critics be damned.
Fortunately I’m not the only person on the planet of this opinion. Noted Swedish director Ingmar Bergman called the film “a total bore”, and British film critic James Agate wrote "I thought the photography quite good, but nothing to write to Moscow about, the acting middling, and the whole thing a little dull...Mr. Welles's high-brow direction is of that super-clever order which prevents you from seeing what that which is being directed is all about." And Boston University film Scholar Ray Carney has called the film one of the most overrated pieces of film and was quoted as calling the film "an all-American triumph of style over substance."
I felt somewhat vindicated by the views expressed by such noteworthy people, but still find myself wondering how such things in pop culture can become so quickly over-inflated. Are these simply examples of people jumping on the proverbial bandwagon? We’ve all seen it happen with films, right? Something that has been overlooked for a period of time, and is perhaps considered to be of poor or inferior quality in its time but is later found by a few who note the film’s overlooked qualities, is then called “great” by these few, these art house hepcats, and then proceeds to gain cult status because it’s suddenly cool to appreciate? This phenomenon is found in any kind of art, really.
Citizen Kane was snubbed at the Oscars, and largely overlooked and underappreciated in its time, only to be picked up by French critics in the 1950’s. The film’s reputation and status as “the great American film” was further expanded and propped up by other critics and art house film fans in the late 1950’s. I think the snowball just continued to grow and grow from that point forward. Americans like an underdog, after all.
I’m looking forward to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Casablanca. I’m not sure if I’ll ever find Fallen Angel, and I don’t really care. 4 out of 5 ain’t bad. But at the end of the day, no matter what any high brow critic or fanboy says, and no matter what any teacher says I should like, I’ll always remain true to myself. If it means I’m a poorly educated, ignoramus, then so be it. You keep your nose in the air and scoff at my rough tastes and poor manners.
I’ll keep my conviction and principal.
Have you seen the film? Share your opinion in the comments section below.