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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Thursday
Nov182010

In Which We Count Down The Best Music of 2010

The Best Singles of 2010

by DANISH AZIZ

The only thing I knew for certain when I started making these selections was that no songs from FIFA 2011 would make the cut. 2010's Best Songs list is limited to 15 picks and predictably features several of the top 10 selections from our best of the 1/2 year. This being something like the eighth year in a row that I've made a best music of the year list, it's become all too easy for me to predict common criticisms like: "it's only November" or "#3 just says the word 'marmot'" or  "Pitchfork!!!!!" All rational questions and criticisms, and ones I've kept in mind while making this list. Having said that, please limit all comments to praise and marriage proposals since you probably don't know what you're talking about

15. Jamie from The xx - "Far Nearer"

Okay, so this chune hasn't been released yet, but it captures the zeitgeist of 2010 better than any other song on here. The UK's domination of this year's list gives me faith that America will still lead the world in art when BRIC's in charge. (mp3)

14. Waka Flocka Flame - "Hard In Da Paint"

I'm the head of the muthafucking state! If you're offended by "nigga," just think of it as a rhythmic fill. (mp3)

13. Arcade Fire - "The Suburbs"

This takes a lot of proven pieces and throws them together in a way you knew would work as an Arcade Fire song. Deliberate phrases and progressions and production designed to induce a cinematic and enjoyable wistfulness. (mp3)

12. Joanna Newsom - "Good Intentions Paving Company"

Joanna's cousin Gavin was elected Lt. Governor of California despite having banged his publicly-paid secretary and best friend's wife while in office as mayor of San Francisco. Joanna wrote a beautiful song that I think is partially about...Andy Samberg, which I have listened to an embarrassing amount of times. All in all I'd say the Newsoms pulled a few fast ones this year. (mp3)

11. Shabazz Palaces - "Blastit"

Seattle has been repped by Sir Mix-a-lot for far too long for a city of such zany white people. In Palaceer Lazaro and Shabazz Palaces they've really "traded up" and gotten appropriately weird. (mp3)

10. Twin Shadow - "Castles In The Snow"

There were a lot of "Twin" bands this year, but I think this is the only one you'll have to remember. Twin Shadow and Light Asylum represent Brooklyn in the list this year, which makes the borough seem like the Gotham of the Gargoyles universe. (mp3)

9. Happy Birthday - "Subliminal Message"

The singer from Happy Birthday, who also performs King Tuff, has a familiar but hard to describe voice. It's represented by the mathemusical equation of  Scott McKenzie + yelping Pauly Shore = tight. Unrelated, but I'd wager a lot that Molly knows someone who slept with Pauly Shore. (mp3)

8. Light Asylum - "Dark Allies"

Until fairly recently the only way to hear this song was through live YouTube recording. Having since released a tour CD with the recorded version of "Dark Allies," you can now find proper mp3s of the song. The electricity that was so palpable in the live version (assisted by many audible "woooos!") is noticeably absent, but an almost campy ghoulishness fills the vacuum. (mp3)

7. Tamaryn -  "Love Fade"

The only San Franciscan on this list (by way of New Zealand) shows a mastery of her genre and a voice that lends itself to many a swoon-gaze. (mp3)

6. Crystal Castles - "Baptism"

You either like Alice Glass or you don't, I tend to find her bearable by the grace of CC's beats. On "Baptism," though, her trademark screech is as integral to the beast of a track as the Timbaland-trance synths are. (mp3)

5. Delorean - "Stay Close"

The joyed out Spaniards of Delorean brought us the summer album we all needed, and for that we thank them. But it's winter now, and the half year's best jam has dropped a few spots to create some room as the party moves indoors. (mp3)

4. James Blake - "CMYK" 

James Blake was arguably the most visible of the many British electronic artists featured this year. Blake's sound is ever evolving, but this song is the one that best represents a microgenre that Blake can lay claim to having blog-mainstreamed. (mp3

3. Ariel Pink  - "Round and Round" 

I'll be honest, I can't name many other Ariel Pink songs I like, and lack of effort could certainly be to blame. But someone has to be held accountable for chillwave, and Animal Collective says "not us!" That doesn't stop this song from being one I found myself coming back to consistently throughout the year. (mp3)

2. Mount Kimbie - "Carbonated" 

A lot of the higher ranked songs here are ones that I heard later in the year as the early hits fell victim to diminishing returns. Not the case with Mount Kimbie's "Carbonated," whose whispery beat seems to only get better with each listen. If you're a synesthete you're no doubt seeing a river of Reese's Pieces as you listen to this song. [SPONSORED BLURB] (mp3)

1. Girl Unit - "WUT"

The year's best song comes from yet another UK-based electronic artist, Girl Unit, whose label Night Slugs has been shining in 2010. Terms like "dubstep" and "post-dubstep" have become as unhelpful as "indie" when describing music, but suffice it to say that if you like UK dance music and you like(d?) southern rap then this is your anthem. For an added treat, just imagine Kyle's mom saying the "wut" parts. (mp3)

Danish Aziz is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find his best songs of the half-year here. He is the creator of tumbledore. You can find his previous work on This Recording here.

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Wednesday
Nov172010

In Which It's The Greatest Curse That's Ever Been Inflicted On The Human Race

Citizen Kane On Its Own Terms

PETER BOGDANOVICH: What was your initial reaction to the Hearst blacklist on Citizen Kane?

ORSON WELLES: We expected it before it happened. What we didn't expect was that the film might be destroyed. And that was nip and tuck; it was very close.

PB: To the negative being burned?

OW: Yes. It was only not burned because I dropped a rosary.

PB: What?

OW: There was a screening for Joe Breen, who was the head of censorship then, to decide whether it would be burned or not. Because there was tremendous payola on from all the other studios to get it burned.

PB: All because of Hearst's people?

OW: Yes. Everybody said, "Don't make trouble, burn it up, who cares? Let them take their losses." And I got a rosary, put it in my pocket, and when the running was over, in front of Joe Breen, a good Irish Catholic, I stood up and dropped my rosary on the floor and said, "Oh, excuse me," and picked it up and put it back in my pocket. If I hadn't done that, there would be no Citizen Kane.

PB: You act as though it's painful for you to remember any of these things.

OW: Oh, everything. Just awful.

PB: Are you up to trying Kane?

OW: Oh Christ! All right — let's get it over with. I can't be awfully good on the subject, because I haven't seen the picture since I ran the last finished print in a empty theatre in downtown Los Angeles, about six months before it was released.

PB: Wait a minute — you went to the premiere.

OW: I went to the premiere and went right out the side door when it started, the way I always do. Because it makes me nervous not to be able to change anything. It comes from being in the theatre — you used to go to the opening, then go backstage and change things. When I've got a play running, I go on changing it until the last day of the show. And it's awful to have it all locked up in a can forever. That's why I don't go to see them.

PB: I guess it's like some painters. My father's like that. And Cezanne, who kept going into people's house after he sold the painting —

OW: Yes! They'd smell wet paint and know Cezanne had been in! That's just the way I feel. I'd like to go to the projection booth and start snipping away.

PB: Griffith did — all during the run of The Birth of a Nation, he'd be up in the booth making changes.

OW: Well, it was easier then. Silent picture — no damn sound to worry about.

PB: So when Hearst intervened...

OW: Hearst didn't really intervene — they intervened on his behalf. It began badly, because Louella Parsons had been on the set and had written a wonderful article about this lovely picture I was making. And it was Hedda Hopper, her old enemy, who blew the whistle. Think of the weapon that gave to the competition! after that it was the Hearst hatchet men who were after me, more than the old man himself.

PB: But wasn't Hedda Hopper supposedly your friend?

OW: Sure — but what a break for her as a newspaperwoman. Couldn't blame her. Imagine what that did to Louella!

PB: After Kane, you once said, "Someday, if Mr. Hearst isn't frightfully careful, I'm going to make a film that's really based on his life."

OW: Well, you know, the real story of Hearst is quite different from Kane's. And Hearst himself — as a man, I mean — was very different. There's all the stuff about Robert McCormick and the opera. I drew a lot from that, from my Chicago days. And Samuel Insull. As for Marion Davies, she was an extraordinary woman — nothing like the character Dorothy Comingore played in the movie. I always felt that he had a right to be upset about that.

PB: Davies was actually quite a good actress —

OW: And a fine woman. She pawned all her jewels for the old man when he was broke. Or broke enough to need a lot of cash. She gave him everything, stayed by him — just the opposite of Susan. That was the libel. In other words, Kane was better than Hearst, and Marion was much better than Susan — whom people wrongly equated with her.

PB: You once said that Kane would have enjoyed seeing a film based on his life, but not Hearst.

OW: Well, that's what I said to Hearst.

PB: When!?

OW: I found myself alone with him in an elevator in the Fairmont Hotel on the night Kane was opening in San Francisco. He and my father had been chums, so I introduced myself and asked him if he'd like to come to the opening of the picture. He didn't answer. And as he was getting off at his floor, I said, "Charles Foster Kane would have accepted." No reply... And Kane would have, you know. That was his style — just as he finished Jed Leland's bad review of Susan as an opera singer.

PB: Where did Kane's trait of acquiring possessions come from?

OW: That comes directly from Hearst. And it's very curious — a man who spends his entire life paying cash for objects he never looked at. I know of no other man in history exactly like that. This jackdaw kind of mind. Because he never made any money, you know; his great chain of newspapers basically lost money. He was in every sense a failure. He just acquired things, most of which were never opened, remained in boxes. It's really a quite accurate picture of Hearst to that extent.

PB: There's only one moment in Kane where I thought your acting was self-conscious —

OW: Tell me. I'll tell you the bad moment for me — in my first scene with Susan, the closeup when I had the mud on my face. That's a real phony movie moment. Look at it again — it really is. I haven't seen it since I made it, but —

PB: It's not so bad as —

OW: Not so bad, but it's real movie actor with mud on his face. What's yours?

PB: The closeup smile in the newspaper office when Cotten asks to keep the Declaration of Principles you wrote —

OW: Oh, but that's supposed to be a forced smile. It's because I don't think the document should be kept — I don't believe in it.

PB: Really?

OW: Of course.

PB: You mean Kane didn't mean what he'd written even as he wrote it?

OW: No.

PB: I didn't realize that.

OW: No. You weren't supposed to believe that smile. He's horrified that somebody wants to keep that as a document. It's going too far.

PB: All right, then I take it back — it's a great moment!

OW: Anyway, it's not supposed to be a real smile but the smile of somebody deeply embarrassed, being caught out. There's a point to that moment. Nobody signals it, but that's what I meant. Because I always believed that Kane doesn't mean all that. He only wants to convince the two fellows. He wants them to believe in it because he wants them to be his slaves. But he doesn't believe in anything. He's a damned man, you know. He's one of those damned people that I like to play and make movies about.

PB: There's a film written by Preston Sturges called The Power and Glory which has been said to have influenced you in the flashback style of Kane. Is that true?

OW: No. I never saw it. I've heard that it has strong similarities; it's one of those coincidences. I'm a great fan of Sturges and I'm grateful I didn't see it. He never accused me of it — we were great chums — but I just never saw it. I saw only his comedies. But I would be honored to lift anything from Sturges, because I have very high admiration for him.

PB: You were friends.

OW: Right up until the end of his life. And I knew him before I went to Hollywood; in fact, I first met him when I was about thirteen and going to school at Todd. Wonderful fellow, and I think a great filmmaker, as it turned out.

PB: Yes, and he wrote marvelous dialogue.

OW: Started in a hospital. He was a businessman until he was about forty. He got very sick and lay in the hospital and decided to write a play. Strictly Dishonorable, which ran eight years of something on Broadway. And that made him a writer. Then later he became a director. He had never thought of it before.

PB: What happened to him in Europe in the 1950s? He only made one film.

OW: He was just trying to raise money for a picture. Nobody would give him a job. Simple as that.

PB: The idea for the famous breakfast scene between Kane and his first wife —

OW: — was stolen from The Long Christmas Dinner of Thornton Wilder! It's a one-act play, which is a long Christmas dinner that takes you through something like sixty years of a family's life —

PB: All at dinner —

OW: Yes, they're all sitting at dinner, and they get old - people wheel baby carriages by, and coffins and everything. That they never leave the table and life goes on was the idea of this play. I did the breakfast scene thinking I'd invented it. It wasn't in the script originally. And when I was almost finished with it, I suddenly realized that I'd unconsciously stolen it from Thornton and I called him up and admitted to it.

PB: What was his reaction?

OW: He was pleased.

PB: Is he still a good friend?

OW: Yes. Wonderful writer. I haven't seen him in a long time, but his newest novel, The Eighth Day, is marvelous.

PB: Did the idea literally come to you on the set?

OW: Well, there were going to be several breakfast scenes - you can see how it would have been written in the script — many scenes with transitions. And my idea was simply to photograph it as a continuous breakfast scene without dissolves, just whipping back and forth. Some of the conversation was written before; a lot of it was invented on the set and two or three days before, during rehearsal.

liev schreiber and john malkovich playing welles and mank in RKO 281

PB: Just how important was Herman Mankiewicz in relation to the script?

OW: Mankiewicz's contribution? It was enormous.

PB: You want to talk about him?

OW: I'd love to. I loved him. People did. He was much admired, you know.

PB: Except for his part in the writing of Kane... Well, I've read the list of his other credits...

OW: Oh, the hell with lists — a lot of bad writers have wonderful credits.

PB: Can you explain that?

OW: Luck. The lucky bad writers got good directors who could write. Some of these, like Hawks and McCarey, wrote very well indeed. Screenwriters didn't like that at all. Think of those old pros in the film factories. They had to punch in every morning, and sit all day in front of their typewriters in those terrible "writers' buildings." The way they saw it, the director was even worse than the producer, because in the end what really mattered in moving pictures, of course, was the man actually making the pictures. The big-studio system often made writers feel like second class citizens, no matter how good the money was. They laughed it off, of course, and provided a good deal of the best fun — when Hollywood, you understand, was a still funny place. But basically, you know, a lot of them were pretty bitter and miserable. And nobody was more miserable, more bitter, and funnier than Mank... a perfect monument of self-destruction. But, you know, when the bitterness was focused straight onto you, he was the best company in the world.

PB: How did the story of Kane begin?

OW: I'd been nursing an old notion — the idea of telling the same thing several times — and showing exactly the same scene from wholly different points of view. Basically, the idea Rashomon used later on. Mank liked it, so we started searching for the man it was going to be about. Some big American figure — couldn't be a politician, because you'd have to pinpoint him. Howard Hughes was the first idea. But we got pretty quickly to the press lords.

PB: The first drafts were in separate versions, so when was the whole construction of the script — the intricate flashback pattern — worked out between you?

OW: The actually writing came only after lots of talk, naturally... just the two of us, yelling at each other — not too angrily.

PB: What about the Rashomon idea? It's still there to a degree.

OW: It withered away from what was originally intended. I wanted the man to seem a very different person depending on who was talking about him. "Rosebud" was Mank's, and the many-sided gimmick was mine. Rosebud remained, because it was the only way we could find to get off, as they used to say in vaudeville. It manages to work, but I'm still not too keen about it, and I don't think that he was, either. The whole schtick is the sort of thing that can finally date, in some funny way.

PB: Toward the close, you have the reporter say that it doesn't matter what it means —

OW: We did everything we could to take the mickey out of it.

PB: The reporter says at the end, "Charles Foster Kane was a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get or something he lost, but it wouldn't have explained anything..."

OW: I guess you might call that a disclaimer — a bit corny, too. More than a bit. And it's mine, I'm afraid.

PB: I read the script that went into production.... There were so many things you changed on the set, or, anyway, after you'd started shooting. From the point of view of Kane's character, one of the most interesting is the scene where you're remaking the front page for about the twentieth time. In the script, Kane is rather arrogant and rather nasty to the typesetter. In the movie, he's very nice, even rather sweet. How did that evolve?

OW: Well, all he had was charm — besides the money. He was one of those amiable, rather likable monsters who are able to command people's allegiance for a time without giving too much in return. Certainly not love; he was raised by a bank, remember. He uses charm the way people often do. So when he changes the first page, of course it's done on the basis of a sort of charm rather than real conviction.... Charlie Kane was a man-eater.

PB: Well, why was it in the script the other way?

OW: I found out more about the character as I went along.

PB: And what were the reactions of Mankiewicz to these changes?

OW: Well, he only came once to the set for a visit. Or just maybe, it was twice...

PB: Before the shooting began, how were the differences about the script worked out between you?

OW: That's why I left him on this own finally, because we'd started to waste too much time haggling. So, after mutual agreements on story line and character, Mank went off with Houseman and did his version, while I stayed in Hollywood and wrote mine. At the end, naturally, I was the one who was making the picture, after all — who had to make the decisions. I used what I wanted of Mank's and rightly or wrongly, kept what I liked of my own.

PB: As you know, Houseman has repeatedly claimed that the script, including the conception and structure, was essentially Mankiewicz's.

OW: It's very funny that he does that, because he deserves some credit himself. It's very perverse, because he was actually a junior writer on it, and made some very important contributions. But for some curious reason he's never wanted to take that bow. It gives him more pleasure just to say I didn't write it.

PB: I have the impression, somehow — Well, let's put it this way: do you believe John Houseman is an enemy?

OW: To rewrite an old Hungarian joke: if you've got him for a friend, you don't need an enemy... The truth is, you know, that I cling to the pathetic delusion that I don't have such things as enemies. But Jack is the one who makes this sort of Christian Science a bit difficult.

PB: How did your partnership work in the Mercury?

OW: For the radio shows, he acted as super editor over all the writers; he produced all the first drafts. And that, in a way, was his function with Mank for that six or eight weeks of their separate preparation for Kane. In the theatre, he was the business, and also, you might say, the political, boss. That last was important, particularly in the WPA. Without his gifts as a bureaucratic finagler, the shows just wouldn't have got on. I owe him much. Leave it at that... It's a story I don't think I want to tell.

PB [after a pause]: There's a scene in which Susan is singing for you the first time in her apartment, and that dissolves to her singing for you in an entirely different, much better-decorated apartment -

OW: — which Kane set up for her, yes.

PB: And you applaud in that scene, which goes to a group of people applauding Cotten, who is making a speech saying that Kane "entered campaign" — cut to you finishing the sentence, "with one purpose only," in another campaign speech. Was a thing like that done in the preparatory stages?

OW: Yes, but the last preparatory stages — we were already rehearsing.

PB: It has the beautiful economy of segue-ing on a radio show.

OW: Yes, in a way, except faster than you could on radio.

PB: What about something like the woman screaming offscreen during your fight with Susan in the picnic tent?

OW: That was invented after we shot it. I thought, looking at the rushes, that's what we needed.

PB: As a counterpoint?

OW: Yes, and the song that went with it. ["This Can't Be Love"] I'd heard Nat "King" Cole and his trio do in a little bar. I kind of based the whole scene around that song.

PB: There's a shot of a black singer at one point -

OW: It isn't him, but the music is by Nat Cole - it's his trio. He doesn't sing it — he's too legitimate, we got some kind of low-down New Orleans voice — but it was his number and his trio.

PB: How did you work with Bernard Herrmann on the score?

OW: Very intimately, as I always did for many years on the radio. Almost note for note. Benny Herrmann was an intimate member of the family. I think his score was marvelous for the opera in the film, Salammbo. It was a delighful pastiche.

PB: You've told me that everyone felt free to contribute — that was part of the atmosphere on the set.

OW: That's true — it was wonderful. We had a couple of spies on the set, as I told you, but everyone else hated them, so they were completely in quarantine. Of course, the first two weeks of the film were done without the studio knowing we were shooting a picture. We said that we were making tests, because I had never directed a picture. That began part of the big legend: "imagine, he's been fourteen days on camera tests with extras and actors in costume!" But we were shooting the picture. Because we wanted to get started and be already into it before anybody knew about it.

PB: So there wouldn't be any pressure on you.

OW: Yes, that's right. It was Perry Ferguson's idea, the art director.

PB: Do you agree with Andre Bazin that deep-focus camera set ups increase the ambiguity of a movie, because the director doesn't make choices for the audience — they can decide who or what they want to look at in a frame?

OW: That's right. In fact, I did a lot of talking about that in the early days of my life as a filmmaker — when I was more shameless and used to sound off on theory. I talked a lot about that "giving the audience a choice" business. It strikes me as pretty obvious now; I don't know why I came on so strong about it.

PB: I don't think it's so obvious; and it certainly wasn't twenty-five years ago. What about a shot like the one after Susan has tried to commit suicide? There's a bottle in the foreground, and we see you break through the door in the background. Did you have to use an outsized bottle in order to hold focus?

OW: Not, it was just ordinary, standard size.

PB: It must have been very difficult to get a dark scene that still had enough light to hold focus.

OW: You bet. It was a very dark scene until the door opens and I come in — and then you see this ID bracelet I had on by accident because I had a girlfriend who made me wear it. Every time I think of that scene, I think of my reaching down and you see this awful love charm — nothing at all to do with Kane. That's all I really remember about the scene.

PB: I never noticed it. You must have cursed yourself watching the rushes.

OW: Yes, when I saw it I said, "Shall we go back, do it again?" "No." "Maybe he could have such—" "He never would have it." "They won't see it." And whenever I think of seeing this picture, the reason I don't want to is because I don't want to see that goddamn bracelet come down.

PB: I guess one always remembers the little things that nobody in the world would notice.

OW: Well, you'll notice it the next time you see it.

PB: That's true.

OW: It glitters on the screen!

PB: Some people have said that the look of Kane is the result of Gregg Toland's photography, but all your pictures have the same visual signature, and you only worked with Toland once.

OW: It's impossible to say how much I owe to Gregg. He was superb. You know how I happened to get to work with Gregg? He was, just then, the number one cameraman in the world, and I found him sitting out in the waiting room of my office. "My name's Toland," he said, "and I want you to use me on your picture." I asked him why and he said he'd seen some of our plays in New York. He asked me who did the lighting. I told him in the theatre most directors have a lot to do with it (and they used to, back then) and he said, "Well, fine. I want to work with somebody who never made a movie." Now, partly because of that, I somehow assumed that movie lighting was supervised by movie directors. And, like a damned fool, for the first few days of Kane I "supervised" like crazy. Behind me, of course, Gregg was balancing the lights and telling everybody to shut their faces. He was angry when somebody finally came to me and said, "You know, that's really supposed to be Mr. Toland's job."

PB: You mean he was protecting you?

OW: Yes! He was quietly fixing it so as many of my notions as possible would work. Later he told me, "That's the only way to learn anything - from somebody who doesn't know anything. And, by the way, Gregg was also the fastest cameraman who ever lived, and used fewer lights. And he had this extraordinary crew — his own men. You never heard a sound on a Toland set, except what came from the actors or director. There was never a voice raised, only signs given. Almost Germanic, it was so hushed. Everybody wore neckties. Sounds depressing, but we had a jazz combo to keep our spirits up.

PB: How did you get along with him after you found out that lighting was his job?

OW: Wonderfully. I started asking for lots of strange, new things - depth-of-focus and so on...

PB: An elementary question: why did you want so much depth-of-focus?

OW: Well, in life you see everything in focus at the same time, so why not in the movies? We used split-screen sometimes, but mostly just a wide-angle lens, lots of juice, and stopped way the hell down. We called it "pan focus" in some idiot interview — just for the fun of it —

PB: Didn't mean anything?

OW: Of course not, but for quite a while that word kept turning up in books and highbrow articles — as thought there really was something you could do called "pan focusing"! Christ, he was the greatest gift any director — young or old — could ever, ever have. And he never tried to impress us that he was doing any miracles. He just went ahead and performed them. Fast. I was calling for things only a beginner would have been ignorant enough to think anybody could ever do, and there he was, doing them. His whole point was, "There's no mystery to it." He said, "You can be a cameraman, too — in a couple of days I can teach you everything that matters." So we spent the next weekend together and he showed me the inside of that bag of tricks, and like all good magic, the secrets are ridiculously simple. Well, that was Gregg for you - that was how big he was. Can you imagine somebody they now call a "director of photography" coming right out and admitting you can bone up on the basic technical side of it all in a weekend? Like magic again: the secret of the trick is nothing; what counts is not the mechanics, but how you can make them work.

PB: You gave Toland credit on the same card as yourself, which Ford had done, too, on The Long Voyage Home.

OW: Up until then, cameramen were listed with about eight other names. Nobody those days — only the stars, the director, and the producer — got separate cards. Gregg deserved it, didn't he?

PB: What made you put on so many ceilings?

OW: The simple thing is that movies still go on telling lies. First of all, they pretend there isn't a fourth wall — as in the theatre — that has to be because the camera is there. But then they pretend there's no ceiling — a big lie in order to get all those terrible lights up there. You can hardly go into a room without seeing a ceiling, and I believe a camera ought to show what the eyes see normally looking at something. That's all it was. Not because I thought the ceiling itself had anything beautiful to say. It just seemed to me that it was clearly a bad theatrical convention to pretend it wasn't there.

PB: Well, you also used a lot of low-angle shots that couldn't avoid seeing the ceiling. In fact, you're still fond of shots like that.

OW: I don't know why. I suppose it's because I think the picture looks better down there. Just that. I suppose I had more low angles in Kane just because I became fascinated with the way it looked - and I do it less now because it's become less surprising. But there are an awful lot of dull interiors — Kane is full of them — which are by their nature not very interesting and look better when the camera is low. I think I overdid it.

PB: In the big scene between Kane and Leland after Kane loses the election, the whole thing is from an extreme low angle.

OW: Well, there's a purpose in that one — that was delicate and wasn't just because the set looked better.

PB: What was the purpose?

OW: Oh, I don't know — I think if it doesn't explain itself, I can't explain it. There's this fallen giant... I think that really called for the camera being there. And, of course, it was very low. We had to dig a hole, and they had to drill into the concrete floor for us to get down that low. And I'd sprained my ankle, so if you look carefully in that scene, you can see the steel brace I was wearing on my heel. I had fallen down the stairs in the scene where I threw Gettys out, and I was limping around in a steel brace. It took nerve to shoot it from down there, with that steel brace right in front of the camera, but I thought rightly that at that point they'd be looking at Leland and not at me. Anyway, I wanted it like a big, kind of mythical encounter between the two. And also I wanted it to look outsized, because what they're saying is so prosaic, yet has reverberations — I had some highfalutin idea. It still seems justified to me as I look back on it. But I don't have a general theory about low angles.

PB: How do you decide where you're going to put the camera?

OW: I don't make a conscious decision — I know instantly where it goes. There's never a moment of doubt. And I never use a viewfinder anymore.

PB: You look through the camera when it's set up?

OW: No. I place my hand where the camera goes and that's it. It never moves. I know exactly where it's going to be.

PB: But don't you then look at the setup?

OW: Then. And that's where it should be and I'm right. For my money. I don't fish for it — or very seldom, only when I'm in real trouble. And then the fishing leads me nowhere and it's better if I go home or go to another scene. Because if I'm fishing it means I don't know, something's wrong.

PB: It's really instinctive rather than —

OW: Oh, it always is. I think I share with Hitchcock the ability to say what lens goes in the camera and where it stands without consulting a finder or looking through the camera. He does that, too, I believe.

PB: He sometimes draws a little sketch for the cameraman.

OW: Oh, I don't do that. I just walk over and say, "There it is." I may be dead wrong, but I'm so certain that nothing can shake it. It's the only thing I'm certain of. I'm never certain of a performance — my own or the other actors' — or the script or anything. I'm ready to change, move anything. But to me it seems there's only one place in the world the camera can be, and the decision usually comes immediately. If it doesn't come immediately, it's because I have no idea about the scene, or I'm wrong about the scene, or I'm wrong about the scene to begin with. It's a good sign, a kind of litmus paper for me. If I start to fish, something is wrong.

PB: Then it must be inconceivable to you, the idea of covering a scene from many different angles, as many directors do.

OW: That's right. Inconceivable. I don't know what they're fishing around for — they don't know what they're doing in the scene. Though I think the absolutely solid camera sense is not a sign of a great director. It's just something you have or you don't have. I think you can be a very great director and have only a very vague notion of what the camera does at all. I happen to think I have total mastery of the camera. That may just be megalomania, but I'm absolutely certain of that area. And everything else is doubtful to me. I never consult the operator or anything. There it is.

PB: Was it that way on Kane, too?

OW: Yes.

PB: Right away?

OW: Right away.

PB: It's instinctive.

OW: Yes, kind of instinctive, if you will — an arrogance that I have about where it's going to be seen from.

PB: I know it's difficult to dissect the creative process —

OW: Well, it's not even creative because it is an instinctive thing, like a question of pitch for a singer. Where the camera goes. If you're absolutely sure, you may be wrong but at least it's one thing you can hang on to. Because I'm filled with doubts all the time about a movie: that the whole tone is wrong, that the level of it is wrong, that all the text, the performances, the emphasis, what they say, what it should be about — I'm constantly reaching and fishing and hoping and trying and improvising and changing. But the one thing I'm rocklike about is where it's seen from, by what lens and so on. That to me doesn't seem to be open to discussion. And it's something I must be grateful for: even if I'm wrong, I don't have that worry. But I always find scenes in a movie — I did in Kane and I have ever since — that I don't know how to photograph, and it's always because I haven't really conceived of it fully enough.

PB: Do you let those go until you're ready?

OW: Well, on Kane, I walked away once early in the morning - just quit for the day — and went home. made a big scandal. I just had no idea what to do. Came back the next day.

PB: What was the scene?

OW: In Susan's apartment, the big confrontation, when Gettys [Ray Collins] comes in. He was named, by the way, after the father of the wife of Roger Hill, my teacher at Todd. That's another in-joke. But that was just a scene in a room, and it seemed to me so boring, I didn't know what to do. And I just went away.

PB: When you came back, it worked?

OW: Yeah. And I didn't figure it out on paper. But I think that scene is a little overstated, visually. It's a little overemphasized. It shows some kind of insecurity, I think, visually. I can see it now. It came from that moment of doubt. And I think it's like lion taming or being the conductor of an orchestra — you have to come in and know where the camera is, or there are all sorts of evil demons who will attack you, and the doubts will show on the screen and in everything. You have to be absolutely on top of it. Or pay not attention to it. One of the two.

PB: By the way, in shooting that drunk scene with Cotten, I understand he was so tired that he accidentally said the line "dramatic crimitism" instead of "criticism" and you left it in.

OW: It happened that way in rehearsal and then it was performed. He was that tired because he had to go to New York to join the road tour of The Philadelphia Story, which he originated on the stage. And we all worked something like twenty-four hours, around the clock, with nobody going to bed, to get him finished.

PB: An article could be devoted just to the "News on the March" digest that comes at the start of Kane. Apart from its perfection as an imitation news short, it is at the same time one of the most devilish parodies of vintage Time-style ever made: the inverted sentences, the taut fact-filled portentous reportage, the standard cliche.

OW: I showed it to Luce. He was one of the first people to see the movie — in New York. He and Clare Luce loved it and roared with laughter at the digest.

PB: They saw the parody?

OW: They saw it as parody and enjoyed it very much as such — I have to hand it to them. He saw it as a joke — or she saw it as a joke and he had to because she did.

PB: There's a March of Time sequence indicated in Smiler with a Knife.

OW: Yes, that's where the idea for it in Kane came from. Of course, I'd been years on The March of Time radio program. Every day. It was a marvelous show to do. Great fun, because, half an hour after something happened, we'd be acting it out with music and sound effects and actors. It was a super show — terribly entertaining.

PB: Did you write some of them?

OW: Never. I only acted. I began as an occasional performer, because they had a regular stock company, and then I was finally let in — one of the inner circle. And then I had the greatest thrill of my life — I don't know why it thrilled me (it still does, to think of it now), I guess because I thought March of Time was such a great thing to be on. One day they did as a news item on March of Time the opening of my production of the black Macbeth, and I played myself on it. And that to me was the apotheosis of my career — that I was on March of Time acting and as a news item. I've never felt since that I'd had it made as much as I did that one afternoon.

PB: There's a wonderfully real sound cut during Thatcher's news conference in the "News" digest. A long shot of Thatcher sitting at the table with all these people around, but when you cut to a closeup of him as he starts to read his statement, the sound cuts a moment late, the way it often does in newsreels. I've always loved that touch.

OW: Yes, a slight mistake in the sound cutting. I'm glad you noticed it. You know how it was in those days, there was no tape, all the sound was on film. You can't imagine what mixing the sound was in those days - and what a cost in effort it was to get that little effect.

PB: Is it true that the news conference was reminiscent of a real J.P. Morgan news conference?

OW: No, but there was a famous J.P. Morgan news conference where a midget was put on his lap. I just know vaguely about it. ... Did I tell you the reaction that sequence had in Italy when the film opened?

PB: No.

OW: They all stood up and hissed and booed because the quality of the film was so bad.

PB: They missed the point entirely.

OW: Yes! You know the total run in Rome in the entire life of Citizen Kane is three days — since it was made!

PB: That's about rock bottom, isn't it? Did you notice an influence on Hollywood films from Kane?

OW: You couldn't mistake it. Everybody started having big foreground objects and ceilings and all those kind of compositions. Very few people had ever even used a wide-angle lens except for crowd scenes.

PB: But the effect wasn't in terms of story construction?

OW: No, the thing I valued didn't seem to have much effect on anybody. But the most obvious kind of visual things, everybody did right away.

PB: Would you agree, in general, that Kane is more self-conscious directorially than any of your other films?

OW: Yes. There are more conscious shots — for the sake of shots — in Kane than in anything I've done since. It has things like that shot where they're all posed around that trophy which is just "let's see if we can make that shot" kind of shot. I'm not that pleased with it, looking back.

PB: No, it's studied.

OW: Yeah. I've tried to avoid that kind of thing since then.

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The Orson Welles Journey

Orson shoots Othello in Mogador...

Orson, Macbeth, and the Bard...

The Third Man and the War of the Worlds...

Orson's Hollywood exile.

Tuesday
Nov162010

In Which You Have No Idea What They've Endured

Tell Me How Long James Baldwin's Been Gone

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Before James Baldwin made his first ever trip to the American south in 1957, the Harlem-bred prodigy flew to Washington D.C. to talk to the poet Sterling A. Brown. Where Baldwin's work continues to be read in schools and to a certain extent by the general public, Brown's distinguished career is relatively anonymous outside of appreciators of the master poet.

Before reporting on the civil rights conflict for Partisan Review in an article that would be called "Nobody Knows My Name," Baldwin got a rough guide from his mentor on what to expect in his first destination, Charlotte, North Carolina. Brown reminded Baldwin that blacks in the South might resent or fear him, and in David Leeming's biography of Baldwin, he quotes Brown as telling Baldwin "to remember that Southern Negroes had endured things I could not imagine."

cooking in 1966 in istanbul
It is strange to think of Baldwin alive in the world today, walking around in the world he made instead of the one in which he was made. Born in August of 1924, Baldwin's early life in Harlem would later be chronicled in one of the great first novels ever written, Go Tell It On The Mountain. The ostensible subject was Baldwin's domineering reverend stepfather, but the book was to a greater extent Baldwin's declaration of himself as the ultimate outsider.

Initially titled Crying Holy, Mountain established Baldwin's reputation as an emerging talent in world literature. Written in Paris during the first of Baldwin's exiles, the book is almost incomprehensible to young people today, and it was only assigned reading in my ninth grade class because by the grace of God my English teacher never shaved her armpits and told me that referring to Macbeth as being "whipped" was both sexist and inappropriate. Baldwin himself was quickly identified as a gifted student, and he attended high school at De Witt, the legendary Bronx school, after a recommendation by early mentor Countee Cullen.

with engin cezzar in istanbul 1965
At De Witt, Baldwin's classmates included the likes of Richard Avedon, Sol Stein, and Emile Capouya. Still living in Harlem with his family, Baldwin developed a second community, mostly composed of Jews, where he felt at home. This was a crucial step for the young writer, who was for the first time investigating his sexuality. Although he was very gay, Baldwin had relationships with women throughout his life, the vast majority of which consisting of mothering and unwavering financial support.

with biographer David Leeming (glasses) and othersBecause of his fearsome stepfather, though, the men in Baldwin's young life loomed large. His friends were numerous and bold-faced: Marlon Brando once paid Baldwin's way back to American after an aborted attempt to go stay in Tangiers with Paul Bowles. His connections with the major names in black literature were more fractured. He would resolve to work harder than his predecessors on relationships with the next generation of writers. As Toni Morrison once put it in a remembrance of her friend:

I suppose that is why I was always a bit better behaved around you, smarter, more capable, wanting to be worth the love you lavished, and wanting to be steady enough to witness the pain you had witnessed and were tough enough to bear while it broke your heart, wanting to be generous enough to join your smile with one of my own, and reckless enough to jump on in that laugh you laughed. Because our joy and our laughter were not only all right, they were necessary.

By the time Baldwin was ready for the first trip to the south, he had already felt the lax racism of Paris, where many African-American expats went to gather, including Baldwin's major nemesis/foreunner, the novelist Richard Wright. Baldwin's third piece in the fledgling journal Commentary was an attack on Wright called "Everybody's Protest Novel." The two argued about writing for the expediency of a political cause, and Baldwin ended up feeling uncomfortable under Wright's gaze.

embracing Lena HorneWhen he had first arrived in Paris sometime after his 24th birthday, his welcoming party had included Wright and Jean Paul-Sartre. Returning there later in life, he saw Paris as an escape from the literary culture, and perhaps more importantly an escape from America, where he could be James instead of standing in for someone's idea of him. Still, he did not always find Paris as welcoming as he had hoped, although he once said that at the time, he never intended to return to America.

The publication of two of his essays on the subject of race, collected in The Fire Next Time, thrust Baldwin into a very public position while he toured the country. These broadsides had run in consecutive issues of The New Yorker, and Baldwin appeared on the cover of Time in 1963.

In one sense, this represented a kind of progress, a shifting of the debate. It was also a double-edged sword, as Baldwin deftly noted in the introduction to his collected essays:

But it is part of the business of the writeras I see it to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source. From this point of view the Negro problem is nearly inaccessible. It is not only written about so widely; it is written about so badly. It is quite possible to say that the price a Negro pays for becoming articulate is to find himself, at length, with nothing to be articulate about. ("You taught me language," says Caliban to Prospero, "and my profit on't is I know how to curse.") ... Nevertheless, social affairs are not generally speaking the writer's prime concern, whether they ought to be or not; it is absolutely necessary that he establish between himself and these affairs a distance which will allow, at least, for clarity, so that before he can look forward in any meaningful sense, he must first be allowed to take a long look back. In the context of the Negro problem neither whites nor blacks, for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to look back; but I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.

Baldwin was the man of his family now, the world traveler. He feuded with William Faulkner over Faulkner's declaration that he would fight in the street with his racist friends if it came to it. Faulkner's advice to the civil rights movement was to "go slow." Baldwin responded in his essay "Faulkner and Desegregation" by quoting Thurgood Marshall's comment that "They don't mean 'go slow.' They mean 'don't go.'"

This is a world we cannot recognize, and Baldwin actually had to answer for why he wanted equal rights so badly! He concluded his appraisal of the Mississippian by writing "There is never a time in the future when we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now."

James Baldwin, Joan Baez, and James Forman (left to right) enter Montgomery, Alabama on the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights, 1965.He did so, obligingly, definitively, eventually impatiently. He rememberd Sterling Brown's advice, and his work about race was usually addressed to whites, aiming to convince them delicately, forcing them to convince themselves, really. For his style and manner he was sometimes reproached by his peers, including Malcolm X, who represented at least something of the religious officiousness that Baldwin had rejected in his youth. All that time he told us how difficult it was to want be a part of something he was convinced with absolute certainty could never be.

Faulkner refused an invitation to the White House that would have put him and Baldwin in the same room. He was of an ilk of white man whose objection to other people's objections was that they made it all about race. This is not to say something about Faulkner, but ourselves. Even now, when someone argues that an issue has eclipsed race, we can hear Faulkner's words to American blacks in theirs, and know it for a lie.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He last wrote in these pages on the letters of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He tumbls here and twitters here.

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