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Orson Welles was a big man not simply in stature, but as a looming force to be reckoned with behind and in front of his camera. He is considered a paramount forefather of film techniques and production to many. Of course, his bravado too is legendary.

When you're not afraid to say it as it is, abruptly, and demand your own way on each project, you tend to make a myriad of enemies along the way as well as "believers." Welles managed to alienate himself from Hollywood completely and yet still produce some of its most memorable works. Works that to this day inspire and amaze. His nerve and vision made him an American original surpassed by no one, as of yet, in my opinion.

Two of his masterpieces are the instantly recognized Citizen Kane (1941) and the love it or hate it Othello (1952) which are today regarded as just a couple (of many) of his works to study to find a personification of an artist's vision upon film. His work has insired and driven uncountable protégés to pursue a career in film.

Citizen Kane and Othello are quite similar and yet decidedly different at the very same time. Just like Welles, they are a contradiction. On one hand, the man was a professional, almost a perfectionist bordering on militant. On the other, his antics could be construed as wildly unprofessional and a Hollywood no-no, risky. The man hated Hollywood but relished in its bounty. And like Welles himself, his films seem to have split personalities. They are at once very dark and deep, and yet brilliantly open, inviting and on display for all to dive into. There are many small details left out of the spotlight for viewers to explore and discover new pieces with each viewing.

The two films are openly considered ego binges by Welles yet are still proudly revered for their cinematic greatness. We tend to forgive Welles' colossal ego because his work is all the better for his totalitarian control. Genius is genius after all.

His Othello, the classic tale from Shakespeare, has its ominous lighting effects and vast obtrusive setting which directs the mood from the very first frame. Something's wrong here, he says. Come join us and discover what mysteries we've come to uncover. It also happens to be very true to they original directions for the stage. It is very hard to successfully translate a play into film. A play loses its heart most of the time. The actors tend to overact or the dialog seems heavy and weighted on film. It is a very different medium switch to be sure.

Othello is one of the first, besides O'Neill's Long Days Journey Into Night (1962), to capture the very personal pure emotions one experiences in a play's production on film. Othello is a dark solemn story and so, too, is Welles' cinematography, actors, set and wardrobe.

In his infamous Citizen Kane, you'll find a preserved snapshot of American filmmaking. He reached far, experimenting fearlessly with various techniques of filming. None particularly new, but, till then, never combined with such seamless execution, logic and intelligence.

Citizen Kane, remember, was produced and co-written by a 26-year-old Welles. Knowledge, certainly beyond his years, possessed him. Some of Welles' special effects on Kane (or, perhaps better phrased, his sense of new styles) were as mundane as the way director Welles decided to resolve into the next scene, or as brave as his skipping the traditional roll of opening credits. By placing them only at the very end, he gave the audience the choice to respect or walk out on the cast's marquee.

Call it faith in his work, his choice of actors, and maybe even a little test of approval from the viewers. Not to mention he later explained he felt the audience entered his movie less distracted by just reading actors names, reminding one it's make believe before you.

He also used camera angles that made you think in each. In Citizen Kane, it was his camera visually displaying subtle metaphor after metaphor in the deceased Kane's life. Shot in flashback format, Welles strung the scenes with the seamless stitching Edith Head might use for a great costume. In Othello his camera snuck around the castle like the players in the story; angles from way above, spying, and obstacles strategically placed creating half views to give the viewer another feeling of peeking in.

I consider both Othello and Citizen Kane a tribute to film's ability to tickle our psyche and its visual wizardry.

Welles was obsessed with realism. Not real realism but movie realism. He wouldn't go so far as to have real time filming but he did want to remove his films from the sound stage; an illusion of home, in Kane's case, castle. He was one of the first to use ceilings without losing sound quality. This decision could simply ruin the texture of sound from the set. But, for the look he desired, they were necessary. Once, again, this powerhouse from the stage and radio dared to experiment with the abilities of film, and succeeded.

Othello is very much in the same vain of do or die style. The scenes, highly dramatic, could have been pathetic if not executed properly. He used his (now signature) camera skews and angles to direct our emotion the way Shakespeare, I'm guessing, had originally intended; or the way Welles felt he had anyway.

In both films, Welles has his composer orchestrate the soundtrack as a perfect musical accent. Again the point being to direct his desired emotion in any given scene. These are not just frolicking notes oblivious to the action and dialog they accompany, and certainly not generic chords most soundtracks thoughtlessly attach.

As highly stylized as Welles' works are, he kept himself in check. Stopping right before he slipped over the overindulgent cliff into mediocrity or Art House bugaboo. Particularly these two very different story lines with one brilliant, common element: both are displayed gloriously on film with a master's eye for detail, dramatics and style.

Is Citizen Kane the best film ever? Is there really an answer to that question. Films are individual beings. When you dissect even the worst film you find something at its core worth a discussion.

Kane is an American classic. Kane had firsts, in direction techniques, camera techniques, daring end-a-young-director's-career storyline (based openly on oddball tycoon William Randolf Hearst) and a soul that still has a sparkling life in it all these years later. If calling it the finest film of all time continues to introduce it to a new generation then so be it.

Best movie or not, both Citizen Kane and Othello can be viewed many times over and each time are as fresh as the first time you discovered them. Why? Because that's exactly what Orson Welles had intended.

BUY:
Citizen Kane
Othello

Other Welles classics:
The Stranger
The Trial
Touch Of Evil

 

 

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