Monthly Archives: April 2016

Forty years with Kane

 

In 1973, I saw Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane for the first time. Its reputation as the greatest film ever made, having been voted as such in the Sight and Sound polls in both 1962 and 1972, was already widely held and shared. 

I do remember clearly that a first viewing did not convince me: I was much more impressed by Welles’ sinister but alluring performance in Carol Reed’s The Third Man which I saw around the same time.

Subsequent viewings of Citizen Kane spread infrequently over the years, so it took time for my opinions to clarify . There were occasions when the old-fashioned bits glared out, such as the make-up used to age Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten into the older Kane and Leland, or perhaps Dorothy Comingore’s rather shrill, forced performance as Kane’s young second wife. Mostly, however, and most recently when BBC4 screened it at the start of this year, it seemed brilliantly entertaining as well as brilliant.

The aspect which has thrilled me most in my later viewings is the way Welles used so confidently and skilfully the modernist technique of a multi-perspective narrative. He gives the audience layers of information and understanding about the recently deceased newspaper magnate Charles Forster Kane from different sources in different ways. First, some basic biography from the “News on the March”  cinema newsreel, and from the spontaneous conflicting responses of reporters. One reporter Jerry Thompson gleans further information from reading the memoirs of Kane’s guardian Walter Thatcher in the cathedral-like surroundings of the Thatcher Memorial Library. Then, always discreetly on the edge of the camera, he interviews some real-life witnesses: loyal business manager Bernstein, disaffected friend Leland, failed singer and ex-wife Susan, butler Paul.

One of my favourite sections has always been the New York Inquirer staff party where Kane introduces (with the puff of a photographer’s bulb like a conjurer) his new journalism staff, all recruited from the previously more successful Chronicle, and announces that the Inquirer now has the highest circulation in the city. The triumphal frivolity continues with the performance of the laudatory vaudeville song about Kane which he joins in with – while Leland wryly wonders to Bernstein whether this money-led business model can be maintained. The answer, of course, is that Kane’s extravagance and flamboyance will fatally undermine his progress.

Another memorable scene, which I would certainly have over-looked in younger listens to the Oscar-winning dialogue written by Welles and Herman J.Manciewicz, is Leland’s later criticism of Kane’s patronising of his working-class readership and voters. The “working man” whom Kane boasted he represented and protected has now assembled itself into “organised labour”, mocks Leland, and will see a privileged capitalist like Kane as an enemy rather than a friend – and Kane is a man who wants to be loved and admired by everyone.

Although it scored highly in the latest (2012) Sight and Sound poll, Citizen Kane is much lower down the IMDB list of the best 250 films. This league table, which appears to show the tastes of younger viewers, currently places Welles’ film lower than other 1940s films which have perhaps more straightforward narratives, It’s a Wonderful Life and Casablanca, as well as three Charlie Chaplin films, City Lights, Modern Times and The Great Dictator which had mostly stayed out of fashion since Chaplin died in 1977.

Citizen Kane’s time will surely come round again. Although Welles’ sets and some effects are plain by today’s standards, most of what we see on screen looks modern and convincing. The flashbacks, the voice-overs, the time compressions, the sharp camera angles, the crane shots, close-up faces combined with middle-distance action, the use of sound and music. Wedded to a narrative both male and female  –  power, money, family, romance, friendship, politics, culture – which you need only two hours to watch again.

 The anonymous article “The Secret Life of Citizen Kane” from the Movie Movie website provides some rewarding insights.

 

 

 

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Remembering the Rising

 

Nobody now sees Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising entirely in the romantic and heroic light in which it was once presented, even if they respect the great writers associated with it, such as W.B. Yeats and Sean O’Casey. Plenty of information is now available about such features as the fatal and avoidable flaws in its organisation and the number of civilian casualties which resulted.

Heather Jones’ two programmes for BBC Radio 4, The Easter Rising 1916 ,were informative and fair about the actual events of April 1916, but, for me, especially enlightening on the different ways the Rising has been remembered since.

A key role in this has been played by the controversial and divisive but intriguing figure of Eamon de Valera. The one leader of the Rising who was not executed, possibly because he was a US citizen or possibly just due to his good luck; who later undermined the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiated by his friend and comrade Michael Collins which led to the Civil War; and who then led Ireland over 40 years as Taioseach and President during a period which is generally felt now to have been one of unhealthy social, religious and cultural conservatism.  

It was de Valera’s anti-Treaty Republicans, the losing side in the Civil War, who “appropriated ” the first commemorations of the Rising, said one contributor, Mary Daly, and it was they  who “claimed the spirit of 1916”.  Over the next decades, as Jones expressed it, de Valera “sacralised the Rising as a way of unifying the Irish people”. Gradually, however, perspectives did shift.  From the 1960s to the 1990s, said Fearghal McGarry, it was the violence of the Rising which was emphasised and criticised, while, in the 21st century, its socialist and feminist elements have been given greater attention.

 

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The Four Courts in Dublin, one of the combat zones during the Rising.

 

In general, the established commemoration of the Rising over the decades meant that the Irish fighting alongside the British during World War One became overshadowed, said John Horne. With subsequent Irish neutrality in World War Two and the later Troubles in Northern Ireland, it became “almost a taboo” to mention it, “a frozen memory” which, he suggested, has only recently become “unfrozen”. Furthermore, the British casualties of the Rising are rarely remembered, with the small memorial in the grounds of Trinity College Dublin regularly overlooked.

The 50th anniversary commemoration of the Rising in 1966 was on a large scale and envisioned by President de Valera as a way to “rejuvenate a nation”. It included what sounds like a fascinating television programme by the national broadcaster RTE called Insurrection, a drama documentary which presented the events over eight nights in the format of news bulletins. An artistic device which was employed around the same time by the Peter Watkins film The War Game and has been recycled in the UK in more recent times, I seem to recall, in commemorating anniversaries in the two World Wars.

 

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The Parnell Monument in Dublin to an earlier Irish nationalist leader had only recently been opened at the time of the 1916 Rising.

 

Several contributors analysed perceived connections between the ostentatious commemorations of 1966 in both Ireland and Northern Ireland with the rise of republican violence in the province from 1968. Terence O’Neill, then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, was said to have commented that large numbers of nationalists on the streets brandishing Irish tricolours provided unfortunate inspiration for both the nationalist and unionist communities. Margaret O’Callaghan dubbed this period “a pre-Troubles Troubles.” One particular outdoor event of Easter 1966, the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin by an IRA group, can be readily seen now as highly shocking and inflammatory.

No surprise, perhaps, that the present Irish government was nervous at first at how the centenary of the Rising might be marked. The initial publicity imagined a programme which emphasised aims which were inclusive and scholarly, so as not to undermine the political progress of the recent past. However, it was felt that the radical national origins of the Rising could not be ignored and the exhumation and state funeral of 1916 veteran Thomas Kent took place with an oration by Taioseach Enda Kenny which recalled Padraig Pearse’s oration for O’Donovan Rossa.  Jones also highlighted the reconciliatory initiative of a commemoration wall at Glasnevin cemetery which names the dead people of the Rising from all sides.

 

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Kilmainham Jail, where the leaders of the Rising were imprisoned and executed, was closed as a prison in 1924 and in later years became a museum and art gallery.

 

A tangential reference to one of the better-known films set during the 1916 period, Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. It was a film I liked much more the second time when I saw it as a lively thriller with some basis in fact rather than an authentic historical biography. I have often wondered if, instead of Liam Neeson, its producers ever considered casting as Collins a younger actor who bears a striking physical similarity to him, who was born and grew up in Northern Ireland, who would in 1995 have also been a reasonably bankable choice, and who would certainly have the acting range to convey fully the complexity and charisma of Collins: Kenneth Branagh. Until I find out the answer to that question, I can acknowledge that their choice of Alan Rickman as Eamon de Valera was definitely a good one.

 

  

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The Docherty family

 

Lanark by Alasdair Gray and Docherty by William McIlvanney are two novels by two contemporaries which are often collected together in lists of the best which Scottish writers have ever produced.  A further similarity they share is that within the past six months I finally got around to reading both.

On a BBC Scotland programme around 1980, I remember McIlvanney saying something highly provocative about  the role  of a writer, such as that Shakespeare’s only flaw as a writer was that he didn’t write about the working-class. In a later (1992) STV interview which is still available on You Tube, he described Docherty as an attempt to celebrate working-class life, which he felt that most literature ignored, or at best, categorised as something which should be escaped from.

Docherty is set in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, mostly during about 10 years on either side of World War One. Much of the book does evoke powerfully working-class life during the period, especially male working-class life. Scenes take place in the tiny Docherty house in High Street, Kilmarnock (which McIlvanney renames Graithnock), and in the streets around, in the coal mine where the Docherty men work, at weddings and funerals and in the countryside outside the town.

 

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“High Street was the capital of Conn (Docherty’s) childhood and boyhood…Both as a terrain and as a population (it) was special”. Part of the present-day High Street in Kilmarnock.

 

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“In one of the yards in Soulis Street they made wheels…you could creep into the stables under the railway arch that marked the beginning of the Foregate”. Behind is the Old High Kirk.

 

McIlvanney’s tone is serious and grave, moralistic, even pious. He seems to see himself almost as an anthropologist, explaining a way of life which the reader might not understand or appreciate without his help. In the 1992 TV interview he conceded that he did a lot of research, oral and reading. The result, as Alan MacGillivray suggests, is that McIlvanney’s style can be a bit too dense with imagery and that the words he puts into his characters’ mouths are often too heroic or sentimental.

For example, in these two pieces of description,

“High Street… was special. Everyone whom circumstances had herded into its hundred-or-so yards had failed in the same way. It was a penal colony for those who had committed poverty, a vice which was usually hereditary.”

and

“(Tam) saw families as little fortresses of loyalty and sanity and mutual concern, set defiantly in a landscape of legalised looting and social injustice”

However, that may be a reminder only that some of the literary giants who influenced McIlvanney  (he mentions Balzac, Flaubert and Melville in a 2010 interview with the Scottish Review of Books)  are figures from a hundred years or more ago.

 

Foregate

“High Street and its continuations of Soulis Street and Fore Street made a straight line to the Cross at the centre of the town”. Only a tiny part of Soulis Street still exists. The road would have led approximately across where this car park is now located and towards the right.

 

Tam Docherty, who lives “in a personal climate of squalls of sudden temper, spells of infectious pleasure that couldn’t be forecast (and) brief winters of brooding isolation”, and is “several men, not all of them nice”, dominates the first half of the novel. Later, we read more about the lives of his three sons, Mick, Angus and Conn.

For me, the best parts of the novel are those which depict how his sons, each similar to their intimidating father in some ways, are able to develop differences and independence from him partly because the world they are all growing up into is different. A phenomenon which of course repeats itself every generation.

The eldest, Mick, joins the army when war is declared, even though his father thinks it a “dishonourable…capitalist war”, and his battlefield injury seems to be the point which pushes Tam to a profound sense of his failure and lack of control over his life and environment.

Angus’ more individualist impulses, shown, first, by his joining a new coal mine and “contracting for the coal”  in a system of payment by results with a group of other miners, and, then, by his preferring to support financially a girl whom he has made pregnant rather than marry her, appal his father and prompt violent responses. “Ah’m better aff deid than needin’ the likes of you,” says Tam.

Finally, Conn, despite an aptitude for learning, prefers to leave school and work as a miner, ignoring his father’s statements about the importance of education and his potential for intellectual development.

 

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“To walk through Graithnock with (his grandfather) Mairtin was (for Conn) to be ambushed at every corner by the past. From the fluted pillar inset in the wall of the Old High Kirk ‘To the memory of Lord Soulis AD 1444’ (of whose murder Mairtin was able to give an eye-witness account)”. This inscription can still be read on the curve of the arch to the left.

 

Because all three sons have taken key attributes from their father, the true heir of Tam Docherty is a combination of all. As Mick and Conn have been compatible from childhood, the former feels that “you an’ me’s whit’s left o’ ma faither”:  he with his clear political ideas although with one arm missing from the war and Conn with physical strength and greater intelligence and imagination but ideas which are less defined. However, Angus’ capacity for hard work and belligerence is also an obvious bequest from his father, regardless of the fact that, as Angus says, “Ah wisny punching the right faces…Ah’m no playin for his team. An’ whit he kens is his team is gonny lose. An’ ah’m gonny win….”

A sharp piece of description of the social attitudes shifting around the young men shows Angus coming into the family home at a New Year party with three friends. “They  were all respectful enough but their self-confidence was somehow so gaudy that they couldn’t help making the others feel that they were bystanders at a procession. Like the soldiers of an army that has never been defeated, they didn’t know to come into a place without taking it over…The others felt their separateness, each being partly defined by not being one of that vigorous group who wore their smiles like badges (and) seemed to have taken out a joint lease on the 1920s”.

 

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“(Conn) found that thirty people had once been crushed to death in the old Laigh Kirk during a panic when the congregation thought the roof was falling in.”

 

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Kilmarnock Cross, to where “(Tam Docherty and Tadger Daly) had just stepped down…to bring in the New Year.” At the time when the novel was set, another statue, of Sir James Shaw, would have stood here rather than this of Burns. The street to the right of the curved building is the present-day version of Fore Street.

 

KayPark

“Conn tended more and more to happen offstage. His favourite place was in the Kay Park..”

 

Many are McIlvanney’s statements of working-class solidarity in the novel but no suggestion that political parties might be the conduits of that solidarity, until the last three pages when we hear that war veteran Mick has joined the Communist Party. This perhaps is a summary of how class loyalty for a man like Tam is a deep, inbred natural practice, which needs no formal leadership or assembly point. His shouted arguments against Angus’ proto-capitalism are not fully formed: “It’s too late for arrangements. A copper here, a bit of paper there…ma joab (is) tae deny them every day o’ ma’ life.” His admiration for Keir Hardie is mentioned as a “familiarity with a friend” rather than a follower of political ideals.

Likewise with trade unions. There is clear evidence of the solidarity between working men, such as at the pit accident at the end. However there are few mentions of union organisation, and one of the most noticeable is that of a strike which has failed, which leads Tam Docherty to say bleakly, “This is the feenish”.

In the story it tells and the way it is written, Docherty definitely reads like a book from a different era.

 

Reference:

McIlvanney, William (1987)   Docherty     London: Sceptre

 

  

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