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I saw Iron Man the other day. I enjoyed it, but don’t have enough to say about it to warrant a full review. Suffice to say it reminded me a lot of the first Spider-man film; well-written, with good characters and performances and a healthy sense of conviction in the exercise by all involved, but at the same time lacking the really big show-stopping scenes that would have made it more memorable (the climax is really just two guys in metal suits punching each other.) It made me think of these comments by Paul Rameker in an article I’ve linked to before, over at David Bordwell’s page:
I have a theory. In the contemporary comic-book blockbuster, the sequels will always be better than the first entries. Spider-Man 2 is better than Spider-Man, X-Men 2 is better than X-Men, and I will bet that The Dark Knight will be better than Batman Begins, just as Batman Returns was better than Batman. The pattern seems to me to be that the first film in the series is relatively impersonal – the franchise must be established as a franchise, meaning that few boats will be rocked, and the director must prove that they can handle both a film on that scale, and can be trusted with the property with all the investment it represents.
But once they’ve done so, in the above cases where the first films enjoyed significant economic (and critical) success, the directors are given a bit more leeway, are allowed to drive the family car a little further and a little faster. In each case, the second film in the series by the same director has been significantly more idiosyncratic. Batman Returns has much more of Burton’s sense of humor and interest in the grotesque; X-Men 2 is a much more serious and ambitious film narratively and thematically, more obviously the product of a prestige filmmaker (Singer’s never been an auteur by any stretch, so that will have to do). Spider-Man seemed sort of anonymous in terms of style, but Spider-Man 2 had a much more extensive and playful use of classic Raimi techniques: short, fast zooms; canted angles; rapid camera movements; whimsical motivations for techniques, like the mechanical-tentacle POV shot (virtually a repeat of his flying-eyeball POV from Evil Dead 2).
I would second all that and also add that these days, the sequel will get more money spent on it than the original; this and the more straightforward stories allowed once the “origin” story is out of the way means the second film in a series can usually be more action-focused. (Yes, this is a good thing.) The old idea that sequels gradually fade away in terms of quality should be considered completely dead, at least as far as first sequels go; third films in series remain much dodgier propositions.
Anyone who makes a habit of writing or even talking about films in any depth – debating meanings, interpretations, and so on – will sooner or later get the dismissive response: “well, you can make it mean anything, really, can’t you?” It can be a frustrating reaction, because often it is prompted by a knee-jerk resistance to the idea that there’s anything deeper going on in a medium such as film that is so synonymous with popular entertainment. It becomes particularly maddening when it can be easily verified that an interpretation under discussion was intended by the filmmakers: so, for example, if someone is dismissive of the idea that High Noon has a subtext commenting on McCarthayism, despite screenwriter Carl Foreman having endorsed that reading. At the same time, though, such scepticism serves a purpose in demanding some sort of justification: either a recourse to evidence that the filmmaker intended a reading, or an explanation of why a reading unintended by the filmmaker is nevertheless plausible and useful. That’s a positive impulse, and part of the fun of interpreting and discussing films is haggling over where to draw the line between an interesting interpretation and an unsustainable crock.
One of the best people writing about film is David Bordwell, co-author of the textbook Film Art, a staple of university film courses. It’s great to be able to read his writing for free, on a regular basis, and I’ve plugged one of his articles here before.
Slightly belatedly, I thought it was also worth pointing out his article on shaky camera / fast cut filmmaking, which focuses on Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum. The Bourne flick is long gone from cinemas, but the discussion of this style of direction should be with us for years: how many reviews of modern action films have you seen that complain about this way of shooting? (Certainly all mine do).
What’s notable about Bordwell’s article is that he pushes the discussion well beyond the usual grizzling about this style of shooting and analyses in detail what is going on. As he points out, it’s more than just the length of shots and the shakiness of the camera at work: it’s also about how shots are framed, the proximity of the camera to its subject, the way the camera focusses (and pulls focus), and the placement of cuts (as opposed to simply the length of the shots between the cuts). All this is done in some detail with very clear frame captures from the Bourne film as examples.
One of my happy discoveries of the last few months has been that David Bordwell has his own website (with longtime writing partner Kristin Thompson); Bordwell is one of the best film academics around, and his writing is always stimulating. (I also have his latest book The Way Hollywood Tells It on my shelf waiting to be read – only the fact that it arrived with Michael Barriers’ The Animated Man and J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars has kept me from it).
One thing I enjoy about his writing is that he avoids the same complacent narratives you hear all the time. He knows his film history and film art better than anybody – he’s co-author of Film Art and Film History: An Introduction, the books from which just about everybody else learnt what they know – and he doesn’t just settle for the simple familiar story we always hear. So, for example he and some similarly minded colleagues have responded in this article here to the common refrain that sequels are the ultimate creative cop-out, that Hollywood just wants to sell us the same idea over and over again, blah blah blah. (Bordwell is too polite to put it quite this way, but for my own money the way the film press tediously recycles this basic premise every American summer is as good an example of autopilot as the summer sequel season itself).
This is a recycled undergraduate essay, originally written in October 2002; I’ve left it on the page as I think it holds up relatively well as a survey of some of the main writing on Citizen Kane, and it used to get a lot of hits when it was posted on my old page.
Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) is probably the most celebrated film that has ever been made: it is unnecessary to recite the list of top tens that it has dominated to make this point. It is a cliché that Citizen Kane is “the greatest movie that ever has been or will be made.”(1) In this role it acts in the kind of calibrating role that Shakespeare’s plays do in literature: when arguments about canon formation threaten to descend into squabbles about the subjectivity of greatness, Citizen Kane serves a useful function as a marker of almost universally accepted merit. A cursory glance at the literature on the film highlights the fact that it has attracted the attention of many of the most prominent writers on film, across the spectrum from both popular critics to academics. The list includes Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, David Thomson, Peter Bogdanovich, Andre Bazin, Andrew Sarris, David Bordwell, Noel Carroll, Laura Mulvey, and many others.(2) This veritable rogue’s gallery of big names attests to the insatiable urge amongst critics and theorists across the cultural spectrum to add their own take on Kane. Given that most of these writers ascribe to the essential view of Kane is a masterpiece, they add an impressive strength to its cultural status. Yet upon closer examination the inevitable diversity of opinions amongst these writers makes it harder to describe the “Kane as masterpiece” positioon as unified. The writing on Citizen Kane starts to resemble the film’s eyewitness descriptions of Kane himself: the more contradictory explanations of the movie are offered, the harder it is to reconcile a clear view of what the film’s virtues really are. Often, a particular account of the film is also accompanied by an implicit (or even explicit) assertion that it is the writer’s own view that really describes the film’s central great qualities. Such an invocation of a critical “Rosebud” – the observation or critical approach that really serves to throw the jumbled mass of Citizen Kane into focus – is to be expected. One such critical “Rosebud” is Noel Carroll’s essay on the film, which speaks of two contradictory meanings in the film and suggests a way of reconciling them. In this essay, I will use Carroll’s article as a starting point for a survey of popular writers on Kane (Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, and David Thomson) and more academic approaches (Carroll, David Bordwell, and Laura Mulvey), noting in particular their divergent approaches to the key question: what is Citizen Kane really saying?