“Citizen Kane” - Orson Welles (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941) was initially a box-office failure, but it went on to be nominated for nine US Film Academy Awards (Oscars) and become one of the most famous movies ever made. Critics and film scholars have been almost uniform in their praise – it regularly topped Sight and Sound’s poll of critics, conducted very ten years from 1962 to 2002, and it topped the American Film Institute’s lists of greatest movies in 1998 and 2007.  And even the making of the film has been the subject of numerous book-length studies [1,2,3,4] and Oscar-nominated documentary films (e.g., The Battle Over Citizen Kane, (1996). 

Controversy over the making of the film has primarily been concerned with (a) efforts on the part of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, on whose life much of the film’s material is based, to limit the film’s distribution and (b) questions about the degree to which the 25-year-old Orson Welles, who produced, directed, and starred in the film, deserved credit for also being the co-author of the script.  I won’t go into those issues, here, but I think it’s fair to say that the film was a technical marvel and had a revolutionary effect on subsequent film expression for many top filmmakers.  But my concern here is not so much on how the filmmakers achieved their superb effects (which were amazing, given the technical constraints of the day under which they operated), but is instead on how the film looks to a modern audience today.

The story of Citizen Kane is a character study over the life and career of a wealthy and ambitious newspaper magnate.  For legal reasons the film purports to be a fictionalized account, but there is no doubt that this portrait is very much based on the life of William Randolph Heart, a famous contemporary figure and, to a lesser extent, on the life of Samuel Insull, another wealthy magnate. So one might expect that this production would take the form of a documentary film with an attempt to give a realistic account of a historical figure (and indeed Citizen Kane starts off under the pretense of a documentary).  But instead of delivering documentary realism, Citizen Kane comes up with one of the all-time great presentations of expressionistic filmmaking.

How Orson Welles accomplished such a feat is still amazing to consider. He said that in preparation for his first film directorial effort (he was already a theatrical stage actor and producer), he privately watched John Ford’s film Stage Coach (1939) some forty times, with  a varying collection of technical professionals on hand to give him advice on how effects were achieved. Irrespective of who deserves credit for what, Welles had an estimable collection of professionals working on the production staff as collaborators, including cinematographer Gregg Toland, film editor Robert Wise, and musical composer Bernard Herrmann – and, of course, scriptwriter Herman Mankiewicz.  What this team came up with was a dazzling display of various effects that worked together to achieve the expressionistic presentation of a psychological investigation – who was Charles Foster Kane, and what did he ultimately seek? 

Of course, that is a question that occupies all of us, but Kane had the means and energy to pursue his quest to the ends of the earth.  He followed his own compass and achieved many things, but there was something that always eluded him.  To portray this life-long quest, the dark recesses of the soul are externally portrayed in expressionistic form as the film narrative proceeds. There are several innovative technical elements that stand out as some of the real strong points of ths film.  In fact, to a certain extent, these expressive strengths are so significant that they really represent the core of what we appreciate about Citizen Kane:
  • the narrative framing into separate reflective accounts that present the investigation into Kane’s psyche in different strains and according to the varying perspectives of the narrators;
  • the smooth, but disconcerting, time transitions that collapse entire decades of historical events into a single scene (these provoke a certain unease at just how variable time is in the course of life);
  • the innovative deep-focus photography, which pulls the viewer, who is normally a somewhat objective silent witness, into a labyrinthine involvement in what goes on;
  • the bizarre low-angle and high-angle camera compositions that provide an atmospheric presentation of the enclosing (and sometimes emotionally menacing) environment;
  • the moody and emphatic music, both onscreen and off, of Bernard Herrmann.
The story of Citizen Kane is told by means of a framing story that encloses five successive accounts of Kane, as seen from varying perspectives.  These accounts more or less cover the key events in Kane’s life between 1871, when he was about eight years old, to 1941, when he dies of a heart attack.  At the begining of the film, Kane has just died and movie magazine journalists are looking for a way to tell the story of Kane’s life.  It is known that Kane’s last spoken words were, “Rosebud”, but noone knows what that means.  A reporter, Jerry Thompson (William Alland), is given the task of interviewing various past acquaintances of Kane to see if he can find out the mystery behind the meaning of “Rosebud”.  This leads to the five successive narratives:
  1. The “News on the March” Movie Newsreel  Narrative (13 minutes) is a presumably objective overview of Kane’s entire life as seen by the public.
  2. The Walter Thatcher Narrative (28 minutes) is a relatively objective, external account that outlines Kane’s rise as newspaperman and crusader for public causes as seen from the perspective of the wealthy banker, Walter Park Thatcher (George Coulouris). 
  3. The Bernstein Narrative (20 minutes) covers the early years (roughly 1888 to 1902) of Kane’s career as seen from the sympathetic perspective of Kane’s loyal assistant, Mr. Bernstein.  This is a more personal perspective and sees Kane as a charismatic personality.
  4. The Jed Leland Narrative (24 minutes) covers the next sixteen years are so from the perspective of Kane’s best friend, Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton).  Leland is moralistic and critical of Kane’s ultimate purposes, which he condemns as narcissistic.
  5. The Susan Alexander Narrative (32 minutes) covers Kane’s declining years when he was married to his second wife, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore).
1. The “News on the March” Narrative
This is a newsreel produced by the movie magazine journalists that presents a presumably objective overview of Kane’s entire life as seen by the public. 

We learn some basic facts, such as that Kane was extraordinarily wealthy and owned a chain of newspapers; that he prominently engaged in “yellow journalism” and helped urge on the Spanish-American War; and that he had been a rising political star whose populist demagoguery led his opponents to brand him variously as a fascist and a communist. In response to those charges, Kane said that he wasn’t either of those two, but was simply “an American”.  (Echoing Kane’s statement only a few days ago, Edward Snowden, who has blown the whistle on the US National Security Association’s mass violation of citizen privacy, remarked to a reporter, "I'm neither traitor nor hero. I'm an American." [5] ) 

Kane married the US President’s niece in 1902, but she left him in 1916 on account of his  affair with a lower-class woman, the public revelation of which ruined Kane’s political career.  In 1918 his wife and young son were killed in an auto accident, but by this time Kane was married to the other woman, who aspired to be an opera singer.  After the Stock Market Crash of 1929 dismembered his newspaper empire, Kane retired to his vast and never-finished castle-like estate, “Xanadu”, and gradually became a recluse.

2. The Walter Park Thatcher Narrative
Jerry Thompson now consults the private library of Walter Thatcher, Kane’s original guardian and financial manager. Born to a poor family, Kane had inherited enormous wealth at the age of eight (“the world’s sixth largest private fortune”), and Thatcher, a stuffy banker from New York, was the one who looked after Kane’s holdings while the boy grew up. When Kane reached the age of twenty-five and assumed control over his financial empire, he immediately bought a newspaper, the New York Inquirer, and began his career of yellow journalism. Like the first narrative, this account is also relatively mater-of-fact, and it includes one of those famous time-transition scenes: Thatcher says “Merry Christmas . . . “ to Kane when he is eight years old, and then the shot dissolves into Thatcher, now visibly older, continuing the phrase by saying, “. . . and a Happy New Year!”.  Seventeen years pass by in one continuous dissolve.  Although in this sequence Thatcher shows himself to be horrified at becoming a key target of Kane’s public crusades against financial cronyism, the viewer is given a rather sympathetic portrayal of Kane as an idealistic spokesman for the public good.

3.  The Bernstein Narrative
Still knowing nothing about “rosebud”, the reporter Thompson goes to visit Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Kane’s longtime friend and chief assistant.  When asked about “rosebud”, Bernstein warns Thompson how brief, seemingly trivial, moments can long linger in a person’s memory. To give an example, he refers to a personal moment of his that happened forty-five years earlier:
”I was crossing over to jersey on the ferry.  As we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in.  And on it there was a girl waiting to get off.   A white dress she had on.  She was carrying a white parasol.  I only saw her for one second.  She didn’t see me at all. But I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”
There is another one of those time-capsuling dissolves in this section when a photo showing the staff of Kane’s rival New York newspaper, The Chronicle, dissolves into an essentially identical photo six years later showing that they had all been bought by Kane’s money to go work for the The Inquirer.

This section also features perhaps the best scene in the film: a staff party at The Inquirer celebrating the success of the newspaper. There are brilliantly composed shots here featuring sound and visual combinations across multiple parties and in depth – such as one showing Kane dancing with hired chorus girls in the background while Leland expresses his doubts to Bernstein in the foreground.

Essentially this narrative, which closes with the news that Kane has married the US President’s niece, reflects Bernstein’s loyally supportive view and shows Kane to be charismatic, idealistic, and effective.  He is at his high-water mark.

4.  The Jed Leland Narrative
Continuing his search, Thompson visits a retirement to interview Jedediah Leland, who had long been Kane’s best friend and had worked for Kane newspapers as a drama critic. There is another famous time-capsuled multiple-dissolve scene here, which measures the decline of Kane’s marriage by showing Kane and his wife, Emily (Ruth Warrick), in a series of similar shots at the breakfast table but spread out over sixteen years. This section also recounts his early affair with Susan Alexander, who serenaded Kane with her singing voice, and how this affair led to the end of Kane’s promising political career in 1916. 

Leland blamed Kane for not following his own stated principles, and there is an interesting scene comprising three long (93, 96, and 70 seconds in length), low-angle moving-camera shots showing Leland vocalizing his criticisms and asking to be transferred to the Chicago newspaper.  But this turned out not be a safe enough distance for Leland, and an outspokenly critical column of his criticizing Susan Alexander’s opera performance led to his dismissal and a termination of his relationship with Kane.

5.  The Susan Alexander Narrative

Still searching for something about “rosebud”, Thompson visits Susan Alexander at her nightclub, which she operated after divorcing Kane.  This dreary account shows two people with little in common and the resulting boredom of their life together. Kane stubbornly tried to push Susan’s singing career, but the poor woman had neither the will nor the talent to be successful and only became miserable as a result. 

In the closing scenes, Thompson never finds out anything about “rosebud”, although he has learned quite a bit about Kane’s life.  In the final images, though, the viewer is shown the key to what “rosebud” meant nominally and can speculate what its metaphorical significance was to Kane.
Thus each of the five narratives shows succeeding portions of Kane’s life from progressively narrower and more personal perspectives.  The early narratives provide the public view, while the later narratives offer successively more intimate and critical views of Kane.  Leland criticized Kane as wanting to be loved rather than offering his own love unconditionally.  Susan Alexander felt she was merely an accessory to Kane’s own grandiose ambitions.  So as the focus progressively narrows, Kane is shown to be essentially hollow and selfishly unaware of what the people around him wanted.

On the whole and despite some extraordinarily powerful expressionistic elements to the story, not everything is ideal in Citizen Kane. The Susan Alexander section is too long and drains some of the narrative momentum that had been built up in earlier sections. The character study of Kane is not entirely convincing, either. If we take a step back from the emotionally colored material presented to us, we can perhaps be a bit more sympathetic to Kane. After all, some presumably key events in Kane’s life are merely alluded to, such as his courtship with Emily and the tragic death of Emily and his son.  So we only get a prejudiced selection of events, and other events were of little concern to the narrators talking about Kane, so they are not covered in their accounts. Leland and Susan Alexander, when you reflect on them, are rather selfish, too. They seem to have little empathy for Kane and little interest in making him happy. They merely criticize him for not doing enough to fulfill their own desires, and they offer little in return. And how different were Kane’s dogged attempts to propel Susan Alexander’s career from the currently popular “positive” American attitude of never giving up on one’s goal, as is projected by US star sportsmen such as Michael Jordan? Kane’s never-give-up determination must have been crucially responsible for some successes in his life, too, no?

In fact as a character study, I would consider the depiction of Nader in Farhadi’s A Sepaaration (2011) to be far more subtle and revealing than what is shown in Citizen Kane. Nevertheless, there is something interesting about placing the viewer in the vicarious role of a reporter seeking to extract a kernel of truth from a succession of prejudicial accounts – and this style of truth extraction came well before its cruder portrayal of Rashomon (1950).

But anyway it’s not the character study, by itself, that makes Citizen Kane a great film. What is great about the film is its expressionistic immersion of the viewer into quasi-nightmarish emotional environments as felt by the various people that Thompson talks to. This is the same kind of effect that has powered film noir, and it is no wonder that Citizen Kane had a powerful effect on subsequent film noir productions. After all, films are not really about reality; they more accurately reflect our dreams and nightmares.

  1. Kael, Pauline (ed.), The Citizen Kane Book, Little and Brown, Boston, (1971).
  2. Ronald Gottesman, Perspectives on Citizen Kane, G.K. Hall & Co., New York, ISBN 978-0-8161-1616-4, (1996).
  3. Robert L. Carringer, The Making of Citizen Kane, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-05367-2, (1996).
  4. Laura Mulvey, Citizen Kane, British Film Institute, London, ISBN 0-85170-339-9, (1992).
  5. Lana Lam, "EXCLUSIVE: Whistle-blower Edward Snowden talks to South China Morning Post", South  China Morning Post, 13 June 2013, (http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1259335/exclusive-whistle-blower-edward-snowden-talks-south-china-morning).

Orson Welles

Films of Orson Welles:

“Les Mistons” - Francois Truffaut (1957)

Francois Truffaut’s first real film was the seventeen-minute short, Les Mistons (The Mischief Makers, 1957), a lyrical cinematic reminiscence about romantic love seen from the confused, external perspective of young boys. The five boys in this story are all at that stage of adolescence, about 12-years-old,  when the mysterious attraction of the opposite sex first begins to dawn on them.  They are not really distinguished as individuals – they are collective, a pack of “brats” (the approximate English meaning of the title, “Les Mistons”) who revel in the adolescent pack-mentality of naughty boys eager to exercise their new-found freedom of action by being trouble makers. There is something magical about this age of discovery, to which Truffaut had a considerable sensitivity and fascination – it is the same age as the protagonist of his upcoming seminal first feature, The 400 Blows (1959). Indeed, Truffaut was working on the script for The 400 Blows at the time of production of Les Mistons. In the story of Les Mistons, though, the perspective is not directly that of a young boy, as is that of The 400 Blows, but is instead that of a reflective older narrator who is pensively recollecting on his past as one member of the pack of boys. The film location was the southern French town of Nimes, and some of the scenes are shot in the town’s famous Roman Amphitheater, which dates back to Roman times.
As young boys grow into their teens, they often like to imagine themselves in aggressive role-playing scenarios – and in Les Mistons the brat pack are shown engaging in fantasy shootouts in which they imagine themselves getting shot and heroically falling in slow motion.  But how do you imagine something you know nothing about, such as romantic love?  In this story, the boys have their first vicarious experiences of love, by observing the evolving summer romance of a young woman, Bernadette, who is the older sister of one of the “brats”. But it is all a mystery to them (and, come to think of it, still a mystery to me, too). All of the boys are captivated by the natural grace and beauty of Bernadette, but they have no idea how to respond to their newly awakened feelings of rapture.  Indeed, there is nothing they really can do; and anyway the boys have no idea of what romantic togetherness means, even in their fantasies. So they all reject the very idea of romantic love as yucky and something to be despised.  

In the opening scenes, we see extended shots of Bernadette zooming along through a park on her bicycle so that the breeze exposes her beautiful legs.  The boys love to spy on the woman gliding past on these occasions, as if she is local forest nymph.  Sometimes, when Bernadette has parked her bicycle somewhere and walked away, the boys approach the bicycle and unconsciously marvel that such a vehicle has recently hosted such a goddess.  One of the boys even kisses the bicycle seat where Bernadette had so recently been sitting.

But this collective ardor in limbo is finally ruptured when they learn that Bernadette has taken on a real boyfriend – a young man from town named Gerard.  The feelings that Bernadette and Gerard have for each other are beyond the boys’ comprehension, and the boys instinctively reject their love as something to be mocked and ridiculed.

So for the rest of that summer the brat pack follows Bernadette and Gerard around the town, usually at a safe distance, often looking for opportunities to torment the couple by laughing at them. On one occasion they sneak up on Bernadette and Gerard kissing in the Roman Amphitheater and then raucously give them the raspberries.  Another time they jeer the couple when they are stealing a kiss at the local cinema [1]. At other times, though, they just want to approach more closely; so they always make sure to attend Bernadette’s weekly tennis engagement with Gerard so that they can retrieve any errant tennis balls and have the thrill of handing them back to her.

As the summer goes on, the brats escalate their “attacks” on the loving couple. On one occasion they follow the couple heading for a tryst in the park and make a surprise interruption to the lovers’ romantic embraces. Although the boys are delightedly amused by the pranks, Gerard is increasingly peeved, and on this occasion he slaps one of the boys.  

When the summer ends and Gerard takes leave of the tearful Bernadette to go off on a mountain-climbing expedition, he earnestly promises wedding bells for her when he returns. The brats, meanwhile, proudly plan their boldest annoyance yet: sending Bernadette a signed (by the “Brats”) postcard suggestively accusing her of engaging in immoral acts. But life has its own mysterious course, and this supposedly brilliant prank is crushingly countered by the news that Gerard has died on the mountain-climbing expedition. 

The deserved mortification that was due from their nasty behaviour was late in coming. The narrator recalls seeing Bernadette one last time, in autumn, as she sadly walked down a sidewalk in mourning clothes, oblivious to their observation.  On that occasion, the narrator says, he felt more pity than shame. 

Although the story of Les Mistons seems supposedly about the brats, it is actually about the mystery and ephemerality of love and youth. As such, the true subject is really Bernadette (and her relationship with Gerard), and not the brats.  The role of Gerard was played by Gerard Blain (Les Cousins, 1959, The American Friend, 1977) [2].  The role of Bernadette was played by Bernadette Lafont, a native of Nimes who was only 18 in this, her film debut. Truffaut devotes his mise-en-scene throughout this film to celebrating his alluring subject, and it is very much visually focused on Lafont’s curvaceous and sensuous form.  This is not here so much an expressionistic romanticizing of glamour, a la von Sternberg, as it is a naturalistic celebration of a voluptuous and yet innocent child of nature [3]. 
So what is it about such moments of beauty and bliss that often elicit embarrassed rejection on the part of many uncomprehending males?  We see this kind of thing in many cultures, in some more than others, where the men somehow feel weak and humiliated by feelings of love.  It is somehow felt that it is unmanly to feel such empathy towards another – especially towards someone so different from oneself. So they respond with hatred.  Some cultures actually institutionalize such hatred in order to celebrate a “masculinity” that is only self-deluding. The narrator of Les Mistons has come to realize the folly of this kind of reaction and its adolescent source. At this early age in life, the boys in the film felt these amorous stirrings and rejected them, to the point of trying to mock the very idea.  The narrator now ruefully regrets his adolescent squeamishness about  love and his resulting attempts, with the other brats, to interfere with something that was mysteriously beautiful and which should instead have been revered.  Now, more experienced, he knows that those mysterious moments are all-too fleeting and when lost, can never be recovered.

  1. There are brief shots of the film that Bernadette and Gerard are supposedly watching at the movie theater that show a youthful Jean-Claude Brialy, who would become a fixture of many New Wave films. See, for example, Les Cousins (1959).
  2. Their ardor for each other was natural and convincing, and indeed Blain and Lafont were married during this period (1957-1959). 
  3. For further interesting comment on Les Mistons, see Wheeler Winston Dixon, “Les Mistons”, Senses of Cinema, February 2006, http://sensesofcinema.com/2006/cteq/mistons/.

Francois Truffaut

Films of Francois Truffaut:

“The 400 Blows” - Francois Truffaut (1959)

The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959), written and directed by Francois Truffaut, stands as a landmark film in several respects – in particular because it marked, along with Le Beau Serge (1958) and Breathless (À Bout de Souffle, 1960), the beginning of the French New Wave movement in filmmaking. The New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) emerged from a coterie of writers and critics around Andre Bazin and included Truffaut, Jean-Luc GodardClaude Chabrol, Alain Resnais, Louis Malle, and Eric Rohmer. Their motivation was primarily that of rebellion from the conventional cinematic fare of the day, and they sought to explore more spontaneous and less theatrical forms of film expression, which makes these films difficult to typecast. Nevertheless, there is something about The 400 Blows that separates it from those  contemporary works in terms of its authenticity, originality, and enduring relevance to our current existence.

This was the first feature film of writer-director Francois Truffaut, and the story of the film closely parallels Truffaut’s own troubled experiences growing up in Paris.  The events depicted here cover the everyday adventures of Antoine Doinel, a 12- or 13-year-old boy who struggles to make his way in a rather unsympathetic environment. The film’s title, incidentally, is derived from French phrase "faire les quatre cents coups", which means something like “making trouble” or “raising hell” and refers to the kinds of shenanigans and horseplay that teenagers the world over get themselves into.  As we watch the film progress, we see that Antoine is progressively branded as more and more of a juvenile delinquent, and yet we find him to be essentially innocent and a more of a victim than a perpetrator.  Almost everyone (at least among men, I think) can identify with Antoine’s experiences and understand things from his perspective. 

The story of the film is quite episodic, but it transpires almost in progressive round-robin fashion across three social environments of varying degrees of intimacy and control.

  1. The Institutional Environment (IEnv).  This is the adult social world, and for Antoine, it is initially his public school, although it later devolves into the correction system and reform school. There are rigid rules administered by adults that must be followed, or penalties will arise.  For essentially minor offences Antoine finds himself ostracized and eventually cast out of his school and into a harsher regime.  The interactions Antoine has with people in this realm are cold and formal, with no empathy or sympathy extended.
  2. The Home Environment (HEnv).  This is a more intimate environment, but is also run by adults.  Here rules are set, but more personal and nurture-motivated interactions are expected to prevail.  The interactions with his parents are more personal, but they are burdened with hypocrisy and selfishness on the parent side.
  3. The Friends Environment (FEnv).  This is the only honest and personally straightforward  space for Antoine.  Although there are some classmate rivalries, Antoine’s best friend, Rene, is the only person who is willing to share things equally with Antoine.
Note that by identifying these three spheres of activity, I do not mean to suggest that the film embodies a global, gods-eye architectural view of existence.  It is very much an existentialistic story seen from Antoine’s point of view, but within these three perspectival contexts.

Throughout the story, Antoine is amazingly straightforward with everyone, and indeed he rather manfully accepts his misfortunes without complaint.  But we sense the unspoken: that he seeks escape from a suffocating world of hypocrisy.  He, like all young teenagers, wants to have the chance, at least sometimes, to have fun.

As the film story progresses, it moves, via slow disclosure among the three realms, through four general stages of increasing alienation for Antoine.
1.  Troubles at School
In the opening sequence at school (IEnv), Antoine and his mates (in an all-boy classroom) are shown to be bored with the stultifying pedantry of their dogmatic teacher.  Antoine is unlucky to be the one caught with a naughty picture that is being surreptitiously passed around during the lecture. At home in his family’s cramped apartment (HEnv), Antoine’s strict mother reveals herself to be rather vain and impatient with her son. There is also tension between his father and mother, whose suspected marital infidelity seems to be almost an open secret.  With Antoine’s friend (FEnv), Rene, however, life is more congenial.  The next day the two friends decide to play hooky from school, and they have fun at a movie and an amusement park.  On the street, though, Antoine happens to see his mother in the distance kissing a strange man; and she also notices Antoine, which turns out to have short-term benefits for Antoine.  Anyway, Antoine now needs to come up with an excuse to give to the teacher as to why he missed class that day. 

2.  Home Improvement
Unwisely following Rene’s advice that big lies are better than small ones, Antoine reports at school that his absence was caused by his mother’s death.  The lie is quickly exposed, and Antoine is harshly slapped in front of the whole class by his father.  Antoine’s standings in the IEnv and the HEnv have reached new lows.  Disconsolate, Antoine decides that his only option now is to run away from home, and Rene lets him into his uncle’s abandoned print shop to sleep there. But the next day, Antoine’s mother shows up at school to fetch Antoine home again. She is probably concerned that Antoine will snitch about her likely observed infidelity on the street, and she now treats her boy with motherly kindness.  She offers him a big prize if his upcoming school essay gets a good grade.

With idealistic fervor, Antoine is so inspired from reading one of Balzac’s works that he commits some lines to memory, and he sets up a little shrine with a candle in the apartment to honor the great writer.  When the burning candle causes a fire in the apartment, though, Antoine is surprised to see his mother kindly intervene to stop his father from punishing the boy.  Then, somewhat out of the character we have seen so far, she gaily urges them all to go out and enjoy a movie.  So the HEnv situation  seems to be much better now.

3.  On his Own
Later in school, though, everything collapses. Antoine’s memorized phraseology from Balzac leads to a plagiarism charge and expulsion from the school until January (the events in this film appear to be taking place in the Christmas season, so January would be about a month away). When Rene loyally sticks up for him, he is also expelled, for impudence. Antoine now stoically accepts that his parents will utterly reject him, and he decides to run away again and stay with Rene, whose parents are well off but neglectful of what their child is doing.  Antoine has now chosen the FEnv to the exclusion of the IEnv and the Henv (how many boys have not contemplated such a choice at some point?).

Back on the street the boys are having a raucous good time again – going to movies, smoking cigars, taking in a puppet show, playing backgammon, and naughtily shooting their peashooters at passers by from an upstairs window.  But they soon realize that if they are going be on their own, they will need money, and they decide to steal a typewriter from Antoine’s father’s office and pawn it.  This scheme disastrously falls apart, and Antoine is arrested and turned over to his father.

4.  Out of Options
Fed up with his son, Antoine’s father has the boy charged with a crime and jailed.  The cold institutional environment has now gone from school to twenty-four hour confinement.  Shipped like a common criminal to a juvenile delinquency center, Antoine is interviewed by a psychologist intent on scientifically collecting data about the new inmate.  In response to the frosty impersonal questions, Antoine’s answers are open and guileless.  Asked why his parents complain that he lies, Antoine says,
“At times. . . . If I told the truth they wouldn’t believe me.” 
Asked why he doesn’t love his mother, Antoine informs them that he knew he was an illegitimate child and that his mother had wanted to abort him: 

“At first I was placed with a foster mother. When the money ran out, I went to Grandma’s.  Then she got old and couldn’t keep me, so I went to live with my folks, but I was already 8.  I realized Mom didn’t like me much.”   
On visiting day his mother and Rene separately show up, but only his mother is allowed in.  And she is only there to issue her final rejection. “Don’t play the martyr”, she says, “your father says he doesn’t care what happens to you.” Now the FEnv and HEnv are closed off to him, and only the constrictive IEnv remains. Unbowed, Antoine slips away from the center during a soccer game and runs.  In a memorable eighty-second tracking shot, we see him running desperately, finally arriving at the seashore, where he can go no further.

There are several key elements to the film that enhance the emotional effects so important to the film.  The piano music score of Jean Constantin is lyrical and wistful, evoking a sense of inner loneliness.  The acting performances are excellent, particularly that of Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine.  Of memorable note is Leaud’s naturalistic responses to the psychologist’s interrogation near the end of the film. Leaud would go on to become a favorite actor of Truffaut and Godard, but his debut performance here, so authentically embodying innocent earnestness without self-pity, was his best, in my opinion.  Albert Remy and Claire Maurier who played Antoine’s parents also do well to portray parents with initially good intentions but who are too preoccupied with their own selfish concerns.

The cinematography of Henri Decaë is also noteworthy.  Decaë is one of my favorites, and his work with Chabrol and Jean-Pierre Melville I highly recommend.  Here he managed effective compositions in the difficult cinemascope (2.35:1 ratio) framing and executed numerous moving-camera shots (including that long tracking shot at the end) with great effect.

The 400 Blows, much better than other well-known youth films of the time, such as The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955), captures the innate existential longing that young people have for something more engaging than the dim and compromised world that is set before them. Antoine is branded as a troublemaker, but we can so readily identify with him that we should all be equally so branded.  He is not malicious, but like all boys, he wants to have some fun sometimes, too.  The story seems commonplace, but Truffaut tells it so well that it captures the essence of this inarticulate feeling that there must be something more to life.  Truffaut made many fine films in his career, but he never surpassed this one, his first feature.

“The White Meadows” - Mohammad Rasoulof (2009)

Unlike most Iranian films, which for practical reasons have focused on the circumstances of a few individual characters, Mohammad Rasoulof’s films, such as Iron Island (Jazireh Ahani, 2005) and Head Wind (Baad-e-Daboor, 2008), have often cast their gaze on the entire society. This is a dangerous cinematic enterprise, given the sociopolitical climate in today’s Iran, and Rasoulof has suffered severe consequences for exercising his right to artistic expression.  In December 2010 he, along with fellow Iranian film artist Jafar Panahi, was sentenced by the Iranian government on charges of “propagandizing against the regime” to 6-year prison term and a 20-year ban from making movies, giving interviews, or leaving the country [1].

In addition to Rasoulof’s support of the ill-fated Green Movement during the controversial 2009 Iranian presidential “election”, it is possible that the film he released that same year, The White Meadows (Keshtzar Haye Sepid), may have particularly angered the Iranian authorities.  Like his earlier film Iron Island, The White Meadows depicts in symbolic form a microcosmic society operating according to oppressive rules.  But while the oppression in Iron Island could be dismissed as arising from the depravities of a single agent, i.e. the captain, the oppression depicted in The White Meadows is indicative of a pervasive social disorder.  There is something endemically wrong with the entire social belief system as it is presented in The White Meadows.  Of course everything in the film is cast in allegory, and the film does not make overt critical references to the current Iranian system. Thus it could be viewed as a general philosophical lament against man’s susceptibility to rely on superstition to account for the dangerous world around him.  But most viewers of the film will narrow their focus and look for analogies in an Iranian context.

Certainly the most striking feature of the film is its open-ended mythic imagery. The succession of fantastic scenes offer no clear-cut answers as to what is going on, and the film’s ultimate obscurity counts as its poetic strength (but also as a narrative weakness).  The evocative imagery will persist in the viewer's memory, and it has all been masterfully crafted by veteran cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafouri. But this film’s narrative obscurity and consequential ambiguity leave a cloud of uncertainty over everyting.  In this connection I will discuss five specific questions I have about the story later on.

The story of The White Meadows is set in the desolate landscape of Lake Urmia in western Iran, which is a huge salt lake that is essentially an inland sea.  The area is subject to droughts, and exploitation of agricultural water from the lake’s basin that has raised salinity levels to the point where aquatic life has been severely diminished.  The poor native people in the area pray for rain that never comes, and they fall back on superstitious beliefs in hopes of appeasing local spirits that have presumably cursed the region with drought. 

At the beginning of the film, we see a lone figure, Rahmat, rowing to one of the sea’s islands in his dinghy.  His mysterious occupation, we soon learn, is to collect the tears from the local people and take them for some unknown future purpose.  These tears are believed to have some magical import, and some of the people believe that Rahmat can turn them into pearls.  For the rest of the film the focalization is entirely on Rahmat as he travels to five desolate, salt-covered islands collecting tears.  Each visit has a separate symbolic story to it, with unexplained elements that add to the mystery.

1.  First island
Rahmat’s first visit is to retrieve the dead body of a beautiful young woman.  A senior figure of the island tells Rahmat that the woman was too beautiful – other women were jealous of her, and the men were “humiliated” by her beauty.  This is certainly a problem in many parts of the world where men feel weakened by their attraction to women.  Their solution is to blame and punish the source of the attraction, and one suspects that this particular woman was murdered for this reason. For preservation, the woman’s body is kept covered in salt, and we only see her foot in a red sandal (more about the red sandal later).  Here, as in all the other island visits, Rahmat carefully collects into his little glass pitcher the tears that flow down the villagers’ cheeks as they reflect on their sorrows.

When Rahmat sets out to sea in his dinghy with the covered body onboard, he discovers that a teenage boy (the “Boy”, for our future reference) has disguised himself as the dead woman’s body (and is wearing the same red sandals) in an effort to escape the island.  Rahmat first throws the stowaway into the water, but eventually agrees to take him along with him, as long as the Boy pretends to be a deaf mute in front of other people.

2.  Second island
When they arrive at the second island, they see a blind man who has discovered a red sandal washed up at the shore.  He takes it to a village elder woman, who seems to place some importance on the sandal. Rahmat and the Boy then learn that the people are collecting their sorrowful prayers by whispering them into jars and then sealing them. They believe that a jinn, a local deity, fled to the bottom of a well some three hundred years ago and cursed the region.  A pitiable dwarf from the village is conscripted to carry all the prayer jars and be lowered down by a rope to the bottom of the well in order to offer them to the jinn and beseech her to return.  But he must accomplish his mission before the sun rises, or all the prayers will be voided.  In the event, he fearfully descends down the well, but when he doesn’t reappear before the first rays of the morning sun, the villagers cut his rope,  and we hear the dwarf splash to his death down in  the well.

3.  Third island
At the next island, Rahmat and the Boy discover that the most beautiful young girl of the village is to be sacrificed to the sea god in hopes of ending the drought. They prepare her for a “wedding” to the sea god, and they all swear oaths to the sea that the reluctant victim is a virgin and only loves the sea.  When the terrified girl in her bridal gown is taken out on a raft and set adrift in the sea, we learn indirectly that the Boy tried unsuccessfully to rescue her.  For his selfless troubles, the Boy is sentenced to be stoned.  But during the stoning when the presumably mute Boy is heard to cry out in pain, Rahmat intervenes and fools the villagers into believing that God has forgiven him.  However, the Boy is gravely wounded and barely conscious when they leave for the next island.

4.  Fourth island
With the injured Boy left on the dinghy, Rahmat is taken to observe a painter on the fourth island who is being punished for painting the sea  in the color red instead of blue.  The village elder orders him that unless he paints it blue, he will continue to be tortured (one example is to pour monkey’s urine into the painter’s eyes).  The painter says he cannot paint in colors other than what he says.  Eventually, the painter is given into the custody of Rahmat and ordered off the island.

5.  Fifth island
Rahmat, the Boy, and the painter arrive at the next island, which is inhabited by a wizened bearded man who appears to be half mad.  It turns out that he is operating a prison, and he is to take the Boy and the painter ashore as prisoners.  The Boy soon dies from his wounds, and his body is “buried” in a little lagoon, where it appears that many previous prisoners have been so disposed.  As Rahmat leaves this island, the mad prison warden is seen to be nonsensically ordering the painter to repeatedly climb up and down a sand dune and shout out the sea’s true color.

6.  Mainland
Rahmat now comes ashore to the mainland, which, unlike the desolate salt-covered islands, is a green space in autumnal splendor.  He stops at a villa, where a women wearing the same type of red sandals seen earlier brings him some water.  Then another woman brings out an old man in a wheelchair, and Rahmat uses his pitcher full of tears to wash the man’s feet.  Afterwards, Rahmat collects the tear-water in a bowl, pours it back into his pitcher, and then goes out to the seashore to empty its contents.
What you might take away from all this material will depend on your own perspective. The film could be seen as a generally pessimistic view of man’s continual surrender to simple superstitious beliefs.  But there is a special emphasis here on shared guilt.  On all the islands, the people feel they are guilty and seek remission of their sins via some superstitious ritual, often at the expense of the weak and defenseless.  Innocent women are punished on the first and third islands, the innocent dwarf is sacrificed on the second island, and free artistic expression is denied on the fourth island.  The people on these islands who carry out the atrocities are basically innocent, too, since they sincerely believe in the superstitions that drive them to cruel acts.  There is clearly something wrong with the system governing these local societies (as was the case in Iron Island, too), but any references to the Iranian government system seem to be obscure, at best.  The idea of the jinn hiding in the well for three hundred years may compare with some accounts of the Islamic Shiite belief that the long-awaited Mahdi was hidden in a well. In addition, some viewers have suggested that the washing of the old man’s feet at the end of the film connotes extreme and pointless obeisance to an ayatollah who is unmindful of the common needs. 

But apart from these general issues, I have five questions about the story that remain unanswered for me.

  1. The Boy’s father.  The Boy had been hoping to find his long lost father, who apparently had become crazed by the region's salt-encrusted environment and had deserted his home when the Boy was an infant.  There is some possibility that the prison warden encountered on the fifth island is actually the Boy’s lost father and that the long absence prevents him from recognizing his son.  But if this is true, nothing is made of this connection.
  2. The two girls. The girl seen wheeling the old man in the wheelchair at the end of the film looks very similar to the girl who was sacrificed to the sea god on the third island.  When Rahmat encounters both girls, he seems to exchange meaningful glances with them.  Is there a connection?  What is the importance of the girl in that final scene?
  3. The red-colored sea.  The artist on the fourth island is punished for painting the sea in a red color.  At the end of the film when Rahmat comes to the villa, there is a painting on an interior wall that appears to be an island surrounded by a red-colored sea.  Is this merely to show the contrast between what the elite allow for themselves and the narrowly defined behaviour they force on the masses, or is there something more to this?  I have heard some people suggest that red is a disfavored color in Islamic societies, but I am unaware of red being formally sanctioned. 
  4. The red sandals
    The same type of red sandals appear at several points in the story, and they are sometimes given suggestively meaningful closeups.  Could a red sandal worn by the Boy have slipped off when he was cast out of the boat and been washed ashore to be discovered by the blind man?  What is the connection between these various scenes and what is their importance? 
  5. Rahmat’s complicity.  Rahmat seems to be aware of the absurdity of some of his rituals.  He also sometimes engages in compassionate acts, such as when he rescues the Boy or when he covertly urges the painter to say “blue” irrespective of what he sees.  But at other times, he seems to be a willing conspirator in an oppressive and pernicious system of community practice.  He is enigmatic, but is he really a consistent character that we can believe in?  To a certain extent he could be considered to be simply a dutiful functionary in a semi-dysfunctional system who is merely trying to do his best.  How are we to judge such willing participants in iniquity?  At one point he tells the Boy that the tears are valuable and not a single drop should be wasted: “tears should be treated with respect”.  And yet at the end of the film, he is seen disposing the “used” tear drops into the sea. Rahmat does not intend to harm, but Rasoulof’s critical eye may be ultimately directed at his character.
Skeptics might argue that Rasoulof has merely mindlessly thrown together these provocative symbols in the fashion of Alejandro Jodorowski.  But there is enough subtlety of expression here to suggest otherwise and that there is some method to the madness.  Overall, I would say that the visual presentation of The White Meadows is haunting and even gripping at times.  The viewer is plunged into an austere and evolving nightmare.  But the individual episodes do not appear to represent any narrative progression – they could have come in any order.  And at the end of the film, the final images do not provide a dramatic denouement, but are merely deflating.  Nevertheless, the film is memorable, and Rasoulof’s eery and disturbing portrayal of how blind superstition can be ultimately cruel and destructive is a testament to his own commitment to free expression.

  1. “Mohammad Rasoulof”, Wikipedia (2013), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammad_Rasoulof, (accessed June 2, 2013).