Sunday, April 29, 2012

Ebert Thoughts ‘12—Citizen Kane (1941) ****

PG, 119 min.
Audio Commentary: Roger Ebert
Director: Orson Welles
Writers: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Ruth Warrick, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Everett Sloan, William Alland, Paul Stewart, George Coulouris

This year marks the first for one of the features being shown at Roger Ebert’s Film Festival in Champaign-Urbana today. It isn’t unusual for the programmers to show a cinematic classic like “Citizen Kane”. They even programmed such respected titles when it was called the Overlooked Film Festival. That’s one of the reasons they changed the name. But, as far as I know, this is the first time they’ve screened a movie at this festival with the audio commentary track. This is a rare opportunity for festival goers to hear Ebert’s words with his own voice since throat cancer took it from him a few years ago. Luckily, Ebert recorded the commentary track years ago and it was included on the original DVD release of the film, so it’s pretty easy to hear what he has to say about the movie many call the greatest movie of all time in the comfort of your own home.

Ebert’s commentary is extremely informative. For the first twenty minutes or so he mixes in commentary on Orson Welles’ artistic approach and much of the history and legends about the project as a whole. Most of the history and legends I had heard in other places before. The technical and artistic details, however, are extremely enlightening for any cineaste or film student.

Ebert gets very detailed in how to breakdown the framing and staging of various shots throughout the movie. Welles’ collaboration with cinematographer Gregg Toland resulted in the unique opportunity to see just about every film technique that had been developed since D.W. Griffith did the same thing for silent film in “Birth of a Nation”. This makes “Kane” an incredible opportunity for film students and historians to study every cinematic technique up until 1941 in one film.

I’m not really in the practice of watching audio commentary versions of movies, and the feature seems to be disappearing as a standard for home video with more interactive social media platforms replacing it. For the most part audio commentaries on popular films can be somewhat of a waste of time as they often involve gathering cast members together to recall half forgotten experiences in what is more of a standard workplace environment than most audiences imagine. But, when knowledgeable film historians and critics get involved in audio commentaries it can be an invaluable resource that could never be matched by a bunch of fans chatting a movie up on Facebook. I do hope there will be a call for more people like Roger Ebert to provide audio commentaries on great movies in the future.

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