Posted by: thewearyprofessor | April 11, 2012

October 1985 and the Fate of Classic Films

One night in October 1985, 20 year-old me finished his retail shift at a mall bookstore and rushed to that evening’s film class. It was held in one of the college’s art classrooms, a cluttered room full of long scratched wooden tables and steel-legged stools. Storage cabinets and counters with draped sculptures-in-progress lined the walls and vague smells of clay and paint cleaner lingered. There, each week, a hesitant and stuttering young adjunct set up a freestanding square screen and a clattering 16 millimeter projector and unspooled whatever battered prints of classic films the college happened to own. He would provide a brief and completely unmemorable introduction about the movie and director. This night it was Citizen Kane and Orson Welles.

More than 25 years later, nothing from that semester lingers in my memory except that night’s class. It was an evening I will likely never forget. Although it sounds like a leaden and over-used melodramatic pronouncement, that night changed my life.

90% of the people reading this essay have likely seen Citizen Kane already, so there is no need to discuss what I saw. The other 10% should immediately drop everything and view it NOW.Thatcher Library

When the fluorescent lights snapped back on after two hours, I was more impressed with a film than I had ever before been in my life. The photography and bravado of the storytelling technique was unlike anything I had seen. Out of the many facts he mentioned, most of which I later learned were wrong, one thing the instructor said in his introduction resonated: Orson Welles co-wrote, directed and starred in this movie when he was not yet 25. He was only a few years older than me at the time, and here I was ringing a register and oogling college girls. I needed to learn more about him.

A brand new biography of Welles had just been released in hardcover, Orson Welles by Barbara Leaming. The next day at the bookstore I brought a copy with me into the backroom at lunch and read the first couple of chapters. Sufficiently impressed, I decided to buy it that day.

Although you could not hear it in the back room, a local radio station played continually on the sales floor. As I glanced at my watch, reluctantly closed the book, and left the stockroom to return to work the news came over the station that Orson Welles had died the previous evening—within hours of my viewing his masterwork Citizen Kane. I recall taking the book from under my arm and looking at that youthful and slightly abashed face on the cover. I was stunned. At virtually the same time I was seeing his film career’s bright beginning, his life was ending.

I bought the book, and bought every subsequent book I could find on Welles. I sought out his films on VHS, and a few years later, on laserdisc. Although none impressed me in quite the same way Citizen Kane did and does, there was something about each one that resonated. I would find myself replaying shots and camera moves in my mind. Always a film fan, raised from the cradle on Universal Abbott & Costellos every Sunday and weekday 4:30 movies, during October 1985 I became a film scholar.

In graduate school I pursued both my passion for film and my Welles fixation. I became a graduate assistant in the film department, projecting reels for classes, holding workshops, teaching the occasional class, etc. Although my course of study was English, Film Studies was a subsidiary of the English Department at the university I attended. When it came time to tackle my master’s thesis, there was only one topic I considered. Before editing it down, I had written almost 150 pages on the narrative illustration of memory in Citizen Kane. It had taken me more than two years of research and over 50 viewings of the film.

Subsequently, I embarked on a career in academia and introduced many students to Welles and Citizen Kane for the first time. Teaching frequently uncaring and uncooperative students at a community college, this was often a disheartening experience. How do you respond to dismissive criticism of one of your beloved treasures along the lines of “It sucks for a lot of reasons, but mainly because it’s old and in black and white”? Occasionally a student would roll her eyes and ask “Why couldn’t he just tell the story without being so confusing?” Others would ask plaintively,“Why would ANYBODY think that crappy piece of shit was great?”

Would it have done any good to discuss the myriad ways in which it was wonderful? Would it help to tell them seeing it for the first time that night had so moved me that I redirected my life to study and teach film and narrative? I tried, and sometimes I succeeded, but I always emerged hurt at a primal level.

What was wrong with them?

Or was it them?

Was it, in truth, me? Was I embracing a form of expressive and meticulously crafted film that had passed out of fashion forever except among a small cadre of buffs and scholars? What relevant relation did Welles and Kane have to the productions now screening at the multiplex and filling dozens of cable channels each moment of the day?

Nitrate stock burns, but all films fade. First they lose their newness, then their lustre, then their popular relevance. This struck me again when Casablanca was recently rereleased to theaters “for one night only” in celebration of its 70th anniversary and nobody of my immediate acquaintance wanted to accompany me to see it. Either it was old news and they had seen it, or it was such a product of yesterday that they did not even want to.

This makes me inexpressibly sad.

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Responses

  1. What a wonderful story. I never knew all those details about your introduction to Mr. Welles and his wonderful film. By the way, I would have accompanied you to see Casablance if I’d been around.


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