Child Prodigies and Renaissance Men

I hope you’ve been healthy and safe in these tumultuous times. This month’s web of curiosity spins from a resolute whim to re-watch RKO 281— awakening interests in child prodigies and renaissance men, the influence of theatrical lighting on film, the influence of night photography on film noir, and more.

Film I’m Studying

RKO 281 (1999), directed by Benjamin Ross, is a reflexive cinema gem. The title is derived from the original production number for Citizen Kane. The first half of the film covers the genesis of Citizen Kane, and the second half chronicles a nearly successful campaign to stop the film from being released and to burn all the negatives and prints. Offended and disgraced by the depiction of himself in the filmWilliam Randolph Hearst led the charge. He had the studio executives in his corner–ready to accept bribes–but he was going bankrupt and couldn’t follow through. RKO 281 is based on the documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane. 

It opens with a beautiful scene that inspires and excites the filmmaker in all of us. A young Orson Welles blows out the candles on his birthday cake,” Orson…” says his mother, “come into the light, never stand in the shadows, you were made for the light. Always remember that.”

And soon enough, we are watching a twenty-five-year-old Welles (Liev Schreiber), wandering around Xanadu in the middle of the night, conceiving the idea for Citizen Kane. “I’ve got it!” He says in voice-over, “I know what we are going to do, imagine a man who shaped his time, a titanic man of limitless ambition, a man with an empire at his feet, controlling the perceptions of everyone beneath him—a modern feudal lord. The great American biography, a journey into the heart of the beast.” 

A sequence ensues with a rat a tat tat exchange of inspired and passionate ideas between writer Herman Mankiewicz (John Malkovich) and Welles. Themes like “Love on your own terms” are pronounced with gusto and glory as we watch the vision for Citizen Kane take shape. Then Mankiewicz reveals that—for many years—he’s been keeping a file on Hearst, and their collaboration begins.

It captures the collaborative spirit with joyful nostalgia, leaving butterflies in the stomach. However, this is only one version of the story. In Frank Brady’s Biography, Citizen Welleshe writes how Welles—at first—was just focused on finding the right character to play. He was looking for a larger than life persona that could highlight his talent and reputation as a theater performer and radio star. Brady then recounts a court testimony by Mankiewicz which suggests he was the one to offer up Hearst as the film’s subject:

In a court proceeding years later, Mankiewicz gave his account of how the idea of the Welles film began, saying that it evolved out of a discussion of technique: a character would be shown in a March of Time sequence, and then the film would tell us about the person. “We were going to do The Life of Dumas,” remembered Mankiewicz,” and then I told him about how I would be interested in doing a picture based on Hearst and Marion Davies. I just kept telling him everything I knew about them. I was interested in them, and I went into all kinds of details. In an odd way it wasn’t really Citizen Kane at all, because we were going to do a great love story, which you remember Citizen Kane didn’t turn out to be…

Welles was under contract to write the screenplay, and the studio wanted it that way for publicity reasons. But Welles wanted Mankiewicz to write it. And Mankiewicz contractually agreed to write it without taking credit.

Serendipitous to my research, David Fincher just released Mank on Netflix this month. It centers around Mankiewicz’s experience writing Citizen Kane while flashing back to his life as a writer and his relationship with Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies. The film made it clear how critical Mank’s contribution was to Citizen Kane. And while I don’t recollect any reference to who suggested Hearst, it does address the credit in one of the closing scenes—starting as follows:

“You’re not going to like this Orson,” says Mank. “I want credit.”
“Come again,” replies Orson.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever written,” clarifies Mank.

It’s unclear how Welles really felt about this. The scene continues with Welles taking offense and throwing a tantrum. But in the subtext, I think his outburst was just a way for him to reconcile with his ego, while deep down, he understood and wanted Mank to get credit. What we know for sure is that Orson excepted Mank’s script—American, at two hundred pages—knowing, as Brady writes:

For many reasons, Welles couldn’t use a great deal of the script of American, errors of continuity, logic, and motivation being the most prominent.

but then adding that:

What is known and agreed upon by all concerned is that Mankiewicz came up with the concept of “rosebud,” the enigmatic word uttered by the dying mogul, the verbal icon around which the film revolves.

Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Academy Awards, but it only won for best writing of an original screenplay—both Welles and Mankiewicz received Oscars. Years later, Orson admitted he couldn’t remember all the details of who came up with which idea.

Downloadable Resources 
Excerpts

Credits and Specs
Directed by Benjamin Ross
Produced by Su ArmstrongRidley ScottTony Scott
Written by John Logan
Based on the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane
Starring Liev SchreiberJohn MalkovichJames CromwellMelanie Griffith
Music By John Altman
Cinematography by Mike Southon
Edited by Alex Mackie
Production Design by Maria Djurkovic
Production Company: HBO PicturesWGBHScott Free Productionsand more  
Release Date: November 20, 1999
Running Time: 86min
Aspect Ratio: 16:9
Camera and Lenses: Arriflex
Negative Format: 35mm Kodak
Printed Film Format: 35mm
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Country: USA
Language: English
Reported Budget: 12,000,000

Book I’m Reading

Citizen Welles (1989) by Frank Brady is a detailed biography of Orson Welles. Brady spent a decade researching and writing the book resulting in the first definitive chronicle of Welles’ life, spanning from his birth to his death. Upon its release, the New York Times Book Review stated, “Citizen Welles may well be definitive.”

For me, the book really humanizes Welles, but still in a legendary way. The sticking point thus far is his serendipitous childhood—a time when angels seemed to be dropping out of the sky to nurture his natural talents while he exercised a knack for averting any traditional childhood protocol. 

His mother Beatrice was a stalwart of his speech, and by the age of two, he was speaking in syntactically polished sentences. In the same year, he garnered a mentor in Dr. Maurice Bernstein, who was enthralled by Orson’s burgeoning intellect. At four, he avoided Kindergarten by faking an attack of appendicitis. And was then homeschooled by his Mother, while Bernstein—with backstage access—took him to all the new plays. At eight, he wrote a scholarly paper called ‘The Universal History of Drama.’ At nine, his mother died. And at ten, he started smoking cigars while writing a critique on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

He continued to excel beyond his age level in many areas but was unable to add or subtract. When confronted with this weakness, he was known to shrug and say that he would always keep people around to do the math for him. But he did eventually learn.

His father—along with Bernstein’s support—sent him to the Todd School For Boys, where he turned his ambitions toward painting. But, Academically, his performance at the school was so poor, he barely graduated. And by that time, his father succumbed to Alcoholism.

Bernstein took Welles in, and at sixteen, he went to Ireland for a countryside walk-a-bout. He intended on starting a career as a painter but ended up joining the company at the Gate Theater in Dublin—making such a splash that it launched him into a theater career.  

After Gate, he spent a summer writing and illustrating a series of Shakespearean promptbooks. And when he was eighteen, they were published—to great success—by the world-renowned publisher Harper and Row. 

As his theater career continued, he began an adjacent career in radio, starring as an acclaimed regular on the March of Time radio shows. At this point, the Great Depression hit, and the US government started to sponsor theater projects. Welles—now twenty—was hired to run the Negro Theatre Project. And for the first time in American history, white people stood in lines to attend a black production. After 144 performances, Orson moved on to the Federal Theater, where he revived the great dramatic classics—several times a week—to great success. David O. Selznick—from Hollywood—came calling. But Welles wasn’t done with theater, and at twenty-two years old, he founded the Mercury Theater in New York. 

Welles learned a lot about lighting during these earlier years in theater, and the technology was advancing quickly. Abe Feder—master lighting technician—was a trusted collaborator:

Abe Feder was a master lighting technician—one of the best in the business—and followed, although not always agreeably, Welle’s dictates of helping to blend together the form and color of the set, the arrangement of the props, and the position and costumes of the actors, through the distribution of the variety of lighting. The slightly smallish stage caused design problems in creating the illusion of distance and perspective, and these, too, could be solved with nuances of lighting.

The light was the thing. As one writer pointed out two weeks after the opening, the effects were cinematic: as an actor moves downstage from under a shaft of light, his apparent size is seen to change most dramatically; in effect, the stage director is able to get more “shots” at distance and in close-up. When a sense of vastness was needed, the stage was more brightly lit; when compactness was necessary, it was dimmed. In all cases, the lighting followed the tempo of the play. To an audience brought up on evenly lighted rooms behind proscenium arches, the result was startling.

We haven’t even gotten to Orson’s famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds or come close to Citizen Kane. And this summary barely even scratches the surface of these earlier years. But the big question in the back of my mind is: Was he a child prodigy by nature or a child prodigy by design? His opportunities and influences seem to be so crucial to his genius; it makes me wonder.

Photographer that inspires me

Brassaï also intended to pursue a career as a painter and was a renaissance man like Welles. His name was actually Gyula Halász, but he wanted to save it for his “serious art” and used the pseudonym Brassaï for his writing, caricatures, and photography. He is best known for his night photography in Paris during the 30’s—published in the book Paris at NightHis dark and evocative imagery influenced photographers and filmmakers worldwide—feeding the aesthetics of an emerging film noir genre. Brassaï couldn’t escape his success as a photographer and made attempts—in his journal—to reconcile with his desire to be a painter: 

Even though I had always ignored and even disliked photography before, I was inspired to become a photographer by my desire to translate all the things that enchanted me in the nocturnal Paris I was experiencing.

To monetize his burgeoning reputation, he worked commercially shooting everything from car tires to cigarette lighters—all while enduring an unfulfilled desire to paint.

I want absolutely to return to the plastic arts. This desire becomes more and more a physical necessity. Photography is more of a stimulant. A complete success in photography leaves something in one’s being unsatisfied. It is choice and not expression. Its laws involve limits, even if I know these laws and respect them in all humility. I am not unhappy to be able to maintain my anonymity. After all, photography enabled me to step out of the shadows to show what I see. That’s something. But even so, I must express one day what I am.

Downloadable Resources
10 Brassaï photographs curated from the web

TV I’m Watching

The Queens Gambitnow streaming on Netflix, is another story about a child prodigy. This one, however, is fiction. It follows an orphaned Beth Harmon as she falls in line at a draconian orphanage where each child is administered a daily dose of a tranquilizer to keep them calm. As addiction to the drug brews, Beth stumbles upon the building’s custodian while he’s playing himself at chess—sparking Beth’s interest in the game.

The series is based on a novel with the same name written by Walter Tevis. It loosely draws from Tevis’ experience as a class-C chess player—learning to play when he was seven years old.

The show has been received well by both entertainment and chess aficionados. The cinematography and overall design are on par with the best of today’s episodic cinema. “Cinema,” in this case, is used to describe how the use of lighting and other aesthetics profoundly serve and enhance the storytelling. A trend on the rise—for tv—during the last decade or two—in large part superseding the sitcom, reality TV, and soap opera.

Quote I am pondering

To have success in a particular domain incites you and constrains you to exploit that success and to practice professionally as a “specialist.” what you have done with the joy of an amateur. The dilettante’s passion for an art will always be stronger than that of a man who is gifted to practice it, for the dilettantes passion, like a love without hope, always remains unquenched. To protect the amateur’s freshness of vision and combine it each time with the knowledge and the awareness of the professional, that is what I have tried to accomplish all my life, whence my constant infidelities, diverse curiosities, my numerous and parallel occupations… that apparent incoherence was my coherence. -Brassaï

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November Musings – Poetry of a long tracking shot, surreal photography and more

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