Home > [99 Problems] Series > [99 Problems] Citizen Kane, Pope Marcellus Mass, Constantine

[99 Problems] Citizen Kane, Pope Marcellus Mass, Constantine

Originally published on 31 May 2010. So wild to look back. I didn’t have the foresight that Kane would become the center of numerous critical debates in which I still engage. My evaluation is still largely the same albeit more articulate, hopefully. More on those thoughts another time.

It’s a Royal Rumble! It’s been a good day for high expectations. For this morning I awoke to a drawing of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli. These two figures, one of film, the other of music, mark the top of many critical lists of “Greatest Ever” or “Most Awesome of All Time” or “Most Likely To Become Cultural Icons.” In the end, one of the two works was an absolute joy. The other was a half-joy. More on that later. We don’t want to forget our 8 ft. tall headed man Constantine! This sculpture, though not topping any lame lists, will play an important part of tying the three works together. Because today we talk about the gigantic. We talk about the mega. We talk about the expansive, the enormous, and the exalting.

Let’s begin with Citizen Kane. Weeding through bunches of lists, I always noticed that it was close to the top and decided I had to see it. Made in 1941, it is a kind of documentary-ish fiction chronicling the rise and fall (more of the fall) of a newspaper tycoon. I guess a bunch of folks got all pissy because Kane is supposedly based on a real man. I did not research this and am not interested. What I was interested in was the movie – so on to that.

The film immediately forces the audience into feeling tiny. The title screen reads CITIZEN KANE in bigger letters than the screen has space. It fits the character towards the end. From there, we kind of see Kane die after muttering “Rosebud.” At that point, we don’t know what Rosebud is. And throughout the film, the characters were much more interested in figuring out what the hell it meant than I was. I suppose “Rosebud” was sort of a nice string to weave the plot around, but the mystery of it all was less than enchanting. Just into the film, we watch a 10 minute documentary within a documentary of Kane’s life. It is ridden with all kinds of images that bleed enormity. When detailing Kane’s estate called Xanadu, it is remarked that he possessed hundreds of antique statues and artworks, 2 of each animal (Noah Kane?), a private mountain, and the “loot of the world.” As we back out of that the main plot is presented: figure out what “Rosebud” meant. So, the remainder of the film is spent interviewing Kane’s friends and digging out enough dirt to qualify a flashback. Thus is born: Citizen Kane.

The filmmaking itself was absolutely stunning. I was hugely impressed with the lighting and photography. Each shot is grandiose and expansive– the crew found a way to focus the foreground, middleground, and background simultaneously. Something we take for granted. It is some of the most colorful black and white I’ve ever seen. That is due to the masterful lighting. The cameras often angle in low or from a corner in order to make the room appear more enormous or to give Mr. Kane a larger-than-life aura. On top of that, the lighting would always shoot in visible columns of brilliance. When the characters would walk through them, it made a halo around their bodies. These tricks were everywhere and perfectly executed. The makeup was the only thing I thought was notably awful.

Much of the film is spent in exaltation (and sometimes self-exaltation) of one man. C.F. Kane. The documentary which opens the film reaches a surprising 10 minutes in length, showing Kane with major world figure after major world figure. This makes the man into somewhat of an untouchable myth. Even as we see Kane as a child, we can’t help but wonder if he knows what he is about to turn into. He is intimidating and firm even then. The scenes which serve his exaltation are many and they always prove a perpetuator of Kane’s deteriorating self-control and respect. They climax in the speech scene where Kane is shown in front of an enormous amount of people, flags, lavish decoration, and a gigantic poster with his face and “KANE” on it. His speech sounds like it came from a “How to be a dictator” book. In the end, it is a story about self-destruction. Kane is always trying to prove himself, justified through self-reliance. All of this is a muddy attempt to compensate for his own insecurities. His failures are met with awkward resilience even if they are due to his own stubbornness. “Rosebud” turns out to be a weak and enigmatic symbol for his childhood longings. As we watch the “No Trespassing” final frame, we realize that Kane eventually disintegrated into his own possessions. All of his manhood was paid away to the sculptures and extravagant lifestyle. His self-obsession and preoccupation with proving his own manhood was to compensate for his lack of parental support – leading him to reach out to “Rosebud.”

As gratifying as the cinematography was, the story was overrated, the acting was overrated, and the fiction was overrated. The character development was almost inexistent. True, the time jumped around quite fast, but there were no characters there to develop. The only man that you came to understand at the end of the film was Kane. This was not the artistic goal, because we spent a whole lot of time with Susan Alexander and who should have become more complex. Instead, she jumped on the bandwagon with the Jewish man, the roguish drama critic, and the stoically virtuous martyr of a first wife. I did not experience half of the emotion that I would have expected out of that show.

Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli is a standard of the university classroom. Counterpoint students dissect its every little jerk and whirl. The piece has come to represent 16th century counterpoint at its highest. Still modal in system, the time was ripe for colossal writing, the cathedrals waited with a natural reverb, and the Council of Trent was trying to decide whether or not polyphonic music was allowable in church. Palestrina made sure that polyphony stayed around by making this, and the remainder of his masses, have totally intelligible texts. He accomplished this by using block patterns and stating his phrases with rhythmic conservatism.

Clearly the piece was written to honor Pope Marcellus, but it is also an exaltation of God, himself. While Palestrina believed that “expression” had no place in a church service, he builds very passionate gestures into his scores. This man also knew how to write for a cathedral. His chords will set themselves up in congruity with the harmonic series, building harmony from large intervals on the bottom to smaller intervals on top. Listen to the whole “Kyrie” and pay special attention to how the texture doesn’t become so complex that you can’t understand the words. It gets even better in the “Gloria”. The chords resulting from this method as well as the performance in a naturally reverberating space are then perceived as enormous. Even though as few as 6 people could be singing. Palestrina would also widen the scope of his work by planning harmonic events to occur very far apart – talking multiple phrases. Sometimes it will take him a full minute to decide to cadence on a different chord than he began on. All meticulously planned. A wonderful musical achievement is his “Benedictus.”(Skip to 4:10ish) He strips back the texture to only 4 singers, but the electricity remains, giving an all new kind of enormity.

The work is flawless. For what it was meant to accomplish and for what it stands for, it remains a model in any instance of moving one note against another note. It has become an encyclopedia for harmonic questions. An encyclopedia that worked its way through Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, Bernstein, and eventually The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, etc. There are rules. They knew how to follow them and when to break them.

I can’t have a discussion of enormity without mentioning the 8 foot head of Constantine the Great, once towering in a basilica in Rome.

Dominatingly frontal in pose, it is enlivened by the gaze, over and away from the spectator, of deeply-cut eyes, hugely enlargened in relation to the other features. This emphasis on “The windows of the soul”, to express an inner being, is already obvious in many late Roman portraits and will become increasingly marked in Christian figurative art. It is kind of hard to think about the world of exaltation before the explosion of Christianity, but this is the gift of it. A ridiculously huge face. Before being pillaged for the bronze body pieces, the statue was enormous. About 40 ft. high. Constantine himself was an enormousman. He rose above centuries of hatred to co-sign the Edict of Milan, proclaiming religious tolerance throughout the Roman empire. He is thought of as the first Christian Emperor – a monumental step in history, noting that Christianity almost single-handedly shaped the arts of the next 1,200 years at least. The emperor’s eyes in the sculpture are the focal point. They are wise and unimposing, but open and caring. The stone placed in the pupils plays like a glimmer of life in his eye.

C.F. Kane appears to cry only two times in the film – when he slaps Susan, and when she leaves. The little glisten in his eye is the same one as Constantine, but in Kane’s case he isn’t shining from majesty and glory, he is shining from his own failure.

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