Yesterday, at the end of a wild, swirling day, I cracked the cap on a cold one, sank into our long, brown leather couch, grabbed the remote, and, as instinctively as a bird flying south for the Winter, tuned to the Greatest TV Channel in the World.
That evening, the Greatest TV Channel in the World was showing Citizen Kane. I was 20 minutes late, and I live by the rule of never watching a movie where I so much as miss the studio logo.
But it was Kane.
I watched enraptured, as stunned by enchantment as I was when I first saw it on Green Bay TV station WLUK, one Sunday afternoon 40 years ago and thought I'd stumbled on a horror movie (which Kane is in a real sense, when you watch how the older Kane morphs into something like a fleshy glow worm, a wriggling prisoner within the grim walls of his grotesque Gothic mansion). This time, I paid particular attention to the actors, all of them wonderful spirits, down to the two opera stagehands, one of whom pinches his nose shut in reaction to the thin sulphurous wail of poor Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore) rising pathetically from the stage below. (Trivia note for Kane fans: The opera she sings in is apparently a fragment concocted by the film's great composer, Bernard Hermann).
I admired how director Orson Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland staged the action and how the actors all seemed to dance together, their talk leaping and overlapping in a festive simulacrum of real human speech, every performer afire with inspiration from both the script--written mostly by Herman J. Mankiewicz-and their master of ceremonies, Mr. Welles. I gave special fond attention to the performances of Everett Sloane as Kane's ever loyal assistant, Mr. Bernstein, and George Coulouris as Kane nemesis Walter Parks Thatcher ("‛I THINK it would FUN to run a NEWS-PA-PER!'")
Then it was over and I was reminded that it was Critic's Night on the Greatest TV Channel in the World: everyone's favorite movie host, Robert Osborne, had as his guest Richard Corliss from Time magazine, one of that nearly extinct species that once nobly roamed the cultural planet: the paid, professional film critic, a creature from a time long ago before we became prisoners of the pseudo-egalitarian tyranny of the Internet reviewer.
Then they showed The Seventh Seal, directed by Ingmar Bergman, a classic from my college years and still a brave and virtuoso take on humanity and faith in the face of death. (It still haunts our culture in such manifestations as Stephen Colbert's "Cheating Death" segment.) While taking profound pleasure in the cinematography and performances (especially Gunnar Bjornstrand's), I fondly recalled how our earnest intellects wrestled with "what it all meant." But now, like all the Bergman films I've revisited, it seems so clear and simple: a tale of people struggling over how to believe in God, or whether to believe in Him at all. A perfect riposte to the righteous brick heads who claim that films cannot-and should not-be about anything that matters.
The evening shifted to Newsweek critic David Ansen who introduced another perfect film, Carol Reed and Graham Greene's The Third Man, the dark and droll thriller about naive American pulp writer Holly Martin and his search through the ruins of post-WWII Vienna for his old pal, Harry Lime. (Whether the reteaming of Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles is a reference to Kane, I don't know, but it's a masterful stroke anyway). It's also a delight to see Bernard Lee as a sweet but slightly dim British sergeant nearly twenty years before he played the aristocratic, imperious spymaster "M," boss of James Bond.
But, regrettably, even before the kitten found its way to the feet of Harry Lime, the effects of the long day and a third beer kicked in (No matter: The Third Man leans proudly in my DVD case). I reluctantly stumped upstairs to bed, knowing that it wouldn't be long before I'd be back again, tuned to the Greatest TV Channel in the World. Whenever I take aim with my remote, no matter its programming blips (Bowery Boys movies, the 1998 The Avengers) I always look there first. You all should, too.
(Re-edited 10/9/10: It's Richard Corliss, not David Corliss).)
Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published Spring 2011 by Ambler House Publishing. His essays and blogs can be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be followed on Facebook and Twitter.
Causes Thomas Burchfield Supports
The Nature Conservancy; Africare; Capitol Public Radio