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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Film Study - Welles in the Classroom

Hello there.  Many years ago, while in college, I took a Film Study course.  In addition to the lectures there was a weekly Monday night film to view.  It was not a bad way to spend a  Monday night.  At these showings, I was exposed to many different genres of film (i.e., westerns, horror, foreign, sci-fi).  One of the first films I watched and have enjoyed since was Citizen Kane, listed as one of the top films of all time, directed by Orson Welles.  This was Welles' first film and he was given total creative freedom to film a movie by RKO Pictures after making a name in New York City with his Mercury Theatre of the Air performing radio plays.  While making radio shows, in 1938 during an adaptation of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds, Welles convinced many listeners that Martians were actually invading New Jersey.  The hysteria caused by this incident showed the influence and power this new medium had over its users. 

Citizen Kane was notable for its camera techniques (deep focus and unique angles), creative use of light and shadow, its use of sound as well as its unusual story structure.  The movie begins at the death of its title character and works backwards through various points in the life of Charles Foster Kane.  The film was not an inital success when it was released.  Some felt the story was similar to the life of media mogul William Randolph Hearst and there were rumours that Hearst put out all the stops to ensure that Citizen Kane was not a success. 

Welles was given another opportunity to direct another feature film and he chose to make an adaptation of the novel by Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.  For whatever reason, the plans to film this story would have to wait and Welles set out to find another story to film.  Thirty-five years later, Francis Ford Coppola would adapt Heart of Darkness in his work Apocalypse Now.

Welles decided to film an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Magnificent Ambersons.  It was only a few years after I was out of college when I first saw this movie on television.  In the movie, Welles used many of the camera tricks he displayed during Citizen Kane.  The movie is set at the end of the 19th century during a time of great changes (automobiles, paved roads, electricity, pace of life, etc.) occuring in the town, soon to be city of the film.  Each member of the Amberson family has to deal with these assorted changes and how it affects their lives is central to the drama in the film.  There is also a bit of a love story going on in the film between several characters. 

Welles used many of the performers he used in Citizen Kane and Joseph Cotten in particular really shines as Inventor, Eugene Morgan.  Morgan is an early pioneer in the horseless buggy, automobile, and in one scene he must defend his invention against one who thinks they're a nuisance.  

During the filming of this movie, World War II broke out.  Orson Welles was asked by our government to film a pro-American film in conjunction with our nation's Good Neighbor Policy of keeping the nations in Latin and South America on our side during the war.  As a result, Welles missed a lot of the editing of this film since he was not in the United States.  After the film tested in front of audiences, the studio requested over 1 hour of film be cut and a new ending was filmed.  The missing footage has never been found and remains lost to the ages. 

In 2000, A&E cable network filmed a complete version of The Magnificent Ambersons using the Welles script and included the missing parts from his film. 

The Magnificent Ambersons marked the end of Orson Welles having total control over his films.  This is kind of sad that at age 26 he had everything and lost it all.  Yes, he would continue directing, acting, and as he grew older he made commercials but the creativity he displayed in these two films would only show again in brief flashes. 

I recommend this film from a historical perspective.  As a teacher, I would show this to a class studying the Industrial Revolution with the changes brought on by the development of the automobile.  Compare and contrast the changes depicted in The Magnificent Ambersons with the changes at the end of the 20th Century (i.e. Internet, Cell Phones, Skype, Flat World).

I would use Citizen Kane, to illustrate the assorted points of view each character has about Kane and explore the influence of the media.  In additon to these 2 great films, the assorted radio plays made by Welles' Mercury Theatre can be used in the classroom to creatively explore the themes presented in a work of literature or as a model for students to create their own radio play which today could be called a Pod-play. 

How would you incorporate Welles in your classroom?  Do you enjoy these films?  Are there any other Welles films or non-Welles film you like? 

Would love to hear back from you.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Beatles

What more can be said about the 4 young lads from Liverpool, England who took the world by storm "all those years ago".  My first exposure to the music of the Beatles came several years after their break up.  Capital records produced complilation albums, the famous Red and Blue Albums. 

 These two albums were my introduction to the Beatles and looking back on it today, I marvel at the changes in each of the members of the band through those years 1962-1970 (look at the two covers!).  In the late 1970's, Capital released Beatles Love Songs (I believe it's out of print) and all of the Beatle ballads and slower songs were given their rightful spotlight.  I remember an older sister who had that album and I liked many of the songs on that compilation.

As I got older, I clearly remember when John Lennon was assassinated, miles away from my home, on December 8, 1980.  That was quite sad as he was only 40 years old and just coming out of a five year break where he was raising his son Sean having released Double Fantasy with his wife Yoko Ono that October.

I was only 10 years old when John Lennon was killed but at that young age, I began to discover more about the history of the Beatles and the solo careers of each member.  I also set out to own their music.  This was during the late 80s with the release of their music on CD.  Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was an essential and first addition to my Beatles discography.  Even today, I can play it and find some subtle nuance I may have missed in previous playings.  I enjoy all of the songs on it and admire the guts they took to retreat from touring completely and making this record.

 In the 1990's, the survivng members of the Beatles worked together and the Anthology series of albums were released.  For Anthology 1 and 2, John Lennon demos were completed by Paul, George and Ringo and produced by George's fellow Travelling Wilbury - Jeff Lynn.   Free as a Bird and Real Love were the two songs completed.  The Anthology albums also included alternate tracks and demos of familiar songs.

In 2000, The Beatles "1" was released and it showcased 27 Beatle number 1 songs that hit the US and/or UK charts.  This compilation was released on the 30th anniversary of the bands breakup. The compilation is a great introduction to the band much like I was introduced to them via the Red/Blue albums.

Flash forward to the present and the Beatles continue to remain relevant.  All of their music is now found on I-Tunes.  Paul and Ringo continue to make new music and perform.  George's son Dani Harrison has a band of his own and is following in his Father's footsteps.  Sean Lennon also is a muscian and social activist like his Dad.  He is currently protesting against the process of Fracking in upstate New York. 

I recently came across an Italian musician who has a number of YouTube videos where he dissects the vocal harmonies of Beatle songs.  Galeazzo Frudua truely enjoys what he's doing and it's a fitting tribute to a great band.  His videos are also fun to watch. 

I think the Beatles could be summed up with one word: LOVE.  As in "All You Need is Love".  Sometimes a simple message, such as this, can have a profound effect on the world.  The Beatles were harbingers of the social and consciousness change that occurred in 1960's.  Yes, our world has changed since then, for good, for bad, that's a point to debate, but how we treat others remains relevant today as it did during the Beatles heyday.  I still believe the Beatles will be discussed and studied hundreds of years from now and I'm happy their music remains to inspire and influence the world. 

What's your favorite Beatles song or album?  Do you like their solo efforts?  I'd love to hear back from you so be sure to leave a comment.