Sunday, April 6, 2008

Citizen Heston


When I read of Charlton Heston's death very early this morning, I was far too tired to do him any justice, and to really think about what he meant to American films, so I just put up a couple of YouTube clips from Planet of the Apes and Touch of Evil, and thought I'd let the very fine work speak for itself. But I'd like to add a few things now.

One of my favorite lines from the last forty years of film is "DAMN YOU, DIRTY APES!" It's an easy line to mock-- it's over the top, melodramatic, done in an operatic and expressive style rather than the naturalism that's far more in favor today. And yet, those qualities are precisely why I love it: not in spite of its ridiculousness, but because of it. It happily oscillates between camp and sincerity, inviting cool derision, but still getting under my skin and hitting the emotional notes it's aiming for. And I think, in essence, that's why Charlton Heston is valuable.

There have been a lot of fine tributes to Heston today: I would direct you to Sheila's touching tribute (which includes a nice excerpt from Richard Dreyfuss), Glenn Kenny's spectacular remembrance of Heston in Touch of Evil, and Dave Kehr's obit, which quotes in full the Michel Mourlet Cahiers du Cinema passages that Kenny references.

This is what Mourlet wrote, in 1960:

Charlton Heston is an axiom. He constitutes a tragedy in himself, his presence in any film being enough to instill beauty. The pent-up violence expressed by the somber phosphorescence of his eyes, his eagle’s profile, the imperious arch of his eyebrows, the hard, bitter curve of his lips, the stupendous strength of his torso - this is what he has been given, and what not even the worst of directors can debase. It is in this sense that one can say that Charlton Heston, by his very existence and regardless of the film he is in, provides a more accurate definition of the cinema than films like “Hiroshima mon amour” or “Citizen Kane,” films whose aesthetic either ignores or repudiates Charlton Heston. Through him, mise en scène can confront the most intense of conflicts and settle them with the contempt of a god imprisoned, quivering with muted rage.

That's wonderfully cinephiliac writing, and it gets to a point that Dreyfuss makes in his tribute. Dreyfuss writes

Is so and so a great actor? A good actor? A bad actor? Speaking as an expert it's a stupid question. The actor either gets you to where you have to go, or not. Heston did; priceless. He could portray greatness, which is no longer an artistic goal; he could portray a grandeur that was so satisfying. What he was able to personify so perfectly for us was a vision of ourselves called heroic. Is this out of favor? Out of step? Antique? Yes, antique as in gorgeous, incredibly valuable, and not produced anymore but this is a critique of the world, not him (hopefully we will one day come back to all that).

There's an irony in that last line, as Dreyfuss, a fine actor in his own right, was of that generation of stars whose work did so much to introduce a new model of screen masculinity, and to perhaps hasten the phasing out of the Heston style. But I'm more interested in that "good/bad" axis of which Dreyfuss writes, and its ties back to Kane. Coincidentally, I showed Kane to my Cinema 101 class this past week, along with Beyond The Valley of the Dolls. I wanted us to think about what we mean when we talk about "good" or "bad" movies: are the criteria based on formal or techical excellence, narrative "depth," cultural significance, etc.? How are these categories constructed, and who gets to decide? How much of this is something we can objectively mark as "true," and how much of it is simply personal taste? The more we talked about the films, the more I came to see them, for all their differences, as having a lot in common: both tell the tale of a mad genius who draws in and destroys a coterie of friends, lovers and hangers-on in the media captial of the world; both were made by directors new to the studio system; both self-consciously played with generic expectations, to initial mixed critical response; and both ended up playing with a self-conscious, self-reflexive style in their respective eras that would be extremely influential (would we have the contemporary TV soap-- from Dallas to The OC-- if it wasn't for Russ Meyer's example?).

At one point, while talking about Dolls a student said, "The dialogue doesn't seem to matter: you can look at their faces and know what they're saying without having to listen to the words." I think he meant it as a criticism, but I responded that such a style might be the essence of cinema, or at least of a particular definition of it: words are redundant, but images sing. However campy in the Dolls context, it's a form of "cinematic" thinking, relying of the logic of the image rather than the word, and one which feels both old-fashioned (taking us back to the silent period) and very postmodern (image is everything).

Thought of that way, Charlton Heston, as described by Mourlet above, is indeed the "axiom of cinema": however 'ridiculous,' on a narrative (i.e., "literary") level his characters or stories, his face-- laughing, glaring, or wrenched into that famous grimace-- was one of the most recognizably expressive in postwar cinema. As Dreyfuss would say, "It got you where you had to go"; as Mourlet might say, it was mise-en-scene embodied; as Roland Barthes might say, it "still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced."

Oh, wait-- Barthes said that about Garbo, not Heston. But is it any less true of Chuck? We bathe in the cinephiliac voice of Barthes in "The Face of Garbo," and don't blink for an instant at how he describes this goddess of Classic Hollywood, but I suspect a lot of us might blink at describing Heston that way (in his remembrance, Kenny notes the scandal Mourlet's Heston appreciation caused). But why? Heston's face is no less expressive, no less a container of dreams, fears and aspirations (which is probably one reason the NRA chose him as their spokesman), no less a projection of the self. And Garbo is no less melodramatic or 'affected' an actor than Heston (that's not a putdown, by the way: I love Garbo, and that style of performance). Is it the different eras they worked in? If Heston had been of the silent period, when the more 'over-the-top' style was de rigeur, would we love him more? Is it his politics, so many of which I disagreed with? Or is it that sheer willingness to appear ridiculous? Heston titled his memoir In The Arena, and like so much of his work, it's a boldly dramatic title that seems a bit outsized. And yet the greatest thing about Heston-- why his acting survives the smug certainties of Michael Moore and Gore Vidal-- was his absolute willingness to dive into a role, be it Ben-Hur, the Omega Man, or a guy with a rifle in his cold dead hands, and to give it his all. You don't have to like those films or those political positions to admire the gusto and the strange courage. Heston isn't just barechested in so many of his roles: he's emotionally naked, too, using his highly theatrical style to get to places a Method performance couldn't.

Which brings me back to Citizen Kane, and a point of disagreement with Mourlet: I think Heston and Kane have a lot in common, and might be an excellent fit.

I suspect the reason Heston is so good in Touch of Evil is that he and Welles, in acting styles, are cut from the same cloth: how many times has Welles been described as outsized, melodramatic, theatrical, hammy? In fact, in my imagination, my Cinematheque of Unmade Movies, I can see a different version of Citizen Kane, with Heston in the title role. It would be different, to be sure, but spectacular: imagine Heston confronting Susan as she refuses to keep singing, or smashing up that room of toys and furniture and snowglobes (we already know how good Heston was at rage). Imagine his boisterous humor in the early Inquirer scenes, his slow corruption and confrontations with Leland over the governorship; imagine that crackling voice muttering, "you're fired," and continuing to calmly rewrite the review. But more than that, imagine Heston in those sad, quiet moments towards the end, slowly walking through that vast hall while Susan completes one of her endless jigsaw puzzles. His body-- that magnificent, tall, incredibly physical machine-- is aged, bent over, hobbling. It can no longer effortlessly stride through the Inquirer newsrooms, or casually provide the war to go with the reporter's prose poems. Its seemingly ageless youth has vanished. And yet, that towering, Shakespearean voice remains, those dark questioning eyes, and grasping hands. Even moreso than Welles, I think Heston might have conveyed the terror, tragedy, and sad humor of that state, and might have looked at home amidst that Expressionist scenery and lighting; is there a better example, after all, of Mourlet's "god imprisoned, quivering with muted rage," than Charles Foster Kane?

5 comments:

dave said...

Great post, and I'm so glad you included the Soylent Green image. The NYTimes obit passed over that film, but as far as I'm concerned, "Soylent Green is people!" works on me as well as "Damn you, dirty apes!" Not only was it a great line (embodying many of those qualities you outline in your discussion of the Planet of the Apes line), but it also gave birth to a great impersonation from another performer whose time has passed, Phil Hartman, in a great Saturday Night Live sketch where he kept repeating the line over and over, for several imagined sequels (Soylent Yellow, Soylent White, etc.). An SNL sketch where repeating the main gag actually worked, largely because of Hartman's ability to capture Heston's combination of hyperbole and sincerity in a single grandiose line.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Great post Brian. Just an FYI, I briefly sing your praises in my latest post and I answer your question about Synchfish as well as reveal a little more about myself. I hope you'll drop by and read it. Thanks.

Brian Doan said...

Thanks Jonathan! As you know, I've posted over at your blog already, but I really liked the piece, and I'm still sorry about the loss of Syncfish (although I totally understand why).

Brian Doan said...

Dave,
Shamefully (he hides his cinephile head) I've never seen all of SOYLENT GREEN, just the famous line you mention (and thanks for the remembrance of Hartman, too). Maybe I'll add it to the Netflix queue this week.

boolise said...

Great call, Dave.

I seem to remember, toward the end of that sketch, Hartman as Heston looking at the copious amounts of printer paper he was using, and yelling "Soylent Paper is made of people! It's PEOPLLLLLLLLLLLLLLE!" Fantastic.