Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Citizen Kane

For months I have enjoyed viewing my blogging buddy over at Coco Hits New York Conrado Falco’s posts called Hit Me with Your Best Shot.  It’s part of a series of posts sponsored by The Film Experiment which is a blog/podcast on movies.  The idea is you post the best shot (or sometimes 2) that exemplifies a classic film.

The reason these posts excite me is because I have a great love for photography as my grandfather, father and brother are all professional skilled photographers. My brother Ben Wagner is now the founder and CEO of Poler LLC clothing but he has done both film and still photography for all kinds of publications.  Anyway, photography was a big part of my family and I think that is why I love movies and in particular looking at the stills of a movie and how they all work together to evoke a particular mood or moment in the film.

On Conrado’s last Hit Me post he invited me to participate and I figured why not?  Well, of course the first one I do has to be Citizen Kane!  Only the greatest cinematography ever in a movie.  Widely argued as the greatest movie ever made, it is tough to argue that it is the best crafted movie with cinematographer Gregg Toland creating a work that has yet to be topped.  Literally almost every shot in the movie could be used for this project!

citizen kane6Most people know Orson Welles was given free rein in Citizen Kane directing himself in the story of Charles Foster Kane who is widely seen as a sub-in for newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst.  Kane starts in obscurity but rises to be the richest most powerful man in the world.  And yet on his death bed he is practically alone and his one word is Rosebud.

Then for the rest of the movie a reporter named Jerry Thompson seeks to find out what Rosebud means and who Charles Foster Kane really is.

I love this movie but I am out of my league attempting to give any kind of professional analysis of the shots.  I know some things that impress me but I am sure there is much more a truly skilled technician would be able to tell you.  I highly recommend listening to the Roger Ebert audio commentary on the blu-ray.  It’s fascinating.

So the 3 shots I picked are…

citizen kane4Here’s a man who runs a newspaper, a tabloid no less, but what does he have going into the eternities?  Nothing but himself. He is infinitely alone.  citizen kane3After he insists Susan Alexander really is a singer he forces everyone to like her and forces her to sing just to prove he is right.  This image of the light bulb, his face and the newspaper with the headline about Susan is basically his life in one shot. He is exuberant, bright, sad, staring, and causing furor where ever he goes.

citizen kane5This is a shot from the beginning when Thompson gets his assignment to research Rosebud.  They have just finished watching the Kane newsreel about the great man’s life and all the reporters are nothing but shadows.  How apropos for someone about to find out the ‘hidden meaning’ of a word and a man’s life.

The lighting Toland and Welles achieve is astonishing.  The way shadows are used and light reflecting off of people in not just one interesting way but many in one shot is mind blowing.  He has many shots with a person that is blacked out facing the characters on the screen.  All we see is like a police outline and can look at the light and the reactions of who they are talking too.  Here is another example.

citizen kane2I guess that’s 4 shots then.  Give me a break.  It’s Citizen Kane for goodness sakes!!

What do you think of my shots?  It’s really a rite of passage for any film lover and I have the Citizen Kane boxed set collector’s edition which I highly recommend.  You’ve got to see it!

Character Profile 6: Holly Golightly

breakfast at tiffanysI just had a neat experience.  Cinemark movie theaters have a Cinemark Classics series where about 3 times a month they show on the big screen a classic movie.  I recently enjoyed It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve and today I saw arguably my favorite movie (definitely in top 3) Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

It might surprise you that a good little Mormon girl from Utah loves a movie about a call girl and a male slut who get drunk and make terrible life choices.  That’s the thing.  I don’t need my characters in books and movies to make the same choices I would, or even be admirable.  They just need to teach me something and Holly Golightly does that in spades.

I will put it out there that I think Holly Golightly is one of the most complex characters in movies. She’s a puzzle and every time I see the movie I learn something new about her.


I love characters that are contradictions and Holly is full of them from the moment we meet her.  Of course her first scenes are in the iconic black dress and costume jewelry looking in the windows at Tiffany’s and eating a croissant.  She looks like she could be off to the Oscars tiara and all.

breakfast at tiffanys11Then the next scene is her letting Paul into her dumpy apartment with no furniture in an oversized shirt. Too top it off we learn she is going to visit a man in prison and gets $50 to go to the powder room from men.

She has strange philosophies on life like not naming her cat and fighting what she calls the mean reds:

“The blues are because you’re getting fat and maybe it’s been raining too long, you’re just sad that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?”

And what does she do when she has the mean reds? Why go to Tiffany’s of course!

“Well, when I get it the only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and go to Tiffany’s. Calms me down right away. The quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there. If I could find a real-life place that’d make me feel like Tiffany’s, then – then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name!”

Isn’t that interesting?  The woman who throws crazy parties and plans to marry for money twice in the movie likes Tiffany’s not for the diamonds because it is quiet and calming. See what I mean about a complex woman?

breakfast at tiffanys5

Holly is also the woman who can look like a star in minutes to go to a prison.

breakfast at tiffanys12

But is probably the most honest in a scene where she is simply strumming a guitar looking like she is ready to clean the house. Actually she is honest in both scenes.  That’s what makes her so interesting. As OJ Berman says “she’s a phony but she’s a real phony” or in other words she’s like all of us.

breakfast at tiffanys2We find out she has been running in her life.  She ran from her child bride husband Doc (probably for the best but it isn’t as cut and dry as you’d think).

breakfast at tiffanys wild thingI love this scene when she tells Doc she’s a wild thing.

“You musn’t give your heart to a wild thing. The more you do, the stronger they get, until they’re strong enough to run into the woods or fly into a tree. And then to a higher tree and then to the sky”

If we think about the end when Paul tells her about being a wild thing it is so perfect. To use Holly’s lingo she’s ‘just a scared little mouse” .  In a way she has become used to fear, proud of it even if it gives her the mean reds from time to time.

“I’ll never get used to anything. Anybody that does, they might as well be dead”

breakfast at tiffanys 6

Of course Audrey Hepburn is the star of the picture but George Peppard is lovely too as a man who has given up. He’s settled for a convenient love, living and life. It is such a contrast to Holly but both are equally lost. I think that is why she gives him a new name. It is the only way she who wears so many faces can relate to this person.

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In a way it is an extremely hopeful picture as all love stories really should be. That no matter how screwed up we are (and aren’t we all) there is someone out there who will love us for it. That is why I love the ending so much.

breakfast at tiffanys end

Holly tells Paul “I’m not going to let anyone put me in a cage.
Paul: I don’t want to put you in a cage. I want to love you.
Holly: It’s the same thing.
Paul: No it’s not.
Then she throws out the cat and he gets up to leave. And this is my favorite speech in all of movies.

“You know what’s wrong with you, Miss Whoever-you-are? You’re chicken, you’ve got no guts. You’re afraid to stick out your chin and say, “Okay, life’s a fact, people do fall in love, people do belong to each other, because that’s the only chance anybody’s got for real happiness.”

You call yourself a free spirit, a “wild thing,” and you’re terrified somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it’s not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somali-land. It’s wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.”

Both of these characters have been lost but in different ways and he is absolutely right ‘no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself”.  That’s why it is so important we find people who love us and who will help us get out of those cages.  Help us deal with the mean reds and the often strange choices we make. People who will love us no matter what.

That’s the hope of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  That all humans can be redeemed from our various transgressions through love.  It’s kind of like in Les Mis when they say ‘to love another person is to see the face of God”.

breakfast at tiffanys4Anyway, I love Breakfast at Tiffany’s and I love Holly.  She’s so much fun and yet fascinating at the same time.  The only part of the movie I don’t like is the embarrassing racist performance of Mickey Rooney as a Japanese photographer who lives upstairs from Holly.  I so wish that character didn’t exist. It’s just awful for a white man to be playing a person of another race and the makeup, voice, and teeth make it even worse if that is possible.

But I try to ignore that part because the rest in my eyes is perfect.  It is also one of the few adaptations that actually improves upon the original source material which despite being written by Truman Capote isn’t nearly as nuanced and tough to pin down as the script by George Axelrod.

The great Blake Edwards deserves a lot of credit for his direction which is so appealing and then garish when it has to be.

Finally the music by Henry Mancini is perfect. I love they didn’t dub Audrey.  It helps add a vulnerability a more polished singing performance wouldn’t have had.  I could listen to Moon River all day and sang it for voice lesson recital a while back.

It’s such a beautiful song because it captures the contradictions in the movie. It’s a dream maker and heart breaker at the same time.  And then it ends just as the movie ends with hope for our heroes.

“Two drifters off to see the world.  There’s such a lot of world to see.  We’re after that same rainbow’s end, waiting, round the bend”

Character Profile 5: Atticus Finch


Most people I know consider To Kill a Mockingbird to be the greatest novel ever written.  Perhaps Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby is in the running for some (not me) but it would certainly be in my top 5.  I’m sure just like with everything else there will be a few comments about how To Kill a Mockingbird is overrated and I’m sorry but I just don’t get how anyone could think that.

It is so well paced and builds momentum until the moment of the verdict which is completely devastating and yet triumphant at the same time.  And then a lesser writer would have stopped there but the story continues till the reveal of Boo Radley and the attack.

I tend to be a bit of a speed reader because I want to find out what is going to happen (even if I’ve read it before!).  But with To Kill a Mockingbird I slow down because I love being with these people so much I don’t want it to end.  There are not many books I can say that about.  Part of that attachment is the complete charm of Scout as the matter-of-fact narrator and Jem as his little idealistic heart is broken.

But in the end the person I most want to stay in my life is their Dad, Atticus Finch.  Never was a more noble character put to pen and paper. He reminds me of my Grandpa who I loved dearly and has passed on.  I hope we have all known someone like that.  I hope we all know someone who is worthy of standing for when they pass by.

I feel like many modern novelists are afraid to write noble characters- afraid they will seem ‘unrealistic’ or ‘too perfect’. It seems like a modern novelist would tag on some negative qualities to Atticus making him weaker and supposedly more complex.  And yet I know many people who are like Atticus, who by no means is a perfect person but he is just trying to do what is right.  I certainly hope we all know people who fit that description.

In fact, in my life the alcoholics, philanderers and crooks are the minority thankfully.  I relate to the struggles Atticus has where his kids and family pull him one way and his desire to stand up for what is right another.  He knows he is putting his family in danger by representing Tom but he can’t stand to sit by and do nothing and let evil prevail. That makes him a complex character because you see the conflict in his eyes.  Also he knows he is fighting not only a losing battle but one that will hurt his career and name amongst the town but he is anchored by his own moral compass and nothing else in the end matters.

atticus3When they went to adapt To Kill a Mockingbird to the movies they certainly had a Herculean task before them.  Fortunately it is in my opinion the finest adaptation from book to screen ever produced.  Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus and it was such a favorite of his that he kept in touch with the child actors and Harper Lee (a famous recluse) until he died.

After reading the book he said:

“”I got started on it and of course I sat up all night and read straight through it. I understood that they wanted me to play Atticus and I called them at about eight o’clock in the morning and said, ‘If you want me to play Atticus, when do I start? I’d love to play it.’ I thought the novel was a fine piece of writing and of course I turned out to be right about that, because it won the Pulitzer Prize and it’s still being read in high-school literature classes and the paperback goes on selling. But more than that I felt it was something I could identify with without any stress or strain… And I felt that I knew those two children…So I fell into that very readily, both as the father and with an understanding of the children.”


You sense that love in his performance and it feels like a real family.  The kid actors are so good and it is kind of amazing this was their first and only role if I’m not mistaken.  Peck is so loving and sweet with them while still being honest.  It is the mix of showing them the world while shielding them at the same time that makes him a parenting hero.

I love the closing arguments because you know he is certain of the outcome and behavior of the jurors but he still hopes and says with complete conviction they will do the right thing.  That’s a main message of To Kill a Mockingbird is hope. Whether it is in the innocence of a child, the honor of a good man or the persecuted souls dreaming of better things, there is always hope to cling too.

When Atticus finds out that Boo is responsible for saving the life of his children he looks at Boo and says simply ““Thank you for my children, Arthur,”.  It’s so simple and beautiful. A lesser author might have made a big speech but 6 words is all that is needed. It’s a beautiful contrast when a jury of strong able bodied men fail to have courage but a timid fearful Boo Radley does the right thing.

It’s the culmination of all Harper Lee and Atticus have been trying to teach us.  He tells Scout:

“”Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

Some may consider that a sad look at human nature but I see it as incredibly hopeful.  Hopeful there will always be people who can say like Paul “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith”


So Atticus to me is the most noble and complex character in literature and film.  If by some travesty you have not seen and/or read To Kill a Mockingbird stop what you are doing and get it done.  Luckily most of us read it in school (and most of us still like it which usually school ruins most books!).  It is a movie I frequently watch on Sunday and consider it the equivalent of a hug from my Grandpa who I miss terribly. He was such a man as Atticus.

Character Profile 4: Little Edie Bouvier

grey gardens posterI thought I would do a fun character profile today that would introduce you to a film that may be new to some of you less hard-core movie buffs.

This is unique because it’s not really a character but an actual person in a documentary.  Today we are talking about Little Edie Bouvier from the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens.

little edie7

In some funny ways Little Edie is kind of similar to Napoleon Dynamite.  Both have kind of horrible lives but embrace them with contentment.  They are both easy to please and I like that.

Grey Gardens is a documentary made by two brothers Albert and David Maysles about 2 distant relatives of Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy, a mother and daughter both named Edith Bouvier (big and little Edie).

little edie 2It’s a style of documentary that is rarely made today with no agenda, just watching these borderline delusional women living their lives.  I think it is brilliant.

little edie4In a certain way Little Edie’s life is sad.  She is living in trash with racoons, fleas and garbage everywhere.  Her mother has clearly kept her from pursuing her dreams and she has alopecia which caused her to lose her hair a difficult thing for any woman especially in a ritzy area like The Hamptons.   There is a sense she is hiding from the world and that is sad.

But with all of that Little Edie has chosen to be happy. She dances and smiles and speaks her mind to anyone who will hear her.

little edie and flagI love her description of herself:

“But you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn’t know that they were dealing with a staunch character and I tell you if there’s anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman… S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There’s nothing worse, I’m telling you. They don’t weaken, no matter what”

Isn’t that a lovely way to stuff it to the high class ladies who probably think they are staunch?  I love it!

There’s something to be said for deciding to be happy even to the point of being a little nutty.  It certainly beats the alternative.

“‘Course, I’m mad about animals, but raccoons and cats become a little bit boring. I mean, for too long a time.”

little edie3She does talk a lot about wanting to get the heck out of Grey Gardens but again it’s this sadness mixed with a cheerful exterior that makes her a fascinating person.  Tough to figure out.  A part of her seems on continuous survival mode but then another part seems like a little girl especially compared to her rather deadpan mother.

“I only cared about three things: the Catholic Church, swimming and dancing, and I had to give them up”

little edieLittle Edie became a fashion icon with her scarves and unique style.  Just everything about her was unique.  Like I said it’s a movie you can watch 100 times and come away with different conclusions each time.  Now documentaries are made with a specific agenda and the audience is manipulated to agree with said ideas.  Not Grey Gardens.  It is just an introduction to these crazy, happy women and then you as the viewer must make what you will of it.

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. You know what I mean? It’s awfully difficult. ”

little edie and big edieIf you want to watch a movie where every viewing you see something new and thought provoking about two of the strangest and most interesting characters ever put on film Grey Gardens is the movie for you.

Little Edie steals every scene she is in and leaves you despite all the crazy feeling, wishing you could have a meal with her and ask her a million questions. You know she would be funny, vulgar, cheerful and probably a little shocking.  A movie about both women would have to be a documentary because people would say it is too out there for fiction, and yet there it is.


Proof that the human race is endlessly fascinating.

Character Profile 3: Napoleon Dynamite

The poster really is right. He is out to prove he has nothing to prove. I’m so envious of that skill!

I wasn’t going to post a character profile today but I feel inspired to talk a little bit about the great Napoleon Dynamite.  I feel a special kinship to Napoleon because it was made by Utahns (and Mormons) and speaks to a culture I can relate to a little bit.  I guess you could consider it a one hit wonder of movies as none involved have been able to strike such a home run again but some one hit wonders are classics and so is Napoleon Dynamite.

If you don’t know Napoleon Dynamite is a movie about a boy in high school named Napoleon who is an unusual kind of misfit.  He is a terrific character because he doesn’t know he is a misfit and that makes him incredibly likable.  He’s happy with his life despite the fact that everything which happens in the movie is kind of sad.  In another writers hands it could have been a tragedy.

Think about it- his brother is a borderline creepster, his parents are MIA, his grandma is injured and his uncle is a mess.  He gets rejected by the girl he likes.  He only has 2 friends and everyone kind of makes fun of him. Then why is it such a cheerful picture?  Because Napoleon is a content character.  He gets pleasure from small things like drawing ligers, acquiring skills, helping his friend win an election, learning karate and eating tater tots.  One might say he has learned to be happy on very little.  Easy to please.

napoleon and crowdAnd yet he is certainly not a cheerful or bubbly character.  Napoleon is very deadpan but this is where you get most of the laughs.  It is funny to have someone talking about tatertots or ligers in an intense/deadpan way.  It’s just a funny way of speaking.  He’s so easily pleased by simple things that as an audience we root for him to get those things.  The dialogue makes us laugh along the way (the plot isn’t particularly funny.  It is the script that makes us laugh and root for him).

Here’s a great example.  Whether it’s reciting current events, advocating for our underwater allies, signing with the happy hands club or eating tots, Napoleon is happy with his life.

He doesn’t care that the jock is making fun of him.  He cares when he takes his tots and calls him an ‘idiot’ but as far as people and his self esteem he remains consistently strong. It makes him extremely likable and funny (oblivious and unaware people can be the most funny because we think about how we might feel in that situation and maybe are even a little envious of Napoleon).


The ultimate example of this deadpan freedom is in his dance.  He doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him.  He only cares about his friend and what he thinks is cool.  Wouldn’t life be great if we were all a little more like that? If we didn’t need the praise of the world to be happy but could be satisfied by such simple things?

So I think we could all learn a little bit from Napoleon.  Enjoy the life we’ve got and be a little bit less worried what others think about our choices.  Have a good laugh and watch Napoleon Dynamite again.  It’s certainly one of my favorite characters in the movies. Vote for Pedro! 🙂