dir. Rodrigo Cortes
Pauline Kael once argued that Orson Welles weren’t shit, that Citizen Kane was the result of a lucky collaboration within the studio system. She stated, in fact, that co-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz—one of the best writers of the studio era—deserved the majority of the credit for Citizen Kane’s brilliance. Though Kael was an often incisive sharp-witted critic, any film scholar can understand why her opinion was myopic. Whether or not Mankiewicz was the dominant force during the writing process for Kane, to assign him sole credit for the greatness of the film is to deny what is truly groundbreaking about Welles’ picture. Yes, the fractured narrative was quite novel; but it was really the combination of storytelling, expressionistic deep focus camera work, acting talent, and state of the art special effects, that set Citizen Kane apart from the pack. Citizen Kane not only excelled on all fronts, but it managed to synthesize the disparate elements into a transcendent whole, a truly novel film.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to give short shrift to Kael’s argument. Film is a collaborative medium, after all, and the more accomplished the collaborators the better the final product. Give any filmmaker a stable of talented veterans, and he’ll manage to construct a decent picture. So though Kane’s brilliance can’t be ascribed completely to the writing, Welles did luck out in that he was aided by some of the best creative minds of the era: the aforementioned screenwriter Mankiewicz, Gregg Toland behind the camera, composer Bernard Herrmann, and a bevy of the best acting talent available. Not to mention the keys to RKO, the riches of the studio completely at Welles’ disposal. Shame on anyone who couldn’t create a great picture under similar conditions.
But of course, having great collaborators isn't a guarantee of transcendence; only the truly brilliant filmmakers will be able to construct a picture in which the sum far exceeds the parts, on which is stamped the unmistakable style of its creator. A top-tier filmmaker has the vision to recognize how to assemble all the pieces, how to helm the project; he is blessed with the gift of taste. Anyone who can’t recognize Welles’ hand in the final product need only look at his later work to understand the man’s expertise. In his subsequent films, when Welles was hampered by low budgets, shoddy working conditions, and meddlesome studios; the man still pumped out brilliant pictures, films that couldn’t be mistaken for the work of any other director.
So, when judging a filmmaker it’s best to examine those instances in which his hands are tied, when he's working under limitations. Damn near anyone can create quality given ideal circumstances and an unlimited budget (which is why John Carter is so good), but take away damn near every tool in the filmmaker's arsenal and you'll separate the wheat from the chaff. And I mean every tool: onscreen actors (as in plural), multiple locations, budget, what have you. And heck, don't just limit yourself to one location, use a single location just large enough to contain the sole actor to appear on screen. I'm talking Ryan Reynolds in a coffin, bitch (sorry, I’ve got Breaking Bad on the brain). Now you got yourself a fucking challenge.
And director Rodrigo Cortes, with Buried, has himself a fucking movie. Buried had long been on my to-see list for just the reasons stated above: I knew it would be an example of filmmaking under the most limited circumstances. So even if the movie failed, at least it’d be different. And boy how this doesn’t fail. Not only did Buried tell a compelling story, it created a world that, though I saw only a small buried portion of it, I was able to completely envision. I came to care about not just the person onscreen but all those within his world. It gripped me the whole way through. I would elaborate on the plot, but the less one knows going into this the better.
Last week I wrote on the interchangeability of the majority of films. Most films, I stated, blended in my mind, because there wasn't much to tell them apart. As any film scholar knows, once you get attuned to the rhythms of filmmaking, you can predict the majority of stories. Well, Buried was a nice little corrective.