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Savannah Film Festival: 'Citizen Kane' still holds secrets

Peter O'Toole after his lifetime achievement award at the Savannah Film Festival, flanked by critic Roger Ebert and actor Jason Patric.

SAVANNAH, Ga. – The chair moves. It truly does. It may not seem like a big deal to you, because you are a reasonable person who is not obsessed with “Citizen Kane,” but I have seen the movie perhaps 100 times, and analyzed it shot-by-shot in at least 30 sessions at festivals and in class, and I thought it contained no more surprises for me. The beauty of the shot-by-shot approach is that the theater is filled with other eyes watching the screen.

Here at the Savannah Film Festival, we were analyzing the scene where young Charles Foster Kane’s parents sign the papers that will send him East with Mr. Thatcher. There is an unbroken camera movement that begins with Charles playing in the snow, tracks back inside a window to show the three adults looking at him, and then precedes them as they walk deep into the room so Mrs. Kane can sit down at a table and sign the document.

Question: Since we can see the ceiling, the camera is clearly not mounted on an overhead rail. How, then, does it arrive on the other side of the table without going through it?

Answer: The table is moved into position below the frame a second after the camera has passed. It’s in place by the time we see it – but a top-hat on the table is still jiggling.

This is a well-known “Kane” artifact, delightful for those who seek hints of artists at their work, monumentally insignificant for just about everyone else. We appreciated it one afternoon at the Trustee’s Theater of the Savannah College of Art and Design, which sponsors the festival, and then we moved on. The scene ends as the three adults walk back toward the window, the camera again moving “through” the table, which is whisked away out of view.

“Stop! The chair moved!” somebody shouted. The rules of the shot-by-shot approach are simple. When you see something you want to talk about, you shout “stop!” I freeze the frame, and we talk about it. Because the lights are out in the theater, there is a protective anonymity.

“Just as the camera tracks past the chair on the lower right,” the voice said, “the chair moves out of the way.”

We reversed the shot and looked at it again. The voice was right. The chair movement isn’t even subtle. An unseen hand clearly yanks the chair away from the path of the camera. But because our attention is naturally on the three moving actors and not on an obscure chair in the corner, we miss it. We miss it so completely that in 30 years of “Kane” shot-by-shots nobody had ever spotted it.

Until now. “Thank you for the chair,” I told the audience, quite sincerely. I love “Citizen Kane,” and was touched by the discovery that it still keeps some secrets.

The Savannah Film Festival, now in its seventh year, benefits from being in a city a lot of people have always wanted to visit, especially since the publication of John Benendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil So notorious are the book and movie of that title that in Savannah, I was told, they are simply referred to as “The Book” and “The Movie.” There’s a store called “The Book Store” that deals only in The Book and related items.

The College, universally called “SCAD,” also puts Savannah on the map. It has become the largest art and design school in the nation, supplying the city with the most artistic waiters and Starbucks employees in the world.

This year’s festival featured a lot of new shorts by SCAD film students, and the premieres of new features such as Bill Condon’s “Kinsey” and “Undertow,” by David Gordon Green, who found many of his crew members at SCAD. In addition to the three-day “Citizen Kane” workshop, I did a Q&A with the actor Jason Patric after a screening of James Foley’s “After Dark, My Sweet” (1990), a modern film noir that made both of the Best Ten lists on “Siskel & Ebert,” but sank so quickly at the box office that it never played Chicago and grossed less than $2 million.

Patric, an intense and gifted actor who works rarely because he only appears in films he thinks will be good, gives a haunting performance as an ex-boxer and current mental patient who drifts into the life of a sexy widow (Rachel Ward) and “Uncle Bud” (Bruce Dern), who has a plan to kidnap a local rich kid. They involve the boxer, in a story that does not pay off like a typical crime drama, but descends through film noir into the darkest shadows of tragedy and bleak redemption. A new print has been made of nearly-lost film; now it is time for it to be rediscovered.

The godfather of the Savannah festival is Bobby Zarem, a local boy who became one of New York’s most famous publicists (“People I Know” stars Al Pacino in a role inspired by Bobby). Zarem is everywhere, in his off-the-rack duds from the Savannah Big Man store and his New Balance running shoes. He knows everybody – all the stars, and also the waiters, the ushers, the kids at the next table at the boiled-shrimp dive. He is a moving force behind the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Awards – which went this year to Kathleen Turner, director Norman Jewison, Peter O’Toole, and me. I would like to think my award was indeed for lifetime achievement and not for my achievement last April in inviting “People I Know” and Zarem to my own Overlooked Film Festival at the University of Illinois. Either way, I’m keeping it.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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