Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Some years after the first time I saw Citizen Kane, I was thumbing through a first-year film textbook and found a chapter-length analysis of the film. Pretty heady stuff, it had diagrams and flow charts and an awful lot of talk about “ceilings.” It’s an unfortunate side effect of the technical expertise in play in Orson Welles’ first feature film that a rather sizable volume of the written scholarship about it is devoted to much ceiling talk. An attempt is typically made by the writer to engage you in the concept that in 1941, seeing a ceiling in a Hollywood movie was a pretty big deal. Another recurring feature of Kane conversation is the assertion that it’s a cerebral film about craftsmanship, not emotions; it’s often stated that it earns its pedestal from innovations, camera angles, tricks. The accusation’s been leveled by voices no less authoritative than Roger Ebert, Ingmar Bergman, Welles himself in later years, and the introduction to that well-regarded film textbook I wats looking at. I’m opening my brand new movie blog by telling you: it’s bullshit. Dunderheaded, wrong, short-sighted, superficial fucking bullshit. And did I mention wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
When Kane was positioned at the top of the 1997 AFI list, throngs of people went out to Blockbuster to rent the thing and came away baffled. Disregarding those who are unlikely to have enjoyed any film made before Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is actually fine with me, I passionately believe that the vocal disappointment — which has extended to heated dinner table debates in my own family — is entirely due to both the weakening any work of art experiences when put on a pedestal, especially when that pedestal is the rationale for its widespread exposure, and the fact that every damn thing people go on about in regard to Citizen Kane is not a good reason to watch a movie. Innovation? Bunk! Who cares? Camera angles? Get serious. To be fair, these are great attributes of the film; it really is a visual marvel, and visuals are really why we care about movies. The only portion of all these dissertations on the movie that offends me is the inevitable claim made that Kane is a coldhearted boy movie. That riles me up so much I could explode! Why? Because the entire reason Citizen Kane is such a miraculous, beautiful film and not just a feat of camera acrobatics or a documentation of a young wunderkind’s indomitable skill is its sense of empathy. Empathy is the entire idea, the entire concept and the entire story of Citizen Kane. It overwhelms the senses with its flood of information and specifically its flood of people — people sometimes on the screen for less than three minutes who nevertheless make an impression as full-blooded people, people we feel we know.
By the end of the feature, there’s no one we know better than Charles Foster Kane. Central to some of these cursedly simplistic writings about the film is the notion that Kane’s a bastard, a man we’re not meant to like. He’s an asshole in some parts of the movie for sure, but the thesis of Citizen Kane is that people, no matter how rich or famous or far apart from our own lives, are too complicated to pin down in any simple terms. We’re meant to be initially fascinated from a distance by Kane but finally to feel warmth for him, to understand him and see something of ourselves in him, his pride and his pratfalls. This is compounded by the fact that all of the information in the story comes secondhand, from interviews with those who knew the man. Late in the story, the reporter investigating Kane’s life and last words mentions to Susan Alexander, Kane’s second wife, that after hearing her story of their marriage’s disintegration he can’t help feeling “a little sorry for Mr. Kane.” She looks up with tears in her eyes and demands “Don’t you think I do?”
It's not all such draining stuff, though. As Pauline Kael pointed out, Citizen Kane endures in large part because it’s so much fun, an incredibly resourceful piece of entertainment that operates gleefully like a puzzle and intends by totally cinematic means to mimic through mangled-up, chronologically shattered narrative a truly American life: realism reimagined, undercut by wry humor and supreme completeness of thought. Orson Welles had never been a man to do things halfway. Long before Kane, he was a nationally beloved figure for his Mercury Radio Theatre, an adventurous broadcast best known for his audacious interpolation of then-chillingly realistic breaking news announcement techniques to an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Hearing the performance now, decades beyond the chaos it once wrought, it’s hard not to smile at the charm inherent in Welles’ cunningly smart but surprisingly populist command of media — not any specific media but the idea of media, audios and visuals and literature and newspapers and the effect of all of the above on the population at large. Decades later, Welles would spend years attempting to construct a film that would consist of nothing but himself staring at a camera and reading passages from Moby Dick, full of dramatic pauses, unnerving eye contact, and a general sense of wonderful unease; the excerpts that have survived are riveting, displaying the same old Orson Welles who — like C.F. Kane — wanted to pick us up by our shirts and fling us around a little bit before giving us a reassuring hug.
War of the Worlds played a considerable part in securing Welles a Hollywood contract. When it came, its breadth was unprecedented. RKO Radio Pictures, the hardest outfit in the studio era to pin down, gave Welles total control over his first project. In retrospect, RKO seems the perfect home for the maverick. The old and quick explanation for RKO’s importance goes something like this: Other studios might have commissioned just a screwball comedy; RKO released Bringing Up Baby. Other studios might have put together a mere monster movie; they did King Kong. And whereas other studios would’ve just issued a newspaper movie, RKO gave us Citizen Kane. Other filmmakers might well have enjoyed star power and a degree of creative control, Cecil B. DeMille, Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges most prominently by then (Alfred Hitchcock landed in Hollywood in 1939 but for now was still under contract to David O. Selznick), but Welles had never made any sort of a movie before; he famously thought of the studio as a huge toy. That candy-store feeling comes through in the finished project, which brims with the conviction of creativity, of infinite resources well utilized and deployed to craft something pure and from the heart. When bigwigs and outsiders dropped by the set to see what he was up to, Welles dismissed his crew and started playing softball with them, telling everyone they’d resume working as soon as the studio executives left.
There's no way to write anything remotely definitive about Citizen Kane, its story, its production, its genius, its pleasures; it’s too big to get your arms around it, one of the handful of movies so loaded with great ideas and accomplishments you could write a full-fledged essay or a book about virtually every scene. Maybe every shot. At the bottom, though, this is what Citizen Kane is: a fragmented series of biographical sketches and memories regarding the life of a newspaper mogul, Charles Foster Kane, fraught with wealth and loneliness and great enthusiasm stunted, as investigated by a journalist attempting to glean the meaning of Kane’s last word: “rosebud.” We open, in a coy shade of War of the Worlds, on a newsreel laying out the basic facts of Kane’s life: sent away by his mother after she comes upon riches, discovers he owns a newspaper and turns it into an empire, attempts a political career, sees two marriages fail, finally dies alone in the great castle, Xanadu, he never finished building. We’re given everything at the outset, every relevant fact about Kane, and in a Shakespearean sense, we know the entire story before it begins. As the newsreel concludes, the producers demand more; they want not just to know the thrust of the events in Kane’s life but who he as a man actually was. We spend the rest of the film attempting to find out. The reporter pays a visit to the archives owned by Kane’s onetime caregiver then interviews his friends Bernstein (Everett Sloane) and Leland (Joseph Cotten), and finally Susan Alexander (the phenomenal Dorothy Comingore, an unknown aside from this), whose tryst with Kane ended his gubernatorial candidacy.
Each of the flashbacks fills in more of our understanding of Kane, his sense of persecution, rebellion, enforced solitude; even at his most pathetic, unreasonable, angry, he never ceases being a human. What’s more commendable still is that we gain just as much a full picture of and sympathy for each of the people in Kane’s orbit, from his early childhood to his last lonely struggles. Welles’ humanism is all-encompassing, spilling from every frame that seems simultaneously by some otherworldly miracle to get inside the heads of all of its characters, perhaps because while exploring one man’s psyche they are each accidentally revealing their own. The absolutely peerless character development here is helped along with the consistently magnificent performances and dialogue. Welles himself is larger than life but believably tattered as C.F. Kane, while Joseph Cotten’s Jedediah Leland is a perfectly lovable screwup as a young man or old cigar-loving geezer. But the fastest and most burned-in impression is made by Agnes Moorehead, in her film debut as Kane’s mother. Her screentime doesn’t go beyond a single magical scene, but in her moment she is heartbreakingly vivid. On the other side of the camera, the script by Welles and the famously erratic, brilliant Herman J. Mankiewicz is so stuffed with brilliantly barbed and insightful dialogue it’s impossible to break it down into any quintessential example, much as it would be a waste of time to list the excellent scenes and strokes of visual genius. If you were to attempt to sum up the highlights of Citizen Kane, you’d simply be summarizing the entire movie.
We can't write about Citizen Kane without addressing the elements for which it’s known, the visual and aural firepower throughout. The three artists of greatest importance to the film, putting the actors aside for the moment, are Welles, Gregg Toland, and Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann is these days perhaps better known for his Hitchcock scores, of which Vertigo and Psycho are most famous but Marnie is best, but his flourishing and romantic Kane music is likely his artistic peak — the swell of music when Walter Parks Thatcher’s papers begin to explain Kane’s childhood estrangement from his mother is among the most flabbergastingly beautiful matchups of cinema and scoring in existence, an aching evocation of the ghosts living in memory, memory that always — as seen in each of the film’s flashbacks — seems less than real. That notion, of events remembered having an impulsive fluidity that catches details likely unnoticed in life, informs the slanted reality of the movie’s visuals. Welles intends for Kane’s world to be experienced in three dimensions, so he carts the camera in and out of odd places and blocks scenes in such a way that each shot makes use of all its available space to deliver story information, the strange cartoonish compositions never whimsical but also never quite rational. It’s a mildly off-kilter dream, a reality overcome with the haze of years, the perfect backdrop for real and pure cinema designed to fill every sense. Kane couldn’t exist without Toland’s photography, his signature deep focus technique allowing the entire concept of the film to operate correctly. It’s no wonder that Welles shares the screen for his credit with his cinematographer; there’s simply no movie without him.
I don’t suppose I’ll ever feel as if I’ve said enough here. There’s so much to take on: the allusions to Rebecca and Dracula in the opening reveal of Xanadu; the towering overblown nature of Xanadu itself, a perfect mirror to the emptiness of Kane’s inner life; the intuitive logic of the narrative that runs emotional rather than linear; the prescience of the tossed-off commentary and details about Hitler and the Depression; the yearning power of the modern-day Susan Alexander sequences and the sad overhead reveals of the nightclub in which she now works; the World’s Meanest Archivist, a model and warning for all librarians; the cut-off romance and snow-drenched sense of loss in the childhood flashback; the wit of the transition from a photograph of a rival newspaper’s staff to a subsequent gathering of those same journalists at Kane’s own paper; Kane’s answer, “everything you hate,” when asked what he wishes he could have been; Mr. Bernstein’s poetic story about the girl he briefly saw decades ago and has never forgotten, one of many telling moments and off-pace emotional crescendos in the movie; the introduction of and rift over Kane’s Declaration of Principles; the clever and shattering montage documenting a marriage’s failure in a series of breakfast table conversations; Kane’s loverboy declaration to Jed Leland of his new squeeze Susan as “a cross section of the American public,” immediately contrasted by the beautiful, awkwardly comic scene of Kane and Alexander’s first meeting; every shrill thing Susan barks at Kane later on; the chilly “close the door” Kane emits when finishing Jed Leland’s negative review of Susan’s debut opera performance; elderly Jed pretending to forget the name of Xanadu, an apt human-nature moment of the sort Welles was so incredibly good at capturing; Kane’s indescribable facial expression at Susan’s first performance; nearly everything that happens and is said in the Susan Alexander flashback, the most perfectly and sensitively written illustration of a relationship destroyed by controlling behavior I know of in the movies; “my reasons satisfy me” and “you can’t do this to me” and “I’m not sorry” and “I’m still pretty funny” and “I’ve had it packed for a week now” and “I know too many people; I guess we’re both lonely” and on and on and on, and on.
If you're one of the people who saw Kane after its AFI placing put it in the news and you were confused by it, I beg you to see it again and put the silly nature of arbitrary polls and rankings, fun though they may be, out of your mind and just bask in the storytelling, the fast-paced and lively deconstruction of a character entirely invented (the story that Kane is just a lampoon of William Randolph Hearst is partially true but still reductive) but seemingly flesh and blood. Don’t put yourself in the context of the times; you shouldn’t have to. Don’t watch for camera tricks and ceilings. Watch the movie as you would any other, and see what you think — not because Kane needs the help, needs any additional folks thinking it’s the greatest thing ever put on celluloid, which it may or may not be, but because it’s an incredibly rich and delightful piece of culture, our culture, and everyone deserves a piece of it. When I went to write all this, I screened the film and took three pages of notes… which ended up being virtually just a list of every sequence in the movie, as described above, impossible to make a coherent review out of; that’s how much I love this movie, and I want you to love it as much as I do.