Check out the Tape.

Or the Making of Book

Or the book on Perspectives.

Or order the out of print Citizen Kane Book by Pauline Kael, Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles.

Kane Reaction
by Chris Dashiell

When you put something on a pedestal, it becomes a prime target for pigeons.

Or to put it another way - if a certain movie consistently shows up on those "Ten Best of All Time" lists, and often as the "Greatest Film of All Time," no less - you can be sure of a backlash. I'm talking about CITIZEN KANE, of course. The movie that was booed at the Oscars in 1942 had its reputation restored by film critics in the 50s and has since become a sacred cow. Now, inevitably, I hear this opinion (or something like it) from younger film-lovers: "Citizen Kane? Technically innovative, I suppose, but overrated." Overrated? Let's make something clear from the start - there is no greatest film of all time. There couldn't be. The cinema is too rich, too multifarious, to admit just one greatest film. Trying to compare The Gold Rush with, for instance, Persona, is ridiculous, because as films they are attempting totally different things. List-making is just a critic's game (a fun one, I admit - I play it myself sometimes), a kind of historical taking stock of things which gives the novice some ideas about what to watch but doesn't provide much insight into the films themselves.

Yes, there it is - Citizen Kane on the pedestal. My intention here is not to keep it up there, to prove that it's the greatest of all. What I want to do is explain why I think it deserves a reputation as not only a great and important film, but a moving and entertaining one as well - and maybe inspire someone who thinks it's "overrated" to reconsider.

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"I suppose it's technically impressive, but...." This divorces technique from meaning, form from content, as if the only purpose of technique was to show itself off. But it is precisely the way Citizen Kane's technique serves its story which makes the film so powerful. All right then, let's talk about technique. You can go to any number of textbooks and read about the various aspects of style which have made the movie influential - the deep focus photography, low angle shots and wide angle lenses, the use of ceilings, overlapping dialogue, sudden cuts, and so forth and so on. I don't need to go over all that. What I want to express is the effect of all these techniques on a viewer - and especially in the context of the kind of film a viewer in America was accustomed to in 1941 - the Hollywood movie.
Studio technique developed through trial and error until it was perfected in a form now dubbed the "seamless" American style. "Seamless" because you're not supposed to notice the style at all - technique was to be unobtrusive, serving, with clarity and restraint, as a vehicle for the story. Establishing shot, medium shot, close-up, medium shot again. The camera movement is restricted to what is necessary in order to follow the plot. The very position of a speaker's head relative to the back of the head of the person he's talking to was part of a conventional grammar so commonplace that it was instantly understood by an audience. This was the smooth structure of narrative film, and it is still followed by most directors today. In order to understand why Citizen Kane is so bold, it is necessary to be used to the Hollywood style, to recognize one's own comfort with it, one's assumption that this is the way, the only way, to tell a story on film. Then, when you watch Citizen Kane, you can feel the full force of its difference, and it's like opening your eyes to completely new depths and perspectives. Orson Welles took a visual style and flaunted it - he made the style an overt part of the story. The technique was inseparable from the narrative, not just its humble servant. The viewer is reminded that he is watching a movie - and it is just this that is exhilarating about watching it. Citizen Kane combines the narrative interest and production values of a Hollywood film with the self-consciousness of modernist literature.

  For example. After the sequence when we see Kane's mother signing her son away to the banker Walter Thatcher (perhaps the most haunting and ambiguous section of the film), there is a shot of the abandoned sled gradually being buried in the snow. Suddenly we cut to a present being opened - it's a new sled. Thatcher is looking down and saying "Merry Christmas, Charles." Young Kane looks up and says, in a defiant and sarcastic tone of voice: "Merry Christmas!" Suddenly we cut to an older Thatcher saying "...and a Happy New Year." It is years later and he is dictating a letter to the absent Kane, who is now 25 years old.

The textbooks will tell you that Welles has compressed fifteen years into a few seconds using the most daring economy. This is true. The Hollywood film was in the habit of flipping the pages of calendars to indicate the passage of time, or showing clocks, or hourglasses - to the point where it had become a boring cliche. The use of the sled followed by the lightning cuts is much more creative and evocative. But besides all this, the sequence has power in its overt intent to startle the viewer with visual technique. The sled evokes sadness and loss, the shot of the boy saying "Merry Christmas" evokes his powerlessness as well as his hatred and rebellion. The quick cut fifteen years ahead forces the viewer to quickly adjust to a contraction in time, while also drawing attention to the very audacity of the film's own craft. In other words, the viewer gets to be engaged in the story and at the same time gets to enjoy the flamboyance of the way the story is being told. This double layer of enjoyment makes the experience of Citizen Kane a liberating one, a leap forward from the naivete of the conventional "seamless" method.

There are many other examples of this throughout the movie. When Kane, Leland and Bernstein are looking at the picture of the rival Chronicle's reporters in the window, for instance - the camera moves closer to the photo, then we hear Kane's voice saying that six years ago he was looking at this picture. Suddenly he walks across the screen. The photo has become reality - Kane has bought the Chronicle's reporters for the Inquirer and there they sit, six years later, having their picture taken at a celebration. This sequence employs a similar compression of time and combines it with a visual trick which is amusing in its very artificiality - or rather its theatricality. The audience laughs not only at the fact that Kane has bought out the competition, but at the technique itself, the audio and visual switcheroo with which Welles makes his point.

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The old guard thought all this was just showing off, flashiness without substance. But Welles had caught on to something that the seamless style downplayed - that there is an inherent pleasure in the kinds of things that film can do - the myriad combinations of image, sound, light, movement - which is unique to the movies and is more than just the pleasure of telling a good story. This was a radical idea, and it still is, if you judge by how often movie "critics" are satisfied with just telling you about a film's plot. Oh, of course there were others who knew it too. We get this pleasure from Wyler and Sternberg and Hitchcock and the other top directors. It was just that nobody had gone this far before. Citizen Kane lets it all hang out without reservation, without hedging its bets, without assuming that its audience is a mule that needs to be led by the nose. This assumption of the intelligence and sophistication of the film's ideal audience is another aspect which sets it apart. For not only is its technique advanced, its content is adult.

The studio film adhered to ideas of storytelling that were very conservative and formulaic. Boy loses, then gets girl. Good guy battles and triumphs over adversity. Virtue is threatened by evil and saved by love. The form was always more akin to popular genre fiction than to serious literary fiction or drama. Take Casablanca, for instance, one of the most beloved "classic" films, made around the same time as Citizen Kane. Here we have romance and heroism and a hint of espionage with some witty repartee. But is there really any sense of Rick or Ilsa as fully rounded characters, with childhoods and complex motivations and inner conflicts? Everything is carried forward by the iconic aura of the stars - Bogie and Bergman. Their characters serve as vehicles for their charisma. That's how the prestige Hollywood film worked, and there's no denying the charm and the pleasure that this formula provided. But no adult would dream of encountering a moral or intellectual challenge in most studio films of that time, any more than you would from a comic book.

When we turn to Citizen Kane we find just this willingness to challenge the viewer with complexity and character and even political ideas. Its main character is deeply flawed. The young man in the earlier sequences - idealistic, attractive, arrogant - devolves into a ruthless, grasping, isolated and bitter old man. Along the way he suffers humiliating failure and loss while putting the people who love him through hell. In the brilliant newsreel sequence, the film takes an ironic look at public life and celebrity. The section of the film dealing with Kane's run for governor is a tour de force of satiric observation - what other film of its day would have the nerve, let alone the wit, to present us with the alternate headlines KANE ELECTED and FRAUD AT POLLS? And Kane's desperate need to turn his second wife into an opera singer works on so many different levels - as satire of high cultural pretensions, as a tragedy in which Susan's need for Kane's love leads to her victimization, as a bitter illustration of the self-destructiveness of Kane's egomania and need for control, just to mention a few. The point is that Welles and Mankiewicz were willing to be complex, weaving many different themes and elements into their film, and they were willing to be intelligent and literate and adult in their choice of subject and treatment. The use of Hearst as model has gotten far more attention than it deserves - Kane is a fictional creation who is, paradoxically, more human and more interesting than his real-life model. The subject is not Hearst but a certain kind of powerful man in America.

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This brings us to the other comment I am hearing a lot these days. "The story leaves me cold. I don't care enough about Kane to enjoy this movie very much."

The idea that we need to cuddle up to a movie's main character, to love him and identify with him (or her) in order to enjoy a film - this has to be one of the biggest obstacles to true seriousness in the art of film. It severely limits us because it blocks us from portrayals of human beings as they really are in favor of phony ideas of how they should be.

In point of fact, Kane is seen as vulnerable, tender and wounded as well as cruel, selfish and dominating. His struggles are in the tradition of the tragic hero whose faults lead to his downfall. That ultimately Kane cannot love anyone is the source of the film's pathos, precisely what makes the portrait so moving. "Rosebud" represents the loss of his childhood and his endless and unacknowledged mourning for it, but it is also a mere object and therefore cannot completely account for the emptiness in Kane's soul - it is a poetic hint at the depths of a man's heart, yet not an explanation. The refusal of the film to draw simple conclusions, its skill at presenting truths which evade rational analysis but are deeply felt, give it a subtlety and a power that does not diminish with repeated viewings.

In the scene where Kane meets Susan Alexander for the first time we can see how the elements of the film are made to work on different levels. Kane talks about going to visit the warehouse where his mother's things are stored. At one point, Susan says, "Well, you know how mothers are," and we see Kane saying "Yes" very softly. At the same time the musical theme for the scene is the same as that for the scene where Kane's mother signs him away to Thatcher, except quieter. The connections are made, the clues established, without being made too obvious. Throughout the film, Welles lets the viewer think for himself - the style is full of verve and inventiveness, the narrative strategy is subliminal.

There are a few concessions to the need for conventional explaining, mostly in Jed Leland's speeches about how selfish Kane is. Leland often serves as a sort of stand-in for the sane and humanely critical aspects of society - but in the end, isn't Kane a more sympathetic, more interesting character than Leland? The gigantic ambitions and failures of such a man remind us of our own turmoils. His tragedy is also meant to be the tragedy of America - great and idealistic but also blind and rapacious. Alone among the American films of that era, Citizen Kane presents a human hero who also resonates with national and mythic meanings.

Bernard Herrmann composed the magnificent score as the film was being shot, rather than later as is usually the custom. Perhaps this accounts for the way the music seems perfectly in accord with the film's rhythm. There is a dramatic intensity to the music which greatly adds to the picture's emotional impact. There are so many scenes and elements which draw my admiration - the heart-rending sequence of Susan's attempted suicide; Kane's explosion and collapse when she finally leaves him, with the shot of him walking, dazed, past his multiple reflections; the celebrated breakfast table sequence with Kane's first wife, which is a sort of culmination and flourish to all the passage-of-time sequences in Hollywood films.

Suffice it to say that Citizen Kane moves me, and I cannot understand how people can think it is cold or uninvolving. The final shots, with the sled burning and the Herrmann music reaching tragic crescendo, then the black smoke coming out of the chimney like a sinister coda to Kane's life, and finally the pan down to the image that started the film - a "NO TRESPASSING" sign - all of this never fails to bring tears to my eyes, a feeling of inexpressible grief about Kane's life, the life of all striving and ambitious people, restlessly seeking to attain more and more, but ending in loneliness, ending with a word which recalls a time when possessions didn't matter, only the hope and simple need for love of a child.

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Overrated? Perhaps we overpraise when a work breaks through barriers and frees our eyes to new sights. Perhaps the exhilaration of such a work makes us intoxicated, and we overdo our superlatives. Perhaps, though, that is only a measure of our need for films that take chances, that are not timid, but dare to follow a vision to the end. I invite you to watch Citizen Kane again, to grapple with it on its own terms, and forget for once how it's rated - over or under - but just let it take you somewhere. Somewhere new.




CineScene 1999