Friday, April 11, 2014

Citizen Kane (1941)

Director: Orson Welles                                     Writer: Herman Mankiewicz & Orson Welles
Film Score: Bernard Herrmann                          Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore and Agnes Moorehead

While I completely understand and respect Orson Welles’ prodigious talents, I’ve never really enjoyed watching him on screen. The most telling example of this is that my favorite film of his is Touch of Evil, where he is almost unrecognizable. Perhaps that’s why I don’t particularly enjoy Citizen Kane more. While I’m incredibly appreciative of the film as a work of art, I don’t really find it entertaining. It’s an incredible cinematic experience, but it’s not something that I return to for repeat viewings. It is then, as so many critics say, the greatest film of all time? Not for me. Nevertheless, Welles’ thinly-veiled biography of Randolph Hearst is something unique in film history and, while not very influential, that creative difference has set it apart, earning it accolades down through the decades that have made it a perennial number one on the all-time lists of films both in the United States and around the world.

The film opens with a wonderful montage that begins on a No Trespassing sign, a perfect encapsulation of the character. After dissolves that reveal the broken down ruins of the estate called Xanadu, the camera stops on a window and the light goes out symbolizing the death of Charles Foster Kane. From there the scene shifts to inside and the final words of Welles’ character: Rosebud. Next a newsreel tells the story in a few short minutes of the life of Kane, and when it finishes the men watching it in the screening room are given orders by their boss to find out what Rosebud means. The rest of the film is told in flashbacks, remembrances of the men and women who knew the man, piecing together the inside story of the media mogul. From the lawyer who was in charge of his millions until he came of age, to his manager, to his best friend and finally his ex-wife, emerges a portrait of a man who didn’t know who he was and yet insisted on exerting his undefined will on everyone around him until he drove them all away.

The first thing one is struck by is the photography. The whole film is highly stylized, at times with thoroughly composed shots giving an almost static quality to the scene, and others with chiaroscuro lighting that is extremely gothic. The deep focus lenses and low-angle shots, while not exactly new, were used in a new way to emphasize the foreground while maintaining focus on the background as well, allowing for more new and interesting compositions. The next thing that draws attention is the idiosyncratic film score by Bernard Herrmann that, while not intrusive, captures the same fragmented quality of the visuals. Finally, there is the overlapping dialogue, realistic in sound if not substance. For the substance of the text is deceptive, like Kane himself, pompous and important sounding but with little actual meaning. And the through story, the search for Rosebud, while providing a great reveal at the end, in retrospect seems almost too simplistic. But then that would seem to be the whole point. For the reminiscences of a man’s life are not the man himself. They are a dream, a fantasy that seems real at the time but in reality is nothing more than a memory or a nightmare.

The A List essay by Godfrey Cheshire is very good on this point. He first explains that the film is really two films, the Hollywood picture distributed by RKO which is separate from its enormous reputation. He goes on to say that the reputation has nearly subsumed the actual picture. I was happy to see him tell first-timers to dial back their expectations because all of the techniques that seemed so innovative at the time have subsequently been co-opted even by television. But his best point, one that I’m not sure is articulated all that well, is to view the film from the perspective of radio, the medium that Welles came from. The way I read this is that the film is our imagination of what the story, if told on radio, would look like in our minds, very much like a dream or a memory. His final, well though out point, is that Citizen Kane’s reputation actually comes from the fact that it, more than any other Hollywood film, is a work of art created almost wholly by its author, Orson Welles, and thus cannot be viewed the same as the other art by committee creations of the golden age of cinema. And in that respect, at least, it is one of the greatest films of all time.

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