Best Film Ever, Yada Yada Yada: An Introduction To Citizen Kane (1941)
Back in the dark days of February, I introduced a screening of Citizen Kane at Derby QUAD.
Introduction To Citizen Kane, 3rd February 2010
Every ten years, Sight and Sound holds a film critics’ poll to determine the greatest films ever made. Since 1962, the critics have consistently queued up to vote Orson Welles’ 1941 film Citizen Kane the winner. During the last two votes – in 1992 and 2002 – film directors were asked the same question, and came back with the same answer. This is surely an unprecedented consensus. Mozart and Beethoven factions still duke it out to decide who composed the most enduring music. Shakespearean scholars can’t even agree which is his best play. And yet Citizen Kane has held onto its ‘best ever’ crown for nearly 50 years.
Why is Citizen Kane so great? It certainly doesn’t have the popularity or mainstream recognition of enduring favourites like Star Wars, The Godfather or The Lord Of The Rings. But its influence is incalculable – very few directors of note haven’t borrowed from Welles’ masterpiece in some way. And like all of the major touchstones of classic Hollywood – The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life – the film is referenced by other movies and art forms almost as a reflex. But Kane surely has the oddest, most interesting disciplines. The White Stripes wrote a song consisting entirely of lines taken from the film’s dialogue. The Simpsons, whose producers claim they’ve done more in-jokes about Kane than any other film, based an entire episode, ‘Rosebud,’ on its plot.
What encourages such devotion? A lot of its appeal to film buffs lies in its technical virtuosity. I won’t go into too much detail, but there are a few key things worth looking out for. The film is famous for its deep-focus cinematography, which means that the foreground and background remain constantly pin-sharp so you see everything that’s going on. Check out the sequence where the camera moves away from a young Kane playing in the snow outside a log cabin to reveal his mother plotting her son’s future inside – and all the time the subject of her conversation remains in focus. The film uses really low camera angles so the actors, and even the ceilings, loom above you – a trick made possible by digging holes in the studio floor. The stand-out sequences are punctuated by surreal special effects that still impress, like the appearance of a house in a snowglobe in the film’s opening scene. Who needs computer animation?
The romance of the film’s making hasn’t hurt its reputation. Orson Welles was just 25 when he made it and a huge part of the film’s charm lies in recognising his almost incomprehensible achievement at an age when most wannabes are still making coffee for the crew. Welles’ success is pretty much unique – already a major star on radio and on stage, he was able to dictate terms to the RKO studio, and given total creative control provided he stayed under budget. When you hear stories of the disasters and problems that befell other classic films, from Apocalypse Now to Blade Runner to just about everything Welles himself made after Kane, you realise what a rarity this is: a film made without compromise.
Welles later admitted that he only got away with it due to “the confidence of ignorance,” likening his naivety to a man walking along the edge of the cliff without knowing it. But I think he knew what he was doing. At the time, he described Hollywood as the greatest train set a boy could have, and he simply wanted to have fun. The joy of the film is that Welles was still young enough to get a childlike kick out of the experience. He brings brave storytelling tricks across from radio and theatre that had never been seen before in the movies – a pitch-perfect pastiche of a news report to rival Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, or a zippy montage that fast-forwards through an entire marriage in the space of a single breakfast. Another thing that Welles introduced was his high-calibre cast: veterans of Broadway but all newcomers to movies. It shows: there’s a hunger and freshness in every performance.
Crucially, Welles devised the structure of his story before settling on a subject. So many contenders for the title of best film ever are based on novels or true-life stories – The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, Schindler’s List – which means that before the story can be told cinematically it must be altered to fit a new template. Welles started from a clean slate, custom-built to suit the strengths of the medium, and that brings an enormous sense of freedom and purpose that’s obvious when you watch the film.
The idea that Welles and co-writer Herman Mankiewicz devised, revolves around a dead newspaper baron, Charles Foster Kane. His dying word – Rosebud – sparks a media hunt to discover its meaning; and Kane’s life is revealed in flashbacks via interviews with friends, family and colleagues. The film isn’t one linear story but a mosaic, practically a series of mini-movies, which means two things. Firstly, an incredible density and pace of action – Citizen Kane is stuffed with incident and themes. Even if you find one sequence boring, chances are the next will seize your interest. The other thing is the breadth of subject matter that the film can touch on by focussing on different variations of one man’s life. Citizen Kane is about money, power, politics, arts and media, family, friendship, the joie de vivre of youth and the bitterness of old age. Few films have such scope; probably only The Godfather rivals it for ambition, but remember that the Corleones’ story took three films to tell. Kane achieves it in a brisk 110 minutes.
The biggest complaint against the film is that it is dry and inaccessible. Empire Magazine last year suggested it was “a whopping cathedral of a movie, awe-inspiring, but too vast and ornate to love.” I beg to differ. For starters, it remains immensely topical. Welles got in a lot of trouble for basing Kane on a real-life mogul, William Randolph Hearst, but that realism means it’s easy to watch the film today and see Kane – with his ruthless buying-out of rival newspapers, political interests and sex scandals – as a version of Rupert Murdoch or Silvio Berlusconi.
It’s also a very moving film. Remarkably, considering his young age, Welles made a movie about growing old and growing up. The only moments where the film slows down is during the present day interviews with Kane’s now-elderly associates. These scenes are gorgeous, heart-warming grace notes. Suddenly there are no frills, no big camera moves, just simple shots of the characters lapsing into reverie as they talk about their pasts.
As for Kane himself, what we see is a portrait of an unfulfilled life. Kane achieves everything society holds dear – love, money, power – and still he’s not happy, having sacrificed innocence and integrity in the pursuit of his elusive dreams. Orson Welles’s performance is effortless and extraordinary, moving from the witty, rakish upstart of Kane’s youth to the cold, stiff monument who ends up being just another statue in his cavernous mansion, Xanadu.
When a film becomes as universally revered as Kane, it’s very hard not to fall into one of two camps – one that boringly toes the party line, one that radically, self-consciously, attempts to diminish that lofty reputation. I have to admit, I’ve switched sides myself. When I first saw Kane as a rebellious 19-year-old, I was underwhelmed, and I snickered at the certainty with which so many declared its greatness. And then I saw it again. And again. And each time it grew in stature, revealing more nuances and deeper subtleties. Now I can’t do without it. Is it the greatest film ever made? Possibly not. But it’s definitely one of them, for the simple reason is that it never gets stale – whatever age you are, no matter how many times you’ve seen it, there’ll be something new to enjoy.
Reproduced with kind permission of Derby Quad