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Citizen Kane (1941)

by on 2011/08/24

“He was disappointed in the world, so he built one of his own, an absolute monarchy.”

* * * * *

By many — even most — accounts, Citizen Kane is a singular achievement in cinematic history. It introduced new conventions and popularized others, combining and refining various earlier techniques into a distillation, a unified work of unprecedented craft.

It’s not just empty theory, fortunately. Kane tells a compelling tale, and tells it in an interesting way. “Nonlinear” was then a rarity we take for granted now. The mystery it reveals in pieces is interesting too, accessible and ineffable, baroque simplicity, without the contradiction my words suggest.

Discussing Kane merits at least a mention of its auteur, Orson Welles. Then best known as one of radio’s Mercury Theatre players, he achieved a notoriety for narrating The War of the Worlds (1938). Here he writes, directs, and stars in arguably his finest hour (or two). He refused to compromise, delivering a quiet triumph which failed to succeed in its day.

As a result of Kane’s “failure”, studio bureaucracy prevented him from producing things in “his own way” for the remainder of his days. I consider such meddling to be a travesty despite — or perhaps illustrated by — my mixed feelings about his future essays in The Stranger, The Third Man, and Touch of Evil.

This storyline follows a reporter, Jerry Thompson. He travels around the United States, visiting a series of different people. All have in common an acquaintance with the late Charles Foster Kane (Welles), an eccentric recluse who died at seventy, murmuring a single last word: “Rosebud”.

Over the course of the movie, we sort through disparate glimpses. An overview of Kane’s life reveals the details familiar to the (fictional) public. But what is the meaning or significance of his final utterance? How might it shine a new light on the former celebrity? Everyone has an opinion. An editor thinks it was a simple thing. A friend wonders if it was something Kane lost. A servant suggests a trinket. Thompson speculates it was something Kane couldn’t possess.

And yet, were an answer eventually found, would it really mean anything? Would it change what we’d learned to that point? Does desperation drive us to find significance in the banal? I won’t spoil it either way, but one thing is for sure: its inclusion ensures a fantastic biography becomes an even more fantastic mystery.

From a critical perspective, it’s a difficult film to approach. No matter which aspect you choose to examine, the efforts are roundly successful. Whatever your interest — composition, angles, focus, lighting, or juxtaposition — you’re studying exemplary models, one and all.

Three particular qualities that jumped out at me in this screening were the cinematography, editing, and structure. The use of low angles was a bit of a surprise, especially when Kane lost authority, though I felt it also highlighted his isolation. The transitions were terrific fun, as when he appears to steal the staff from a rival’s photograph. And the intertextuality of the whole keeps it fresh up to this day. Beyond nonlinearity, we see interviews, flashbacks, text, and a newsreel with limited animation, as involving for our mind as for our eyes.

The sole quibble I could suggest is the acting can be a bit much. The theatricality in some of the roles was typical in early pictures, but “over the top” is often more fun in production than performance, I think.

Otherwise, I have no complaints. Citizen Kane is beyond reproach, not because it deserves a free pass, but because it endures ongoing scrutiny. It remains as engaging, effective, and relevant today as it ever was. The only tragedy greater than Kane’s is the subversion of Welles’ later visions. To judge by the accomplishments of his first feature, the potential loss we’ve suffered may have been extreme.

* * * * *

Rated PG

119 minutes

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