Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why Citizen Kane is considered a Big Deal™

Citizen Kane. I’m sure you’ve all heard of it. Orson Welles’ 1941 directorial debut has been called a masterpiece, one of the highlights of early cinema, often even the best movie ever made.  

Of course that last one is rather an overstatement, not in part because such statements are, by and far, entirely subjective. I’ve seen a lot of movies and Kane certainly doesn’t make my personal top five (nor is it my favourite Welles film – that’d be his adaptation of Kafka's Der Proces, which does make my top five, incidentally). Top ten though, maybe, and top twenty, yes, quite likely – because while the praise often lavished on it does contain a fair bit of hyperbole, at the end of the day it is still a smashing piece of cinema.

On the second of January this year I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Citizen Kane at a small movie theatre in Amsterdam. And when I say pleasure, I mean it – because while it may not be the best movie ever made, I would certainly say it is a masterpiece. Seeing it on a proper film screen was a treat. And more to the point of why we’re here, it inspired me to again reflect upon what it is about the movie that makes it work so well and why it prompts such exuberant praise. I realize veritable libraries’ve been written about Kane by now and that I likely won’t be adding anything new to the discussion. Yet I can still give you an overview of what I think its merits and significance entail, so if you’ve always found yourself wondering what the big deal about this movie is, mayhaps I can get you on the Kane bus after all. 

First, for the uninitiated, perhaps a brief run-down of the story. The titular Charles Foster Kane (haha, I said tit again) is born into a poor and humble family which suddenly comes into an extraordinary amount of money when a guest to his parents’ boarding house leaves his mother the deed to a piece of land which turns out to contain the world’s third largest gold mine. Kane’s mother sends the young boy off to boarding school to be raised and educated in a manner and environment she is unable to provide for him herself. When the adult Kane (played by Orson Welles himself) comes into full possession of his family’s fortune he turns his eye to the newspaper business, with tremendous results. He quickly becomes the country’s most powerful media mogul and even runs for governor of New York state, with many believing him likely to make a successful bid at presidency next. However Kane’s success simultaneously plants the seeds for his downfall, as he becomes enamoured with his wealth and social status and turns into an authoritative, controlling, megalomaniacal figure. The exposal of his love affair with young aspiring opera singer Susan Alexander destroys both his first marriage and his chances at being elected for office. After his marriage with Susan falls apart as well Kane eventually dies alone and hated on his vast country estate of Xanadu, whispering the word “Rosebud” with his final breath. 

 Kane making a grand speech to win electoral support.

But hey, wait just a darn tootin’ minute! I’ve been telling you the plot in the wrong order! Because you see, while the death of Kane is chronologically of course the final event of the story for the man himself, it is with this occurrence that the film actually opens. As often is the case, with Kane it is not merely the plot itself what makes it work, but the way in which it is presented to us. So if up to this point Citizen Kane’s story hasn’t seemed particularly thrilling to you then don’t leave your seats just yet – this is where things start to get progressively more interesting.

Instead of being presented to us directly, the story of Charles Foster Kane is framed through several flashbacks to his life and career. After showing us Kane’s death, the film continues with footage of a newsreel reporting the man’s passing and giving a brief overview of his life. A reporter named Jerry Thompson is then sent on a mission to uncover the meaning of Kane’s dying word, as Thompson’s editor believes Rosebud might hold the key to uncovering what the wealthy newspaper tycoon was really all about. His quest leads him past several of the men and women who knew Kane during his lifetime, each of whom tell us a different story about the man. Thus we are offered glimpses into the remarkable, complicated and ultimately tragic tale of this great and influential media tycoon.

Through giving us these various snippets of Kane’s life the movie is foregrounding the theme of identity, asking us one simple question: who exactly was Charles Foster Kane? Roger Ebert remarks that “[t]he structure of "Citizen Kane" is circular, adding more depth every time it passes over the life”. This is an astute observation and very much correct. Each time we hear a different character speak about Kane we learn a little bit more about him, as if the film is busy painting us a picture of his life right in front of our eyes, adding little flourishes and details each time a new account of it is presented to us. We slowly start being able to pick out and identify the various sides of Kane’s personality, the various stages of his life. We have Kane, the ambitious, young, defiant newspaperman. Kane, the rising star of the American media and business world. Kane, the swaggering and boastful politician. Kane, the adulterous lover. And eventually Kane, the bitter, old, secluded millionaire. By showing us all these different Kanes the movie seems to be asking us to somehow create a synthesis of these representations, suggesting that in the midst of these different images the true individual, the true Charles Foster Kane can be found.

The full answer to the question is never outright given, which is as it should be. We get glimpses, we get snippets, we get clues, but the complete picture never emerges. Of course everyone knows the meaning of “Rosebud”, Kane’s final utterance, by now – it’s become as much of a ubiquitous movie spoiler as the guy who turns out to be the other guy’s father (Frank Vader, I think his name was?) and MY GOD, THEY BLEW IT UP, THE BASTARDS. Indeed, It Was His Sled, the sled he owned as a child growing up at his parents’ boarding house. For Charles Foster Kane, this was the last time in his life he knew true love and happiness – or so the film seems to imply. “All he really wanted was love,” his best friend Leland Palmer tells us. “That’s Charlie’s story – how he lost it.” But while Rosebud is certainly an important part of the puzzle it still does not suffice to give us the entire answer. If love was all Charles Foster Kane was looking for, that still does not tell us why he ended up spending his life trying to govern people, to control them. Why he seemed to wish for their affection and acceptance yet at the same time spent his days pushing them away, attempting to isolate himself from them. “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life”, Thompson tells us at the end of the film, and of course he is right. A man is more than simply words, more than the collective sum of his deeds, of his experience. When a person dies all that is left behind is the memory, but memory is never objective, always distorted. It can never add up to a complete human being, which Citizen Kane quite succinctly demonstrates. 

This is not a spoiler. You know this already. 

However the nonlinear fashion in which the plot unfolds itself and the way it plays into the theme of identity is not the only way in which this film stands out from the pack. Orson Welles was at his young age (he was 25 years old when he directed Kane) truly one of the film industry’s most visionary directors. He seemed to have an instinctive understanding of the unique language of cinema, being well versed in the techniques film brings to the table for the practice of story telling and moreover for the creation of visual art. Thus the cinematographical qualities of Kane are truly something to be looked out for, something to be admired.

Many of the more imposing shots in Citizen Kane could quite easily be framed and hung on the wall of your living room without any amount of shame. The photography and shot composition is often, in a word, quite simply stunning. Much has been written about the film’s use of deep focus, a camera technique by which each part of the shot is equally clear. The result of this is that “composition and movement determined where the eye looked first”, as Roger Ebert tells us. This (at the time) innovative use of focus plays into the visual aspect of the film which always intrigues me the most, namely the use of the interplay between light and shadow to create striking lighting contrasts in shot composition. This technique, known as ‘Chiaroscuro’, was already a favourite of German expressionist films (the most famous example being The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). Citizen Kane took a big step in popularising it in mainstream cinema. Film noir’s love for playing with light and shadow can by and far be traced back to Kane: in fact, the film has been said to anticipate many of the stylistic staples of the noir genre. 

In Kane, Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland use Chiaroscuro to present to us many striking, captivating images. Several examples might be given. We have the small, shadowy figure of reporter Thompson sitting down at a table in a gigantic library hall to look over the diary of Welles’ foster guardian, Walter Thatcher, while a single beam of light streams down from a tiny window up above. We have the scene where Kane, his wife and his mistress are standing in the hallway to the mistress’ apartment, out in the light. They face mobster Jim W. Gettys, his face and figure dark and shadowy as he stands in the doorway, threatening to reveal Kane’s affair to the world. And of course we have the many shots of the cavernous halls of Kane’s palace estate of Xanadu, where the multitude of pillars, chandeliers and statues cast ominous and gloomy shadows into this veritable dungeon Kane has built for himself to wile away the last dreary days of his life.  

Another great shot, a maid reflected in the shards of a snow globe dropped by a dying Kane.

Of course there’s more to the cinematography of Kane than simply being nice to look at. As I’ve said, Welles seemed to have an instinctive understanding of the unique language of film. Language implies opportunity and intent to convey meaning, and indeed many of the cinematographical techniques employed in Kane are loaded with meaning. The composition of shots, the interplay between light and shadow, the editing, the angles, they often carry a thematic significance.

Examples of this range from the simple to the complex, from the obvious to the subtle. In a quick montage of Kane’s youth we find a shot of the young boy looking up at his guardian Walter Thatcher, the camera moving upwards along with the young Kane’s gaze, showing us the old man towering over the lad, signifying his dominance. A few scenes later this shot seems to be quite subtly reversed. The adult Kane is conversing with Thatcher, who is critical of his newspaper business, and as the two stand up we see Kane has grown to be somewhat taller than his guardian, looking down on him ever so slightly: he shall no longer be ruled. Later on we find a scene of Thompson inquiring about Kane in the offices of a man named Bernstein, Kane’s financial supervisor during his life. Bernstein, aged and diminutive, is sitting at a large desk, in a chair the back of which extends upwards at least half a meter above his head. This emphasizes the small stature of this man who has always been a friendly and loyal yet demure servant to Charles Foster Kane: a tiny old man, humbled by age and experience. As the shot pans out we see a large portrait of Kane hanging over the fireplace, appearing to be looking out over the two conversationalists with a smug smile, asserting his authority and taunting them to discover his secrets. The portrait however is shrouded in darkness, the real Kane already having passed on to that shadowy realm that is the afterlife. In yet another scene we have Kane signing a declaration of principles to be printed on the front page of his paper to prove his integrity. Yet throughout the entire scene of him signing the document his face is obscured by shadow, signifying a certain disconnect, perhaps foreshadowing (no pun intended) his eventual betrayal of these principles to the temptations of wealth and power.

Significantly, one character that spends the entire movie obscured in shadow is the reporter Thompson, who we follow throughout on his quest to find the meaning of Rosebud. We spend many a scene literally looking over his shoulder as he interviews the various important figures in Kane’s life, the shot angle emphasizing his role as proxy for the audience. We never see his face, and indeed there is no need to put a face to him. His face is our face, his words are our words. As he asks the same questions we ask, we join him in his attempt to solve the riddle that is Charles Foster Kane. 

The famous double mirror shot, the many Kanes signifying the many versions of the character we see throughout the film.

While Citizen Kane might not be the best film ever made, it is quite likely one of the most important ones. I’ve already underlined some of its influential and innovative aspects, such as its use of deep focus photography and its popularising of Chiaroscuro. Its use of nonlinear narrative structure was at the time also quite new and refreshing, being ground that not many movies had yet trodden. Of course it did not outright invent most of the techniques and features it is known for. What it did do however is synthesize and perfect them, popularizing them for a wider audience. To coin a fun little analogy, in this we might call it the Jimmi Hendrix of early cinema. Roger Ebert notes that it is “more than a great movie; it is a gathering of all the lessons of the emerging era of sound”.

In recent years, the wild praise Kane often prompts in fans of classic cinema has caused a certain amount of hype aversion to grow around the movie. People’ve described it as being overrated, pretentious, outdated and quite simply rather boring. Overrated? I’ll give you that: as I’ve said I do consider it a good, even a great movie, but it’s not exactly the holy grail of cinema it’s sometimes made out to be. Pretentious? Perhaps, but if so then that is quite simply the nature of the beast, and not something I think you should fault it for. After all, Charles Foster Kane is meant to be a larger than life figure as well as a deluded man with visions of grandeur, so the bombast and occasional over-important ham acting are nothing more than fitting. Outdated? Again, perhaps, but it is of course a film set (and of course made) in the first half of the previous century. It paints a picture of the times. And the way in which it does this to me does not feel archaic at all. But boring? I’m sorry, but I just can’t see it. I’ll give that it might be a bit long. Two hours is a lot to sit through for any movie and I can see Kane losing some people’s attention after maybe an hour or so. It certainly moves along at a leisurely pace. However, I consider it to be a very dynamic, engaging film. Sure, stuff isn’t blowing up every five minutes, but the way we constantly keep jumping back and forth in time examining different periods and aspects of Kane’s life certainly manages to hold my attention. I suppose I can somewhat imagine modern audiences not being particularly thrilled by an intimate, carefully constructed character portrait such as Kane, but if they're not, I have to say I think they’re all the poorer for it.

So in short, you shouldn’t believe the hype too much, of course, but also: do not buy into the anti-hype! Sure, if you go into this movie expecting it to be the best thing since buttered yak, you’re going to leave disappointed. But if you go into Kane with an open mind, not setting your expectations high as the heavens but still ready to appreciate its artistry and many intricacies, I daresay there’s a good chance you’ll leave at least somewhat entertained. It certainly has my recommendation.

Or you could just go back to standing in line to get tickets for Big Momma: Like Father, Like Son and waiting for the next inevitably awful Ben Stiller movie. Go ahead. See if I care.

Boy, do I sound like a bloody elitist right now. I know what'll cure me of it though. Next on the agenda: silly British detective drama!

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