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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane as seen in 1941.
Orson Welles as Charles Foster
Kane utters my favorite line from
the movie: You're right, I did
lose a million dollars last year.
I expect to lose a million dollars
this year. I expect to lose a
million dollars *next* year. You
know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate
of a million dollars a year, I'll have
 to close this place in...60 years.
As a long-time movie buff who now seldom watches movies, I rely on various movie lists in deciding which films to write about. It might be overstating the case to say there are as many lists as there are movies and writers, like myself, who think they know something about the arts and crafts of film making, but not by much. I've never counted, but I think I'd be safe in saying there are several dozens of such lists, perhaps numbering more than a hundred (which is, in fact, several dozen). I've always had a preference for "top ten" lists but some run the number up to one-hundred, even as high as a thousand, at which point the diverge to such a degree as to be meaningless. Some break their lists down by genre, which is interesting, but dilutes the importance of the lists themselves. IMDb (Internet Movie Database) has a good list, as does the AFI (American Film Institute), AMC (American Movie Channel), Wikipedia, The New York Times, Time magazine, and, who knows, maybe even Times Square. I also have a top ten list: Jim Lane's Top Ten American Movie List.

May 1, 1941,
RKO Palace, New York
Insofar as the all-time top ten movies, there is a fairly consistent group of great pictures which are universally admired. And, though the order may vary somewhat, the titles do not. For instance, I placed Citizen Kane at number nine on my list. AFI has it at number one (this year). Such discrepancies can be accounted for by the fact that such lists are not static (most of the best ones are revised yearly) and the fact that some lists (like mine) consist solely of American movies while others are international in scope. Of all the top movie list films, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (top and above, left) is likely the one film on virtually all such lists, and usually in the top five. In perusing the plethora of motion picture list postings, it occurred to me that, though I'd written on Orson Wells, I'd never written about his one greatest film, except for one brief paragraph devoted to it in my broad discourse on his life in general.
Breakfast at the Kane's, a montage sequence in which Welles chronicles the
deterioration of the Kane marriage over a period of years.  It features one
of the low camera angle shots for which the film is famous.
The first Mrs. Kane, Ruth
Warrick in her movie debut.
Citizen Kane has always been something of an enigma. Though a perennial list-topper, my guess is that fewer people have actually seen this movie than any other film on the many top-ten lists. There are several reasons for that. First of all, it's an old film (1941), not ancient, but not one falling within the lifespan of most of the people alive today (including my own). Second, it's in black and white, which further dates it as ancient in most people's minds. Third, though Orson Welles is not exactly unknown, even today, very few people have ever actually seen him, or his work, in any context, even his 1970s Paul Masson wine commercials ("We will sell no wine before it's time."). Finally, Citizen Kane is not an easy film to watch, to enjoy, to understand, or appreciate. Those who do appreciate it (or claim to) very often do so because film critics and connoisseurs insist they should appreciate it. After all, it's near the top of virtually everyone's top ten move list, right?

Welles' low-level camera shots in some cases, required that studio
floorboards had to be removed to accomodate the camera operator.
The second Mrs. Kane, Susan
Alexander, played by Dorothy
In teaching art in the public schools, I used to include at every level a unit on "Movies as an Art Form." I taught Citizen Kane to my third-year high school students. Though I tried, it was not the most popular film in the curriculum (I've also taught it at the college level). One might think a film about the mass media, the super rich, and political intrigue would be as relevant today as in 1941. Wrong. All three of these primary elements in the story have changed so much since that era as to be barely recognizable to viewers today. In general, costume dramas like War and Peace, Gone With the Wind, and Ben-Hur tend to age pretty well. The problem with Citizen Kane is that the costumes are too familiar while the movie's themes are not. Of course we have today wealthy media moguls like Kane (the Donald comes to mind) who dabble in politics, but they tend to be fodder for late night comedians rather than serious candidates. We also have politics stirred into the entertainment industry (and vice-versa), but that tends to be taken with a "so what" attitude by those who largely consider them one and the same anyway. Add to that the fact that few people today have ever even heard of William Randolph Hearst (upon whom Kane is closely based). And then there's "Rosebud." Even people who have seen the film sometimes come away disappointed, having missed the few brief seconds near the end which ties together the whole complex recounting of the millionaire title character's long, desperate search for happiness.
As iconic as it is symbolic, Charles Foster Kane (Welles) astride his publishing empire.

All this is not to in any way lessen the importance of Welles, the man, or Welles the actor, or Welles the highly creative independent filmmaker. The man excelled in all these areas, and never more so than in Citizen Kane. The film is especially difficult because it begins at the end. Few filmmakers, then or now, would have the guts to kill off the title character within the first few minutes of their movie. Welles did so, thus turning the entire film into a flashback. Flashbacks are a tricky, even "dangerous," storytelling device for any director. Welles wrote them book on flashbacks. His innovative camera angles, his lighting, his screenplay, his intermixing of newsreel footage and newspaper headlines are iconic models taught in every film schools today. Welles was daring, co-writing (with Herman Mankiewicz), directing, producing, and starring along with a hand-picked cast of then unknown acting talent, in a film no studio would touch (RKO wouldn't have touched it if they'd realized at the time what Welles was up to). His thinly disguised delving into the private life of public figures, and the gradual degeneration of an idealist into an eccentric, power-hungry recluse all serve to elevate Welles and his much appreciated, but unbeloved masterpiece (as compared to Casablanca, for instance) to its place as the intellectual favorite near the top of virtually all movie lists. Yet, the film's all-time domestic gross clocks in at little more an one-and-a-half million dollars.

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