Wednesday, March 05, 2008

NEWSFLASH: 'Citizen Kane' is a Pretty Good Movie

For someone who has enjoyed movies for a long time and claims to be something of a movie buff (though nowhere near an expert, as this post will make abundantly clear!), it is embarrassing for me to note that I recently watched Orson Welles’ 1941 classic Citizen Kane for the first time a few weeks ago. Of course I had heard all of the hype about it, and was aware that it is always listed at the very top of most lists of the greatest films of all time – including, most notably perhaps, the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list. That list was completely revised recently, but Welles’ film did not lose its secure hold on the top slot. I had a pretty good idea that whenever I got around to it I would find something to enjoy and be interested in… but truth be told, I did not expect it to engage me and stir up my fascination nearly as much as it did. By any standard, Citizen Kane is a truly exceptional work of art that is a profound commentary not only on American culture, but also on our common human condition.

Before going any further here, however, I want to publicly acknowledge and thank a good friend of mine, who is the one who pushed hard for me to watch it when I sheepishly admitted to him that I never had… to protect his identity I will use a pseudonym, but he certainly knows who he is. So to Mr. Braxton, I can only say: you were right to insist upon it, pal. You have more than earned your standing as a “go to” critic of movies (not to mention movies/books!) in my opinion…

Anyway, I came to Citizen Kane almost completely cold. All I knew about it was that it was widely considered one of the best, if not THE best, movies ever made, and that it made Orson Welles a Hollywood legend at the ripe old age of 26. Beyond that, I didn’t know a darn thing. Literally the only other thing I could have conjured up if asked about it was an image: a HUGE placard bearing the likeness of a moustachioed Orson Welles behind a podium, and the real Orson Welles (with moustache) thundering from said podium in the foreground. From this image I assumed the movie had something to do with politics. And that is the sum total of everything I ever knew about the film up until a few weeks ago.

The story, for the three people left on earth besides me who didn’t or don’t know, presents to us the life of the titular character, who is based on the real-life newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst built up an empire based on his ownership of scores of newspapers across the United States, and amassed a personal fortune that rivaled those of Morgan and Rockefeller. But more intriguing to the public (and richer fodder for a Hollywood film!) were the details of Hearst’s personal life: he weathered several broken marriages and seamy scandals, and died alone in a spectacular mansion he had built for himself, which he filled with archeological treasures he had plundered from all over the world. These were not treasures he went out and found himself, mind you: they were priceless items that, well, turned out not to be.

On the surface, then, Kane is essentially a rags-to-riches story about a lonely child abandoned by his parents who rises to the upper echelons of both business and social circles, but can’t ever seem to find the true happiness and peace that eludes him all along. What’s the big deal, then? Isn’t that the plot for countless stories and films that have been made? Well, yes, it is… but in this case it’s all about execution. The true genius of Citizen Kane, in my opinion, is not so much in the story itself, but in the way it is told: the technique of Welles’ filmmaking, the unusual narrative structure, and perhaps most of all, the use of images and visual cues to “pull back the curtain” and reveal the profound moral layers and depths hidden within a seemingly conventional narrative. I’ll briefly touch on the three of these.

1. The Technique – Now I know next to nothing about actual filmmaking technique, so maybe I better clarify here. When I say “technique” I am just talking about the way it is shot, the thought and craft that went into presenting each scene to the viewer. Admittedly, I listened to much of the commentary track (in this case it happened to be from Roger Ebert) on the DVD, so I did actually learn something about the technical aspects… such as Welles’ experimenting with a shooting technique called “deep focus” in order to make sure that items in the background of a shot remained as clear and distinct to the viewer as items/actors in the foreground. But I can’t get into the technical side of the film too much here simply because I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about. No, what I mean is the visual and emotional impact the film has upon you from the moment you start watching it. The opening of the film is a perfect example. First, you get these ominous and brooding shots of a haunted-looking castle high upon a hill behind a “No Trespassing” sign, and you witness the dying gasps of an unknown man secluded in a high bedroom, desperately clinging to a child’s toy and whispering a final, enigmatic word: “Rosebud.” (The mystery of what the word really means to the dying man runs throughout the film, and I gather, is still widely debated and discussed to this very day!) It’s an unforgettable opening that remains as puzzling and haunting in 2008 as it must have been to its first viewers in the theater. Next, you get a spot-on parody of an old-time newsreel which announces the death of one Charles Foster Kane, and reviews his life in true sensational, gossip-tinged American media style. You don’t realize it at the time of course, but what you’re getting is a preview of the whole story that’s about to unfold in front of you in the next hour and a half. These two contrasting and equally fascinating opening sequences set you up for a film experience that, at the time, utterly re-defined what American cinema could be… Welles blew the doors off creatively, pulling out all the stops in a virtuoso visual storytelling clinic. Throughout the film, striking images and powerful scenes abound. Citizen Kane is justly famous for its low camera angles, making characters appear larger than life and giving us an extraordinarily full view of the interior sets. It’s as if Welles said to himself, “Let me go through every established technique in Hollywood so that I can defy them all.” Stunning close-ups of objects and faces contrast with wide-angle panoramas of newsrooms and warehouses. The film is quite obviously the work of an ambitious young artist who’s not afraid to experiment and aim high.

2. The unusual narrative structure – Much of the genius of Welles’ film lies in the decision to wrap the story of Kane’s life around the mysterious utterance of that one word on his deathbed, “Rosebud.” Rather than tell the story in conventional, linear “biopic” style, we are presented with his death scene first (as described above) and the announcement of his demise in the media. From there, we are introduced to an investigative reporter who is given the task to uncover why Kane may have uttered this final word, and what it meant to him. In order to do so, the reporter needs to go and find those people who were closest to Kane – former colleagues, benefactors, ex-spouses – and interview them to try and piece the puzzle together. So the story of Kane’s life is told in a series of memories and flashbacks, delivered from multiple perspectives and points of view. I thought this was a fascinating device and a particularly ingenious way to tell the story of a man surrounded by mystery and speculation, a man who appears larger than life itself and yet died alone in “quiet desperation,” surrounded by his riches that ultimately meant very little to him. Another advantage of the story-telling method is that you can see first-hand the effect Kane’s egotism and ambition had on those closest to him, how he alienated and let down those few people who he allowed to get past his persona. The story of Kane’s life has so many layers of meaning, but one of the most powerful I think is the way that his sense of abandonment as a young child left a hole in him he could never fill, and permanently crippled his ability to be vulnerable to anyone around him. Like so many others, his desire for power and control thinly masked a strong sense of inadequacy and personal insecurity – and this combination makes it nearly impossible for a man to maintain a close and intimate relationship with anyone, be they a friend, confidant or spouse. Finally, the “investigative” approach enables Welles to jump around chronologically in the narrative, which meant that actors had to play their characters at multiple ages – Welles starts the film as a lean, handsome businessman full of charisma and vigor, and ends it as a fat, balding man with a moustache and a permanent scowl. These days it is commonplace to see actors take on different ages and don make-up to appear older than they are, but at the time I think it was very rare to see an actor take on so many different looks for one role. Welles is utterly different from one scene to the next in this film, and it is a performance of astounding range and depth.

3. The use of images and visuals – To me, this is the best part of Citizen Kane, where the genius and artistic vision really pay off. What stays with you after all is said and done are certain haunting key scenes and images that linger long in the mind and seem to capture the essence of the storyline more than any single line of dialog. Take, for example, the famous swirling "snow" inside the child's snow globe that Kane is holding as he breathes his last breath, and the slow fall of the same globe from his hand to the floor at the moment of death. Or the scene where Kane, in a rage after his second wife leaves him, trashes a room in his house and then slowly walks down a hallway in his lonely castle, mirrors on either side of the hallway reflecting him infinitely to the left and right, as if to say his sadness is without end. Or the scene described earlier when Kane is campaigning for public office, standing at a podium dwarfed by an enormous image of himself, emphasizing his hubris and his larger-than-life persona. Or, perhaps most strikingly, the final scenes of the film, which pan widely over a vast warehouse of his "stuff," his archeological treasures and furniture - the shots not only ingeniously include props from most of the other scenes in the movie as sort of a visual re-cap of all that has come before in the film, but also poignantly reveal the ultimate emptiness of Kane's life, as he has built up this museum-like fantasy land around himself but has no one left to share it with. I won't say what the final image of the film is, but like everything before it is an ingenious shot, and neatly wraps up the mystery running through the entire length of the film with a profundity no words could capture. There are so many indelible images in this film it would be impossible to recount them all.

All of this is only to scratch the surface of this complex morality tale which has so much to say about American culture and human nature. I don't pretend for a moment to have encapsulated all that is good and notable about Citizen Kane here, but I do hope I have provided enough of a taste of it to intrigue those who haven't yet seen it, and maybe even inspire them to give it a watch. On every level imaginable, it is a film that inspires and fascinates. Anyone with even the slightest interest in film will come away rewarded from Welles' ingenious and innovative character study.

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