25 October 2005

100 films: Citizen Kane

starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, and Everett Sloane
written by: Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles
directed by: Orson Welles
PG, 119 min, 1941, USA

Orson Welles parlayed the success of his War of the Worlds broadcast into an unprecedented film deal that gave him complete artistic control over two films. Citizen Kane, based largely on the life of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, was the first film produced under this deal (The Magnificent Ambersons would be the second). Upon it's release, Hearst spent a considerable amount of his influence to bury the film. It was a box office flop and won only one of the nine Academy Awards it was nominated for (Original Screenplay), but survived to be universally considered one of the greatest films of all time.

Citizen Kane is essentially an biopic of epic scope told masterly on a modest budget. It's a classic example of necessity being the mother of invention. Welles didn't have the resources available to tell this story in a traditional Hollywood fashion (at least, not with the artistic control he demanded), but what he did have was access to the RKO vaults and a background in radio that taught him how to make something very small seem very big. Take for example three scenes where we see a large crowd of extras. The first, a speech in the street where Kane is denounced as a fascist, is essentially stock footage intercut with a low shot of a man on a soapbox. The second, Kane's rousing campaign speech, is a matte drawing of an audience with a live Kane the center. The third, an opera debut, shows us a flood of spotlights from the back of the stage and cuts to reaction shots of various members in the audience. Over the course of the film, we see newsreel footage, rear projection shots stolen from other films, numerous matte drawings of large buildings, and several large, empty rooms further enhanced by cinematographer Gregg Toland's revolutionary use of "deep focus", a technique that keeps the entire frame in focus. It feels as if we've been around the world a couple times over, when in reality we've been to some RKO soundstages and through their archives.

A common complaint about the film is that we feel no connection to the character of Charles Foster Kane, but I think that's partly a product of changes in American history more than a fault of the film. Larger-than-life Americans such as Kane were much more common in the days before the Great Depression and a film of their exploits made a lot more sense to the viewing public in the 1940's than it does today. Secondly, I don't think Kane was a character we are supposed to feel sympathetic toward. Remember that the only time we really see Kane other than his death is in the newsreel footage shown at the beginning. Everything else comes second-hand from those who knew him well--a collection of their memories, if you will. But even they admit readily that they didn't know him nearly as well as they thought they should. Kane was a character who always kept people at an arm's length, so why are we surprised when the character we see in his story is somewhat distant? Essentially, we see different versions of the same man, but do we ever really see the true Charles Foster Kane? I think we might when we see him as a boy with his sled, but once he leaves Colorado he becomes something of an enigma.

Does this hurt our pure enjoyment of the film? Yes, but Citizen Kane was never intended to be viewed as sheer entertainment. So it seems a bit slow to us at first because there are no explosions or car chases, I guess, but the scene where he trashes his wife's room after she leaves him grabs your attention as well as any chase scene. And if no one's told you yet the meaning of "Rosebud", the mystery alone is compelling, but not as compelling as the larger mystery around this man who would be king. He is, as the reporter points out, a jigsaw puzzle that's never finished.

In the end, this is a film that demands multiple viewings; it is too complex to fully digest the first time around. It deserves every inch of its reputation.


Jason said...

The last paragraph says it all.