More Than One Lesson

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the release of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.  The Music Box is commemorating the year by showing a lot of classics from 1941, so we decided to take in a matinee.

It’s almost impossible to say anything about Citizen Kane anymore.  My partner, who’d never seen it, kept alluding to this when we discussed to movie afterwards; it is, after all, a film that had to labor under the crushing (and, really, unhelpful) burden of being called “the greatest movie of all time” for over six decades.  At a certain point, no matter the good intentions of the writers and critics who decided that first, there should be a numerical list of the greatest films ever made, and second, that Citizen Kane should be at the top of it, the designation serves only to confound, and to make it basically invulnerable to reasonable discussion.  Once you enter into a conversation about something that has had even a quasi-official sanction as the single greatest example of its kind since the birth of the medium, it places an unreasonable burden on you, either to prove that it deserves such an absurd designation, or that it doesn’t, and if not, why not.

And that’s something of a shame, because Kane is almost without exception a stunningly great film on every level.  Its historical status has been hashed over and dissected to the point of ubiquity by now, but the story of its creation is still a phenomenally compelling one:  conceived and executed by a young man who, given the chance to make his first full-length film, pairs with a wily screenwriter and a brilliant cinematographer and makes a barely fictionalized biopic of arguably the most powerful billionaire in America.  The result — from a director who was barely 25 years old — completely rewrites the language of cinema, borrowing existing film techniques and incorporating them in new ways with audacious new ideas that had never been tried before — is simultaneously one of the most amazing accomplishments in the history of narrative filmmaking and a near-total disaster that jeopardizes the career of its creator and haunts him for the rest of his life.

Seeing the movie with someone younger, someone who had never seen Citizen Kane and didn’t have the typical film snob’s academic background, allowed me to consider some of the things that I’d never really thought about in my experience with the movie.  Perhaps the foremost of these:  what, exactly, is the experience of younger film fans with Kane?  It was controversially bumped out of the #1 slot in the Sight & Sound poll a few years back, but how relevant is that poll to a generation accustomed to using aggregators, algorithms, and crowdsourced data as a substitute for traditional criticism?  I’ve heard people who teach film talk about the resistance of millennials to any film made before the 1980s; while I’d assume this is lessened amongst young people who take the medium seriously, I still wonder how important Welles’ masterpiece must seem to them, this far removed from how it originally galvanized the critical establishment.

More specifically, we discussed something that seems pretty important to me:  those of use who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s were close enough to film history to know how groundbreaking Citizen Kane really was.  But the techniques that Welles pioneered — from the sparkling cross-talk of the dialogue to the framing of figures from low camera angles to increase their physical presence, from Gregg Toland’s riveting use of light and shadow to the clever use of time frames, from its innovative sound design to its unparalleled employment of deep focus — are all old hat by now.  Welles didn’t invent any of them, but he combined them all in such a way that it seemed as if he was creating an entirely new cinematic language; but that language is familiar even to casual viewers by now, and downright pedestrian to contemporary viewers who have a working knowledge of the movies that followed Kane.  None of this makes the film any less incredible, and it can’t be blamed for the passage of time or the way familiarity with these techniques has bred indifference; but it does make it difficult to discuss what made it seems so fresh, because the fresh eyes are now dimmed.

On the other hand, even if you remove the history, the audacity, the pioneering spirit and the electrifying combination of techniques that Welles and his team brought to bear on it, Citizen Kane is still a hell of a movie, just as a movie.  It’s ridiculously ambitious and yet it never lets its reach exceed its grasp.  Welles boasted that it was his ignorance of how film worked that let him do so many daring things the first time he got a chance, but it certainly never plays like a movie made by someone who didn’t know what he was doing.  It is, rather, a work of terrible confidence and power; we have become accustomed to praising first-time directors for turning in efforts without a hundredth of the prowess Welles displays here.  It was an element of his uniquely cursed career that he never quite escaped the shadow of Kane, both the film and the character, and part of that is that Welles, like his most famous creation, exudes a cool certainty that he can do anything he sets his mind to.

There is a nearly inexhaustable number of things to love about Citizen Kane, even seeing in for…I can’t even count the number of times.  Every character showed me something new in this viewing; I was particularly struck by the way that, even as we encountered them all after the great man’s death, no one could help but to continue to define themselves by their relationship to Kane.  And yet, Welles and Herman Mankiewicz managed the astonishing trick of making everyone seem both repulsive and sympathetic, from the snarling but tragic nightclub singer Susan Alexander to the crooked but competent political boss Jim Gettys.  It is perhaps the greatest film ever made about a theme that I find almost hypnotically interesting — the idea that you can get everything you want and still not be happy.  There are so many perfect line readings in this amazing tale of American ego and ambition, but the one that hit me this time is delivered by Kane’s faithful business manager, Mr. Bernstein. When Kane decides to finish a savage review of Susan’s dreadful opera debut by his best friend, Jeb Leland — knowing it will poison his relationship with both of them, but clinging to some twisted version of his own integrity — Bernstein tells Jeb “I guess that’ll show you.”  But he knows what we are learning:  it won’t show him.  It won’t show anyone.  Nobody sucked into the gravity of Charles Foster Kane will ever learn anything, including Kane himself; but everyone watching him learns something.  As Gettys roughly warns, some people need more than one lesson, and we’re going to get more than one lesson.

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