The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Citizen Kane (1941/USA/dir. Orson Welles) appeared at #11 on my original list.
What it is • The great man is dead, and he died alone (well, sort of...). But this isn't an ancient legend, and we can't be fooled into believing this titan was universally revered and respected. It's 1941, the age of mass media, an age that Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) himself helped create - as we're reminded more than once. And so, within moments of our grandiose introduction to this larger-than-life character, a rapid-fire newsreel exalts, mocks, glosses, and punctures Kane from all angles. He is an awe-inspiring tycoon and a ludicrous public figure; he is a powerful man of the world and an isolated loner in his private castle; he's a communist and a fascist! The rest of the film both follows and subverts this pattern in more subtle fashion. After that info-battering, a throughline is needed, and it arrives in the hunt for the meaning of "Rosebud," Kane's dying words. A roving reporter (William Alland) interviews a series of figures who knew Kane, each from a different perspective depending on their relationship to him, where he was in his own life when they knew him, and the quirks of their own personalities. The film itself reflects this diversity in almost subliminal ways, shaping its style around the voices of these narrators while reflecting the different eras they inhabit. Citizen Kane is one of the all-time great biographies in any medium, one of the few biopics to transcend the problems that afflict that genre. Shaping an entire lifetime into a two-hour feature isn't easy, but Kane turns those challenges into virtues. It works both as an anthology of interrelated short stories and as a sprawling but cohesive novel. Of course, Citizen Kane is frequently praised as the greatest film of all time due to technique more than narrative: its incredible visual invention and ambition (we all know the litany: the trick shots, the visible ceilings, the deep focus, the long takes, the creative montages, etc etc) amplify the plot, themes, and characters, but also transcend them. At twenty-five, straight from his groundbreaking work in radio and theater, Welles was given the most unusual deal of Hollywood's Golden Age, using it to make a film that both extends and radically re-configures the tools of that particular trade. There's a million things I haven't mentioned here (most notably three words: William Randolph Hearst), and I couldn't even scratch the surface of most in a short capsule piece. Fortunately, there's plenty of other writing on Kane, including some by myself that has been linked below. Besides...
Why I like it •
...This is a "favorites" list, not purely a "greatest." Every film that makes the cut does so for personal reasons. Citizen Kane has always clicked with me on an instinctive level, beyond its intimidating reputation (I'm glad I saw it when I was around ten rather than twenty, young enough not to bring too many expectations). Many of the reasons for that connection should be apparent to anyone who's read a few of the other entries in this series. First, I've repeatedly demonstrated affection for films that depict transformations of individuals over time, especially when done against a historical backdrop. I don't think I need to explain any further how that applies to Kane. Second, I am drawn to works that can contain both the "Melies" and "Lumiere" schools of presentation, cinema's magic-trick and documentary tendencies side-by-side. Kane is full of the manipulation that Welles, a bona fide magician, prided himself in: it's chock-full of make-believe (Roger Ebert has observed that the film contains as many special effects as fantastical blockbusters released decades later). But it has also been celebrated for its observational, quasi-documentary qualities, using depth to take in the totality of an environment and the subtle shifts in a performance; Andre Bazin even cites Welles as a forerunner to Italian Neorealism. Third, on a related note, Kane mixes all sorts of genres, tones, and styles - in telling a life it doesn't just build one world, it inhabits many, from newspaper comedy to political intrigue to gothic melodrama. And its love for anecdotes and small gestures makes it a kind of collage of moments, some seemingly barely related to the whole. Fourth, I certainly have my auteurist streak and Kane is the shining beacon of auteurism, both in the conventional, borderline-mistaken sense - Welles had complete control of a production, the way few have before or sense - but also in the deeper, more accurate sense of a creative mind interacting with worldly material and other collaborators, allowing us to see the human spark within an industrial product. This is all the more evident when you explore Welles' other work, eccentric, unique, homemade in the extreme, and see how much of himself he brought to Kane. Finally - and despite this list's preponderance of morbidity I do like to laugh I swear! (to be fair, Kane, while no comedy, has a lot of humor) - Kane is a grand tragedy, beginning and ending on a somber note and imbuing even the moments of fun and whimsy with a sense of bigger purpose. Pauline Kael adored the film, even if she was unfair to Welles in her praise of it, but she also fostered the idea that it's only winking at us with its grandiloquent gestures and psychoanalytic mumbojumbo. But Kane is sincerely interested in this man, the people who surrounded him, and the larger world he was a part of. It fuses dangerous ambition and confident experimentation in a fashion I find irresistable, succeeding in art where Kane himself failed in life.
More from me • This was supposed to be the year of Citizen Kane for me...and with any luck it still will be. This spring, for the 75th anniversary, I launched my most ambitious video series since Journey Through Twin Peaks. Unfortunately, due to both blogging and real-life distractions, it remains unfinished past the preview and introductory chapter. Hopefully I'll be able to resume and even conclude it by the end of the year, so keep your eye on this site. Meanwhile, I've featured the film several times in other capacities. Focusing on what how each "narrator" of Kane's story inflects its style and content, I wrote a lengthy review for my "Big Ones" series (this was probably my favorite entry, and its analysis forms much of the basis for the upcoming videos). I also shared Francois Truffaut's wonderful essay on the film, and a clip from Kane is featured at 3:14 in "Storm Clouds Gather", a chapter in my video clip series "32 Days of Movies" (while a shot appears in my 7 Rooms guide montage).
How you can see it • Citizen Kane does not seem to be part of any streaming service at the moment, but you can rent or purchase it digitally on YouTube, Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and other sites. It is also available for blu-ray/DVD on Netflix. And it's likely at your local library too...
What do you think? • Is Citizen Kane the greatest film of all time? Is it even Orson Welles' masterpiece? What other Welles films are your favorites, and do you like them for similar or different reasons to Kane?
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Yesterday: Jammin' the Blues (#12)
Tomorrow: It's a Wonderful Life (#10)