Posts Tagged ‘Citizen Kane’

There have been many pleasing acts of generosity from entertainment providers during the current situation, one of which has been the decision by the BBC to provide a stack of classic RKO movies to stream, most of them slightly in advance of their being shown over the coming few weeks (I note that The Magnificent Ambersons and King Kong are both on in the afternoons this week). One of these is possibly the most celebrated movie RKO ever made, Orson Welles’ 1941 film Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane is the Citizen Kane of mainstream movie-making, which isn’t actually very informative except to suggest just what kind of status this film possesses in our culture. For decades it was virtually a shoo-in whenever they held a poll to decide the greatest movie ever made – and of course the problem with this is that it can raise expectations to an unreasonably high level. I first saw the film when it was shown on TV for its fiftieth anniversary, and I was left distinctly underwhelmed by it, and cheerfully nodded along with a short film made by Robert Kee suggesting it is in fact greatly overrated.

Watching it again now… I have moderated my opinion of it rather, possibly due to the fact I have done a lot of reading about Orson Welles and his career in the last few years and better understand the extraordinary background to this film – how a radio and theatre actor and director, still only in his mid-twenties, was assiduously courted by Hollywood and offered an unprecedented deal, how Kane only came about when an adaptation of Heart of Darkness proved unworkable, how the production ran into serious trouble when the media mogul William Randolph Hearst (not unreasonably) concluded it was based on his own life, and so on. That said, for many people it is still probably just the film with the sledge.

Citizen Kane opens with a trip through the grounds of the decaying palace of Xanadu, luxurious home of Kane himself (Welles). But the zoo, the tennis courts and the swimming pool have fallen into disrepair, as has Kane himself. He is the first character we see, and the first thing we see him do is utter his last word – famously, ‘Rosebud’ – and then die of old age.

But who was this Kane guy anyway? Welles obligingly provides a faux-newsreel obituary to the great man, establishing his wealth and late-life eccentricity, the issues in his personal life, and the fact he was viewed with suspicion by both the boss-class and the workers. An imposing, contradictory figure – not good enough, decide the editorial team putting the obituary together. They need to find an angle on Kane, to figure out just who he really was. Maybe ‘Rosebud’ holds the key? A reporter (William Alland) is charged with interviewing key figures from Kane’s life to try to discover just who the man really was…

The bulk of the film, therefore, depicts Kane’s life, displayed as a series of flashbacks: born to poor parents in Colorado, he was taken from them and essentially raised by the bank, inheriting a vast fortune at the age of twenty-five. He uses this to build up a vast media empire of newspapers, magazines, and later radio networks; marries, although the relationship stagnates and fails; and his nascent political career is permanently halted when his affair with a singer is discovered. From here it is all downhill for Kane, and he becomes increasingly isolated from those he was once close to.

As far as the story is concerned, the striking thing about it nowadays is how resonant it all feels (up to a point at least). Kane is motivated, the film suggests, by the desire to be loved: not in a close, intimate sense, for he seems very limited in his ability to give genuine affection himself, but in the sense of being adored by all around him. This seems to underpin all he does. He is also not above using his media power to manipulate events in his favour – Hearst’s supposed quote of ‘You provide the pictures, I’ll provide the war’ is slightly modified and put into Kane’s mouth. Can you say fake news? Finally, there is his attempt to run for office, which hits a serious snag in the form of a sex scandal.

Even Kane, of course, can’t brazen his way through this, which is where the film takes a different track to reality – though, if we’re going to talk about Citizen Kane as some kind of weird non-prediction of the rise of Donald Trump, it’s worth mentioning that Kane’s papers attribute his defeat to fraud at the polls, which is an excuse we may well be hearing before the end of the year, who can tell. Citizen Kane is, apparently, Trump’s favourite film, but – with uncanny predictability – his take on the film is utterly at odds with the consenus: he finds Kane to be a tragic figure, isolated by his great wealth, undone by poor choices of sexual partner. In short, Trump is a lot more sympathetic towards Kane than Orson Welles ever was, which probably tells you everything you need to know.

The film is really about a man who chooses the love of power over the power of love – although Welles does open the door a crack to finding some pathos for Kane, with the final suggestion that it was childhood trauma which turns him into the emotionally stunted monster he eventually becomes – and while it is solid, it is not especially innovative or thought-provoking. The film’s reputation rests not on the story itself, but how it is told – Citizen Kane does have its own visual style, or perhaps I should say an array of visual and storytelling techniques – use of handheld cameras, extended flashbacks, innovative cuts and fades, unusual compositions, and extensive use of deep focus.

There is a sense in which Welles is clearly writing the book on cinematic storytelling which everyone else has been dipping into ever since; the film is stuffed with casual bits of brilliance such as the breakfast montage. The consistent invention of the film is daunting, but as one looks at it more closely one does almost get the sense that Welles is often just showing off – the shot where the camera appears to pass through a neon sign and a pane of glass is justly famous, but it gets repeated twice more. And I do think there is something in one of Kee’s main criticisms – that the techniques and devices employed by Welles don’t always serve the story. There’s another famous shot of Kane walking between a pair of mirrors, and his reflections dwindle off to infinity – and it looks great, but how is it helping to tell the story at that moment?

Given the fact that we barely see Kane himself through our own eyes, but overwhelmingly through the recollections of others, you might expect Welles to make the most of this and exploit the possibilities implicit in the use of multiple perspectives – Kane’s ex-wife is hardly going to remember him in the same way as a devoted, long-serving employee, for example. But this doesn’t seem to happen – Kane is Kane, consistently portrayed by Welles throughout the film.

Then again, I suppose the director would have said that this is a character study, not a film about the unknowability of character. The concluding irony of Kane is that the journalists conclude there isn’t a single easy key to understanding a man’s life and personality, after which the film suggests that the exact opposite may be true. Perhaps this simplistic approach to psychology is another reason to be more critical of the film.

One could never say that Citizen Kane is not a landmark, classic film, though: ascertaining the extent of its impact on modern film is a bit like trying to map the coastline of the UK without leaving Northampton city centre – Orson Welles marked out much of the territory people have been using ever since. That Hollywood was never again able to really make full use of his faculties was surely a tragedy for them both, but this film alone means that Welles is assured of immortality for as long as the medium persists.

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