There are so many avenues for writing about this film that it’s easy to become paralyzed trying to choose one. Its reputation precedes it, to put things mildly — a reputation as huge, cold, and boring as Xanadu; namely, “The Greatest Movie of All Time.” There’s no point in arguing over something like that, now that Vertigo has sent Kane crashing through his upper lighted window down to the #2 spot on Sight & Sound‘s critics poll. There was never any point. Citizen Kane is immensely important to film history for establishing the director as the primary artist behind a film, thus paving the way for the end of the studio system and an explosion of director-driven world cinema in the 50s and 60s. The jigsaw narrative opened doors for experimenting with time in film, further breaking cinema away from the theatrical tradition by emphasizing what movies alone can do. Kane is fascinating from a genre standpoint, as well, breathing unexpected life into the already formulaic biopic, combining a newspaper comedy with a political noir. But it bears mentioning that “great,” “important,” and “fascinating” do not negate “huge,” “cold,” and “boring.” Sure, it’s nice that this movie can keep movie buffs entertained, with its deep focus and expressionist camera angles and dark shadows. But if I weren’t interested in those things, would the movie be any fun at all?
For one thing, filmmaking techniques are functional. Even in a movie as ostentatious as this, they are part of the emotional experience. Because the subject of the film is ostentatious, protean, larger-than-life, it makes sense that the camera would look up at him from a place of awe, even as he shouts helplessly down a flight of stairs at the man who just forced the end of his political career. It’s not exactly revolutionary to point out that Citizen Kane is as much about Orson Welles as it is about William Randolph Hearst or any other powerful man. Charles Foster Kane is a director, of sorts — demanding “final cut” on his newspaper so he can put his signature on the front page, coaxing his second wife to play the “role” of an opera singer. Kane’s meteoric rise and long, slow decline would haunt Welles’ own career. Not every movie is complex and thorny enough to look back at its own maker with a critical eye.
The structure of the film isn’t just for show, either. It’s a challenge to the audience. Our default response to an image is to believe it, as if it were objective truth. But the images in Citizen Kane are subjective. The main character’s life is recounted by six different sources. The newsreel at the beginning of the film focuses on Kane’s tangible accomplishments — his newspaper empire and the unfinished castle he built on top of the mountain that he also built — with only a cursory look at the man himself. The memoirs of Walter Thatcher, Kane’s surrogate father, emphasize the old banker’s attempts to make a businessman out of Kane, who stubbornly refused to cooperate. Mr. Bernstein, a close friend of Kane, remembers how he became a successful businessman anyway, as well as a brilliant muckraker. Jed Leland, an even closer friend, observed Kane’s two bad marriages and the betrayal of his youthful ideals. Susan Alexander Kane sees her ex-husband as a control freak who bought her a lot of expensive, impersonal things without sharing himself with her. Last of all is Raymond, Kane’s butler, ostensibly the only person ever to hear Kane utter the word “Rosebud” but who otherwise doesn’t shed much light on the man. These perspectives all have truth to them, no doubt. But they are at least as much about the people telling the story as they are about Kane. Of course, the same can be said of the film itself.
Citizen Kane is a tragicomedy. The tragedy comes out of Kane’s lonely, pathetic death and the Scrooge-like peek into the unsavory opinions of people who survive him. But comedy is the dominant mode. From the deadpan satire of “News on the March” to the constant bon mots and wordplay of the script (by Herman Mankiewicz and Welles), this film is alive with wit. How can a movie about sad, aging, and/or bitter people sharing memories of a dead man be this sprightly? Again, we turn to the filmmaking. When stylistic eruptions happen in this film, as they frequently do — the smash cuts between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year,” the breakfast table montage, the quick tilt up to a blinking lightbulb on the opera stage, the cut that allows Kane to finish Leland’s sentence — the experience is electrifying. All but one of the examples in the previous sentence have to do with film editing. The cinematography, by Gregg Toland, is justifiably famous, its deep focus continually stretching the cinematic space. But the editing, by Robert Wise, is the pulse of the film. Editing is the “invisible art,” so naturally it will have the biggest effect on a viewer who isn’t consciously looking out for artfulness.
Like Citizen Kane with “Rosebud,” I’ve waited until the end of this post to reveal the meaning behind the quote at the beginning. Cute, huh? The point is that this movie is filled with sweeping statements, but they don’t put anything to rest. There probably isn’t another great film that can so easily be reduced to a “5-second version” on YouTube, and yet “Rosebud” isn’t good for much except inspiring some armchair psychoanalysis. This is a film about journalism that deliberately leaves its own questions unanswered. When it comes to an individual soul, we can gather enough pieces to form a coherent picture, but there will always be something hidden from us. Those mysteries, while nagging, are just a little bit wonderful. I don’t think we want them all solved.
When Thatcher asks Kane, “What would you like to have been?” Kane answers, “Everything you hate.” Here’s a man entering the waning years of his life, looking at a father figure and acknowledging that he despises the old man but has become him anyway. That’s chilling stuff. Something’s gotta burn.