Citizen Kane: 8 Reasons to Revisit Welles’s Masterpiece
Other than total neglect, the most hurtful wound any artist or work of art can suffer is that of awed reverence. Shakespeare, sadly, turns a lot of folks off precisely because he’s so venerated, and the very words War and Peace have become shorthand for the impossibly long and wearisome. Same goes for Orson Welles and his Citizen Kane. Long saddled with the designation of the Greatest Film of All Time, constantly name-checked by critics and directors alike, the movie suffers from reputation-itis. To counter that, I here offer up a few reasons why it’s still worth seeing.
1. The Cinematography
Maybe because of VHS and, more contemporaneously, people watching movies on their laptops and tablets and smart phones, movies have, frustratingly, come to more and more resemble TV in that they feature easily-digestible, unremarkable camerawork. The moving image, strangely, has become less and less about the image.
But Citizen Kane shows what depth and breadth great cinematography can bring to a film. First of all, the deep focus! Deep focus refers to everything—both things in the foreground and background—being in focus at the same time. It’s an effect ideal for the big screen and not nearly used enough: a bold, striking perspective that forces the filmmaker to strategically consider every single thing appearing in the frame, an aesthetic that offers up a smorgasbord for the eye.
Likewise, there are insufficient films filmed in black and white. Black and white has its own mythic, stunning strengths, and it’s a shame that for some reason shooting in monochrome is seen as something extra-special and/or pretentious. What really galls me is that there are actually people out there who have a hard time watching a black and white movie, it striking them as old-fashioned and odd. I both pity and curse them.
2. The Screenplay
Citizen Kane’s structure comes off as fairly commonplace today, but it was quite radical in 1941. Beginning with the main character’s demise, it then shows a man’s rise and fall in fragmented scenes that don’t necessarily connect in a streamlined way, all seen through the eyes of a faceless reporter hunting for the heart of a mystery that perhaps is no mystery at all. It’s been copied and elaborated on countless times, to the detriment of the blazing original.
There are some pretty good lines in the film, too. What contemporary screenwriters sometimes forget is that a movie (no matter what genre) absolutely needs to be peppered with some enjoyable, memorable lines of dialogue—dialogue that doesn’t necessarily simply push the plot forward. Like:
“If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”
“A toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows: his own.”
“Old age. It’s the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don’t look forward to being cured of.”
“You know, when I was a young man there used to be an impression around that nurses were pretty. Well, it was no truer then than it is today.”
3. The Themes
Few films catch the zeitgeist of American culture in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries with such deftness and accuracy as Citizen Kane: the resentful outsider slowly turning into the bullying insider, the towering stupidity and power of the media, the messiness of democratic politics, the influence and ultimate impotence of wealth, and, of course, nostalgia. For such a young country, we are hopelessly nostalgic.
But the theme in Citizen Kane that most speaks to me is that of egoism masquerading as selfless love, illustrated in the scenes in which Kane tries to live vicariously through his new, much younger wife. She expresses an interest in singing, so he pushes her to become an opera singer—and, predictably, disappointment and heartbreak follow.
Ah, the bullheadedness of smothering love and the sad fact that we most hurt those we adore!
4. The MacGuffin
First popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is some object that propels a story forward, some thing that the protagonists and antagonists are both in search of. Always loved the concept of the MacGuffin, used to tremendous effect in The Maltese Falconand Raiders of the Lost Ark.
In Citizen Kane, there is Rosebud. If you’ve been living under a proverbial stone for the majority of your existence or are completely culturally illiterate, then you don’t know what Rosebud means.
And you know what? I envy you. You’ll come to the movie with fresh eyes and no doubt be surprised by one of the greatest endings ever committed to celluloid.
5. The Shrieking Cockatoo
6. The Youthful Genius of Welles
One (and by “one” I mean me) is simply staggered by the fact that Welles was only twenty-five when he made Citizen Kane. Twenty-five! Surpasses Dylan’s achievement of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde at around the same age, surpasses even Michelangelo’s production of the Pietá when he was twenty-three.
Based on the buzz he had created with his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, Welles had complete freedom granted to him by the studio system and was given final cut of the film. Unheard of then, almost equally unheard of now.
I quote from Wikipedia:
When asked where he got the confidence from as a first-time director to direct a film so radically different from contemporary cinema, [Welles} responded, “[From] ignorance… sheer ignorance. There is no confidence to equal it. It’s only when you know something about a profession that you are timid or careful.”
7. The Roguish Charisma of Welles
Welles the actor was equally remarkable. The young Welles was devilishly handsome and debonair, albeit in a somewhat unconventional sense.
Norman Mailer once wrote that nobody in Hollywood up to that point had seen any man quite so beautiful as Orson Welles. Welles later countered that his looks in the film had been deceiving: they had taped back his cheeks to make him look not quite so jowly.
But jowls aside, the cocked eyebrow, the rakish grin, the sparkling eyes! Welles had charisma—the kind of charisma that all contemporary males lack. Don’t know why we males in this second decade of the Twenty-First Century fall so short—but let’s face it, we do. Maybe it’s all the fluoride in the water, maybe it’s how very needy and hypersensitive our lifestyles and entertainments and gadgets have made us become.
8. The Fallout
Citizen Kane is mostly based on the life of a real man, media magnate William Randolph Hearst. But, wisely, the film doesn’t go in for the full biopic treatment—biopics more often than not being a colossal bore.
Legend has it that Herman Mankiewicz, the alcoholic writer who co-wrote the script, had it out for Hearst because Hearst once threw him out of a party for his drunken antics—thus the rather unflattering portrayal.
Hearst, enraged at the thinly-veiled depiction of him, did his utmost to sink the film, prohibiting his newspapers from even mentioning the movie’s name and bullying theater owners into not showing it.
Almost worked. Citizen Kane did poorly at the box office, but experienced a resurgence in the Fifties. And now Hearst, ironically, is almost totally defined by Kane. Moral of the story: don’t mess with writers.