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Author Topic: Citizen Kane (1941)  (Read 5830 times)
Groggy
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« on: February 09, 2009, 05:10:06 PM »

I didn't see a thread on this film so here were are. I rewatched this film today on TCM, and I think I enjoyed and appreciated it much more than my first viewing.

My essay is a bit reductive I know, but I didn't feel like writing a 30 page thesis paper. Basically I chose to look at Kane as the ultimate egomaniac rather than a truly sympathetic character. Here then is my meager attempt to discuss this film:

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So, after a rewatch on TCM this afternoon I turn to the 900-pound gorilla of American cinema, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941). Consistently rated the best film of all time for the last fifty years, it's a movie whose reputation is constantly challenged by both the ignorant film plebs and a certain breed of snob who seem. How in the hell is Citizen Kane the greatest movie? Isn't The Godfather better? 8 1/2? Lawrence of Arabia? The Seven Samurai? 2001? Transformers? (Wait... nevermind that last one.) What gives?

Well, I'm not going to argue for or against this position, as that would be an exercise in futility. The whole idea of the greatest movie of all time is completely subjective, and no two people will agree on any list of great films. I myself can think of 50 films off the top of my head that I think are better than Kane, and many more if we're delving into the even murkier concept of films I like better. But it's a film fully deserving of such a title, even if, in my humble and solitary opinion, it doesn't quite obtain that status. It is an undisputed masterpiece, with brilliant aristry and plot and character depth that reveals itself more and more with each viewing - the mark of a truly great film.

We all know the basic story of Citizen Kane - it's a cultural touchstone, much like Casablanca and Gone With the Wind, where everyone is familiar with at least some of the cliches - Rosebud, the deep focus photography, Xanadu, Orson Welles, the opera scene, the slow clap. The story of its making, its struggles in production and then release against the critics and the studios and William Randolph Hearst's media empire, are just well-known, and no less dramatic than the film itself.

Of course, Citizen Kane is primarily a character study of an empty man. It's not so much how Kane is portrayed that's fascinating, but the way he is. Established by an overlong newsreel introduction establishing him as a great if controversial power-player, it seems no one really knows him - he's just a big name in a newspaper headline. As the cub reporter (William Alland) finds out, Kane cannot simply be pinned down. The movie seems to go with Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten)'s idea that Kane was simply an unloved man desperate for people to adore him, which allows us some degree of sympathy with Kane, but even this seems incomplete. To be horribly reductive myself, however, the film is about a man in love himself and unable to connect with others. A tragic figure, but one whose downfall is largely his own doing.

It's hard to have a lot of sympathy for Kane, when his biggest and most consistent character trait is his willingness to destroy and use others for his personal gain. Kane's second wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore) is perhaps the most obvious example; forced into a career as a singer that she never wanted, she must humiliate herself night after night for the sake of her husband's ego (the scene where Kane half-heartedly applauds his wife's performance shows what a hollow lie the whole thing is). His attempts to comfort her lead only to more disappointment; Susan is a bird trapped in a gilded cage, unable to experience the world or get any benefit out of being rich or married to such a wealthy and powerful man. Kane is satisfied so long as everything is exactly as he wants it; he doesn't demand much, but merely, in Jed's words, "love on (his) own terms".

Susan is the most obvious example, but the entire cast is a victim of Kane's whim. First wife Emily (Ruth Warrick) is used more for her political connections - as the niece of a President - than love. Kane's guardian and benefactor Thatcher (George Coulouris) is thrown under the bus, his business ruined, for Kane's personal whims. Jed Leland is reduced from Kane's best friend and confidante to a cynical drunkard, his honesty betrayed and undermined by Kane's overweening narcissism. In this light, even the evil Boss Gettys (Ray Collins) is given a glimmer of humanity - he is humiliated by Kane's smearing him for political gain. If we could believe Kane did have a political cause, it - but it seems merely an extension of the same egomania and misanthropy that trapped Jed and Emily and Susan. Kane's is the story of the American Dream gone sour, a reverse Horatio Alger - if a man makes it all the way to the top without friends, lovers or happiness, then what has he really achieved? He dies alone, a pathetic man haunted by emptiness, loneliness and despair. The characters around him reap the often unhappy results of Kane's obsessive egomania, but at least they aren't Charlie Kane.

Orson Welles is simply remarkable. Just 27 years old at the time, he delivered an absolutely brilliant trifecta as director, actor and co-writer of the film. He plays Kane perfectly, keeping him sympathetic and likeable at times, but never afraid to shy away from the character's unsavory side. Viewing the film in light of Welles' subsequent life and career - struggling to stay afloat in Hollywood, then being exiled to work as a struggling director and bit actor in Europe - is irresistible and cliche, but in the end it makes the whole thing more poignant and pertinent.

What Kane is best-remembered for, however, is its cinematography and direction. Gregg Toland's gorgeous deep-focus photography is easy to point out, and remains quite striking. There are many other aspects to Toland's work, however, that are deserving of praise. His and Welles' (and art director Van Nest Polglaste)'s use of space is remarkable - the impossibly cavernous and labrynthian Xanadu - in this movie, the choreography, the art direction, the arrangement of everything is as important as the camera work itself. Scenes like Kane seemingly towering over Jed Leland, before walking up to him and being brought down to size, the wonderfully shot political rally, and Susan's descent into the distance through a never-ending series of doors, are absolutely brilliant touches - they've been copied any number of times but rarely if ever bettered.

The film doesn't get nearly enough recognition for its brilliant editing, by soon-to-be director Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles). The film experiments with "jump" and "match cuts" that wouldn't become common place for almost twenty years. The slow dissolves between scenes - leaving part of an image intact as the next scene begins - are quite striking, adding immeasuribly to the film's effect. The film makes brilliant use of montage - particularly the amazing sequence where Kane and Emily's marriage unravels via a series of increasingly somber and quiet breakfasts. (This isn't even to mention Welles' and Herman Manckwiez's screenplay, or Bernard Herrman's elegant score, but with such a film we could list everyone on the film set, down to the clap loader, as deserving of praise.)

Welles' use of non-star actors - the Mercury players - as his supporting cast pays great dividends as well. Of the main cast, only Agnes Moorehead and Joseph Cotten would go onto any particular acclaim outside of Kane, but all play their roles perfectly. All the actors give professional performances, not lacking in flair but completely convincing, all natural screen actors; it's hard to guess that none of them had appeared on screen prior to this.

Is Citizen Kane the greatest film of all time? Probably not, but such distinctions are subjective and arbitrary anyway. It's unquestionably an important, innovative and artistically brilliant film, regardless of how you perceive it. And it's damned entertaining, to boot. So, I can't say I have much problem with giving it the title of greatest film.

8/10

http://nothingiswrittenfilm.blogspot.com/2009/02/to-love-on-my-own-terms.html

« Last Edit: February 09, 2009, 05:12:17 PM by Groggy » Logged


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« Reply #1 on: February 09, 2009, 05:47:03 PM »

I left my comments on this elsewhere but will repeat them here...

Upon initial viewing I didn't think too much of it but subsequent views have made me appreciate it much more for its artistry and direction.
Is it the greatest film of all time (as many claim it to be)?
No.
I don't even think it's Welles' best.
But it does deserve its place in cinema history as a grand achievement.

9/10

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« Reply #2 on: February 09, 2009, 05:55:10 PM »

I've only seen a few of Welles' films but I did like Touch of Evil better than this.

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« Reply #3 on: February 09, 2009, 05:57:48 PM »

Touch of Evil

^ That, F Is For Fake and The Trial are better than CK.
I'm not in the popular opinion for my latter pick but whatever...

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« Reply #4 on: February 10, 2009, 02:15:52 AM »

In the interest of furthering the discussion initiated by Groggy's excellent review, I transfer my post from the Orson Welles thread here:


Taking the Cane to Kane

Much has been written about this film, but nothing has improved on the review written by Jorge Luis Borges the year Citizen Kane was released.

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A kind of metaphysical detective story, its subject (both psychological and allegorical) is the investigation of a man’s inner self, through the works he has wrought, the words he has spoken, the many lives he has ruined. The same technique was used by Joseph Conrad in Chance (1914) and in that beautiful film The Power and the Glory: a rhapsody of miscellaneous scenes without chronological order. Overwhelmingly, endlessly, Orson Welles shows fragments of the life of the man, Charles Foster Kane, and invites us to combine them and to reconstruct him. Forms of multiplicity and incongruity abound in the film: the first scenes record the treasures amassed by Kane; in one of the last, a poor woman, luxuriant and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a palace that is also a museum. At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by any secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances. (A possible corollary, foreseen by David Hume, Ernst Mach, and our own Macedonio Ferenandez: no man knows who he is, no man is anyone.) In a story by Chesterton—“The Head of Caesar,” I think—the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film is precisely that labyrinth.

As good as this is, it can stand a bit of tweaking.

Borges needlessly muddies the water with his citations of Hume et al. If “no man is anyone” then there seems to have been no particular reason to make Kane the subject of the film. Any sort of person would have done as well: tinker, tailor, lampshade maker. But surely the point of using Kane was to demonstrate a rich irony: this person most present in his society is, in private life, a complete nullity. Further, we, the audience, best appreciate this irony when able to contrast Kane with others, those who, like ourselves, may not exist as flamboyantly, but who in fact lead incomparably richer lives.

Taking the above caveat into account, Borges’s interpretation of the puzzle montage is substantially correct. Not all men, but Kane in particular is “a chaos of appearances.” Not the film Citizen Kane, but the man Charles Foster Kane is “a labyrinth with no center.” (Borges’s own logic eludes him. If nothing is as frightening as a labyrinth without a center, and this film is such a labyrinth, cinema-goers would run screaming out of every showing.) Citizen Kane, then, does have a center: the revelation concerning Kane’s true (lack of) character.

Thus the film’s technique of fragmentation is the ideal exposition of its theme: Charles Foster Kane, though of many parts, is less than their sum. Such an approach works well for a despised character, but would not do as well for other biographies, a life of Lincoln, for example, or the story of Christ.

This limitation shows up the film’s one great weakness: its central character, we come to learn, is not worth our time. This is worth knowing, of course, but having once learned it, what need have we to return to the character? In fact, students of the film never do. Citizen Kane is today appreciated almost entirely for its formal qualities.

No, we expect more from our masterpieces: grand characters. When we survey the characters of the Western narrative tradition who continue to command our attention, we encounter nothing but great souls: Achilles, Medea, Orlando, Lear. It is not a question of heroes or villains—Macbeth exhibits greatness every bit as much as Henry V does.  Charles Foster Kane, on the other hand, is neither hero nor villain. He’s not even a complete human being, and a non-entity is not, ultimately, a fit subject for contemplation—there is nothing to contemplate.

It is a hard judgment on a work of art that, rather than failing to accomplish its purpose, has succeeded too well. But there it is.

Consider the ironic title, which invites ridicule upon its subject. This is a very different title compared to, say, Oedipus Rex, which, free of irony, informs us that Oedipus remains kingly even as he falls.

And so, Citizen Kane cannot be the greatest film of all time, not even the greatest American film of all time. It was, however, the best American film in the year of its production and should have won the Best Picture Oscar for 1941.

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« Reply #5 on: February 10, 2009, 10:07:29 AM »

This must be the biggest classic I haven't seen yet. I guess I should be ashamed. Embarrassed

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« Reply #6 on: February 10, 2009, 10:29:08 AM »

This must be the biggest classic I haven't seen yet. I guess I should be ashamed. Embarrassed

If it makes you feel better, I haven't seen anything by Chaplin, Fellini, Keaton, Lynch, Powell, Truffaut, Godard, Herzog or Ozu yet.

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« Reply #7 on: February 10, 2009, 10:32:52 AM »

I think you make a fine argument Jenkins, and I agree with most of it. I don't agree that Kane isn't worth our time; he's an interesting example of failure and egotism and I find him to be richly drawn. I chose not to view Kane as a sympathetic character, which I think a lot of writers do and which reduces him to a sad little boy who can't find love - I don't find a great deal of interest in that. I don't buy that for a second; he steps on and destroys too many people for me to sympathize with him. A tragic figure? Surely, but at base I think he's an asshole regardless of the motivations.

Very interesting to think back to There Will Be Blood and how heavily the film borrows from Kane. The difference is, as I think you pointed out elsewhere, that Plainview is surrounded entirely by undeveloped ciphers; when we reveal that he's an empty nothing, there's no interest there, no reason to watch really; Eli is the only other character with even tertiary development and he's an annoying cipher. And that more than anything else (well that and the ridiculous ending) is why the film fails for me.

Although a bit far afield, in this light I found Olivier's Crassus character in Spartacus rather similar to Kane as well.

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« Reply #8 on: February 10, 2009, 11:19:49 AM »

A tragic figure? Surely, but at base I think he's an asshole regardless of the motivations.
Again, I don't think CFK has the gravity to be a tragic figure. The whole point of the film, it seems to me, is that there just isn't much to the guy (no matter his status within society). He's neither a hero nor a villain: he's an empty suit. Tragedy requires larger-than-life characters, not characters who merely appear to be so. The film is a Russian-doll process of pulling apart the outer shells to reveal a hollow center. Kane no doubt views himself as a tragic figure, but self-deception is his biggest problem. Thus the dominant mode of the film is not tragedy, but irony.

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« Reply #9 on: February 10, 2009, 09:41:17 PM »

So, you've finally been to Xanadu castle, good for you, Groggy.

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« Reply #10 on: February 10, 2009, 09:44:09 PM »

Actually this is my second viewing. I think I said as much in my review.

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« Reply #11 on: February 10, 2009, 09:48:56 PM »

Must have missed it.

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« Reply #12 on: February 10, 2009, 09:57:08 PM »

Again, I don't think CFK has the gravity to be a tragic figure. The whole point of the film, it seems to me, is that there just isn't much to the guy (no matter his status within society). He's neither a hero nor a villain: he's an empty suit. Tragedy requires larger-than-life characters, not characters who merely appear to be so. The film is a Russian-doll process of pulling apart the outer shells to reveal a hollow center. Kane no doubt views himself as a tragic figure, but self-deception is his biggest problem. Thus the dominant mode of the film is not tragedy, but irony.

That's a fair reading. Sorry to repeat, but I could view Kane as tragic, in the sense that he's a lonely and pathetic person, but I choose to view him as an asshole. I don't disagree that he's something of a cipher, but he exists on some level - and that's the level of making others miserable. I disagree for that reason that he's uninteresting.

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« Reply #13 on: February 10, 2009, 09:58:00 PM »

Must have missed it.

I saw it 2-3 years ago on DVD and caught it on TCM yesterday afternoon.

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« Reply #14 on: February 11, 2009, 04:02:29 AM »

That's a fair reading. Sorry to repeat, but I could view Kane as tragic, in the sense that he's a lonely and pathetic person, but I choose to view him as an asshole. I don't disagree that he's something of a cipher, but he exists on some level - and that's the level of making others miserable. I disagree for that reason that he's uninteresting.
I guess I could agree that as a young man he had the potential to be interesting, but that through his life choices he gradually divested himself of any worthwhile (and therefore interesting) qualities. The process then becomes the point of interest, but since the pay-off is so meager, it's not, to my mind, a very satisfying experience. No, there are hundreds of other characters in films who actually improve on better acquaintance, and I'd rather spend my time with them.

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