Movie Notes: Citizen Kane
= 5 stars
Starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore
Directed by Orson Welles
I’ve watched Citizen Kane more than ten times by now, and each time discovered something new, or found scenes laced with different resonance.
My first viewing was in high school (we read it was the “greatest film ever”). At that time, I was most intrigued by the odd camera techniques; many scenes contained a visual element linking to the next. In the opening Xanadu montage, the creepy, shadowy images share a single, lit window in which Kane is dying. While the older, isolated Kane decays in his mansion, a squawking parrot’s eye becomes an eye in a stained glass window.
Kane‘s audacious visual language continually underlines the point of every scene – the experimentation serves the story. While three adults decide the child Kane’s fate, he’s seen playing in the snow through a tiny window as if enclosed in a box; a possession to be handed off. A singer is interviewed and three people are enclosed in different spaces, emphasizing their isolation from one another. Investigative reporters, all minor characters signifying the faceless mass interest, appear in a dark room choked with smoke, as faceless silhouettes.
My next viewing was in an actual movie theater as a college student, where I was more naively concerned with Kane’s romantic life – namely the odd scene where Kane first meets a child-like singer with a terrible toothache. Kane throws money at the situation, building a gilded cage around this talentless girl, trying to paper over her lack of musicality with marketing. It’s pure romantic folly that can only end badly.
Now, some twenty years older, I found myself more focused on the flawed man whose lifetime is scrutinized. His happiest moments are in childhood, and despite achieving great financial success, he dies alone and unhappy. That’s a standard tale, but he also dies misunderstood. Kane contains a grim comment on America’s celebrity culture, its habit of building heroes up, only to tear them down, and inevitably analyze them post-humously for greatness. During the film’s making, Welles was prodding Hearst, but the same template applies to our time’s Jackson or Woods.
Now at middle age with a few decades fading into the darkness, I felt sorry for Kane: how he succeeds at work but fails in relationships, ending up isolated behind a wall of money and possessions. Heavy is the impending shadow of morality, forcing self-reflection on a life lived to the fullest or squandered by our own, insufficient personal standards.
Kane‘s structure is like an onion skin, peeling away layers as we struggle to understand this one man. The initial newsreel presents his entire life in outline form. Subsequent scenes dig more deeply into the details, as we meet those that knew him, his mentors, friends, past loves, searching for more information. Some of it is insightful; most of it not – we go down some frustrating dead ends. But even greater: without the ability to interview Kane himself, there is a distinct, frustrating feeling that every recollection depicted on screen is filtered by the individuals telling the tales. We will never know the real Kane.
Even the movie’s back story is fascinating. This was Welles’ first film, and the cast is populated with former radio actors with little film experience. The entire undertaking has a audacity that only someone so young would attempt: Welles cast himself as the lead while simultaneously directing and writing. I cannot name a single modern director capable of this feat.
I think I’ll stop here. My final thought: if you haven’t seen Citizen Kane, you owe it to yourself to see it at least once before you die. I would daresay a life without having seen with a genuine attempt to understand this film, is a deprived one. I can only wonder what new angles, emotions, and insights will be revealed as I revisit Charles Foster Kane years and decades from now – and hopelessly pray I don’t die alone.
IMDB: Citizen Kane
Wikipedia: Citizen Kane
Rotten Tomatoes: Citizen Kane 100%