I was at a birthday party recently, and, as is the wont of film nerds, we were playing a guess-the-movie type game. I would give two clues (an actor and a genre, a theme and a year, a director and well-known critical response) and someone would have to give a film that matched. During the course of this game, the category of “overrated film” came up. Someone immediately piped in with Citizen Kane. A few people in the room agreed that it was an overrated film. I found myself in a position of defense. Citizen Kane is, I argued, a great film that still plays well today, and still, even with modern special effects and camera technologies, has some of the most impressive and virtuosic filmmaking in all of cinema. All my arguments were shot down by accusations of snobbery.
I openly admit; I can be a film snob. I do tend to bring up obscure 4-hour Béla Tarr movies in casual conversation more often than I should. But what can I say? If an obscure 4-hour Béla Tarr film moves me, then I have to say so. That's the curse of the critic: No matter what the film is, you have to say exactly how it made you feel. If you love a popular movie, your taste is in synch with the people at large. If you hate a popular movie, you run the risk of being labeled a contrarian. If you love an obscure movie, you're either a champion of a little guy, or an elitist. If you love a popularly bad movie, well, then it’s your job to convince people why it's good. But I don't think I'm an elitist or a snob when I declare that I think Citizen Kane is a great film. Frankly, I think it's odd that the film needs defense at all. Is it really that overrated?
This week in CraveOnline's Free Film School (granted four stars by The Made-Up Committee That Gives Stars to Online Free Film Schools), we'll finally be taking a look at Citizen Kane, Orson Welles' famed 1941 classic, and contemplate it a little. I won't be going over too many of the specifics of the film, nor will I be giving a dry scene-by-scene analysis; greater men than me have expostulated endlessly on the greatness of the film for decades, and the story has been reiterated endlessly. I'll give some basics, and assume you have access to some film books by better critics than I. More than anything, I'll try to talk about how Citizen Kane is an important movie, and why you should watch it, despite its heavy pretensions, conceits of political importance. Why, essentially, does Citizen Kane matter?
First of all: Where does Citizen Kane stand in the “canon” of film? Well, it's usually right at the top. I think it's #1 on more than a few top-10-of-all-time lists. It's #1 on AFI's Great American Films list. It's consistently in the Top 10 of The British Film Institute's every-decade polls (and the 2012 poll is due any day now). Critics the world over froth endlessly about how great it is. In a very abstract way, many people accept it as The Greatest Movie of All Time. Sometimes it's supplanted by Casablanca. Sometimes Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief. Sometimes even by The Godfather. But Citizen Kane is still, to this day, held up to be the crown jewel in the cinematic firmament. When you go to film school (free or otherwise), the professor would be remiss not to show his students Citizen Kane. They could probably get away with not showing you The Bicycle Thief (although film students should see that one too).
And this is, I think, why so many people seem to bristle at it. It's easy to sit and watch a “good” film, but sitting to watch The Greatest Movie Ever Made? Well, that feels like homework. What's more, its reputation will be seen by the casual viewer as something of a challenge. They will sit in front of their TVs (or, if they're lucky, in a repertory theater), and eyeball the film. Okay, Greatest Movie Ever, let's see what you got. You'd better be awesome, or I'm going to hate having to do this. And then, when the film inevitably falls short of expectations, there is an immediate backlash, and the casual film viewer will rate the film lower than they would otherwise.
For example: Critics and filmmakers tend to lionize Citizen Kane, but casual viewers tend to rate it lower. On the Top 250 list on the Internet Movie Database, which is a poll of viewers and not made up of professional critics or filmmakers, Citizen Kane is listed as a paltry 39 below more recent genre fare like Terminator 2 (#38), Leon: The Professional (#31), The Lord of the Rings (#27, #15, and #9), and Inception (#13). The first on that list is The Godfather. I like all those films just fine, and they all have good reason to be listed as good, but I would have a hard time explaining why Inception is better than Citizen Kane. Or is that just my snobbiness rearing up? Also, why is Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece Persona listed at #193? Shouldn't that be higher?
But then, such lists are often meaningless. Can't 10, 100, or even 250 films all be equally great?
It's clear, is all, that Citizen Kane might need some defense. Let's give a brief rundown to catch up.
The film was made in 1941 by theatrical wünderkind Orson Welles, who was only 26 at the time. He has made a reputation for himself on stage and on the radio, and was the mastermind behind that famed The War of the Worlds broadcast that took the world accidentally by storm. The script, written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, was intended as a high tragedy full of heartfelt monologues. Orson Welles altered the script here and there, and directed Citizen Kane to resemble a not-so-guarded parallel to real-life newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. Welles had never worked in film, but was familiar with the craft, and used some of the more impressive tricks at the time to construct his movie. He didn't necessarily premiere ideas like deep focus, super-low angles (for years, people said that Welles was the first filmmaker to film a ceiling, although this is not true), or montage, but he used them to great effect, and, many have argued, to the best of their abilities.
The film is about a newspaper tycoon named Charles Foster Kane (played by Welles) who has died with a cryptic word on his lips: “Rosebud.” The rest of the film is told in flashback as an investigative reporter watches newsreels of Kane, and interviews his associates, to find the truth behind that mystery. The story he finds is a tragic one: Kane was taken from his mother at an early age, given riches beyond his wildest dreams, took over a small newspaper, took a wife, and proceeded, through a string of moral compromises, to build up his wealth while he tore down himself. He thought he could become a politician, but the entire political enterprise smacks of hubris. He had an affair with a would-be opera singer, but was offered no absolution. By the end of the film, we see that Kane died alone and lonely in the spire of an enormous castle, surrounded by millions of dollars of hastily collected art. If you want a much more detailed rundown of the story and even more historical context, AMC put together one of the best rundowns online.
Forget, though, all you know about Hearst, yellow journalism, or corrupt news organizations. Lay aside politics for the time being. Look at the story. Just the story for a second. It's here, you'll find, that Citizen Kane is strongest. This was a story that may have been intended to take on one of the biggest media empires that 1941 could offer, but, at its heart, it’s far more universal. Kane is a charming, handsome, rich, savvy, intelligent man. And yet he is often full of wrath. He argues. He compromises. Was he corrupted by money? Some may say so. Some would see the film as a simple polemic on the way wealth and power can corrupt. I think, however, that Kane only used his wealth to obfuscate his deeper fears and loneliness. He set out to be strong and morally upright (there's a scene wherein he and a few colleagues sign a “Declaration of Principles”), but his inner demons, only subtly hinted at throughout the film, manage to break down all his conscious efforts to remain moral. It's a subtle and adult story about a man selling out when he doesn't even realize he's doing so.
Now that you have such a compelling story, now you can look at the filmmaking. Here's the thing about the amazing camerawork in Citizen Kane: You may not notice a lot of it. I think in order to really appreciate what Welles was doing with his camera, you have to be kind of familiar with matters of filmmaking to begin with. If you've been reading all the Free Film School articles, and doing all the homework, you may, by now, have an eye for what goes into certain shots. Filmmakers tend to love Citizen Kane, as it is such a stellar use of camera craft. Welles studied newsreels, other films and other popular media to figure out the best way to tell this story. He hired a young Robert Wise (later a director of some great films of his own) to edit, and the often-neglected Gregg Toland to photograph. You may immediately notice, for instance, the noir-like use of light and shadow. Note how many characters are poorly illuminated throughout. Citizen Kane can feel kinda spooky. When you see a camera slip in through a skylight, or when you see that a room is unexpectedly larger than you previously assumed thanks to some deep focus, well, you may not notice unless you've seen many movies already. I could go into detail as to why the camerawork was great, or how many techniques have been used to achieve the film's excellent look, but, again, better men than me have already done so. There are countless books on Citizen Kane.
And then, if you want to incorporate politics (as one inevitably must), you'll find the film savvy as well. True, some may take exception to Welles' conceit that he has, in his hands, the power to take down a media empire with the dramatic power of his movie. That effort smacks of hubris in itself. But such pointed attacks on well-moneyed institutions weren't often seen in 1941. During the Depression, you'll find that most American films were frothy comedies and musicals, wherein rich people were depicted as fun-loving dandies, and stood as avatars for poor audiences dreaming of wealth. Citizen Kane was certainly not the first film to have a rich villain (such villains were actually rather common), but it was the first to tell such a damning story is such an immediate and relevant way. And, given the way the media treats the public today (insert your own joke here), any meaningful analysis of a media baron is only going to strike hard.
I think if you had never heard of Citizen Kane, and just sat to watch it casually, you would be blown away. And not just in 1941. Today. If you haven't heard of Citizen Kane (and there may be a few of you out there), well, you're actually probably not reading this lesson.
In a way, its reputation of actually being the Greatest Movie Ever Made has kind of prevented it as being accepted as, well, one of the greatest films ever made. Me? I think it's earned its spot on all those top-10 lists. But what do I know? Here's what I want you to do, if you haven't seen it yet: work your way up to it. If you've only seen the film once, I encourage you to give it a second try, but watch it after you've seen another great film. Try Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men. Then follow it with Citizen Kane. Try to omit all you know about the movie, and let the story be told.
I'm not going to demand you absolutely must discover the Greatest Movie Ever Made. But I am going to declare: you might find a great movie.
Homework for the Week:
Watch Citizen Kane, of course. Go for it. Really, you'll be doing yourself a favor. If you know little about the film, don't do any research first. Research after. Consider how much of your expectations shape a film. Is a film better or worse if it has a certain reputation? If critics love it? If it's widely considered bad? If all your friends and peers love or hate it? How much is a viewer even capable of separating their viewing experience with what they already know about the film? Once you've seen Citizen Kane (for the first or for the 100th time), what did you think of it?