About once a year, I watch Citizen Kane. There are others. Rashoman. Casablanca. Stagecoach. Metropolis. There are flicks, there are movies, there are films, and there is cinema. From the first utterance of “Rosebud” to the final solution to the mystery of Charles Foster Kane, Citizen Kane was, and always has been, cinema.
I’m not here to make the case that Citizen Kane stands as the highest form of the cinematographic arts or that any cultured citizen of the world must watch it in order to full appreciate film and all it offers. Those who do tend to brag about seeking out obscure French Impressionist films or owning an array of Criterion laser-discs. I think Citizen Kane is an important film; if there’s any reason to watch it, it’s to understand that this film, more than almost any other, helped to create a new understanding about culture and the world around us. No small feat for a B-movie.
1941. Citizen Kane is released by RKO Pictures, the smallest studio amongst the “Big Five” of the golden age of Hollywood (you might know RKO from one of their other major properties: King Kong). Citizen Kane was going to be a tent-pole film, something people would flock to see. A blockbuster in the making before the “blockbuster” really existed. Orson Welles was the new “it boy” in Hollywood; a wunderkind genius with an affinity for magic, the violin, and staging productions of Macbeth and Julius Caesar unlike any other. Welles did the impossible to Shakespeare–he made it fresh and he made it controversial. He then went to radio, and while the legacy of The War of the Worlds broadcast was become overblown with time, the format of the program was beyond anything that had been previously broadcast. Welles left radio for the movies. He spent months developing an ambitious first-person subjective adaptation of Heart of Darkness. The technical difficulties of the film led to the abandonment of the project. In the process, he met the writer Herman J. Mankiewicz. It’s unclear who wrote what of Citizen Kane; each man has claimed different pages of what eventually became a colossal script clearly based on the life of William Randolph Hurst (who would go to sue the film studio and try to get all prints pulled). The production was a mess–RKO never liked to spend a lot of money. The film crew borrowed props, employed tricky matte setups, and even used existing film footage to create what is a (mostly) seamless masterpiece, something well beyond the sum of its parts. Citizen Kane was destined for greatness.
And why wouldn’t it? A multi-threaded dramatic narrative about a boy who inherits a fortune and rises (and falls) to fame and power in the years following the Great Depression was bound to fail. Citizen Kane isn’t exactly exciting or exceptionally funny. It’s just a man’s life told from the point of view of those who survived him. But that alone begins a new crusade in film. To understand the importance of Citizen Kane relies on the fact that the film continually breaks new ground throughout the film. Gregg Toland, the director of photography, used his perfected technique of deep focus to bring the background in focus simultaneous with the foreground. New special effects were developed to create invisible transitions between optical printers or matte drawings to the celluloid frame. The whole film is told through flashbacks, flash-forwards within flashbacks, and a general disregard for narrative structure and time–while still remaining coherent. Between this eschewed narrative structure and the unreliable nature of the narrators themselves–Kane’s estranged ex-wife, his business partners who may still have an axe to grind–we can never really trust the film. And that, more than anything, is why the film is important. Until Citizen Kane, classical Hollywood films were trusted implicitly. Movies were revered as a part of our culture that transcended class; everyone went to the movies, everyone loved the movies. Citizen Kane called all of that into question.
Eventually, the film would go to win only one Oscar, for Best Original Screenplay. It lost Best Picture to a film you’ve never heard of: How Green Was My Valley. Citizen Kane would eventually be rediscovered by a new generation of film students. These film students would study this movie over and over and over again, always hopeful to unlock its sacred secrets. Pick any director working today and it’s a safe bet they’ve done the same. Orson Welles would go to a career desperately leaning towards greatness but never finding it. In this and many other ways, Welles was Kane.
And that alone would be enough–understand that greatness, once achieved, often leads to floundering in the name of purpose. That burning out is really better than fading away slowly into obscurity, always holding to the past because tomorrow is that much worse. Tomorrow can’t be figured out the way the past is all too easily understood.
Ultimately, that’s the message of Citizen Kane. It’s certainly tempting to spoil a film that’s over half a century old, but I won’t do that. Just know that the movie is about understanding who Charles Foster Kane really is. And at its heart, there is no real answer. To his wives, he was a scoundrel or an idol, depending on the year. To his business partners, he was reckless and dangerous, calculating and patient. To his family, he was forgotten. In the end, these descriptions fall flat. We can’t know who Charles Foster Kane was; we can only know who he was as Citizen Kane.