The Gem Collection – Citizen Kane (1941)

It’s time for another entry in The Gem Collection!

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Starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, and Ruth Warrick

It’s known as the Greatest Film in History (though recent lists have placed Hitchcock’s Vertigo in that position). I had a film studies professor tell me once that students were often disappointed by it since its groundbreaking visual and stylistic achievements have been so often duplicated by pretty much every director on Earth that they don’t seem all that mindblowing to contemporary viewers. As a result, many modern viewers have labeled it overrated, undeserving of the heaps of hyperbolic praise that swarm about this film like screaming birds.

I would like to respectfully disagree. This movie is completely phenomenal. I make no apologies for gushing. It’s an original story, and even though it’s a film, I still consider it part of the pantheon of Great American Novels alongside The Great Gatsby and Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Charles Foster Kane is everything any American could hope to be. He’s staggeringly rich, limited by nothing, and devoid of hesitation or doubt. He gets what he wants whenever he wants it. On his deathbed, he’s heard uttering a single perplexing word: Rosebud. A news agency, desperate for a sensational obituary, dispatches a reporter to investigate the significance of the word.

Along the way, he pieces together a portrait of who Charles Kane really was, uncovering his greatest triumphs and diving into the darkest corners of his celebrity by interviewing his ex-friends and his second ex-wife. The result is a fascinating portrait of a man living the American Dream with such obsessive fervor that it very nearly destroys him, leaving him completely hollow and alone in his final days, the secret meaning of Rosebud one of the few things that actually brings him joy as he waits for death in his towering unfinished palace, surrounded by more wealth than he could ever hope to enjoy in fifty lifetimes.

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I’m pretty sure the Ark of the Covenant is in there somewhere

It’s one of those movies that makes you go, “Wow . . .” once the end credits roll. And it’s not just because of the story. Everything just looks and sounds amazing. The cinematography is bold and dynamic, the acting is a wonderful mix of quotidian charm and operatic declamation, and the non-linear story moves at such a gorgeous pace that it never feels like it’s trying to cover up blandness with superficial flash. The deeper you go into the cogs and wheels that make up the plot, the more compelling it gets.

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I don’t really know how this image fits, thematically into what I’m saying. I just love the light/dark contrast here!

There are other actor/directors who place themselves in the lead just because they want the camera to be on them all the time a la Norma Desmond. With this film, Orson Welles is so honest about who Kane is that you don’t feel like this is just an excuse for him to mug at the camera. We experience Kane’s vulgar celebrations of his own success right alongside his more despicable moments so that, when we see the bitter, hollow man Kane ends up becoming in his old age, we don’t idolize him as a hero nor do we criticize him for being a monster. The audience simultaneously wants to be him and is glad that they have more control over their own egos than he does.

One sequence which captures who Kane is involves him pushing his second wife Susan Alexander into a career as an opera singer, building a lavish opera house for her and footing the bill for an opulent production of some overblown opera so that she can live out “her” dream (when in reality, he’s just using it to legitimize his own relationship with her, burying the scandal of his extra-marital affair with Susan with huge piles of distracting money). Despite the fact that her singing is weak and pitchy, and her bland acting leaves the audience fidgeting and yawning, Kane white-knuckles the whole performance, seething with embarrassment and disappointment while his wife makes an absolute fool of herself on stage. After a weak chorus of applause after the show ends, Kane explodes out of his seat and, in a last ditch effort to hide his own failure, claps for her into the awkward silence of the theater with such a violent intensity that you just want everyone to drop dead so as to avoid any further embarrassment.

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This is not the face of one who loves performing

It’s one of the most uncomfortable scenes in cinema history, and you just can’t look away, try as you might. It’s like a slow motion trainwreck. I adore it.

In terms of the film’s visual style, I still think it has a lot to offer, even though directors like Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, and Francis Ford Coppola rendered a lot of Welles’ visual innovations cliché with loving overuse. The stunning use of deep focus (in which everyone in the scene, regardless of where they are, is in focus) is marvelous, especially in the scene where Kane’s mother signs over his life to the bank while he plays with his sled outside the window. The tension of the foreground, where his (allegedly abusive) father pleads with Kane’s stoic mother not to send Kane away, is juxtaposed with the innocence of a boy who hasn’t a care in the world in the background.

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Now THAT is how you compose a shot!

While I was watching this, I was reminded of a modern character who has a similar feel to Charles Kane and that’s Tony Stark from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s brilliant and richer than any human has any right being, but he’s empty inside and drives away everyone who cares for him because he’s desperately trying to distract himself from his own feelings of emptiness and loss. Now, obviously one way that Tony compensates is by fighting crime, which is admirable, but I found it interesting that Tony Stark is still a likable character (even when you really don’t like him) whereas Charles Kane ends up being this hateful, bitter old man who completely loses himself to his own misery, having lived only for himself, attaining wealth and material possessions just because he wanted them. It’s interesting since Charles Kane showed up in cinemas after the Great Depression and we got Tony Stark after 9/11 and the mid-2000’s recession. To Welles’ audience, vast wealth is shown to be vulgar and empty, but to modern audiences, we still wish we could be Tony Stark, even though we’ve seen that he’s not a very fulfilled character. Hmmm…

But enough of that particular tangent!

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Back to THIS tangent!

Don’t listen to what the hipsters tell you, that this is a highfalutin film that only connoisseurs can appreciate. And don’t listen to the losers who call this movie overrated and boring. THEY’RE overrated and boring. There’s a lot to fascinate contemporary audiences in this film, and its themes are still crazy relevant. Imagine what the social media frenzy would have been if a Charles Foster Kane had lived during our time?

So go watch it with an open mind. Do it! And then come back so we can talk about it after. I need to complain to someone about how Emily was so strong and gorgeous and smart and he was a moron to give her up for Susan. *slams fists down on table*

Ahem.

If all goes well, I’ll see you on Monday with a review! I haven’t decided which since Tarzan and the BFG are both out. Hmmm…

 

 

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