"Citizen Kane is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may seem even fresher. A great deal in the movie that was conventional and almost banal in 1941 is so far in the past as to have been forgotten and become new."
~Pauline Kael, Raising Kane
"For me (Orson Welles) is just a hoax. It's empty. It's not interesting. It's dead. Citizen Kane, which I have a copy of — is all the critics' darling, always at the top of every poll taken, but I think it's a total bore. Above all, the performances are worthless. The amount of respect that movie's got is absolutely unbelievable."
~Ingmar Bergman, interview with Jan Aghed
Well, a challenge has been extended. Those three fine ladies, Brandie, Carrie, and Nikki over at True Classics have thrown down the gauntlet to the blogosphere: Make your case for Citizen Kane. Is is the greatest film of all time or the most overrated? And if it is "just a hoax," as Ingmar Bergman would have it, is there a film out there that can take its place as Greatest Film Ever Made?
My own position on the matter can be stated in two parts. And the first is this: any attempt to rank a single film above all others is a complete crock. For one thing, nobody's ever been able to see every movie ever made. Even if by some miracle, a person could sit around for the rest of their life, doing nothing but watching movies and carefully ranking them according to cinematic value, they would never be able to even come close to seeing every film. The Internet Movie Database, for example, lists over 400,00 films, a number which doesn't even take amateur productions into account. Let's say this miracle person watched 5 movies a day, every day of the year, for 80 years. Then they would have seen a mere 146,000 by the end of their lifetime. Most cinephiles eventually come to terms with the fact that not only will they not get to see every movie ever made, they won't even get to see every great movie.
The deeper problem with ranking films is, even if you make the assumption that you've seen every worthwhile piece of celluloid out there and are now free to hand out merit badges, is that art just can't be assigned value that way. I know that we movie lovers have an obsession with making lists. And then arguing about the lists. And then rewriting the lists.
But while those lists do have plenty of value for sparking controversy and discussion, they have no power to assess a movie's worth. If you believe that both The Lady Eve and Strangers on a Train are great movies, how do you go about deciding which one should be ranked higher? How much weight are we supposed to give to technical and visual merit versus story and content? Does the beauty of something like Triumph of the Will make up for its appalling purpose? Do we have to ration out how much space we give to John Ford on our list so that Douglas Sirk can have room? Actually, I enjoy pondering these questions because they force me to think deeply about the films I love. I think list-making is good exercise but then again, so is jogging on a treadmill. In either case, you shouldn't expect to get anywhere.
But here we come to my second point which is a little more complicated. Citizen Kane is not the Greatest Movie of All Time, but if we do have to arbitrarily assign a movie this title, then I think Citizen Kane makes as good a case as any and better than most. Birth of a Nation was more technically innovative, Gone with the Wind was a bigger movie event, and Rashomon redefined our ideas of how a story is told, but Citizen Kane is, for me, one of those rare movies that combines all the elements we look for in a film. Visual mastery, an exciting story, a talented cast, and most importantly, the ability to be rediscovered. Every time I see Citizen Kane (and I ration out my viewings), it feels like I'm seeing it for the first time.
On my last Citizen Kane re-watch, I was struck by what a strange, strange film it is. Even in just those first few moments. The establishing shot of Xanadu, the light that flashes in the window, the snowglobe, those monstrous lips uttering the word "Rosebud"...some people compare Citizen Kane to a horror film but for me, the opening owes more to the Surrealists. The story is set up as a relatively straightforward mystery: what is the meaning of Kane's dying word, "Rosebud?" The telling, however, is anything but straightforward. We are handed off to various narrators (Kane's loyal employee Mr. Bernstein, his embittered friend Jed Leland, his second wife Susan, his butler, his banker) but even as the facts pile up, nothing is really explained. The narrators are bitter and biased, their stories roam beyond what they themselves witnessed, and they never come close to answering the real question of the film: Who was Charles Foster Kane?
I once had the pleasure of watching Citizen Kane with a friend who had never, ever been told about the ending. When we finally reached the secret of Rosebud, my friend gasped, jumped up in his chair, and proceeded to complain for ten minutes about what a crap ending this was. Rosebud was the sled? What a cop-out. As fun as it was to watch my friend flip out over a sixty-odd-year spoiler, it did make me think that if you take it as a mystery, Citizen Kane is an utter failure. It's a mystery that tells you flat out that all its clues lead nowhere. It's an end with no beginning.
I've had a theory for a while that Citizen Kane is the cinematic equivalent to Hamlet. Both works stand at the head of their respective canons, whether people believe they deserve it or not. Everyone who loves movies has to deal with Citizen Kane and everyone who loves English literature has to make their terms with Hamlet. Both works are essentially shaggy dog stories that purport to be about one thing (Hamlet's revenge against Claudius, the mystery of Kane's last word) and resolve in a way that makes this one thing seem incredibly hollow. Both stories center on one very powerful and mysterious person and their slow descent into self-destruction. And both works seem to attract a lot of the same criticisms, that they're boring, the protagonist is unlikable, that nothing gets resolved. But I believe that both Hamlet and Citizen Kane have something of the same irresistible appeal for people: they force the audience to question themselves. The mystery is not in the events of the plot, but in pondering the question of what lies at the heart of a human being.
And I think that emphasis on the individual is also part of the reason why Citizen Kane is so often ranked higher than its American competition, higher than Casablanca or Gone With the Wind. It strikes at the great American fascination with the self-made man, a myth that's dominated our culture from The Great Gatsby to The Social Network. Like The Great Gatsby, Citizen Kane is essentially a demolition of that myth. Charles Foster Kane doesn't "make" himself; his fortune is thrust upon him. His fantasies of using that money to do good prove weak, his patriotism is exposed as war-mongering, and even the simple right of telling his own story is taken out of his hands. While this kind of story isn't necessarily more valid or worthy than any other narrative, nevertheless, it's the kind of story that Americans tend to claim as being most, well, American. And tied in with Citizen Kane's search for success is of course, the story of its own creator, Orson Welles, his blazes of glory, his failures and thwarted endeavors. Casablanca is the ultimate cinematic escape and Gone with the Wind is the ultimate cinematic event, but Citizen Kane is the ultimate cinematic quest.
I've dwelt more on Citizen Kane's story more than its visuals, probably because I find it easier to go after narrative than I do picking apart Welles' gorgeous, fascinating camera work. When I watch Citizen Kane, I'm always in danger of losing myself in one particularly weird or beautiful shot. Just look at the way Welles and Toland light those reporters in the newsroom, with beams of light echoing around their faces and hands. Or the Thatcher Library, which looks like it should be the set for a medieval miracle play. Susan Alexander's jigsaw puzzles, the sharply angled ceilings, Kane thunderously clapping into empty space. This is the reason why I don't watch Citizen Kane very often; I don't ever want to reach the point where its images fail to shock me.
Citizen Kane is often touted as a cinematic pioneer, blazing new trails and techniques in creative filmmaking. Welles and Toland's use of deep focus, their experiments with camera angles, wipes, montages, matte paintings, and animation all play a part in making Citizen Kane's reputation as one of the most technically innovative movies of all time. But what makes me marvel isn't that these filmmakers pioneered so many new methods, but that even now, Citizen Kane still looks exciting and new. So many times, a work of art that was once fresh and ingenious turns stale after those same innovations are recycled a thousand times over. It isn't just that Citizen Kane looks different from every movie that came before it. It looks different from every movie that came after it.
I'm going to end my commentary on Citizen Kane with a personal confession. The reason why I named my blog, "The Girl with the White Parasol." Anyone familiar with Citizen Kane knows Mr. Bernstein's famous speech in which he remembers one fleeting glimpse of a girl with a parasol, years and years ago. "I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl." When I chose that quote and title for my blog, I worried for a long time that people might think I was calling myself after that long-lost girl. And wouldn't that seem like the height of arrogance? No one ever questioned me on the subject but here is my chance to set the record straight. The girl with the white parasol isn't me. For me, the girl represents a brief flash of beauty in a person's life. One of those brief moments that stay with us forever, no matter where we end up or what we do. The reason I watch films is so that I can find those moments of beauty, whether they come from a Technicolor image or from the throb in an actor's voice or from a string chorus. That's why I named my blog, "The Girl with the White Parasol." That's why I love film. And that's why I love Citizen Kane.