Sunday, November 13, 2011

Citizen Kane Takes the Stand

"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.


  1. Wow. Great piece. I've noticed you really have a way of getting at the essence of a movie with a well-worded, well thought out sentence--"Casablanca is the ultimate cinematic escape and Gone With the Wind is the ultimate cinematic event, but Citizen Kane is the ultimate cinematic quest," is just one example of the way you really nail the way Kane got to me.

    There's such a unique, thrilling darkness to Kane that's missing from the likes of Casablanca and GWTW. Those two, for all their merits, did have their studios' influence written all over them, and yet that's what makes them such memorable films for capturing their era. Kane, as Kael says, is timeless.

  2. This is EXCELLENT!

    And the meaning behind the name of your blog is absolutely beautiful.

    Really fine essay.


  3. Fantasic. And, ah! That ending! It put CK in a whole new perspective; not particularly better, definitely different. I think you've done for me what none of the other dozens of articles could...and with only 5 sentences. And all I can say is "WOW".

  4. As I mentioned on another post, I guess I'm in the middle as far as my love for Citizen Kane! I felt bad for years for not having watched it and I finally did but it was due to my fascination for Hearst and Davies. Then there's the excitement of knowing that the studio machine tried to get the film banned at the hand of Hearst. I guess all of that does add to the films appeal.
    I really enjoyed your take on the film.

  5. Laura: Thanks for that thoughtful and detailed comment. For me, Casablanca and Gone With the Wind feel like examples of studio-era filmmaking at its finest. A bunch of talented people brought together and working like a well-oiled machine. I love that kind of filmmaking, obviously, or I wouldn't be writing about classic film, but they don't have that Kane quality of surprise. For me, watching Casablanca is like dropping in on old friends and Gone With the Wind is like going on a big holiday trip but Kane is a more...personal experience, for lack of a better word.

  6. Jill: Thanks for your kind words. I'll pop over to read your entry now.

    StanwyckFan: Wow, you're very nice. Especially since I just went and disagreed with you in pretty near every way. :) I really enjoyed reading your dissenting opinion on the film.

    Page: It seems like most people I know fall somewhere in the middle with Citizen Kane. The consensus of my entire family was "Good but not great." And I really should read up on Hearst and Davies. I know so little about them but they truly were fascinating people.

    Vulnavia: this I can only say, "pshaw, Madam." Considering just how many people have weighed in on Kane over the years, I'd be surprised if anything I said was truly unique. Now I'm off to read your article!

  7. Rachel, of all the entries I've read for the CK blogathon, yours comes the closest to how I feel about CK. It wasn't until this blogathon happened that I realized people didn't care for it all that much. I'm on the "love" side of that fence, and *completely* agree that we can't nominate ONE movie as the best one ever. Like you said so succinctly: "Casablanca is the ultimate cinematic escape and Gone With the Wind is the ultimate cinematic event, but Citizen Kane is the ultimate cinematic quest." BRAVO!

  8. Martin: Thank you so much for your comments. I noticed as I was going through the debate entries that not many people are arguing that we should nominate one movie as the best ever. I think it's one of those conventions that we all know is nonsense and yet we can't help making those lists. And arguing over them. Glad to talk to another Citizen Kane fan!

  9. Simply outstanding. I'm grateful to True Classics for the fun I experienced in writing my own entry for the debate, but I'm even happier that it introduced me to your most awesome blog. I'm off to read some more stuff . . .

  10. Karen: Your kind words have so flustered me that I'm left staring at my toes and blushing. Aw shucks, ma'am.

  11. Wonderful Post, Ms. R. It's been a long time since I've seen Kane (and that only three or so times) but I loved how you pin down our first sensation when approaching the movie- it is a very strange experience; the movie makes no concessions to the viewer- we are forced accept the movie on its own terms or not at all.

    Also, it sounds like your friend had the same reaction to the ending that Bosley Crowther had back in '41. Humbly though, I would suggest that Casablanca and Wind simply do not survive the comparison.

    But, to shoplift your analogy and push it a little further, I think Kane ought to be displaced by Ambersons at the pinnacle like Lear replaced Hamlet in critical opinion as the "greatest"- it would also fulfill the instructive value of a good list: if there is no time to see all the movies, then it can tell you what movies to focus on. A good list, mind. Not that bullshit hawked by AFI.

  12. Shamus: Nice to see you in these here parts. I was thinking today of a phrase that TV critic Alan Sepinwall liked to use about The Wire: "It teaches you how to watch it." I think the same can be said for Citizen Kane. It encourages you to distrust, to be confused and to question so that by the time the secret is revealed (which Welles himself derided as a "dollar-book Freudian gag"), you should already have stopped the Easter egg hunt.

    Ah, Bosley Crowther. I'm looking at the review now. "At least it brings to mind one deeply moral thought: For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" Poor man, sometimes he out-Crowthers himself.

    I think you're quite right about what makes a good list. The AFI is so...timid. Doesn't risk a thing. And considering that the stakes involved in movie criticism are, honestly, set pretty low, then that's really, really timid. And seriously, putting The Sixth Sense on it? Do I have to start braining people with the Val Lewton box set?

    Thanks for the comments, everybody!

  13. I think Crowther wrote a second review a week later, in which he revised his opinion and pointed to the ending, proclaiming thus: "Kane cannot be a great movie because of the ending kinda sucks." Or in words similar thereto. Although I'm always moved by the ending, possibly because of the grandiloquence (the chimneys, the smoke, the swelling score- ah, Herr Herrmann). That all-men-kill-the-thing-they-love implication made a huge impression when I was a teenager.

    And thanks for the compliment.

  14. Shamus: I'll have to hunt up that second review, thanks for clarifying. I don't think the ending sucks but it would be hard for me to disqualify a film from greatness just for the ending. Plenty of otherwise classic Hollywood films have weak endings, due to strict Hay Code enforcement and the plot tangles it caused.

    And I shouldn't be too hard on Crowther. I find his moral indignations kind of endearing in hindsight, though I'd probably feel differently if I'd been around back in the day and got a taste of his bullying.

  15. Hello Rachel,

    First of all, wonderful article - absolutely wonderful! Your points come across with beautiful precision. Now, as you probably know, I'm not the greatest CK lover. I have to admit though that I agree with much of what you've written in this article - gave me a lot to think about - things that other articles really didn't. I'm so glad you decided to focus on the "story more than the visuals". Refreshing, as most of the other articles I've read focus on the technical side of Kane.

    I guess your main point is that CK "combines all the elements we look for in a film..."

    However, I'm afraid I have to disagree there, especially in regard to CK's "exciting story", and "talented cast". The story itself is non-impressive. Numerous great films have far better stories that capture their audience in a way CK can't. CK, at least to me, has a distant feel to it. A film that's hard to connect to - which isn't so with other great classics such as Casablanca.

    Like I mentioned above, I also disagree with the talented cast. Aside from Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten (which launched JC's career), there were no great stars. Most all of the supporting cast were relatively new to the business. Welles himself wanted new faces for his new film.

    I absolutely agree with your statement "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.".

    So very true about CK. But aren't there other great films that accomplish the same goal in a much simpler fashion? A much more approachable manner? Less distant? Frank Capra's films may be an example here.

    I don't know, I guess Citizen Kane didn't strike me the way it did you, but you've certainly shed new light on this film. Citizen Kane is definitely a great film - one of the greatest. Thanks for writing this up, definitely going to keep up to date with this blog!

    Take care,

  16. A perfect entry. Just beautiful. And not a day goes by that I don't think of that girl with the white parasol!

  17. David: Thanks for the detailed and very polite rebuttal. It's a pleasure to have someone debate my points so thoroughly. My choice to focus more on story than technical aspects wasn't entirely deliberate, it's just how the piece turned out.

    It's funny, I was just over at Krell Laboratories, talking about how I feel "distant" from the characters in Citizen Kane. In this case, though, the distance doesn't bother me. I find it appropriate to what is (at least for me) one of the story's main points: you can't really know a person.

    Hmm...I guess "exciting story" is really subjective. I don't know, to me CK has so much to it, horror and surrealism and tragedy, that it glues to me to my seat.

    As for talented cast, why yes, that is what I would say. I think Dorothy Comingore gives a great performance and I adore Everett Sloane (who was even more memorable in The Lady from Shanghai). And what about Agnes Moorehead? They were newcomers to film, but hardly talentless.

    I adore quite a few Capra films, but I'm not sure if there's one that ponders the same questions that Citizen Kane does. Most of them seem to me to be more about moral choices and lost or delayed dreams (with strongly defined characters at the center of it). CK is less concerned with the outcomes of those moral choices and more concerned with how such a story gets told, why a person tells it a certain way, and how something as complicated as a human being can be squished into story form. I think both Capra and Welles made some great, classic films, but I think they had very different storytelling concerns. Glad to have them both.

    At any rate, as I've said before, sometimes the chemistry ain't there and no amount of talking will change it. I've been in your shoes with a lot of other "greatest ever" films, so believe me, I understand. But I am very glad you decided to stop in and add to the discussion. Hope to see you again.

  18. FlickChick: Nice to see one of my favorite commenters around here. :)

  19. Rachel, maybe the distance you are referring to is Kane's sense of the past; it's not just that we are left with a certain distance from the characters: there is a kind of double filter here. From the way they tell the story, the characters themselves seem stranded from their past; the second filter is of course Welles' narration.

    Welles' movies often have this peculiar and complicated sense of the past: the narrator is almost always in the present and the past is always irrevocable: what they are left with is nostalgia and an entrapment within the present. Hence that fantastic line- "You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man." Or of course that little anecdote about the girl with the white parasol.

  20. Shamus: "Welles' movies often have this peculiar and complicated sense of the past: the narrator is almost always in the present and the past is always irrevocable: what they are left with is nostalgia and an entrapment within the present." That was a beautifully-put thought, Shamus, thank you. Right-click and saving that in my memory bank.

  21. Hello Rachel,

    Haha, no problem! After all, that's what these topics are for, to discuss aren't they? ;)

    Like you say, and "exciting story" is really subjective. To me, CK just didn't have the suspense necessary to hold a story together. It seemed to fall very flat. I'm not expecting a Hitchcock film here, but CK seems a far cry to anything related. It seems to keep plodding along, not going anywhere, not solving anything. It's actually one of the few films I've seen, told in a flash back, that isn't gripping. I'm actually very surprised to hear you say you were on the edge of your seat - you're the first person that I've come across that has felt that way about it. To me, you could almost fall asleep watching it, unlike it's competitors. With films like Casablanca or It's a Wonderful Life, you're actually cheering for someone. How will they solve this? What will happen? CK is almost like a biography or documentary. What happens, happens. I feel like I have to bring back "distance" here. It's a feeling like you can't get to know the person, you aren't even given the chance. There's no one to love - pure cold. As you say, it is subjective. :)

    I imaging that if one thoroughly analyzed every aspect of CK's plot, perhaps you'd find a great story, although so far I have yet to see that great story. But if it takes this level to truly appreciate this film, should it be a candidate for best film ever?

    As for the talented cast, they were definitely not talentless. In fact, I think Comingore's role was one of the best, even better than Welles'. But there are no great stars in CK. Let's look at Casablanca or It's a Wonderful Life. In the former, you have 2 fantastic stars, one of the best (Bogart and Bergman). Complimented by? Claude Raines, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt...can you get a better cast?

    In It's a Wonderful Life you have Jimmy Stewart, another unmatchable, followed by Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchel, Henry Travers, Gloria Grahame, Ward Bond...another great cast.

    Now look at CK. Who do we have? Orson Welles, sure. Joseph Cotten. OK. Anyone else? A few familiar names here and there, but not up to par with Casablanca or It's a Wonderful Life - or most any of the other "great" films out there.

    I guess to me, Citizen Kane is great because of it's technical side, but when it comes to the story, the plotline, the actors - definitely lacking. But that's my opinion - subjective as you say. :)

    Take care,

  22. David: I'm always up for discussion. As to whether Citizen Kane is a gripping story, well I'd agree that it's not suspenseful in any traditional sense. I find it more...mesmerizing. The film I might compare it to is Barry Lyndon, in which plenty of events happen in a protagonist's life, but rather than carry us along on a journey, the tension comes from internal, rather than external sources. The mystery of what's inside these characters, the tension between the traditional narrative and the way it's told. I realize I'm getting a little vague and abstract here, but bear with me. I'd say Barry Lyndon is even remote than Kane, which by contrast is much warmer and more immediately accessible.

    I find it a little surreal (but funny) that I have apparently landed on the side of arguing in favor of distant characters when normally, I consider myself someone who likes to feel close to the characters on screen. I guess in this case, I think it suits the material. Especially when that material is beautifully filmed and crafted.

    *reaches across the aisle for a handshake* Take care of yourself as well, sir.

  23. Hello Rachel,

    No problem - I've always wanted to discuss this film with someone who loves it, because I've never been able to see that side of Kane. You've definitely let me see that side that was a bit vague before. *shakes*

    Take care, wonderful blog, wonderful article!

  24. Wonderful post! Your points are all very well-written. I agree with it being a futile argument to try and rank films in any sort of greatness order.
    I love the short story about your friend as well. I had a similar experience with a friend who watched it with me for the first time. Her response was more like, "Huh, so can you explain what Rosebud is then?" I shook my head and said it's something that changes for me every time I watch this film.
    Thank you again for such a lovely post.

  25. Such a great post, with so many wonderful points beautifully stated. Citizen Kane is like Hamlet, or like a Balanchine ballet, in that it's able to give up as much meaning as each viewer is able to put into it. And it's able to elicit such a broad spectrum of feeling (just compare Kael's and Bergman's views).

    One thing I noticed about Citizen Kane was how its very beginning, when the camera approaches the house of Xanadu (peeking through the metal gates, hesitating before a window, etc), is so similar to Hitchcock's opening for Rebecca, made the year before--which also begins with the
    camera approaching a forbidding house (Manderley), and using similar imagery. So much of our film heritage is so closely intertwined, which is another reason why it's impossible to rank films.

    I once read that late in his life Orson Welles refused ever to discuss or even mention Citizen Kane. It seems such a sad personal legacy for this brilliant film.

  26. Well, this is what I get for staying away for a few days. People send me wonderful comments and I'm not there to respond!

    Angelnumber25: I treasure the memory; he was quite funny about it. It taught me never to assume that there were any "safe" spoilers. There's always someone who's surprised.

    Grandoldmovies: I agree with both your points and you wrote them beautifully. I especially like your idea of our intertwined film heritage. Yes, just how do you make a film stand on its own? No film begins in a vacuum. Hithcock himself was clearly influenced by Fritz Lang and Cecil B. DeMille and many others.

  27. Rachel, you say The Girl in the White Parasol represents "a brief flash of beauty in a person's life"? Well then, that settles it: as this post and your others prove, for your readers, whether you intend it or not, you are indeed the Girl in the White Parasol. Over and over again. Case closed.

  28. Jim Lane: Jim, I think I can safely say that that is the sweetest and most generous compliment I have had in a while. I'll treasure it. Thank you.