There is always so much more to the truth than just the facts.
How did Orson Welles, a preternaturally talented wunderkind with a theater background, manage to invent modern cinema both dramatically and technically with one single film at 25 years old, an age where the extent of most people’s artistic output comes in the form of hundreds of repetitious, out of focus, drunk pictures to Facebook?
Through genius, hard work, and a strong sense of the Brechtian. (Not as pretentious as it sounds, I promise.)
Virtually every aspect of modern filmmaking, from Lawrence of Arabia‘s narrative structure to Michael Bay’s insane-o zooms, traces back in some way to Citizen Kane: fast camera movement, quick editing, artistic use of camera angles and lighting, audio effects, symbolism, flashback, makeup, miniatures, perspective, even musical score. It did this in such a grand way that it even made the normally hyper-aware and insightful Martin Scorsese first notice the movement of the camera in filmmaking.
Scorsese is right: Welles does inject himself into the film. Citizen Kane goes out of its way to make the audience very aware that they are watching a movie, which is something most films try desperately to avoid; if you’re wondering how they made the movie, then you’re not thinking about the story or the characters. But German playwright Bertolt Brecht felt that the opposite can be true as well, that you can actually enhance the audience’s experience by making them constantly aware that they are watching a work of fiction, and in doing so strike deeper into their psyche than if they were detached from the proceedings.
That’s exactly what I felt while watching Citizen Kane. For all its technical brilliance, it’s never a mystery how they did anything, and none of its symbols are vague. It is specifically designed to be jarring and easily understood, possibly because it deals with deeply rooted psychological and sociological issues that we face every day but may not be fully aware of, such as lost innocence, pathological need for validation, and media manipulation. The heightened reality is intended to put things in perspective and hit us on a gut level, but never be overly artsy and puzzling. If we don’t understand, the art is wasted, but if the same impact can be accomplished through straight narration, it’s unnecessary.
So the question of how Welles managed to cross from one medium into another is deceptively simple. With his theater experience and penchant for provocation (the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast), he simply made the leap into Brechtian filmmaking.
For as much attention as Citizen Kane gets for the boldness of its technique, I actually think the braver decision is in the way the film starts. The entire story, every single plot point, is told right up front in a newsreel covering all of the major events of Charles Foster Kane’s life: his acquisition of the paper, his role in the Spanish-American War, his two marriages, his wildly expensive yet soulless “pleasure palace,” his failed political campaign, right up to his death. From there, we revisit all of these events in flashbacks as the faceless, characterless Mr. Thompson (the audience’s representative in the film, another “epic theater” touch) attempts to unravel the secret behind Kane’s final word, “Rosebud.”
Right off the bat, none of the facts are hidden (save one), which only deepens the mystery. Mr. Thompson is interested in the truth, and there is always so much more to the truth than just the facts.
Each person Mr. Thompson interviews gives their take on Kane’s life, often revisiting the same events from different points of view. Far from repetitive, it’s exhilarating to revisit an event you thought you understood, only to learn that there are several more layers to the story. And with each new interview subject comes a different glimpse: His widow sees his descent into solitude. His associate sees the shrewd businessman. His former best friend sees his transition from energetic idealist to victim of his own superman complex.
In a very clever way, Welles is setting the audience up for a mystery. What seems like a lengthy newsreel actually serves the same function as the dinner party or whatever at the beginning of an episode of Columbo. You’ve seen all the facts up front, but have no perspective on their meaning until they are meticulously revisited from different points of view. The difference is that in a murder mystery, once you know who the killer is—bang—mystery solved. But the question here is why Kane turned out the way he did, the mystery of a man’s life. Mr. Thompson believes that whatever Rosebud itself is couldn’t explain everything, but it does suggest how his life may have been different.
As Kane himself says, “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”
Comments: Succeeds on all fronts: dramatic, visual, artistic, philosophical. Did nothing by the book but somehow did it correctly.
Deserves to be in Top 100: Here we are, the end of our journey. And how appropriate that it should end with the mother of all hubristic cautionary tales, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, the AFI’s #1 American film. I support this rank, even though, perhaps surprisingly after reading this review, I don’t love it. It’s just not among my favorite films because it doesn’t connect with me on a personal level. That said, objectivity must enter in: I am in awe of it, I can watch it endlessly without being bored, I have nothing but respect for it for aiming high and achieving higher, and it changed the way filmmakers look at their craft. So yes, it deserves its place as #1.
Inspired: At first, a slew of 1940s mystery noir, then everything else. And I do mean everything.
Last Week: #2 Casablanca
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