Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Citizen Kane: What Am I Missing?


I'll get to schooling. Kane was the first movie to utilize: non-linear narrative structure (viewer finds out in the first scene that Charles Foster Kane dies); Deep Focus cinematography - Greg Toland's revolutionary use of deep focus changed film-making forever: low angle shots - never done before and completely changed pov of the viewer's perspective; unidentified narrator - the voice is disembodied and we never know exactly who the narrator is; special effects - way too many to cite: the Rosebud ball breaking, the mirror scene of Kane, the camera craning up to the workers who give the final judgment on Susan Alexander's performance; editing - nonpareil and done by a young Robert Wise!; the stories - the three stories - Bernstein, Leland & Susan - are separate but have an clear nexus and though it is a non linear narrative, when you see all three stories, there is a real linearity within the non linearity (I have asked scores of film buffs if they can tell me the story of Kane from beginning to end - AS IT IS PRESENTED IN THE FILM - and no one can! I have seen Kane probably 15 times and I still can't do it): Use of shadow and chiaroscuro lighting - the interplay of light and shadow give Kane a mysterious feel and was probably the first Film Noir ever filmed. In all, Citizen Kane was modern film making sui generis and nothing has ever topped it. Last, Orson Welles was 25 years old when he made this movie! 25!!! A bravura unsurpassed accomplishment. I can watch Citizen Kane every week and still find new things within the film.


Lesson appreciated, Ken, though not yet totally absorbed. For all of its undoubted technical achievement, its technical originality, which you aptly describe, I felt the movie cold and remote, dare I say somewhat empty and/or trite, the characters distant, unsympathetic and overdrawn, some overacted and trite—the Joseph Cotton story line; Bernstein; the second wife--some of the symbolism and imagery overwrought and overbearing, some of the themes—the main one, as I understand it?—cornball in relation to the extravagant, grandiose effects. I don’t mean to be contrarian for its own sake and I’m happy to presume it’s me not the movie, that I’m just not getting it. So I have some very mixed feelings about this movie. I’ll think about it some more and see it again sometime.

But, once more, I appreciate the time you took to try to and school me.


Itzik- I'm late weighing in on this, and can't add much to Ken's perspective, which is excellent, but I will say in terms of "Greatest Film Ever", I'm not so sure. It is impossible to divorce from its context, of course, but its stunning technical/story-telling achievements are what gives it the boost. In terms of enjoyment, it is helpful I think to view it as the first angry young man film, with both Kane and Welles giving a huge middle finger to the world, to tradition, to norms and to grace. Both are complicated and frequently loathsome, but it comes from a distaste for people in general. That certainly doesn't make it likable, but in a strange way Kane is kind of punk rock. Of course, your not caring much for it certainly doesn't make you "wrong"; I'm not that much of a snob. I've got a lot of friends who love film and know way more about it than I do who don't care much for it. But I think of it as sort of similar to Moby Dick- I think people often miss just how much goddamn fun it is, how rollicking, how full of bravura and wit. That is often the problem with classics, and with people who talk about them- they are too often passed down with solemn and dust-filled intonations: you must APPRECIATE this, instead of just enjoying it. The weight of expectation is a burden. First time I saw Kane I didn't care much for it, because I was too busy trying to figure out what made it great, instead of just watching a movie. Not saying that is what you did, or why you didn't like it.


Not a solipsistic ramble at all Bone—rather good thoughts. I agree that we can’t divorce form from content. That was a foundational premise for me in my pre law school English literature studies and still is. I’m less understanding of the notion in relation to film, because while the language of literature is language, the “language of film”—a metaphor really—is camera angles, and light and shade and innumerable other categories of technique that I don’t know too much about.

So I’ll “stipulate to” the stunning technical achievement and appreciate Ken’s fine description of it. But as I was watching the movie, just for the first time mind you, I felt the impact, almost half consciously, of what was going on technically but rather than boosting my enjoyment, it raised the feeling in me of a lot of flashy stuff in the service of a remote, cold and ultimately banal theme—if I’m understanding this movie accurately.

The film never bored me and I felt Welles as the younger man just taking over the New York paper electrifying on screen. I also thought a high point was Joseph Cotton telling Welles/Kane, in an otherwise overwrought scene, that Kane romanticizes “the people” to better aggrandize himself in him championing his conception of their aspirations and telling him in effect “just you wait Kane until the people start organizing themselves and going after what they really want, then they’ll shatter your delusions of them.” That was a powerful insight. And I though it was one of instances when the theme of the movie transcended its banality.

I must say Bone that I didn’t find the movie rollicking fun and I wonder whether calling it “kind of punk rock” is doing it any favours. It sure does more than ear shatteringly play the same 2 chords over and over and over and over and over and screech along with them in expression of cultural rage.

I of course agree with your point about experiencing art personally and concretely and not with presuppositions in mind. But then, at least for me, some humility is in order in weighing one’s own contrarian responses in light of what, as Matthew Arnold said, the best have thought over time. I’m trying hard to do both things.


Great points, Bassie. Especially about punk rock- that was a pretty silly and self-defeating cliche. I think what it comes down to at the end is enjoyment. Movies are supposed to be enjoyed. I could get why, say, Antichrist is a powerful piece of filmmaking, but I didn't like it (I felt the same way about Franzen's Freedom). If someone doesn't like a movie, it is, for them, a failure, despite its "greatness". I may disagree with your opinion, but would never find fault with your taste or discernment...


Okay! I finally have a few moments. I can't really improve on what you both have contributed. I think that Bone's ideas really get down to the contention that in Kane, form follows function. Itz is absolutely correct that there is a distance/coldness to the characterization. I completely agree; however, I believe that this was Welles' intent.

The various stories - Bernstein, Leland, Susan, and even the bit with the smarmy butler (brilliantly played by Paul Stewart) refracted the viewer's perception of Kane, which by its very form creates distance. Compounding this distance was the unknown reporter. The non linear narrative was yet another form that conveyed a distance. I always believed that this refraction of Kane was an attempt to cast the question: Did anyone really know Charlie Kane? That was the very significance of Rosebud.

As for Itzik's larger question of being "right or wrong", that gets down to the very epistemology of art criticism: Can we really distinguish btw subjective (personal beliefs/opinion) and objective (some type standardized and accepted metric for excellence). I believe that for many types of art, there are accepted standards and examples of excellence, for instance, The Godfather is on every objective measure of film excellence, a better movie that Police Academy.

The real tension is when you look at Kane and as Bone said, informed and knowledgeable people can disagree on whether it is or isn't the greatest movie ever. I think that this is where it is very difficult to determine who is right and who is wrong. This takes us into caverns of discourse that are both exhilarating and ultimately inconclusive.


Boys--Don't we know Charlie Kane as well as we know any other complex film character? Do we know him any less than we know Godfather 2’s Michael Corleone or Unforgiven's Clint Eastwood or zillions of others? What real mystery attends Kane? Isn’t the significance of Rosebud straight forward—the name on his sleigh, an objective correlative of his shattered youth in his being rejected in his being outsourced by his mother, which lies at persisting core of his travails, searching for a unrecoverable wholeness, which paradoxically leaves him ultimately empty and alone surrounded by all the grandeur money can buy as the relational consequences of the vast fortune into which his mother cast him? What am I missing, what is the complexity I’m not getting, in my obviously simple minded view of all this?


I have a few more thoughts. I think that with most movies, the presentation of character is authorial, that is the character is presented within the narrative structure and we as viewers, form our perception of the character, be it Don Corleone, Dorothy Gale or Rhett Butler. Now, the directorial touch, deftly applied guides us as we do this but we have the illusion of relying upon our own sense of discernment. With Kane, this never happens; we see Kane "from our own perspective" only at the very beginning as Kane dies, drops the glass ball and utters the most famous McGuffin in movie history "Rosebud". After that, we "see" Kane through the newsreel, and the recollections of Bernstein, Leland, Susan and the smarmy butler, all within a non linear structure and narrative. Each story presents a different side of Kane: Bernstein with the happy ascendent Kane, Leland with the compromised Kane, Susan with the sad bitter Kane, and smarmy butler with the hollowed out husk Kane. We as viewers, digest these recollections and images of the man but the element of viewer discernment is removed. Add that by doing this, Welles abjures the Odyssean or Hero's journey - a key element of heroic story and movie making - and you have subversive - or as Bone cleverly calls it "punk" - film making at its best. ON TOP OF THIS is all the visual and cinematographic innovations from the likes of Greg Toland, Robert Wise, and Herman Mankiewicz, along with the bravura and mind boggling four-fer of Welles writing, directing, producing and starring in this film and you have, in my opinion, Le Pinnacle de l'art et la créativité. Now, I only hope that someday, Itz, Bone, John and I can go see Kane together!

Ken, interesting and thoughtful note.

A few comments, if I may. I’m not sure I buy your distinction between the author’s guiding is to perceive character as against our illusion of relying on our own sense of discernment, if I’m understanding you. Our sense of character emerges from the text be it film, play or literature. The text, all the techniques forming it, structures our sense of character, including the character’s own words, actions, and what others say about him and how they act towards him.

Often we have ambivalent or mixed responses corresponding to purposeful ambiguity in the presentation of character. Sometimes character gets away from the author and stands in organic disproportion to the text, taking on a life of his or her own, that life being sometimes discordant with the text. For me the most striking example of that is Shylock in the Merchant of Venice. A lesser example is Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, (as Holden Caulfield once noted.)

On this basis, does Welles really remove “the illusion of our own perspective?” And is there a *real difference* in the distinction you draw between, in Kane, the illusion of a self originating perspective and the perceptions and perspectives that arise from the various techniques you have so well described?

I’m inclined to argue in the negative.

I’m inclined to assimilate the different ways of presenting Kane to the general notion of character emerging out of the totality of the text, be it, as I’ve referred to, but in Kane specifically, his own words and actions, what others say about him, how they act towards him, what they say to him, what they say each other who know him and to third party others who don’t, what is revealed in public, institutional accounts—like the news reel.

My point is that what you call the displacement of self discernment is really a fancy way of talking something ultimately conceptually less grand—our perceptions and sense and emotional and intellectual response arising from a variety of sources and not simply from a straight forward forwarding moving story, be it the hero’s journey or the anti hero’s descent or whatever the linear narrative structure might be.

So I’m with you in applauding Welles’s technical innovations, camera work, anti linear narrative techniques. Let us call them brilliant and revolutionary even. I’m still stuck with my sense of being underwhelmed by it, with not finding Kane mysterious, with seeing a gap between grandiose effect and prosaic theme, with not finding Rosebud mysterious and with the reading I gave of its meaning in my previous comment.

As to taking in the movie with the worthies you list and your own fine self, and then going at it over an after show drink and a few, why that'd be a pleasure and a treat and a consummation devoutly to be wished

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