Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Great Movies: "Citizen Kane"

Citizen Kane
Orson Welles, 1941.

Previous Contact: I watched Citizen Kane once before. I can't remember when. It struck me as both very clever and well made, and a little slow. I expected to love it this time.

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Now, do you really think I'm going to pan Citizen Kane? Of course Citizen Kane is brilliant. That is going to be evident to anyone who pays attention to the technical elements of the movies they watch, and it's explosively obvious if you've spent much time (as I have, these last few years) watching the movies of its time and earlier.

There are plenty of visual innovations in Kane, but the one that stood out for me in this viewing was deep focus. Ebert tells us that 1941 camera and lighting technology had only just begun to allow deep focus, which is when everything in the frame -- close foreground to distant background -- is equally sharp and clear. This allows all sorts of optical effects which, in turn, allow the construction of really striking images. Indeed, Kane has been visually quoted so often that stretches of it feel like a catalog of Famous Movie Images.

The story is epic and told in an innovative, non-linear style. It offers genuine insights into human nature without being all pretentious about it, and mixes in a fair amount of wit and style. It's terrific.

And yet, that slowness that I noticed on the first go-around still lingers. The fault, I think, is in the mock newsreel that is shown right after the famous opening scene ("Rosebud!"). It is supposed to give us a general orientation to Kane's life before we see it in its fragments, but it lasts too long and is more bluntly expository than it needs to be. Too, the journalistic quest that structures the movie -- the search up and down the Atlantic seaboard for what the word "Rosebud" might have meant -- is improbable enough to be distracting. During the first scenes of the quest -- the first trip to Atlantic City, for any aficionados -- everyone talks a little too fast and the action is a little too compressed, as if the movie knows it has a momentum problem and is trying to keep us engaged until the good material kicks in.

For such a larger-than-life movie, Welles did a good job of avoiding overstatement. One of Kane's misadventures, for instance, involves trying to create a career in opera for his second wife. It would be easy to play for laughs by making the character a comically terrible singer, but instead she is played as a perfectly average singer. This keeps it from being funny that she is put in the position of having to be a diva, and makes it sad and kind of horrifying instead. It's a much better way of showing the destructive power of Kane's bottomlessly selfish generosity.

Plot: Poor boy gets incredibly rich, powerful, and famous, but never gets over being sent away by his mom when he was a little boy. O.K., the psychology is a bit Freudian, but not excruciatingly so.

Visuals: Tremendous.

Dialog: Lots of memorable lines. There were a few scenes that I had misremembered as being from The Great Gatsby, which is, like, kind of funny because that's a book, and Citizen Kane is a movie.

Prognosis: It is a great movie. It is perhaps the single most important step on the History of Film Grand Tour. If you're not a history of film person, there's still a pretty good cultural literacy case to be made for it. Plus, it's a good story well told. Recommended if you're young and smart, and if you're grown-up whether you're smart or not. You may or may not find it wildly entertaining, but it'll be good for ya.


Elizabeth said...

I like the upbeat poster - "It's Terrific!" I think more movies should self-promote like that.

d said...

two movies i've never watched, that i know i need to at some point: citizen kane and casablanca. i just can't bring myself to for some reason. i'll get on it.

wednesday quiz, huh? were people pressuring you or are you just bored with your blog when you don't have the chance to make us all look dumb?

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

Yeah, it's innovative, brilliant, ground-breaking, but ultimately boring as all shit.

sister jen said...

Deep focus: Go Gregg Tolland (the master).

Also interesting (but perhaps obvious enough that you didn't mention it) is how the movie hijacks Hearst's life. I love how he banned reviews of it from his papers (after trying unsuccessfully to keep it from being made and shown).

Also worth noting that Orson Welles was 24 when he made this thing, after having negotiated total control of the production--unheard of at the time--with zero film experience. And he brought his radio actors with him (go Joseph Cotten!)

Some other firsts (besides deep focus): spectacularly low angles (achieved by ripping up the floor boards and putting Tolland and camera down there in the hole); muslin ceilings on the sets (to accommodate those low angles); the great spooky dooky opening montage with the series of match dissolves (as we get closer to the mansion, the lighted window lines up in each shot); the false crane shot as the camera appears to go up and through the sign and then down through the window in the Susan Alexander sequences; the amazing camera movement that moves us back into the depth of the shot--best example in the scene where Mama Kane is signing over sonny's life--she gets up from the table and the camera follows her all the way to the back of the room and up to the window, eventually losing the framing of the window and ending with a completely open composition of just little Charlie playing in the snow. The table was cut in half and they had stage hands pull it apart and out of the way so that the camera could go "through." (You can see that the sign on the roof is split, too, so that the camera could move through it--a model.)

Well, gosh, I could go on and on--but I see that I already have.

I have to disagree that CK is boring. Slow by today's standards, perhaps, but absolutely not boring.

Jenners said...

I did see this. I don't remember loving it.