Saturday, February 11, 2012

Citizen Kane

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 1
Year: 1941
Writer: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles
Director: Orson Welles
Star: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore

As a viewer, the more you invest yourself in “Citizen Kane,” the more rewarding the film becomes. On a level of pure entertainment, it is smart and rewarding…but there’s so much more to tear into. No matter how many times you see it, you pick up on new bits, question your old opinions and urgently try to put together just who the hell Charles Foster Kane really is. Of course the entire point is that there’s no way to truly know, but that doesn’t stop us from trying anyway.

The film is ostensibly all about Kane (Orson Welles, also the co-writer and director), but is really more about how his “friends” and “colleagues” interpreted him. No one, of course, really knows who a person is—even that person himself. Everything we think or speak about a person is tainted by our own sets of morals, opinions, rose-colored glasses, grudges, emotional attachments or detachments, likes, dislikes, failures, successes…the list could go on and on. But of course it is. Everyone’s got an angle. After Kane’s death, we watch “reliable” newsreel footage of his life and, after it finishes, its viewers complain that it needs a point-of-view. Yup, an angle. A Reporter (William Alland, never clearly seen during the movie) is sent to discover the truth behind the last thing Kane said: “Rosebud.” Of course, this Reporter has apparently never read his A.P. Stylebook, because he keeps referring to “rosebud” as Kane’s final words, not word, but that’s beside the point.

The Reporter reads the memoirs of Kane’s deceased guardian Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris in flashbacks), Kane’s manager Bernstein (Everett Sloane), his former friend Jedediah (Joseph Cotton), his ex-wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore) and his butler (Paul Raymond). How reliable are any of these people when speaking about the man who had such a huge impact on their lives? I’d say “not very.” Each seems to approach their story with their opinions long in place and tells the story more for themselves than for Kane.

The most trustworthy seems to be Bernstein, who provides us with the greatest, most insightful passage ever placed on film. Before he begins his recollections of Kane, he tells the Reporter this:

“A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. 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.”

The dialogue from the script by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles isn’t overly showy. Just the opposite, in fact. And Sloane doesn’t overact the moment and turn it into “his big scene.” In any modern movie this moment would be the equivalent of an actor’s “Oscar reel moment,” and they more often than not take you completely out of the film. And yet here it works so beautifully. Don’t we all have that girl on the dock somewhere in our lives? Entire movies (several of them on the top 100) are based on this idea, but all Mankiewicz and Welles needed was a simple paragraph of dialogue. I can never watch the scene without getting covered in goosebumps.

We watch the flashbacks on several levels. The first is the simple informational level—trying to understand what those being interviewed thought made Kane tick. The second is to see if they support or contradict what others say about him. The third is to carefully watch point-of-view and see how often it’s broken. And the fourth, of course, is to question everything we are being told and create our own opinions about just how polluted the stories really are.

The first two are what any viewer would do. The second two are part of the reason “Citizen Kane” has endured as a masterpiece. I have to admit, I hate it in flashbacks when point-of-view is entirely disregarded and, even though one person is telling his or her version of events, we enter omniscient perspective. Here it would be easy to call the point-of-view breaks a flaw, but it’s really not. It’s another layer of the onion. Because instead of seeing it as a structural problem, you can view this as insight into the character speaking and an extension of what he or she thought Kane’s life must have been like outside of their relationship. Or you could interpret it as the person telling stories he or she has heard dozens of times and now assumes it to be fact.

This goes hand-in-hand with the fourth, which is something every reporter or investigator must do in his research. And since the Reporter is a proxy for our perspective, Mankiewicz and Welles invite us to go as deep as we like into the film. Each flashback has its own perspective, its own tone…and its own measured reliability.

The first flashback comes from Thatcher’s memoirs, recounting the moment he took Kane from his parents to the moment Kane was forced to sign over the power of his empire. The tone here is one of flustered judgment. Thatcher actually breaks the fourth wall at several points when he turns to camera and rolls his eyes or drops his jaw at the things Kane has the audacity to do. This flashback is also the only one where Kane volunteers his opinion of himself, told to Thatcher as he signs over control of his empire:

Kane: “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”
Thatcher: “Don’t you think you are?”
Kane: “I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.”
Thatcher: “What would you have like to have been?”
Kane: “Everything you hate.”

Bernstein is in the room as well, but never mentions it during his recollection, something I found odd since it seemed like such a momentous way to sum up a life. Is Thatcher reliable here? I don’t think so. I think that he manufactured most of this conversation in his mind to make it more of a triumph for himself, especially that last little exchange.

As I wrote earlier, the most reliable perspective seems to come from Bernstein, though his stories are colored with sentimentality for the “good old days.” This is underlined by his first break in point-of-view, when Kane arrives at the Inquirer. We see it from Kane’s perspective with Jedediah, both full of hope for the future…Bernstein arrives moments later on a furniture truck. It’s obvious Bernstein feels that Kane was a great man, but is it to the point where he idolized him and stopped questioning his choices? The painting of Kane we see over Bernstein’s fireplace seems to support that theory.

The most substantive of the flashbacks (and also the most problematic) comes from Jedediah. He introduces himself as the closest thing Kane ever had to a friend, so when there are huge breaks in perspective during his memories we assume it is fine since he probably heard them from Kane himself. But how much to accept? Was Kane’s second wife Susan really as simple minded as she is introduced to be here? And did the face-off between Kane, his two loves and his rival for office really go down like that? The problem is that Jedidiah’s character seems more interested with moral codes and, from his perspective, the slow rot of Kane’s soul than with Kane’s actual personality. Jedidiah gives many speeches to Kane and assumes many moments of meaning…but he’s completely drunk in those scenes so how can he reliably remember what he says? The older Jedidiah probably just remembers, “That’s the night I really gave it to him!” and blurs the story accordingly, ironic considering what he claims to stand for.

Perhaps the one genuinely true moment in the flashbacks comes during Susan’s flashback. After she has made her opera debut to scathing reviews, she is screaming at her husband when he receives a letter from Jedidiah…one with a list of promises Kane made when he first took over the Inquirer. The list was introduced in Bernstein’s flashback, underlined in Jedidiah’s and paid off here. Susan has no reason to care about the importance of the note, so it comes off as perhaps the only fact in a story compromised from every angle.

Susan’s point-of-view seems fairly reliable, mostly because she doesn’t seem like the type of woman who is smart enough to weave tales like Jedidiah could. But I must make note of two fascinating moments where her reliability is called into question. The first is on a picnic where she finally stands up for herself to Kane, her face unwavering against him even after he has bullied and punched her. We see her face strong, but on the soundtrack is the sound of a woman crying desperately. Perhaps she’s lying that she was strong here when, in fact, she just disintegrated into the crying mess we see in every other scene? The second is when she is about to walk out on Kane and his final plea is that “You can’t do this to me.” Susan replies thusly:

“I see. So it's you who this is being done to. It's not me at all. Not how I feel. Not what it means to me.”

I doubt Susan could have ever put two and two together like that. Is it something someone told her when she was telling the story after the fact…and now she’s adopted it into the story itself? I think so.

Finally is the butler. He’s being paid $1000 for his information, so of course he would embellish to make it more dramatic. Would Kane have really destroyed every object in his wife’s bedroom? Again, I think not.

Of course, there’s no way to tell whether or not I’m right or if I’m hopelessly wrong in my opinions and suspicions. And that’s the fantastic thing about “Citizen Kane”…no matter what perspective you come at the story from, you are guaranteed to be both right and wrong. Welles gives us two iconic visual metaphors for the man. In the first he’s speaking beneath a gigantic sign of his face, in essence dwarfed by his own legend. The second is when he walks past two facing mirrors and creates a thousand versions of himself. Both make you understand the man without knowing him, if that makes any sense.

Everything here is one shade of grey or another. Even the opening and closing, told from God’s point-of-view, are questionable. After all, no one actually hears Kane say “Rosebud.” We see a nurse enter seconds later, and the Butler claims he was there, but from our perspective he dies alone in an empty room. When he says the word, we see him through the snow of the globe he is holding. Did he really say it, or do we as an audience need a puzzle to solve and are given one, faulty and empty as it may be?

Much of what I’m written could be considered problematic for a lesser movie, but considering the work of those behind the camera, I’m guessing all of this was taken fully into consideration, and made that way because it made the story more fascinating. It’s not an “easy” movie…it’s one that is unafraid to challenge you every step of the way.

This unsolvable labyrinth of storytelling is supported by some of the most breathtaking, memorable visuals in the history of film. Moments that would be throwaway in any other movie are here given weight and heft thanks to Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland finding new angles and perspectives to shoot everything from. They even go so far as to shoot the entire movie in deep focus…that is, everything in every shot is fully in focus. Besides giving viewers so much more visual candy to play with, it underlines the message of the movie: “Look deeper.” Search the corners of every frame for clues and insights into this guy and what he stands for.

How can you forget the introduction to Susan’s character? The camera is outside a building, cranes up and onto the roof, through the sign, twists and moves down through the window to find her drunk and desperate below. And then there’s her opera debut, where the camera moves ever upward, past the hanging sets and sandbags to find two stagehands seemingly hundreds of feet over the stage, one of which holds his nose in judgment. And, of course, Xanadu itself, which appears equal parts science fiction, medieval castle, horror movie and doll’s house…but, most importantly…empty.

And then there is Welles.

It’s astounding to me that this is his only film in the AFI Top 100. Of course, “The Magnificent Ambersons” is overlooked simply because it was hacked up by RKO, but where is the definitive crime movie “Touch of Evil”? And then there’s “The Stranger,” “The Trial,” “The Lady From Shanghai,” “Chimes At Midnight” (unseen by me and most in America), “Othello”…all gifts to filmmaking from a filmmaker who so often had to edit his vision. This is the one time we got to see his vision unhurt by studios who thought they knew better. I also must note that his movie “Mr. Arkadin” (which, generously, is one of his lesser works) is a weird remake/revision of “Citizen Kane.” It focuses on a man trying to put together the facts of another man’s life, but in that film the man being researched is still alive and desperate to learn the truth about himself.

Yes, to me “Citizen Kane” was rightly placed at the top of AFI’s Best American Film list. It’s a movie so great that even its flaws have warped into its blessings. You could watch this movie a hundred times and still find new things to love about it. You could think you’ve finally discovered all its secrets and then discover something that makes you question everything. Now that’s what I call a masterpiece.

My Score (out of 5): *****

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