Film School Bucket List: Citizen Kane

It says something when a person finds the most influential and iconic film ever made to be unimportant and derivative.  I’m not sure, though, what it says.  It could mean that the person doesn’t have a knowledge or appreciation of groundbreaking cinema.  It could mean that the film is a redundant hack job made by a no-talent someone.  But it’s not true of either.  You see, the person is me and the film is, of course, Citizen Kane.

I won’t bore you right now with how my love of film began — those are memories for another time.  You’ll just have to take my word for it when I tell you that I have a deep and extensive love of film.  That’s why it surprised my friend Stefanie when I told I’ve never seen Citizen Kane.

It had been a boring day at home alone. Procrastinating on writing my midterm papers, I stayed in bed and watched movies.  After getting through three-quarters of the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself, I decided to make Saturday nights my film school night.  I’d watch a benchmark film and then blog about it.  It sounded like jolly good fun.

So it was off to Netflix to find the first film.  Searching through the drama category didn’t provide much in the way of must-see cinema.  The only film that stood out was Taxi Driver, but I’ve seen it before and I didn’t feel like watching a psychopathic Robert DeNiro.

So it was off to Amazon Instant!  Where I found the same.

My last shot was Hulu’s Criterion selection.  There were so many Criterion films I wanted to see and I still wanted to see them, but none really fit the parameters of the assignment.

I went back to Amazon.  Deep within myself I knew which film I should really begin with; I just needed to see if it was available to rent.  It was, but I still held back.  For some reason, I needed the decision made for me.  That’s where Stefanie comes in.  As someone with a master’s degree in film I trusted her opinion on where to begin.

At first she said Taxi Driver, but when she found out I had never seen Citizen Kane she changed her answer.  In her opinion I needed to see because it was still influencing filmmakers.  So I rented it.

Now is where I get to the difficult task of reviewing the film.

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It would be easy to write a review of Citizen Kane if I had never seen a film or television show.  I would have been mesmerized the mystery of Charles Foster Kane’s last words.  Nothing would be spoiled and I wouldn’t have spent the better part of the film trying to figure out where I first heard that song about Kane.

As a devout Simpsons fan, though, the mystery had been spoiled a long time ago.  There’s nothing the show’s writers love more than to slip in a Citizen Kane reference.  So, knowing the plot already, all there was for me to enjoy was the structure and style.

Turns out these are well known, too.  How well known?  Well…

When the film begins, a newsreel reviews the life of Charles Foster Kane.  A reporter — the Greek chorus — searches for the meaning of Kane’s last words by interviewing the people in his life.  Kane wasn’t the first film to use flashbacks to tell a life story; what made this film’s style so popular was the framing of the flashbacks.  Using a reporter or detective is now so common that it’s cliche.  Velvet Goldmine cribs so heavily from Kane that even the homoerotic friendship between Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton is duplicated, and expanded on, by Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor.

So how do I review a film where I not only know the plot but also the tropes it pioneered?  I don’t.  Others have written much better reviews and analyses of Citizen Kane.  A better focus for this post and the series itself is to give my honest reaction.

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Overall, I liked Citizen Kane.  I wasn’t as awed by the plot and I thought the performances were okay.  Instead I loved the style, which I think that has everything to do with my theatre background than anything else.

Welles was a natural at direction and honed his talent within The Mercury Theatre.  Thus, when he moved to film, he brought the staging techniques that are common within theatre.  Characters making dramatic entrances or exits are framed twice — first by the camera and second, literally framed, by doorways or mirrors.

Take for instance a scene portrayed twice in the third act of the film.  (I suppose I should make the obligatory spoiler warning at this point.)  When Susan Alexander leaves Kane, she is shown leaving through a series of doors — each door within another door like a Russian nesting doll.  Later, when we see the scene from Kane’s perspective, he is framed within a mirror that ends up perpetually reflecting its image.

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Theatre directors love tableaus.  They create a striking visual and can help make a boring scene memorable.  Welles sets his ego aside to make the most beautiful scene in Kane a tableau of a mundane moment:  a librarian leading a reporter into a reading room so he can review the private papers of Kane’s attorney.  But the room is cavernous and sparse.  A security guard is taking the papers from a safe and putting them at the end of a long table with one chair.  There is only one source of light and it comes from above, lighting the librarian and guard while keeping the reporter in silhouette and us in the dark.

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And then there’s his blocking.  Overshadowed by the cinematography of Gregg Tolland, Welles’ blocking silently tells us who is most important in the scene.  Kane’s mother is always in the foreground, dominating the screen as well as her husband.  This dominance is inherited by Kane, who is shot from either an upward or downward angle.  When the camera is looking up at Kane, Welles — already a tall man — appears as a giant compared to the other actors in the shot.  When the camera looks down at him, he is the focal point that everyone else gravitates to.

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Even in those iconic deep focus shots Welles uses blocking to illustrate the power in character relationships.  Take, for instance, the scene between Welles, Cotton, and Everett Sloane.  Welles’ face is right by the camera, Cotton is in the middle ground, and Sloane is in the door frame — the smallest person in the shot.  The power dynamic is blatant.  Welles has the power.  Cotton, trying to get Kane to look at him, is losing his influence over his friend.  Sloane has no power or influence.

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I’m glad that I finally watched Citizen Kane.  As a film buff, it was long overdue.  I wonder, though, if the film is as essential as it once was.  For serious students of films — those budding directors, screenwriters, and reviewers — it’s a must-see.  But it’s a must-see the way Oedipus Rex and Hamlet are musts for theatre students.

Is it important anymore for the casual film fan to see it?  Other films are far more affecting in story, acting, and directing than Kane.  And the techniques it developed have been used better by other directors.  I say that it’s not the film, but Welles the director who deserves to be seen.  Citizen Kane wasn’t the only film he made that is important to film history and dazzling to watch.  Now if only there were still grand movie palaces to show them.  They deserve a gigantic screen where the light from the projector hovers over you, always taking your eye to where it needs to go.

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