Citizen Kane (1941), or Once In A Lifetime

30 12 2009

So here we are. You know, when I thought about starting this Cinematronica thing a while back, I always knew I would have to review Citizen Kane. It is the most wonderful of all American films, to me, and although that may come as a sort of surprise from a 23 year old, and perhaps I might come off as somwhat pretentious for choosing something so obvious, it’s a film I take very close to my heart. For me, Citizen Kane is a crucial story for the American cinematic mindset; it is both blockbuster and daring independent film, a debut from a young upstart who had his own ideas as to how films would be made; a child of studio expectations and fiercely personal individual goals that ends up being freater than the sum of its parts. It tells a story that touches me to my very core, a story of loss, ambition, greed, and that most human desire to be loved and truly understood. There is something here that truly lays hands on perfection, a considerable skill, a very noticeable ambition, and a love of cinema that transforms this film from merely a film to a work of art, and an exceptional one at that.

We follow the story of Charles Foster Kane, a man who grew from humble origins to eventually amass a wealth that most people could not ever imagine. We begin at the end of his life, when a group of reporters gather together to find clues on the enigmatic man’s life, loves, and mysterious last word, “Rosebud.” The reporters interview many of Kane’s close friends and acquaintances, and discover a man who had an indomitable spirit but a terrible hunger for power that would both found a massive newspaper empire and simultaneously demolish his aspirations for anything else. But even with all the people in his life explaining who he is, they soon find Kane to have an unspoken quotient to him, something unexplainable to him that keep them from understanding him fully. Will they discover the mystery of “Rosebud”? Does it help to explain the life of a man who was larger than life but so much smaller than his own desire?

Citizen Kane is, in some ways, a treatise on the state of America in modern times. In other ways, there are definite links to Kane and legendary news tycoon William Randolph Hearst that echo throughout the film. And in other ways, one could also link, eerily, I might add, the tragic downturn of Orson Welles himself after his failure in Hollywood. Citizen Kane has the power to twist and turn its meaning through the years; it is a character study without peers, astute and wise, that seems to mean different things to different people. For me, it leaves a very individualized print on my heart that would take another essay just to explain, and I’m sure the meaning and the emotional power is found elsewhere for others. It is a film whose true value cannot be honestly appraised, and whose very meaning is neatly encased by the end of the picture but still loftier than one can begin to express before the credits are over.

The filmmaking is some of the finest I have ever laid my eyes on. From a technical standpoint, there are things going on here that are WAY ahead of its time. Deep focus is the process of making everything in both the foreground and background of a shot look sharp. Almost every scene in Citizen Kane uses this effect somehow, to my honest surprise. The effect requires massive amounts of staging beforehand, making sure things stay absolutely in focus the whole time, so this isn’t something one could just go for in 1941. But Welles does, and the effect speaks for itself. Every scene is beautiful, looking clear, crisp, fresh, and striking. The score by Bernard Hermann is one of the best of the 1940s, blending sorrowful themes with the punchy tunes of industry and drive that perfectly explains the world around Charles Foster Kane. And although Orson Welles, in his career ,would go on to direct films that to this day have yet to be equaled, Citizen Kane, his first film, was his most impressive as a director. He directs not with that Hollywood flair that was so popular at the time, but with that independent eye for evocative imagerythat would go on to dominate his aesthetic sensibilites (as well as damn his Hollywood career…). Kane, with the dynamic direction Welles utilizes, is seen less like Phillip Marlowe from The Big Sleep, but rather Kihachi from A Story of Floating Weeds.

Orson Welles knows just how to direct Orson Welles, because his turn as the mysterious Charles Kane is one which will live on forever. His face is a mask of avarice, but just beneath it is something wounded, something wanting. Although Kane pushes everyone away from him, there is a part of this character that cannot think of a more dreadful punishment than being alone. It is a complicated character, but one that Welles excels at playing, and he does justice to his own writing by acting superbly. Joseph Cotton plays Jedediah Leland, Kane’s best friend. Through his interview scenes and his real interaction with Kane, Cotten spins a wonderful character that wants what’s best for Kane, even if telling him the truth means destroying his relationship with him. His charming, smirking demeanor as a person adds a lot of spice to this character, and I, for a change, liked how much of himself he left in the character. Dorothy Comingore plays the haunting role of Susan, Kane’s mistress, and later wife. She has a great range, and I felt a great deal of sympathy for this character as she took more emotional distress from the curmudgeon Kane than she really deserved. But her intensity, that piercing gaze of hers, keeps us glued to her every moment Susan pops on-screen, and I kept hoping the longer the movie went on that she would have more scenes. She’s really quite lovely here, a joy to watch.

What else is there to say? Citizen Kane is a monolith of American cinematic history. It is simply an amazing achievement, all of it made even more amazing still when one takes into account that this was a debut feature. Orson Welles created something here that transcends lists or “Best of” segments or “pretentious” reviewers like myself prattling on about its glory. It’s just something that American fans of cinema need to experience to truly understand the language of our films and the emotional truths of our work. Citizen Kane represents the best we have to offer in terms of technical innovation, impeccable writing, and superb acting. It is an American institution, and, whether you like it or not, it has a message that is undeniably relatable and culturally relevant even today. I truly love it, and I give it an enthusiastic 10 Rosebuds out of 10! My highest recommendation!

Tomorrow is the LAST day of Cinematronica, the last leg of my 365 day journey, and the last review period I shall post for a week! Tomorrow I go back to where it all began for me. Tomorrow I watch Akira! Until then!!!

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