Number 2: CITIZEN KANE
What’s the point of reviewing CITIZEN KANE? It’s like reviewing the sun. File it alongside Mona Lisa, The Wire, or Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as untouchable paragons that have become divided from whatever meaning or intent they originally had, and thoroughly assimilated into the cultural vocabulary to exist as handy critical reference points.
Hell, the main thing I took from KANE when I watched it for the first time was how many gags The Simpsons managed to wring out of it - seriously, in the classic period of seasons 2-8 there's barely an episode that goes by without either a sly or overt shout out.
It is still a film, however, one designed to be watched and enjoyed in a cinema without bearing the weight of cinematic history or the tag of 'greatest ever', and watch it in a cinema is exactly what I did earlier this week, thanks to the BFI's programming of the top 10 films from the esteeemed Sight and Sound critics and directors polls. Over the next month I'll be taking advantage of an amazing opportunity to see a selection of masterpieces on the big screen the way they were meant to be seen, and where better to start than with the film that (until 2012) sat comfortably at the top of this esteemed pile?
Watching CITIZEN KANE again made me more convinced than ever that even if it isn't your favourite film (for me it isn't), or even if you think there are ten films that are objectively ‘better’ (for me there are), to see it is to realise it's pretty much impossible to provide a compelling argument for why it isn't worthy of all the accolades and praise it has received over the years.
In a cinema the experience of watching Kane is overwhelmingly…well, cinematic. It's easy to see how the film became a favourite of academics and film scholars – its beats and scenes are now so familiar that you forget how astonishingly dense a piece of work it is, and as such it's one few films where you can se that going through it frame by frame would be a genuinely worthwhile exercise.
Roger Ebert has apparently done this with students for a number of years, and claims to find new aspects and details to discuss with classes every time. I don't doubt this for a moment: there’s not a single second of KANE that doesn’t contain something fascinating, whether it's a transcendent piece of screen acting from Welles (the deranged frenzied clapping from Kane after Susan’s disastrous opera performance), a stunning and groundbreaking trick of deep focus cinematography from Greg Tolland (the amazing shot of a young Kane visible playing in the snow through a cabin window while his parents agree to sign away his childhood, or the mind-bending visual of Kane walking towards windows in his Manhattan office that seem to grow bigger as he gets closer), remarkable sets (the infamous campaign rally completely with monolithic background poster, the terrifyingly grandiose Xanadu), an eminently memorable bit of dialogue (“Am I a stuffed shirt? Am I a horse-faced hypocrite? Am I a New England school marm?”, or Thatcher’s beautifully evocative monologue about the girl in the white dress he can’t erase from his memory), a piece of Bernard Hermann’s typically wonderful music, or just mesmerising, innovative direction from Welles (the camera rising about the El Rancho Club sign on the roof before moving down through the skylight, or the witty match-cut between the “city’s greatest newspaper team” and Kane’s assembly of said team years).
There are few films that are as alive to the possibility of cinematic storytelling as KANE, and that is what will always assure its place in history as one of the best flms ever made. Welles's bravura and confidence shine through in every single frame, infusing the celluoid with a sense of life that is incomparable.
If there’s a reason it has fallen below VERTIGO in the Sight and Sound Poll, however, it’s possibly because that for all its narrative ingenuity its story lacks something of the psychological richness of, certainly VERTIGO, but many other comparable films as well: this may be heresy, but I’ve always felt the symbol of the sled for childhood was a little on the nose and simplistic.
Now this probably IS heresy, but the end of THE SOCIAL NETWORK – Mark Zuckerberg adds the girlfriend who dumped him in the opening scene as a friend on Facebook – to me ultimately feels more of a narratively satisfying ending, as the film that plays out between those two scenes are all about Zuckerberg attempting to reach out and connect with people, albeit in a controlled, artificial way where he remains omnipotent. It’s very similar to Kane and his attempts to posit and self-style himself as a man of the people, only there seems more of a disconnect between his actions as press baron and as a child, meaning that all you’re really left to chew on come the film’s end (after a relentlessly impressive and entertaining two hours, of course) is that Kane felt unloved in his childhood, and therefore spent 70 years taking it out on the world.
Both are essentially the same tale – unloved, disaffected boy comes into immense power as a man, attempts to use said power to obtain affection on a national/international scale, realises that in doing so has distanced himself even further from genuine friendship, love and human interaction, regrets it – and while both endings are ultimately dramatic contrivances, the joins between the scenes feel less obvious in THE SOCIAL NETWORK, and the final pay-off feels more rewarding and less of a “gotcha” twist.
I’m not saying THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a better film than KANE, as clearly KANE has the jump on it in most other category you’d care to name, as well as the fact I’ve no doubt it was a huge influence on Sorkin and Fincher. I do think though that a comparison of the treatment of the material demonstrates that there is at least one aspect of KANE that has subsequently been done a bit more artfully elsewhere, although as always your mileage may vary. It’s also worth nothing that in the age of Murdoch et al we’ve become way more cynical and media-savvy as a culture and more familiar with the machinations of the press, making the revolutionary aspect of KANE’s depiction of the inner workings of the media slightly less impactful than it may have been in its day.
This is obviously nit-picking of the highest order – KANE’s still an undisputed masterwork, unquestionably one of the great American films and great films about America. Most crucially of all, it's still massively entertaining - you cannot help but be mesmerised by its craft and ambition, and two hours fly by as the film rockets from great bit to great bit, flitting between genres and tones without ever striking a single false note.
I do, however, expect it to age gracefully, hanging around the top ten of critics polls for a long time to come, for sure, but perhaps no longer assured of its mantle of the Undisputed Greatest Movie of All Time. That’s a good thing – the idea of an objective best film is silly, anyway. Perhaps now KANE can now, to paraphrase the wishes of its titular hero, finally be loved on its own terms.