Friday, December 24, 2010

Citizen Kane (1941)

USA, 119 minutes
Director: Orson Welles
Writers: Herman Mankiewicz, Orson Welles, Roger Q. Denny, John Houseman, Mollie Kent
Photography: Gregg Toland
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Editor: Robert Wise
Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Everett Sloane, George Coulouris

When something is as universally adulated as this—not just ranked high but routinely rated #1 in critical poll after critical poll—it can paint a target on its back for contrarians such as myself. It seems hard to believe that anything could possibly foster such agreement and it smells like the kind of thing that annually delivers up Oscar travesties, the hoariest industry trend of all by now.

But a few little items in recent years have helped me better get over myself in this regard, and I pass them along for what they're worth for anyone who might be struggling with a similar predicament. First, I read about an encounter reported by Jonathan Rosenbaum that occurred in a film class he took in the early '60s, when he was given to understand, after asking about the exclusion of Citizen Kane for any consideration in the class, "that Orson Welles's film was basically uncinematic and therefore only impressive to amateurs who understood little about the medium." That's the kind of thing guaranteed to raise the hackles of any self-respecting contrarian.

Second, I came across Michael Chabon's fictionalized account, in his wonderful The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, of the novel's principals attending the New York premiere of Citizen Kane. (Orson Welles is also a minor character on the fringes of the action in this novel.) Something about the galvanizing effect Chabon showed it having on the comic book artists and other habitués of New York's art world fringes at the time not only rang true, but communicated itself viscerally even across this absurd distance of third- or fourth-hand remove, further unlocking vestiges of resistance to it.

And, finally, a point I hadn't understood at all before and another one to bring out the old contrarian in me in favor of it, I learned that the still powerful Hearst newspapers of the time made a point not just of blacklisting the film but of blacklisting any theater that showed it, which effectively hobbled its commercial fortunes. It didn't start to come back until the '50s, by which time Welles's career was all but ruined. This is why Citizen Kane is not even mentioned in the first Sight & Sound poll of film critics of 1952, which has gone on to be conducted every 10 years, but has been #1 in every one since.

My chief complaint with Citizen Kane has not changed: the weakness of the connecting narrative, the whole "Rosebud" unifying element. It's pretty weak sauce, even as the final scenes try to have it both ways by insisting that as a concept it's essentially meaningless, implying that's what was always intended. But it's way too late for that by then. It's already been established explicitly as meaningful, and the payoff for that kind of build-up really needs to be commensurate. If the story is true that "Rosebud" was William Randolph Hearst's pet name for the genitalia of his mistress, that only means Welles & co. were unable to bring themselves to kill a darling, the first rule for any serious creator (though admittedly it is a fiendishly amusing twit at power).

But this is applying a narrowly literary standard to something that positively bristles and roars with strange and powerful visual and auditory powers. It's like complaining that Jay Gatsby says "old sport" too much, or that whales aren't white, or that Huckleberry Finn or Absalom, Absalom! or Blood Meridian are racist—all true enough in these literary instances, all beside the point.

Others have written better and more exhaustively about the bag of tricks that Orson Welles put together as a 25-year-old, working on his first film, with the best contract anyone has ever negotiated and some of the best technicians available: Deep focus. Long takes. Audacious transitions. A fitful, circling, churning flashback structure. Triangle compositions. Lower-right foreground witness. Back lighting to obscure faces. Overcrowded sets. Sophisticated sound effects strategies. And more.

I will point out that, in and around this impressive bric-a-brac—not exactly lost in it, but perhaps that much harder to pick out from the dazzle—are a handful of entirely outstanding performances, not least that of Welles himself, who came into his reputation as a prodigy as much for his performance skills as anything, a genuine Shakespearian to the manner born. For a 25-year-old, he really is uncanny, simply amazing, in his ability to play Charles Foster Kane at all different shades of age, through middle age and old age. The makeup is one thing, and its impressive in its own right, but Welles also knows how to walk, hold himself, move, in ever-shifting ways that subtly reinforce and communicate these changes in age. If he's not entirely convincing as a man in his 70s, he is otherwise entirely convincing at every other point.

Dorothy Comingore, as Susan Alexander Kane, also turns in a memorable performance. Evidently her career stalled after this movie because she kept turning down roles, waiting for another that was up to the standards she found here, which never came. It's easy enough to recall her painfully bad singing or her turn to a protective self-centered bitchiness once trapped in the marriage and the career she knows she doesn't deserve. Judy Holliday, for one, surely studied this performance closely for her turn in Born Yesterday. What stood out to me recently was the utter charm and appeal of the "simple girl" that Kane first encounters, with Comingore carefully modulating her face and voice to make herself the person that Kane fell in love with—and who clearly loved him as well.

One more quick one: Agnes Moorhead, who does amazing things with her eyes and forehead and the set of her mouth as the mother who packed off Charles Foster Kane to a better life even as she abandoned him emotionally, for all the best reasons in the world. She doesn't get a lot of screen time here (and even a good deal of that has the distraction of a particularly memorable deep focus shot going on in the background), but Welles positioned her well in one of the most profound and deeply felt moments of the film.

As for the look of Citizen Kane, which came out in the earliest stages of the subgenre that would come to be known as noir, arguably chipping in to the invention of it—well, even in the first five minutes it's plain that Welles had no fear whatsoever of draping the screen in inky black. The brooding look of it is one of its strongest elements.

So, yeah, I'm over my resistance to it now—I'm sure that's a tremendous relief to everyone. It may not be my favorite movie, or even in my top 10 favorites, but I'd probably have to put it in a 100 anyway. It's just plain damn good.

1 comment:

  1. Great writing on this re-review as well as all the others I've read on your blog. Keep up the great work!