Sunday, April 18, 2010

FIlm #23; Citizen Kane (1941)

Director: Orson Welles

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: 2 (last seen about a year ago)

20-Words-or-Fewer Summary (no spoilers):

The life story of a fictional (?) massive American newspaper magnate.

The Full Story (a complete summary, with spoilers. Fair warning):

In a sprawling palace in Florida, aged American newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane dies in bed, uttering the cryptic word, "Rosebud." The enigma of this single word sets off a search by hungry reporters to find its hidden meaning.

In a series of time jumps and near-Rashomon like tale-telling, we gradually get an ever-clearer portrait of the larger-than-life tycoon Kane. As a child in the snowy winter landscape of Colorado, his mother unexpectedly comes into a massive fortune in the form of Colorado gold mines. Not wanting her son to grow up in their family's meager conditions, she signs over care of her only boy to the money-centric banker Jerry Thompson.

Over the succeeding years, young Kane is sent to, and kicked out of, a variety of Ivy League schools. Upon turning 25, he decides to take on the duties of one of his smaller properties - a tiny New York newspaper which he sees as a chance to exercise his idealism upon the public. With tireless energy, inexhaustible financial resources, and a flare for sensationalism, he turns the paper into a massive success. From this, he builds a media empire that he uses to build up or tear down whatever causes he sees fit. Kane becomes one of the most powerful men in the country, if not the world.

However, as his financial and political strength grow, so does his isolation. His friends begin to realize that they may not truly know Charles Kane, as his opinions and yellow journalism seem to change on a dime, with little regard for who he may or may not harm. As he slowly becomes estranged from his wife, Emily, he finds some relief in the form of a poor young musician, Susan. He begins to spend occasional evenings at Susan's, initially innocently, but eventually keeping her as a mistress.

Kane eventually runs for political office and appears to be headed for a landslide victory over incumbent but corrupt "Boss" Jim Gettys. That is, until Gettys obtains proof of Kane's evenings with Susan and reveals them to the press. His first marriage and political aspirations are destroyed. His wife and 10-year-old son die in a car accident a few years later.

Kane marries Susan and attempts to repair his damaged reputation and psyche. Despite her obejctions, Susan is forced to undergo training as an opera singer at Kane's behest. He funds a stringent regimen of music lessons, builds an opera house to showcase his wife's "talent", and uses his newspapers' might to publish glowing reviews. Regardless, Susan's lack of talent cannot be overlooked. She bombs horribly, eventually attempting suicide to escape from the pressure of her domineering husband. Kane relents and they retire to his newly-constructed Xanadu, a pleasure palace of mythical proportions.

On high, Susan makes the realization that her husband has no true feeling for her. She sees that he wants her to love him, but he is unwilling to reciprocate beyond showering her with material wealth. She leaves him, and he is devastated. He goes on a wild destructive rampage in Susan's room, then takes ill. As death approaches, Kane clutches a snow globe. He utters the haunting word, "Rosebud," and releases the globe, which crashes to the floor.

In the end, during a final look at the countless works of art that Kane had amassed during his life, we see a small, simple child's snow sled, the name of which is "Rosebud." The mystery is now solved: the final wish of the immensely powerful icon was a return to his childhood, before the massive forces of the world took control of his life.

Jeez, that's a lot for just under 2 hours, eh?

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after this most recent viewing):

This movie completely lives up to the word "masterpiece" in my mind. Not that there aren't a few things that I could do without, but it's still a film unlike anything that I've ever seen. Every time I've watched it, the time flies as I drink in the narrative structure and the various elements at work in the film.

The organization of the tale is incredible. The set-up is a single word: Rosebud. After that, the story is told in an inverted pyramid structure: going from a broad, sweeping scope to ever more focused glances at various seminal moments in the title character's life. Kane's death at the beginning is told through newsreels that give a "public" summary of his life and accomplishments. This gives us viewers some scope to work with, not unlike the outline of a jigsaw puzzle (an image that comes into play much later in the film).

From the massive scope of the newsreels, we start to get interviews from Kane's past associates. Each one adds his or her own brush stroke to the incomplete portrait of the man's life, with no single one completely able to reveal the sum total of the titan. As the story moves on, the exuberance and sensational expositions become ever quieter and more intense, culminating in the grand finale of an elderly Kane being shunned by his last chance at love, Susan, and going on an almost tragically comical rampage in her now-empty room.

Here's a taste of the playful feelings the earlier parts of the film, in which the young and idealistic Charles Kane has his whole life ahead of him:

If only the cock-sure young fellow knew what was coming.

One thing that people may not be crazy about is the occasional overblown theatrics of the acting, and this is fair, to a point. There is a certain amount of melodramatic simplification and hokum in terms of the characterization, dialogue and sometimes the humor. Many of the characters could be dismissed as being a bit 2-dimensional, especially minor characters like the first newspaper editor, Mr. Carter or the banker Thomson. However, the more important supporting characters like Jedediah Leland and Susan are extremely well-rounded, and their multi-faceted personalities help to reveal various aspects of the enigmatic Kane.

Yet the ostentatious posturing in the early parts of the film are another element that morphs as the tale unfolds. It almost seems natural that the arrogant young playboy is a cardboard cutout, as that's what most idealists are. His grand gestures at being a "man of the people" manifest themselves in an earnest manifesto in which he makes a public promise in his newspaper to be "honest and fair," for the cause of mankind's betterment.

However, as age and hubris set in, the vibrant charisma wears off. People begin to realize that Kane has built a fortress of self-righteousness around himself, without ever truly reflecting on his own motivations. It is only at the end, with that now-iconic dying word, "Rosebud", that we glimpse what Charles Foster Kane was perhaps truly after: the simple joy he felt in childhood, just before the crushing world became his foster parent. By this point in the movie, true gravity has taken over, and the near-silly playfulness mixed into the first half of the film is nowhere to be seen. This speaks to the complexity of the movie's structure. Welles crafted something that few storyteller have ever been able to do: telling a familiar story - the dark side of the American dream - in an engaging way that could only have been done in the cinematic medium.

Speaking of the cinematic aspects, Citizen Kane has few, if any, peers. The sets, costumes, and the camerawork are so well-coordinated that we viewers are treated to one iconic image after another. Once you see this film, the number of unforgettable scenes is almost countless: The reporters in the smoky newsreel room. A young Kane framed in by a shoddy window. The 30-year-old Kane throwing a massive celebration with dancing girls. A weary Kane slouched in a tattered chair in Susan's apartment. An emotionally drained Susan poring over a jigsaw puzzle at Xanadu. One could go on and on. If you see this movie a single time, you could turn it on at any moment and, despite the incredibly non-linear narrative, know exactly where in the story you are.

One of the more famous scenes in which the young Kane's (in the far background) entire future is being framed, both figuratively and literally:

Many serious studies have been made of this film, so one could (and many have) obviously write volumes on it. Alas, I will reduce my basic reactions and thoughts to one that is far from controversial: this film needs to be seen by everyone at least once. If nothing else, it will give you some nourishing food for thought on life and the grand art of storytelling.

Take 2: Why (a whole lot of) Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research):

As stated above, there is no shortage of opinion and analysis on this movie. I'll try to pick out some of the highlights here.

One who hasn't seen the film may wonder why it gets so much modern attention, despite not being a household name, like Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, or a handful of other iconic films. Well, therein lies part of the fascinating story of the film itself and its creator.

Orson Welles was, by all accounts, a true genius of the arts. By the time he was 23, he had already become a force of nature in the theater and on the radio (his version of War of the Worlds had listeners fleeing town, thinking that a real alien invasion was occurring). Based on this success, he was granted something unprecedented in Hollywood: a contract guaranteeing total creative control to make his first film. Right from the jump, this fomented jealousy and bitterness in other filmmakers.

For this first project, Welles started right in on Citizen Kane, demanding to use only performers who had never before appeared in film. Personally, I love this idea, as it works to create verisimilitude through unfamiliarity with the actors. Critics agreed that the performers, all radio and theater actors from RKO, did marvelously. In addition to this freedom, Welles used the lack of parameters to try anything that came to mind, in terms of narrative and cinematography. The result was a tremendously novel movie that should have been a smash hit that would be recognized for its genius from the day it premiered.

It was a commercial flop.

The reason could be summed up in one name: William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, the near-omnipotent newspaper magnate heard about the film during its production and saw in it a searing parody of his own life. While this was not totally unfounded, Welles never meant it to be such. In constructing the character of Charles Foster Kane, Welles took elements from the lives of several larger-than-life American millionaires, Hearst included. I liken this to working with highly volatile materials in a chemistry lab - if one of the sensitive chemicals reacts badly, the lab can blow up. Hearst reacted badly, and the immediate success of Citizen Kane blew up.

Hearst blacklisted the film from any mention in all of his many newspapers across the country; he also threatened to blacklist any theater that dared to show the film. He also bought up as many of the film prints as he could, seeking to have them destroyed. The result was that Citizen Kane, despite glowing reviews from nearly every independent critic, went largely unnoticed (TIME magazine was actually powerful enough to give its own, highly positive review, back in 1941). It wasn't until the 1950s and '60s that its greatness and influence were re-discovered.

Upon re-watching the film with an audio commentary track by filmmaker and personal friend of Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich, several things were pointed out: most notably the breaking of filming conventions. Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland used harsh lights, odd angles, and multiple perspectives to create a moving tapestry that apparently blew viewers minds. They also set up the conventions that would essentially be usurped by the entire film noir genre of film making.

Here's a still that shows the darkness, light and shadows that would be seen in films like Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, and others:

To me, one great thing is how this film illustrates how true genius can often not be described in words. There's a well-known scene in the film that is shot from an angle that is so low that Welles had a hole dug into the floor to get the camera low enough.

This is one still from the well-known "low angle" scene. It was one of the earliest uses of such technique to convey the deeper themes of narrative. After his election loss, Kane becomes even more megalomaniacal and isolated.

Analysts have subsequently imbued the ultra low-angle's purpose to give Kane a domineering appearance, highlight the framing of the background, or a number of other speculations. However, when Welles himself was asked about it, he replied simply, "I don't know. It just looked better from down there." He was absolutely right, and I love how this speaks to how often true masters may not be able to articulate their reasoning for doing things.

"God, how they'll love me when I'm dead." - Orson Welles

This line was all too prescient. Welles was hailed as a true master of the arts before Citizen Kane. His film career never totally recovered from the movie's commercial failure. The remainder of his life was spent scrambling for money to fund his own projects, some of which were excellent (see Touch of Evil or F for Fake, for example). The man who, at the age of 24, had already conquered radio and theater, and was poised to be a driving force of American film, ended his career voicing Unicron in Transformers: The Movie. Now, there is little debate as to his real contributions to the medium of film. Citizen Kane stands as testament to that.

That's a wrap. 23 shows down. 82 to go.

Coming (very) Soon: Casablanca (1941):

Another strong contender for the title of "Greatest American Movie of All Time" and one that I enjoy every time I watch it.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.