A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 581 – Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane – October 2nd, 2011

I almost feel like it’s not worth reviewing this movie. Surely, it has to be the most reviewed movie ever. It’s the sort of movie people bring up whenever the topic of film classics gets mentioned. Hell, take out the classics and just say “filmmaking” and people will mention Orson Welles and this movie. I first saw it back in high school, for a class on filmmaking. I saw it again in college for a film class. Perhaps this is sacrilege but I don’t think I’d have ever really sought it out to watch a third time if not for this project. I’m pretty sure we bought it expressly for the project, but mostly because it felt silly having a movie review project without having this movie on the list. Like it was incomplete without it. But still. Does it need another review?

It’s been too many years for me to remember writing about this movie for the classes I saw it in. I suspect that for the first class my focus was more on the technical aspects (which are impressive) than the story or acting. The class was about filmmaking, after all, not film criticism. We were watching classic films and then making our own shorts, not analyzing the messages and meanings. Though with hindsight (and Marshall McLuhan in mind), I now find it difficult to separate the medium and the message. After all, it should be obvious that this movie was carefully crafted, and any movie so carefully crafted is done with intent. So of course the shot composition and the lighting and all of the technical aspects were part of how Welles wanted the movie’s message to come across.

Now, I know the story is supposed to be this big deal and I get it. I do. It’s the story of a man who rises and falls. And I realize that this movie is a classic and all, but I feel like the rise and fall thing isn’t really all that revolutionary. It’s not the story that makes this movie striking, though, so I suppose that’s not really a problem. Coming out of the movie tonight, however, I realized I had very little in the way of sympathy for the character of Kane. I mean, there’s some. It’s supposed to be a somewhat pathetic story, after all. He’s a man who had everything but yearned for a lost childhood he could never regain. There’s something sad about someone who lives their whole life feeling empty for a reason they can’t define. But at the same time, what does he do? He makes terrible choices, hurts his family and alienates his friends.

Just in case you don’t know the basic story of this movie, I’ll give a bit of a refresher: Charles Foster Kane is born to a couple who run a boarding house. When a stroke of luck leaves Charles’ mother in possession of a gold mine, she signs it over to her son and sends the young boy off to school away from home, wanting him to grow up safe and sound and away from his father (I’ve always assumed there’s some implied abuse there), with everything he might ever need at his fingertips. And he does, but he also grows up resenting the man put in charge of him. Upon reaching his majority and coming into control of his own finances he buys a newspaper, thinking it would be a fun thing to do, then sets about making it bigger and better than its competitor. At first it all goes well. He’s an idealist in his youth, all about writing stories of substance and reporting real news. Soon, however, it’s more about the headlines and the number of readers. His ideals fade in the face of selling more papers. And it’s all down hill from there.

He’s married, but his marriage starts to suffer as he and his wife grow distant from each other. He starts seeing a young singer – not necessarily in a romantic way but certainly at the time it was improper for him to be visiting her rooms at the boarding house she was living in. When he decides to run for office his opponent fights dirty, using these visits to the singer as blackmail. The scandal that results when Kane refuses to give in ends up ruining any chance he had in politics. His wife divorces him and he eventually marries the singer and becomes a champion of her career. The thing is, she’s not that great, so when he buys her an opera house and builds her a company to perform with, well, she knows she doesn’t deserve it. And so another relationship crumbles, but not before he’s started building her a palatial estate that she never really wanted.

It’s very much the story of someone who doesn’t know how to be happy. He has high ideals and dreams, but when they aren’t easy to achieve he tries to buy his way into them and ends up corrupting them and himself in the process. To be honest, I feel worse for the people around him than I feel for Kane himself. His fall is tragic, after all, but ultimately he’s not a terribly nice person. I’m working under the assumption that that’s part of the message though. The rest of the message has to do with how well Kane seems to have shut himself off from everyone around him. And that part is definitely emphasized by the style the movie is presented in.

The whole conceit of the movie is that Kane has died and his last word was a mystery: Rosebud. What does it mean? A few reporters get together to try and track down everyone Kane ever knew to find out as much as they could about him and figure out the meaning of that word. After all, if they can figure it out, that’ll be a scoop. So every section of the movie is a flashback spurred by someone telling one of the reporters about how they knew Kane or about a specific episode in his life. It’s not quite epistolary, but it comes close. There’s interview after interview and at one point the main reporter even gets permission to read some unpublished memoirs of another man. And despite all of that research, the point is lost on the reporters doing the research. The audience finds out the meaning of “Rosebud” and there are hints if you know what to look for, but it’s a mystery to everyone else. None of the movie’s characters get to know because Kane himself never told anyone.

In terms of execution and skill, this movie is incredible. It’s well filmed and well acted and well everything. I don’t love the story and I never have. I prefer my tragic downfalls to have more hubris and more sympathy by the end. I want to feel sad about the fall but also that it’s justified. But then I want to like the person in the end. The end of this is just sad and, as I said, pathetic. I will always recognize the skill and artistry of this movie, but it’s not something I love and would watch over and over. Not that every movie has to be something I love in order to want to own it. After all, I knew what my reaction to it would be and we bought it for this project anyhow. Because it is that good and it is that classic.

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October 2, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , ,

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