Citizen Kane review by Jackass Tom

I recently had a screening of Citizen Kane at my house for a group of friends who had either never seen it or haven’t seen it in many years. I'm apprehensive to use the term "screening" in fear of sounding pretentious. Kane, however, isn’t really a movie you just sit around and watch in the same way you would sit around and watch Superbad. To really enjoy it, Kane needs to be absorbed and thoroughly discussed over a cup of Joe or a nice bottle of wine. Afterall, its one of the most widely adored films by critics across the globe. When “Top All-time” lists are printed Kane is in the top five if not 1st; that is if the list’s author is worth his salt. So much has been written on Citizen Kane in the past that it seems rather redundant to carve out a new review. But I thought I would take this time after watching and discussing Kane to write a quick summary of some of the reasons so many critics regard it as one of (if not the) greatest film of all time.

Style and Camera Techniques - The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Citizen Kane is Gregg Toland’s camera work. He and Welles experimented heavily with different camera angles and lenses. Some of the films greatest scenes were shot with a wide camera lens giving an unprecedented depth of field, meaning the foreground, midground and background were all in focus. One example is during the reading of Thatcher’s diary when he picks up young Charles from his parent's home in snowy Colorado. Mrs. Kane and Thatcher are drawing up the papers in the foreground, the elder Mr. Kane is in the midground arguing over why he should be included in the decision, and in the background through the window is young Charles playing in the snow. Because so much was in focus (actors, set) the filmmakers were able to shoot a scene with a longer take. In a more conventional film, the scene would have been cut a number of times in order queue the viewer to switch his attention either in a conversation or in an action sequence. However, in such a long scene, the viewer is given the option of where to focus.

Angles, camera distance, and use of shadows were also significant in Kane. Toland and Welles used a number unusual camera angles to create a feeling of size or insecurity within a scene. A standard angle in movies would have been a straight-ahead shot not more that a few inches higher than someone’s head or not far below their shoulders. A number of shots in Kane are filmed several feet below the subject’s shoulders (to either show great size or power) or above (giving an integrationist feeling or a God’s eye view). Distance also varies with the camera being held VERY close to the subject’s face in some scenes (of course the famous “ROSEBUD” scene is about as close as you can et without being a dentist) and at a very long distance in others (scenes showing the actual/emotional distance between Kane and his wives). Shadows and harsh lighting create a dark menacing world in Kane. Not even the female characters are subject to soft diffuse lighting; a standard practice for making female leads look angelic. All of these techniques are also common in German Expressionism and good film noir (most notably The Third Man).

Many of these theories above are explained in better detail by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in Film Art; highly suggested reading.

Story Behind the Story - Welles was a brash up and comer in the theatre industry. He was a prodigy with a tireless energy and was given the keys to the kingdom in RKO. Welles had complete control over his first ever movie…and he was only 24. After a few failed ideas he worked with Herman Mankiewicz on a fictional script based on one of the most powerful men in the early 20th century: William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was never one to back down from a battle. Even in his old age he still had a lot of power and money and controlled a great deal of newspapers within the US. The old man was willing to do whatever he could to either quiet or destroy the film that didn't paint him or his mistress, actress Marion Davies, in a terrible light. The battle over the film got to the point where it was almost destroyed forever.

The Enigma - The story itself turns Kane’s character into one of film criticism’s great enigma’s. Chrales Foster Kane is a great man, a rich man, and a deeply guarded man. He was a fierce business man with ambitions for the white house, but eventually he failed. He built a castle for himself that rivals castles in Europe. He died, alone, an old man and muttering the word ROSEBUD. On the surface, the protagonist (a newspaper reporter named Thompson) is trying to define Kane through his last word. But first he has to find out who is or what is Rosebud? Of course, the last shot in the film shows the name ROSEBUD written on a sled which is being burnt. A literal translation says that Kane was muttering something about his sled. Digging a little deeper you realize that he was constantly buying and purchasing things to make him happy and all he thought about was a sled from his childhood. And maybe the one thing he couldn’t buy for himself was having his childhood back. Or maybe Rosebud symbolized the last thing that was given to him by his own mother, and on some Freudian level all of Kane’s problems in his life can be attributed to his separation from his mother.

But what do we really know and learn about Kane? None of what is seen in the film is Kane himself, but merely stories retold through a group of narrator’s point of view. They are skewed by biases of people who loved him, fought with him, and worked with him, but never do we hear Kane’s own words, other than the single line at the beginning. And one of the greatest questions of all is whose gaze does the camera represent as each story is being told. Someone would suggest that each person being interviewed, some would claim there is some supra narrator driving the story. The best explanation I read is that each story is told to Thompson in the form of an interview (or in Thatcher’s case a diary), but the camera is owned by Thompson. It is his interpretation of each story that drives the camera.

There are scores of essays dissecting the meanings of Citizen Kane. Laura Mulvey's bookfrom BFI Classics is probably one of the best. It analyzes Kane under psychoanalysis and also politically reveals how Kane’s empty isolationism could have been a reflection of Welles’ and most likely Mankiewicz’s views of the U.S.’s isolationist view towards WWII engagement in 1939-40.

Many movies have used some of the tricks and tools that Kane employeed, but few have the total package of style and story wrapped in such a way that they can be discussed and debated endlessly by the best minds in film criticism. Citizen Kane stands alone.

10 out of 10 Jackasses
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