‘Citizen Kane’ or — Holy Crap!
I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s meaning I belong to that generation where ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941) was always regarded as the greatest film ever made, almost as though it was a Platonic truth. I first saw it in my early teens and thought “How can this be the greatest film ever made? There aren’t any dinosaurs in it!”
Yet something always fascinated me about the film; I think it was those angular consonants in the title, the sharpness of that T, Z and commanding K. Who was Kane? Why was it important he was a citizen? I revisited it in my thirties and finally got it and it all made sense. Wow! It wasn’t the unrelenting visual and sonic invention, the stunning camera-work or the mindboggling audacity of it all that floored me. No, it was the fact that ‘Citizen Kane’ is, quite simply, spectacularly entertaining! Oh, and funny as hell to boot which is something that tends not to get mentioned enough.
Indeed, there could be an argument that ‘Citizen Kane’ is maybe be a little TOO entertaining as, re-watching it last night, I was almost gasping for breath as the cinematic G-forces pinned me back in my seat. It’s overwhelming, it’s as sparkling as white light yet carrying a weight heavy enough to sink it through the crust of the planet. Plus it barrels along at breakneck speed. We’re told the entire story in the opening twelve minutes meaning there’s only one, real surprise left and even that one doesn’t really matter when you think about it.
For me the first involuntary gasp comes when we see Kane as a kid playing in the snow, the camera pulling back to show he is existing in his own personal snow globe of happiness and joy as his parents prepare to permanently shake up this tiny world of his. You get the feeling the entire film is contained here, in one small section of innocent delight in one small section of the screen. All that’s needed now is for Kane to grow up…
Which he does in a fraction of a second! BANG! 8 to 25 in the space of the utterance of a single sentence. No wonder I’m gripping onto my seat! From here on the narrative structure of ‘Kane’ allows us to bounce back and forth across his life providing a dazzling amount of temporal and psychological variation so nothing grows stale. This non-linear approach means we never spend too much time with either the young, precocious Kane or old, embittered Kane. It dispenses with the mundane element of the aging process, freeing everything up. Instead these variations resonate off each other, creating narrative overtones (okay, maybe I should reign it in a bit) meaning the plot never feels like a predictable slog… even though we know what’s going to happen.
What’s more, ‘Citizen Kane’ is extremely funny, something I always feel gets forgotten whenever it’s talked about. Even the iconic moments of emotional drama — Kane furiously applauding Susan’s performance; the marriage montage over the dining table — are either built on, come off or lead to a joke or a gag. Even when Thompson visits Thatcher’s foreboding and ominous archives the scene ends with a laugh (so Rosebud wasn’t to be found here after all, and after all that build up and stress?!).
Yet it’s the look and sound of ‘Kane’ that thrills the most: the way we have to lean in to hear distant dialogue spoken from the back of hilariously cavernous rooms pulls us completely in whilst floating cameras move in impossible ways baffling our sense of what is real or possible. In almost every single shot there’s either a special effect, a captivating trick or a vigorous slice of invention which not only believably builds Kane’s world but grips our senses, and all clothed in the most beautiful aesthetic you could wish for.
For example — take the shot when we are looking out from the back of the stage onto the audience as the curtain rises for Susan’s performance. The entire screen is a striking blast of deep blacks and piercing whites but there is also almost nothing there — no audience, no orchestra, simply the illusion of it all. This is the sort of thing someone skilled in radio would do if suddenly given a camera and the impact is ravishing, an intoxicating combination of minimalist design and our own imaginations (Welles might have been egotistical but he was generous too and allowing us the thrill of filling in those blanks is a gift he’s given us).
Is ‘Citizen Kane’ the greatest movie ever made? To be honest, that’s a stupid question and I don’t care either way. All I know is every time I watch it it thrills, excites and delights me like nothing else. It was Welles’ first film but it still feels his most modern, one of the few of his looking into the future, despite the entire film looking back into the past. It’s a film that shows what cinema can do and, in the right hands, what it can do is miraculous.