Citizen Kane is generally understood to be the Greatest Film of All Time, and was officially recognized as such by both the American Film Institute (in 1997 and 2007) and the British Film Institute. It’s got a 100 percent over on RT’s Tomatometer, and it’s the 23rd ranked film on IMDB. As far as cinematic innovations go, Kane is unparalleled. Though it didn’t invent deep focus, low-angle shots, brilliant special effects makeup, overlapping dialogue, flashback storytelling, abrupt cuts, or breathtaking visual effects, Citizen Kane was the first to use these techniques all together in one film. Moreover, with Citizen Kane, Orson Welles — who, at the age of 24, co-wrote, directed, and starred — revolutionized the studio system, which at the time controlled every aspect of filmmaking, by taking the reins away from the monopolistic studio honchos and procuring creative control, becoming one of the first directors in the sound era to craft a film on his own terms. Indeed, if you asked every movie critic to give you his or her top ten list, you might end up with 500 different films, but Kane, inevitably, would be on damn near every one.
But it wouldn’t be on mine. Despite the fact that I can respect and appreciate its significance in cinematic history, based solely on entertainment value, I hate Citizen Kane. Given its importance to the future of film, it’s hard to argue that it’s overrated, but from the standpoint of a guy who wants to sit in front of a movie screen, chomp on nachos, and feel something — scared, adrenalized, intrigued, warm and fuzzy, or moved to tears — there’s absolutely nothing redeeming about Citizen Kane. Narratively, it’s inert. A slow-moving, scattershot storyline that meanders for two hours and offers a motherfucking anticlimax of epic proportions. The fact that it is noted for having the most popular ending of all time is confounding to me. It’s shit, people. If I’d told you that you could sit through 120 minutes of mind numbing tedium, enduring one belabored flashback after another, all the while suffering through screechingly painful musical numbers (Dorothy Comingfore: Shut the hell up) and that the only reward you were going to get at for all that suffering was a goddamn flimsy metaphor for loss of innocence and the corruption of the American Dream, I’d hope you’d take me out behind the woodshed and put the strap to my ass, redneck-Granny style. And that’s what I want to do, not to Orson Welles (who went on to create a few movies that are among my favorites), but to the dullards who’d suggest that Citizen Kane is the end all be all, the cat’s pajamas, bee’s knees, or the sardine’s whiskers. Clearly, these are the same people who insist on putting Silas Marner and A Separate Peace on high-school English syllabi, not because they’re entertaining reads, but because you might learn something inconsequential from them (“sarcasm is the protest of the weak”! Ha — Suck it, John Knowles).
Granted, I have nothing against those who might sing the pollywoppical praises of Kane (I suspect a couple of my colleagues here at Pajiba would do so), if only because of their respect for film history. But I am slightly stupefied by others who brag that they find something new in Kane every time they watch it, if only because I find it amazing that anyone could stay awake through it once, much less on repeat viewings (I’ve watched it four times now, but only made it through twice, fighting sleep the entire time). Moreover, I have a difficult time understanding how anyone could suggest that Kane really stands the test of time. Granted, there are movies that are less relatable — it’s not as dated as miscegenation statutes, but the reason you’ll rarely find it on any of your 198 cable channels is that there are quite a few films predating Kane that feel as fresh and alive today as they did when they were originally released in the 1930s and 40s (Howard Hawkes’ and Frank Capra’s ‘30’s earlier works, for instance). Indeed, there’s a reason that Hollywood studios haven’t bothered to remake Kane, and it’s not respect; they’ll remake anything that has even the slightest whiff of profit. But Kane would do no better in theaters today than it did in 1941, when William Randolph Hearst successfully managed to keep it from being seen, both to save his own reputation and, I presume, as a public service to the people.
For those of you who haven’t been subjected to it by intro to film courses or pedantic ex-boyfriends with wispy Ethan Hawke facial hair trying to look impressive, Citizen Kane is about the life of Charles Foster Kane, a bazillionare newspaper tycoon “inspired by” William Randolph Hearst. In the film’s opening sequence, Kane’s moustache utters, “Rosebud,” before the man keels over, dying alone in his unfinished mansion, Xanadu. Flash to a news reel, exploring the life and death of Kane, after which a group of old white newsmen dissatisfied with the superficial highlights of Kane’s life decide to get to the bottom of this whole “Rosebud” thing. So, journalist Jerry Thompson (William Alland) is sent out to interview those who were important and close to Kane, including business colleagues and ex-wives, tracking Kane’s life from birth to death. The story begins when Kane was essentially sold by his newly rich parents to the bank, sent back east to learn the ways of wealth and privilege. Most of the rest of the film is told through these flashbacks, which are meant to be a psychologically probing study of a complex figure who rose from nothing to become one of the most powerful men of his time. Ripped from his unsullied life of innocence, where he enjoyed long walks on the beach, building Lego castles, and playing with his goddamn sled in the snow, Kane is set up as a reluctant power player, a champion of the little guy willing to lose a million dollars a year if that’s what is necessary to get the story out there, to give the truth to the masses. Kane is so powerful that at one point he appears to be on the cusp of the presidency (before an affair with a “singer” ruined his political hopes) — but along the way, he loses his soul, represented by “Rosebud,” a memory rekindled on his deathbed by a fucking snow globe.
The irony of Kane, at least in my estimation, is that for all its technical achievements, from a narrative perspective, it’s not a particularly smart movie anymore. While the story may have seemed to have more “teeth” at a time when trustbusting, scrappy journalists held popular appeal, contemporary Americans tend to approach all public figures with a significant amount of skepticism. The idea of lost innocence just doesn’t resonate like it used to, and in itself, it simply isn’t enough to carry a film. The fact that Kane loses himself to wealth and power, forgetting his original aims and beliefs is, if we’re being honest, not particularly surprising to a modern viewer, so the tension and tragedy of Kane’s descent into selfishness, and ultimately, irrelevancy, seem a foregone conclusion — a cautionary tale we’ve heard (and maybe even seen) 1,000 times before. Like the Wachowski Brothers or Michael Bay, Welles conceals the lack of story, the weak characterization, and the horrific excuse for metaphors with special effects and technical wizardry that we’re supposed to be impressed by today. But, to me, movies are about stories, and to be considered the Greatest Film of All Time, the substance of the film should hold up as well as the style.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.Touch Me I'm Kane
Film Reviews | July 25, 2007 | Comments ()