Monday, August 13, 2007

Second Chance Film Club: Citizen Kane

Hello again, welcome to the first of what will be a semi-regular feature (depending on whether or not I own the films in question and how quickly Lovefilm can deliver them) in which I, or Neil, depending on who wants to write for it, will watch films which we have dismissed in the past and re-evaluate them to see if, however unlikely it may seem, we were wrong about the films in question. It also offers up a chance to watch films we may have previously raved about to see if they are actually any good.

In keeping with this momentous occasion, we have to start with a big target and there can be few bigger than Orson Welles’ 1941 debut film, one considered by many smart film types such as Roger Ebert and Mark Kermode to be the greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane, a film which I have in the past dismissed as dull, plodding and terribly over-rated.

Since this article is going to involve looking at the film in quite a considerable amount of detail, it goes without saying that it will contain spoilers and discussion of the minutiae of the plot. You have been warned.

Now, I’d just like to establish the context of my first viewing of the film. I was 18, had just returned from my first semester at the University of Sheffield and was only just starting to get interested in films on any serious level. Whilst I’m now only 21, I’d like to point out that I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of films since, so on my first viewing I wasn’t completely aware of how influential Citizen Kane is as a film. I was also largely unaware of Orson Welles’ other output and the well-documented decline of his career following the release of Citizen Kane. Essentially, I didn’t really know how central to the story of cinema Citizen Kane is. So, now that I am more able to grasp these factors, I sat down and watched the film again.

First off, the technical innovations of the film are quite staggering and the praise heaped upon the film for the way in which it changed the very nature of film-making, in terms of camera techniques, narrative and the use of sound, is completely and utterly warranted. The use of deep-focus photographer by Welles (a cinematic technique where everything on screen is in focus, rather than having objects in the back-or-foreground blur) creates a stark and cold vision of the world which perfectly suits the story, one of isolation and personal destruction. The technique had been used before, most notably in Erich von Stronheim's epic, 9 hour long film Greed, but Kane really showed the possibilities of it and deep focus photographer is now frequently used. Elsewhere, the film features a number of innovations which nowadays are among some of the basic techniques of film-making; Citizen Kane saw one of the first instances of a film illustrating the passage of time by having actos change clothing and make-up whilst sitting in a single set. Before then, most films used speeches full of exposition or title cards to the effect of ‘Ten years later’ to achieve the same effect. Citizen Kane is littered with little moments and innovations which show just how much of an impact it has had on the very basic and central tenets of film-making. It’s really impossible to imagine how film would look today had Orson Welles not stepped behind the camera. Even porn films owe a considerable debt to it. Admittedly I’m no expert on pre-1941 pornographic films, but I imagine it was all pretty unimpressive.

The story of the film, following the efforts of a reporter to discover the meaning behind the dying words of newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane (Welles), is similarly inventive. As the reporter travels around and meets people who knew Kane, the story of his life unfolds in front of the audience but, rather than have it all revealed chronologically, the facts of Kane’s life are told out of sequence, leaving it to the audience to assemble the pieces themselves. This also allows for Welles to contrast certain events in Kane’s life and create a terrific sense of irony about them. For example, we learn that Kane’s first newspaper failed before we actually see how Kane got his start as a newspaperman. When we are shown Kane’s younger years, his youthful enthusiasm and enormous self-belief as he starts to build his empire is already tempered by the fact that we as an audience already know that the paper runs into financial difficulties down the line and, thanks to the newsreel that opens the film, that Kane has already reached his peak in life and that all he has ahead of him is a steady, inexorable and terrible decline. Considering the huge number of films made since which have used unconventional narrative structures, it is easy to see Citizen Kane’s influence on how stories could be told on screen.

At the time of its release, and even now, this was quite an unusual and brave storytelling technique since it is very demanding of the audience, requiring them to actively think about the film, rather than passively accept the events onscreen. In doing so, it requires them to constantly construct, deconstruct and reconstruct their opinions of events in the film and how this impacts on the characters. To get even the slightest bit of enjoyment or understanding from the film requires the complete attention of the audience and there are no concessions made, even going so far as to never tell the audience when exactly events in Kane’s life happen. It was this aspect of it which put me off the film originally, though now I can see it is very brave and innovative, even if it is a bit infuriating and prevents Citizen Kane from being a film you can just stick on a Sunday afternoon and switch off to.

However, it is very easy to gush over the technical merits of the film and its influence and, in doing so, ignore its failings. Some of which result from the very techniques I’ve spent so long enthusing over. The use of deep focus photography, for example, distances the audience from the characters of screen. Because deep focus photgraphy creates an image of the world which is so well defined, moreso than the human eye can actually achieve, it brings attention to the fact that the audience is watching a film, that the people on screen are fictional, and this makes the already cold and sterile world Kane occupies even more distant, creating a sense of emotional detachment from the events on screen. That the characters themselves are pretty dislikable in the first place makes it difficult to empathise with them. The story itself presents something of a problem for the film because it follows the decline of a man who is just too likeable and charismatic, whatever Welles' intentions when the film was made, and that's something which makes for rather sad viewing.

The acting is also quite suspect. Aside from Welles, whose progression from an over the top, youthful Kane to a quiet and bitter old man is perfectly suited to the story, and Joseph Cotton, who is wonderfully subdued as Kane’s oldest, and possibly only friend, Jebediah Leland, the performances from most of the principle cast tend to be horribly hammy, even by the standards of Golden Age Hollywood, a time not renowned for subtle performances. One particular moment when a character screams quite loudly ‘‘hey, let’s look out the window’’ as a host of newspaper workers make their way to see Kane and his new fiancée outside, feels parodic, so bad and misplaced is the emphasis and so unnecessary is the line. Further compounding this is the worrying propensity of the cast to look directly at the camera, rather than at each other or at events off-screen. Whether or not this is intentional is unclear, the film as a whole is, after all, an attempt to play with form and the conventions of film, but these moments are still very distracting and make the acting seem rather amateurish, undermining the rest of the film. Both of these shortcomings probably stem from the fact that much of the cast had been brought over by Welles from his stint at the Mercury Theatre company in New York, so a certain staginess in their performances in understandable, if not wholly forgivable.

Probably the biggest mark against Citizen Kane is one not of its own doing. The problem is that it has accrued such a reputation over the years, has become so universally accliamed as a classic, and has been so thoroughly referenced and parodied in the last sixty-six years that there is no real surprise in it. This is primarily the fault of The Simpsons, the writers of which have repeatedly claimed that if you were to collect all their Citizen Kane’s homages together in one place, you’d have pretty much the entire film. Considering the ubiquity of the Simpsons in modern culture, that means that large portions of the film have already been seen by people who would usually have no interest in watching old films.

The most damaging aspect of this, as far as the narrative of the film is concerned, is that hardly anyone doesn’t know that ‘Rosebud’ is Kane’s sled which he left behind when, as a boy, he was taken from his family. As such a lot of the mystery surrounding the reporter’s search is lost and, as with any film with an important twist, the experience of the viewer is affected by it. If, on first viewing, someone doesn’t know what Rosebud is, they are more caught up in the mystery and the search for it and, when the revelation eventually comes, they are forced to reassess their opinions of the film and, most crucially, Kane’s character, since his pining for Rosebud, and the lost childhood it represents, reveals the hollowness of Kane’s life and underpins the film’s central message that the quest for money and power is, ultimately, futile. Admittedly watching the film and already knowing the ending doesn’t detract from the other things the film does well, but it does affect the emotional impact of the end and removes an extra chance for the audience to contemplate the actual events of the film. Knowing the ending removes the need to reconsider it, and in doing so deflates the mystery at the centre of what is, essentially, a detective film.

So what, at the end of it all, has changed about my opinion of Citizen Kane. The most influential film of all time? Almost certainly. The greatest film of all time? Arguably. The best film of all time? Not really. It’s sluggish, difficult to empathise with and the technical innovations can’t hide the shortcomings of it. It does have dozens of moments which have, quite rightly, become part of film lore and it still fizzes with the energy and enthusiasm of all those involved, particularly those who had never made a film before. It’s too uneven to be considered the best film of all time, but it’s hard to envisage a world without it.