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Citizen Kane (1941)

Here’s a challenge, discussing a film which outside the likes of the Star Wars or Star Trek fan-boy communities has had more words, more articles, more discussions and more analysis heaped upon on in the seventy years since its release than any other, the most frequently vaunted greatest film of all time, Orson Welles 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. Naturally any serious cineaste really should see it on the big screen at least once, it has made a couple of appearances on London screens over the past decade but they were always real missions for me to get to or clashed with other arrangements, since the NFT announced an extended run of a cleaned up print that was screening throughout November I had no excuse but to correct this glaring oversight. The first port of call is this fantastic article from one of the worlds premier film writers David Thompson that was commissioned to accompany the new print, he sets out all the necessary details of the film several million times more effectively than I ever could, I’ll begin by stating that the first thing that struck me whilst absorbing the movie in the reverently silent environs of the NFT1 was just how modern Kane is. Lets begin, appropriately enough, at the beginning:

‘No Trespassing’ eh? As the film is essentially an analysis of a man’s life, an analysis that crucially questions the cinematic validity of such an exercise to capture some empirical notion of ‘truth’ (an atypical concern of Welles throughout his career) by opening and closing on the same image the enterprise is bookmarked with sly nudge to the audience that we cannot believe and accept all that we have seen and are about to see, that no simple truths will emerge from Kane’s deserted Xanadu. If Griffith and Chaplin can be widely attributed to inventing the basic grammar of film (the close-up and elliptical editing) with Lang, Eisenstein and Murnau developing more complex camera moves, edits and innovations with the infant use of sound in the likes of Potemkin, Sunrise and M then Citizen Kane is Cinema 3.0, a quantum leap forward in all these disciplines with further modernizations that are evident in every single scene of the film. Let me reiterate that, when seeing this on the big screen I detected something of merit, something innovative, something remarkable for the period in every single scene – I’m struggling to think of another picture that has secured such an achievement.

Millions of words have been written over the years about how it wasn’t the first film to employ deep focus photography (in fact you can see Toland testing the water in certain sequences of the celebrated chiller The Hands Of Orlac from 1935), how it wasn’t the first film to construct more realistic sets by adding roofs to enable tilting cameras and a more claustrophobic mise-en-scene, how it wasn’t the first to employ sound edit cuts to transition from scene to scene, the thematic and structural match cuts that granting the film a formal elegance. It was however the first film to crucially to collate all these techniques together, for every scene to push at the medium, to use the formal tools of cinema to tell the story cinematically, to detail characters and plot nuances not merely through dialogue or a background score – on one celebrated sequence an entire marriage and its collapse is detailed in 90 seconds. For the record, this (0:20) is just about one of the greatest dozen or so shots in cinema history, in my humble opinion, technical brilliance aside it works on a variety of formal, subjective and recondite levels that are breathtaking. For me what’s most impressive about Kane is how those innovations operate in a film which also seamlessly switches from genre to genre, a mosaic of a movie, shifting from expressionist opening to Pathe newsreel reportage, from film noir investigation to classical melodrama, all under the aegis that a film, like a man’s life is subjective, is distorted by mystery and can never achieve any factor of absolute,  indefatigable truth. Not dissimilar to Welles own life now that I come to think of it….

 Whatever your interest in cinema Orson Welles is a fascinating figure given his amazing life and turbulent career, I was going to try and catch this over the weekend but I got distracted by prepping my Avatar post and managing to get most of my films of the year round-up drafted. He is of course celebrated as the greatest prankster of the 20th century for his epochal  War Of The Worlds radio transmission that convinced sectors of the American public that an Martian invasion was in process, was a child prodigy whose groundbreaking theatrical productions remain legendary on Broadway and the West End and he just happened to make (arguably) the greatest Shakespeare film adaptations committed to celluloid and a handful of bona-fide, all time cinema masterpieces. A few anecdotes – Welles screened John Ford’s Stagecoach every night that he was making Kane, citing it as the greatest influence on his embryonic cinematic education, even when it violated the holy 180° degree rule during the attack scene. In a great tale about the vapid, shallowness of Hollywood Welles once rushed to an important party from the set of Touch Of Evil still in full grotesque make-up and weight padding to play the obese Quinlan. Having been exiled from Hollywood for many years the majority of the studio executive guests hadn’t seen Welles in years, yet they all greeted him with a false passion and proclaimed ‘My god, you look fabulous Orson!!’. Less amusing but an example of the more things change the more they stay the same, media tycoon William Randolph Hearst on whom Kane is loosely based was so infuriated by the picture that not only did he order a total media blackout throughout his communication empire but one evening, before returning to his hotel room down in Brazil where he was researching his propaganda effort Its All True, Welles received a tip-off from a police contact that an underage girl had been placed in his room with a photographer hiding in the closet. Hearst was so incensed by the rumour then doing the rounds that (Erm, spoiler) Rosebud was in fact his nickname for his young girlfriend Marion Davies special lady-bits, a rumour that remains undimmed to this day, that he would do everything in his power to destroy Welles – one only needs to look at the remainder of his career and the butchering of his next film The Magnificent Ambersons to see how that turned out. Still, at least he got to marry Rita Hayworth, the Angelina Jolie of the era.

 If you’re interested in more then I’ll agree with Thompson and cite the exhaustive Simon Callow biographies as the preeminent biography on Welles, I’ve got and read the first part which was terrific, walking the fine line between admiration and hagiography it portrays Welles as a vain, insufferable, elitest snob as much as the extraordinarily talented, generous and effervescent artist that he was. The timing for this post seems apt as BBC4 are embarking on a Welles season over Christmas, if you haven’t seen the essential and exhaustive BBC Arena interviews with him, filmed in 1982 , then that’s your Christmas Day evening sorted. Maybe one day we’ll get to see the unreleased final chef d’oeuvre The Other Side Of The Wind, a late seventies film which is tied up in byzantine legal constrictions not to mention that Welles daughter, the executor of his estate, has vowed that it will never see the light of day.

5 responses

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