not in our stars, but in ourselves
35/52: A movie directed by someone under 30
In the early days of cinema, especially, experimenters and innovators were more than welcome: they were necessary. By the time the studio system took hold (with an increasingly strong grip throughout the 1920s), a sort of rule book emerged. Conventions took root. Hierarchies were established. Studio bosses, responding to their financial backers, called most of the shots. However brilliant an artist might be, he (more and more, it was “he” rather than “she”) was beholden to the bosses at Metro, Paramount, Warner Bros., etc. The directors whose names we still know – Hawks, Cukor, Hitchcock, Lubitsch, Ford, Wilder – were able to find ways to stamp their projects with their unique directorial imprimatur, even if they were still effectively servants at whichever studio (much as Mozart was once the servant to whichever royal). The others, talented as they may have been, faded – treated in history and in cultural memory as hired hands.
And then there was Orson Welles.
You won’t get more than a couple of paragraphs into a piece about Awesome Orson without encountering the phrase “enfant terrible,” so I’ll just get it out of the way now. Born in 1915, he took his successful stage and radio career to dizzying new heights in 1938 with his War of the Worlds radio play. It didn’t take long for Hollywood to come knocking, and they did so in unprecedented fashion. RKO offered him an unheard-of contract, essentially guaranteeing that he could do whatever the hell he wanted for two pictures, as long as RKO didn’t object to the story. After some casting about for ideas, Welles and veteran screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz came up with Citizen Kane. The rest, as they say, etc.
Charles Foster Kane (Welles), living alone among servants in an eerie estate, utters his last word: “Rosebud.” He dies. His death is followed by a shrill newsreel, detailing his life: Kane was born into obscurity, inherited a fortune, and built a media empire. He married twice, and divorced twice: first, a president’s niece; then, a floozy that all newspapers but his own refer to as a “singer” (quotes from newspaper headlines). He tried to run for governor – trading on his association with the president as well as his enormous wealth and influence – but lost due to the scandal involving his soon-to-be second wife. After attempting to make her an opera star, and failing, he mostly retired from public view. He lived at Xanadu, a sprawling nightmare of a mansion with countless works of art and ghastly, ornate architecture. He died alone. Those are the facts – but not really the truth. Mr. Thompson (William Alland), a journalist seen only in silhouette or from behind, tries to figure out who Kane really was, and why his last word was “rosebud.” He reads about Kane in the memoirs of Walter P. Thatcher (George Coulouris), Kane’s former legal guardian; he speaks with Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore), Kane’s second wife; Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Kane’s business manager; and Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), Kane’s former best friend. By the end, he doesn’t feel that he understands much more about Kane than he did at the start. We privileged audience members see what “rosebud” means – but even then, it’s just one piece of an enormous puzzle in an unknowable man’s life.
Since Citizen Kane has become such an iconic film, it’s easy to forget just how unusual – even bizarre – it was for its time. Compare it to any other film released in the late 1930s/early 1940s, and you’ll see: there was nothing else like it, certainly not in America. When sound came into motion pictures, a great many directors found it necessary to switch gears. Where they’d been working with the entire frame to tell a story visually, they had to re-adapt to sound’s new requirements: twenty-four frames per second, as opposed to variable frames-per-second in silent films; ensuring that the rapid-fire dialogue (written mostly by newspaper men lured from New York to the easy money in Hollywood) filled every minute of every scene; and essentially bludgeoning cinema from a visual medium to an audio-visual one. Granted, films came a long way from the late 1920s to 1941 – but you wouldn’t be crazy to assume that someone who came up in theatre and radio would have fallen into the old trap of privileging speech over all else. Not so. Welles had a keen sense of visual literacy, and of course an extraordinary ear for dialogue, sound design, and music. His youth and inexperience point indisputably to the fact that he had a genius for cinema. Of course he watched plenty of movies, and spoke with the greatest minds in Hollywood to figure out how to make the movie work, but all the ideas are his. He had extraordinary helpers – cinematographer Gregg Toland was the alchemist who combined his boss’s wild dreams with practical realities and made cinema gold – but this is Welles’s vision, at the ripe old age of 26.
I’ve seen this one a few times, as you might expect. It’s required viewing in all the most elementary film studies classes, and oft repeated in the (nominally) more advanced ones later on. Each time, I wonder if it’s really about anything. Stylistically, it’s phenomenal. It looks like nothing else, sounds like nothing else, feels like nothing else. The acting is great, too, of course. Welles insisted on rehearsing his cast, as he would have done if they’d been on the stage. The result is far less “Hollywood” than much other onscreen acting of its time, and ever so slightly closer to the naturalism that Brando and that crowd would bring to film. It has to be said, too, that Welles – possibly an egomaniac himself, and certainly playing one here – is utterly without vanity. He lets himself get ugly. He pads himself and balds himself and pads himself (though not nearly as much as Welles would, eventually, pad himself in real life.) There was a time, dear reader, when Welles was a bit of a heartthrob. He doesn’t let that get in his way for a moment, to his credit. And yet, up to this most recent viewing, I tended to dismiss it as all gloss and no depth.
I’m still not sure that I’m wrong about that, but Citizen Kane does seem oddly prescient at the moment. Think about it: obscenely wealthy, used to getting his own way, delusions of public office, several failed relationships with women too good for him, etc., etc. Ring a bell? Citizen Trump seems like a more vulgar, less savvy descendant of Charlie Kane – one for whom I feel significantly less pity, obviously. Kane is as pathetic as he is horrible, and in that way he reminds me somewhat of the Nick Wasickso of Show Me a Hero (who, I imagine but don’t assume, is somewhat like his real-life subject). Wasickso confused votes with love, and spiraled out of control when the former dried up. Wasickso was also a fundamentally better person than Kane, and a saint compared to Trump, so the comparison isn’t perfect. Still, if Citizen Kane is about anything, it’s about the profound loneliness that a “great” man – whether that’s what he is, what he wants to be, or what he assumes he is – must feel. No amount of money, prestige, influence, can give anything to a man who won’t give anything to anyone else. Neither Welles nor the film is sentimental about this loneliness; it’s just an observation, essentially.
As is often true of “great man” movies, however, Citizen Kane isn’t so great with the female characters. I think it has a certain amount of sympathy for Kane’s wives, but they’re still pretty one-dimensional. Kane’s mother (Agnes Moorehead), seen in flashbacks, is one-dimensional and entirely unsympathetic. Aside from some showgirls at a party, a predatory lesbian at the library (shades of Mrs. Danvers), and some nurses in Leland’s hospital, those are the only females in the movie. Does it matter? No, maybe not. I can just make observations, too.
Is Citizen Kane the greatest movie of all time? I’ll leave that one to greater minds than mine to determine. Is it wildly innovative for a director so young and inexperienced, operating at the absolute peak of studios’ absolute power? You bet.