For the news-themed issue of Birth.Movies.Death., I offer a news-flash: Citizen Kane is terrific. It said so right on the poster.
Labeling something “the Citizen Kane of X” is by now a worn out punchline. It began, as far as I can tell, with Dann Gire of the Chicago Daily Herald calling 1995's Babe the “'Citizen Kane' of talking pig pictures” – a wholly accurate assessment, I might add. And Orson Wells' debut film from 1941 recently took a step down in the once-in-a-decade Sight & Sound poll (Vertigo topped the list this time, shunting Kane to second best) so there is the possibility that a neophyte cineaste may be reading this thinking, meh, I don't really need to see this movie.
I am here to tell that person he or she is not only wrong, but that Kane is hardly a cultural vegetable. Indeed, so much of its success is that it is a rich, meaty stew bursting with a diversity of flavor. Citizen Kane rules because there's something in it for everyone.
- Citizen Kane As Detective Story.
Above all else, Citizen Kane has a juicy story. Its driving engine, beyond political satire, beyond Welles rolling up his sleeves and playing with the enormous toy chest that is filmmaking, is a quality mystery. Who is Rosebud? We're gonna sleuth it out and along the way we may just uncover some profound things about American society.
- Citizen Kane As Love Story.
Sympathy for Susan Alexander! Oh, if she just had better dental hygiene her achey whimpers may never have caught the attention of Charles Foster Kane, the charming man who “runs a couple of newspapers,” sweeps her off her feet, displays her in her own opera house and cages her in Xanadu.
- Citizen Kane As Satire.
There's an entire (pretty good) movie called RKO 281 all about the battle between Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst, the main (but not only) inspiration for the Kane character. You can do your own research to find out what parts of Joseph L. Mankiewicz' scripts are veiled digs at the publishing magnate, but some moments don't bother to be blunt. “You supply the prose poems, I'll supply the war,” the plucky, boisterous Kane says with a smile -- a direct reference to the manufactured Spanish-American conflict and its Yellow Journalism provenance.
- Citizen Kane As Handcrafted Marvel.
The kids today don't know from crafty problem-solving! They just bark a bunch of orders into the UNIVAC and, alakazam, Windows 95 makes all kinds of Orcs and Gollums come out on the screen. Citizen Kane is all about clever visual gags. And even though the movie is so old that everyone involved in it is long dead and picked apart by worms (when Welles finally went it was like a week long trip to Sizzler for the worms, lemme tell ya!), many of these tricks still dazzle. The camera swoops up to a miniature sign announcing Susan Alexander Kane's floor show and then moves through it. If you watch closely, you can see a little break between the “X” and the “A” where the bars pull apart. There are dioptic splits for deep focus, the photo of the staff of the Chronicle revealing itself to be live and lighting tricks as Jerry Thompson's interview subjects come in and out of their flashbacks.
Also: the images of Kane after he's lost the election are shot from below, with the camera in a hole to make the looming figures even more Olympian. This caused a ruckus because they had to show the ceiling. They didn't show ceilings in those days because that's where they hung the microphones and lights in a studio. But Welles was insistent: of COURSE there's a ceiling. So the ceiling in these shots is actually muslin fabric made to look like a ceiling. Why would I lie!?
There are also a number of trick shots with perspective, such that Kane's character is always in the center of frame, even when he is in the background.
Then there are the editing tricks. Most famously, of course, the bad marriage summary told through a dizzying collage of breakfasts. It's a master class in “less-is-more.” My favorite cut of all, however, is “Merry Christmas. . . And a Happy New Year” where decades are leap-frogged during that ellipses. (The whole movie is as unstuck in time as Billy Pilgrim.)
- Citizen Kane As Ego Boost.
Listen, we all like to feel smart. So when a “classic” like this has easily interpreted symbolism it's nice to pluck that low hanging fruit and chomp into it. Charles Foster Kane walking past two mirrors reflecting onto one another, leading off to an inscrutable horizon? In the middle of a quest to understand a man from different observers' recollections. Okay, cool, got it.
Little Charlie Kane playing in the snow and shouting “Union Forever!” as his parents decide to hand him over to his new guardians? Sure, he could be playing at Civil War games -- but that's probably not what Welles had in mind. (And if The White Stripes can pick up on this, surely you can, too.)
But according to Peter Bogdanovich (whose association with Welles has long been a line item on his tax returns) the odd, superimposed image of the exotic bird that loudly SCREECHES toward the end of the film has no hidden meaning. Welles apparently told him that he was worried that the film had already been running for two hours and wanted to make sure no one had fallen asleep.
It was a foolish fear. Even ADHD knuckleheads with ludicrous fears of black and white will find it hard to get bored watching this movie. Again, that famous poster: It's Terrific!
This was originally published in the December issue of Birth.Movies.Death., "Extra! Extra! The Alamo Drafthouse Delivers the News" in honor Anchorman 2. See Anchorman 2 at the Alamo Drafthouse this month!