Private Parts: Citizen Kane

Nov 6, 2001 (Updated Dec 19, 2001)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Directing, Editing, Photography, Acting

Cons:Asks the tough questions.

The Bottom Line: Every film buff needs to see this landmark film. Then see it again!

I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind. Ecclesiastes 1:14

I have put off reviewing Citizen Kane for quite some time, as it seems to be so oft praised that it is almost impossible to be objective about it. Everybody knows something about Citizen Kane - even folks who have never seen it know that it is a classic, perhaps the classic - the best film ever made. How do you go about describing the Holy Grail of cinema without sounding like the usual sycophantic hack, grinding out his two cents worth of pulp on a movie that has already had more written about it than any other?

It would probably help to remember that in 1941 the power of the newspapers was much greater than is evident today with television, cable, the Internet, and all the alternative means of communication we have at our fingertips. In those days, the newspaper was it - the only other major information source was the newsreels that accompanied Saturday movies - newsreels like the one that is used early in Citizen Kane to give a brief sketch of the deceased's life. Newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane was dead and the questions on everybody's lips were, "Who was Kane?" "Why was Kane?" and "What did he mean by 'Rosebud' (his dying word)?" If you watch the movie looking for answers to these questions, you are bound to come away dissatisfied as it answers them incompletely or not at all.

Rather than recount the story which is so well known, or elaborate on the many innovative techniques used in filming Citizen Kane, I thought it would be interesting to find out why Welles chose newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst as the model for the fictional Kane. What would be Welles' motivation to attack a public figure who had done him no wrong? Not only that, but why would he attack somebody with the power of the press at his beck and call, someone who could (and likely would) strike back. My research along those lines only revealed tantalizing snippets of information, not enough to satisfy my curiosity. Still, it has been well documented that Welles was a guy who liked controversy and William Randolph Hearst was a juicy target. Perhaps Citizen Kane is a great film because it is enigmatic, it doesn't give any easy answers. Therefore, my inquiry bore little fruitů

Kane is the story of a man who gained everything, but at the cost of being deprived of his mother's love and companionship. An early scene shows him being separated from his mother and sent back east to live with a banker after his mother comes into a considerable fortune. From there, it shows the rise of a newspaper publisher and fall of a man who wound up dying friendless and alone in his palatial mansion "Xanadu." What happened? When asked, Welles himself could not explain how Kane's dying word came to the knowledge of the reporter. However despite that little mystery, the movie has quite a bit of appeal.

Kane's story is told via flashbacks (No, Quentin Tarantino did not invent them!) from five different points of view. A faceless newspaper reporter asks Kane's closest associates to tell their recollections of him. The reporter's questions provide the springboard for each of the flashbacks.

Camera work and lighting by Gregg Toland used a technique called 'deep focus.' This, unlike conventional focus, allowed both foreground and background to be in razor-sharp focus at the same time allowing the viewer to decide which part of the scene to fasten his attention on. Lights and darks are used to depict the moods, light when happy, dark when depressed. Unusual camera angles abound and a number of scenes are long takes without editing. Voices, like in many of Welles' films, are often dubbed, allowing Welles to stage shots and insert and overlap dialog similar to actual human conversation. Great film editing by Robert Wise offered many dissolves, montages, and startling effects not often seen before. These and other techniques used in Citizen Kane are textbook examples used to demonstrate good film making today.

The final scene of Kane shows Xanadu's basement, a vast landscape of possessions, the remains of Kane's mortal existence. Workers are classifying it, stacking it, and loading the junk into a furnace. By this time the alert viewer knows the 'book answer' to the reporter's question, "What is Rosebud," however, while the film offers this obvious meaning, according to some reports it was William Randolph Hearst's pet term for his mistress' most private part. The camera pulls back and shows the smoke (the remembrance of Kane) from the furnace billowing from the castle's chimney.

While nominated for nine academy awards, Kane won only for Best Screenplay, a collaboration between Herman Mankiewicz and Welles. Kane was the high water mark of Welles' success as a director. Due to backlash from Hearst and his powerful friends Welles was never allowed the luxury of such creative control again.

What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?

Perhaps that is the whole point of the story. We have all felt the pangs of failure, of regret, of things that we should have done, but left undone; of opportunities lost. So we sublimate our desires in a variety of ways. It's a thing common to humans. Kidding ourselves, we project our ambitions on another, perhaps our mate or our child. Or perhaps we become a collector like Kane, trying to fill our frustrated emptiness with possessions beyond number. No matter what our personal mechanism for coping with these human inadequacies, it all amounts to the same thing; when we die, we are alone. Our personal triumphs or failures are no more or less than those of the richest tycoon or the poorest beggar. They become the winding sheet that accompanies us to our grave and are as soon forgotten.

Citizen Kane should be required viewing by anybody interested in film. It shows the results of a prodigal life with many material benefits yet yielding very little spiritual fruit.

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