Yes We Kane

[The following was written for the Great Citizen Kane Debate, hosted by True Classics.]

First off, full disclosure: My middle name is Orson, after our favorite cinematic wunderkind. Make of that what you will.

Now on to the meat of the issue: Citizen Kane is a fucking incredible movie. Wanna talk broadly about its influence and artistry? OK, then: it’s a Ulysses-like encapsulation of American history spanning 1895-1941, of political/economic ambition and its downfall, of the Faustian bargain that constitutes the “American dream,” all told with wit and tragedy and chiaroscuro poetry. It’s a mad gambit by a first-time filmmaker that’s since become a byword for great Hollywood cinema.

But less loftily: It’s fun. It’s puckish. It’s one of my “raw pleasure” movies—a joy to quote and rewatch ad nauseum. I never understand it when people complain about Kane as if it’s this hulking, glacial, inaccessible art film. Are they watching the same Kane I am, the one bubbling with jokes and cute banter? Yes, it’s haunted by Charlie’s broken childhood, his spoiled dreams of high office, and his ruinous relationship with poor Susan. But it’s the very opposite of a slog.

One of Kane‘s many miracles is that it’s so dense, so full, and somehow still so light. It has Joseph Cotten at his finest, dropping self-deprecating one-liners left and right; it has Gregg Toland’s impossibly inventive camera, like the bastard child of a kaleidoscope and an angel; it has that adorable scene where Charlie alleviates Susan’s toothache through laughter; and of course it has Welles himself, a boy genius both within and without the film, laughing at the world while haunted by his past and future.

It’s so poignant, but so charming. So cynical, but so alive. It’s a romance, a biopic, an epic, a film noir, a horror movie, a political thriller, a drama set in the world of turn-of-the-century journalism… it’s such a massive, magical feat that I can’t help but react with awe and delight. I love every frame, every line, every performance in Kane. Like I said: a fucking incredible movie.

As for this “greatest movie of all time” thing? It’s a silly diversion from the movie’s true power. I have nothing against Sight & Sound‘s once-a-decade polls, the same ones that canonized Kane; in fact, I think they can be a handy barometer of critical opinion. However, these polls have also given hordes of adolescent cinephiles the false impression that calling Kane “boring” is an act of courage. Come on, everybody. We’re better than that. Cinema isn’t a horse race; it’s a cornucopia, with no single “greatest movie” looking down on the rest. Appreciate movies for their own merits, not because they have (or have not) been voted “the best.”

And while you’re at it, watch Citizen Kane. Because it’s a really funny, tender, smart, incredible movie.

4 Comments

Filed under Cinema

4 responses to “Yes We Kane

  1. I absolutely loved your post — I could tell that you wrote it with every bit of the joy I felt while reading it. Excellent!

  2. Really fun little piece on an intimidating film – I hope some cinematic newbie stumbles across it before seeing the movie and, surprised, goes to check it out in a new light.

    Ironically, I’ve just written my first piece on Citizen Kane (sort of on the opposite side of the spectrum, as it’s rather long), though it isn’t scheduled to go up till Friday. I agree with you that the film gets bogged down in its reputation, and while I didn’t really discuss the movie’s “fun” aspects I did try to capture a sense of its fullness, its richness, and its humanity, and the way that the style and story complement one another in relating this – something I think gets lost in a the hoopla about it being “influential” or “innovative” as if it were just a collection of cinema tricks. Similar to what has befallen Birth of a Nation and Breathless.

    A great movie should not be seen as a museum piece – although rather ironically I found myself comparing Kane to some paintings I just recently saw in a museum, haha. Oh well – those shouldn’t be considered museum pieces either, I guess…

  3. My favourite part of your post is when you describe Citizen Kane as puckish. A truer term I cannot think of. Great piece overall, but the puckish comment is the highlight.

    One of the main problems with a film like Kane, in all its canonical glory, is that it never gets a fair shake. Many classics get shut up into these museum pieces and are only ever discussed as such – dryly, analytically, stuffily. We need to help free these older films from the constraints of academic purity and show the people how fun they can be.

    Puckish indeed.

  4. @shadowsandsatin: Yes, just thinking/writing about Kane is enough to send me off into reverie. I quite enjoyed your piece, too.

    @MovieMan: Thanks a lot; I’d love it if my piece could shift a newcomer’s expectations. There’s such a cliched pop-cultural/pop-critical script that gets trotted out when people talk about Kane (and that I’ve seen all over the place in this mini-blogathon): it’s a “influential, innovative, technically impressive” movie that, apparently, is nonetheless overrated, unemotional, not very entertaining, etc. Its reputation precedes and often buries it—people just cannot get past the words “greatest movie ever made.”

    I think “fullness, richness, and humanity” is a great way to describe Kane‘s virtues. It’s extraordinarily humanistic, invested as it is in Kane’s inner life and his (tragic) effects on those around him. I can’t wait to read your piece on it!

    @Kevyn: Isn’t that a great word? I think I actually learned it, as a teenager, from Love and Death: Woody Allen describes a sexual hygiene skit as “a puckish satire of contemporary mores.” It works especially well for Kane, which often has a prankish, authority-tweaking sensibility. (Its roman à clef jokes at the expense of Hearst, for example, or its treatment of the plutocratic Thatcher.) Welles’ youthful energy really helps in this regard.

    And yes, we should always remember that great movies aren’t just for discussing in film studies classes. They’re for life, and they need room to breathe.

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