Jackie Hedeman on the persistence of a classic
AFTER 75 YEARS, what hasn’t been said about Citizen Kane? What hasn’t been done with it? It’s been parodied in The Simpsons, covered in Velvet Goldmine, whittled down to found text by The White Stripes, and mined for the perfect slow clap reaction gif. It consistently tops the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest movies of all time. Its vision influenced generations of directors and cinematographers. Citizen Kane, first released on May 1, 1941, is the film that showed Martin Scorsese “what a director actually did.”
The film’s influence is undeniable, but its position in the film canon isn’t unassailable. The AFI may love Kane, and the film may trail only The Third Man—hello again, Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten—on Rotten Tomatoes, but the more democratic IMDb is a different story. Newer films tend to rise to the top of their ranking system, before settling into positions more representative of their relative quality. Nonetheless, Kane’s position at number #67, dozens of slots behind Interstellar, comes as a surprise. I would be tempted to call this ranking system a fickle piece of shit (my own favorite film, Some Like It Hot, comes in at 109), were I not certain that Charles Foster Kane would call it something completely different. The voice of the people, perhaps.
With new movies jockeying for place, what accounts for Kane’s persistent presence in the canon? Our admiration aspires to be more than habit, even as the canon self-reinforces. Someone, Martin Scorsese for instance, watches Kane young. Scorsese then goes on to make his own work, owing some portion of his development as an artist to Kane. He becomes an influencer. Kane remains part of the canon, and there it will remain until it no longer has anything to teach aspiring filmmakers.
If it is out of habit that non-filmmakers admire Citizen Kane, it’s a particular type of habit. We are trained to admire entries in the canon for being part of the canon as much as for their individual virtues. These virtues are often manifested in an elevation of the form. Like Moby Dick or King Lear, Citizen Kane balances on the shoulders of its filmic and narrative predecessors only to take a giant leap upwards. So we are reliably informed, and so we may see with our own eyes. Nothing in the film is accidental, from its famously non-linear narrative structure to its exacting technical choices. Rewatching Kane recently after a long hiatus, I found myself caught up in cataloguing the cinematographic techniques Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland employed to give Kane its distinct look. I soon gave this enterprise up as useless. Virtually every scene capitalizes on camera angle, lighting, sound, or all three, to highlight some particular aspect of narrative.
It’s the how of that narrative I return to again and again as viewer. The very nearly faceless reporter who guides us through the labyrinth has enough in common with a detective that Kane may almost count as film noir. Missing only a crime, Kane is certainly stylized enough. Terse enough. Smoky enough. Its female characters dichotomized enough. Its morality ambiguous enough. “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life,” our faceless reporter concludes. The same is true of Kane.
There are signs that, in its ascension to cinematic keystone, Kane has lost some of its bite. In 1941, William Randolph Hearst, enraged to find himself the most visible inspiration for a film à clef, banned mention of Citizen Kane in his newspapers and embarked on an aggressive campaign to discredit Orson Welles. In 2011, Citizen Kane was screened in Hearst Castle, as part of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. Hearst’s descendants were involved in the decision, explaining that a screening in the mansion Hearst referred to as La Cuesta Encantada, would allow festival goers to dismiss the notion that Kane’s hulking, forbidding Xanadu had anything in common with Hearst’s palace. Either Hearst’s descendants have decided that Kane’s legacy will be more powerful and lasting than that of their late relative, or they have come to realize that notoriety sells museum tickets. Or both. Either way, Kane as cultural artifact has lost its immediate shock. If it speaks to present-day sociopolitical concerns, it does so through translation.
What remains urgent is its style. I revel in Kane’s accumulation of voices. The film’s investigative approach to narrative makes an active participant of the viewer, not only in tracking repeated shots from one strand of recollection to the next, but also in attempting to sync the film’s plot points with history. Many times, I have boated down the Chicago River on the Architecture Tour, passed the Civic Opera House, and completely accepted the story that’s been billed an urban legend by tour guides: that Samuel Insull built the opera house for his wife, who had been rejected from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. My blind acceptance has everything to do with Citizen Kane. In fact, Insull’s wife was never an opera singer, and Welles and his screenwriting collaborator Herman J. Mankiewicz built on the very legend their film went on to reinforce.
The movie makes me want to embark on my own investigation, amass my own hopelessly incomplete pictures. Kane’s greatest quality may well be that, in the end, the viewer is left holding all the cards, a decidedly mixed honor. As an entry in the canon, we know we have to honor it, but as a movie with characters and plot, we don’t always know how to feel.
I asked around. I asked, “You’ve watched Citizen Kane, right? What did you think of it?”
Anna Shea Gunsalus, working, not from the Walter Parks Thatcher Memorial Library, but from her apartment in Brooklyn, replied, “Yes although I confess it has been a while, and now I can't remember off the top of my head what my opinion was.”
Tanya Kostochka, in Los Angeles, administered an expert Susan Alexander Kane brushoff:
Lol I may have
Maybe in high school
No, that wasn’t it
We watched high noon
No I haven’t
But I know rosebud
My mother, writing from her office at the University of Kansas, provided all the detail you’d expect from Mr. Bernstein, Chairman of the Board and erstwhile General Manager. “I probably saw it when I was way too young. Your Grandpa loved movies. I remember first sitting down with him to watch Citizen Kane on TV when I was in 4th or 5th grade, and he did—as you would expect—a running commentary about Orson Welles, The War of the Worlds and other projects of his. I saw it again later in high school and got to experience it without conversation, but still with my memories as a little kid. As an adolescent, I remember being struck by the beauty and sharpness of the black and white, the sadness of little Charles Foster Kane, the long shot of all the crates of art that were never to be opened and of the failed opera singer putting together a puzzle by a fireplace. I thought of the movie when I first went to the Hearst Castle, but don’t think I rewatched it. If I were to choose one Orson Welles film to take to a desert island, it would be The Third Man.”
Finally, this reporter turned to my father, the family’s Jebediah Leland, who probably dashed off his reply between meetings, and meant every word.
“I don’t like movies,” he wrote, “with dozens of cars racing through city streets ultimately to be crashed into one another. I find it wasteful, boring, and overdone. Citizen Kane is Charles Foster Kane as a car racing through other people's lives and crashing into them. Ultimately, his life is wasteful, boring, and overdone. The thrill of the start of the race (his early days in newspapers) and the adrenalin rush of ambition (his political aspiration) make the race interesting until the crashes (his failed marriage, his leaving behind those who helped him, his selfishness). Just as car crashes leave me empty, the final acts of CFK's life and ultimately the movie leave me empty.”
Citizen Kane, for all its unassailable fame, is impossible to pin down. Like its title character, the film has, to borrow one of its own phrases, “some private sort of greatness.” We can approach and reapproach, trying to get at the core of what makes this greatness, but for that, too, the film has an answer prepared.
It wants to be loved.
JACKIE HEDEMAN, contributing editor to Partisan, is a former grant writer and current grad student. Her work has appeared online in Watershed Review and The Manifest-Station, and on stage with Available Light Theatre. Jackie is the Reviews & Interviews Editor for The Journal, the literary journal of The Ohio State University.