Sunday, May 01, 2011

Citizen Kane is 70

I have long said that "Citizen Kane" is my favorite movie.

Others have said it is the greatest movie of all time (but not necessarily their favorite film) — among them the American Film Institute.

Sometimes it is said both admiringly and indirectly — in the way that, for example, the Montreal Gazette observes that Jack Layton "has gone from 'having something less than a hope' to 'something more than a chance' " in tomorrow's Canadian election.

(Those are versions of lines from the movie, by the way — from Citizen Kane's very own campaign speech.)

That has led to something of a conflict for me, I think. Is it my favorite film? Or is it the greatest film of all time? Or is it more than that? Is it both?

Is it — to borrow a line from the original Saturday Night Live show — a floor wax and a dessert topping?

It's all become something of a cliche, I suppose. Roger Ebert suggested as much in the Chicago Sun–Times when he wrote in 2008 that "it's settled: 'Citizen Kane' is the official greatest film of all time."

That doesn't alter, in any way, how I feel about the movie. I never needed AFI or Roger Ebert or the Montreal Gazette — or anyone else — to validate my assessment for me.

I consider myself a student of film. I'm hardly an authority on the subject, but I do believe there are some things about filmmaking that I know that most average movie viewers do not.

One of the things I know is that "Citizen Kane" — which made its New York debut on this day in 1941 (it showed up in theaters across the U.S. a few months later) — was a groundbreaking movie in many ways.

If you already knew that, I'm glad. But if you didn't, let me tell you a few things:

  • It experimented extensively with what is known as "deep focus," in which everything in a scene — from the most extreme foreground to the most extreme background — is in sharp focus.

    That might not impress people today, but 70 years ago ...

  • It also utilized low–angle shots more than any film that had come before.

    A low–angle shot is when a camera is positioned below the eyeline and photographs something as if looking up. From that perspective, interior shots show ceilings — or, rather, where a ceiling should be.

    That's the kind of technique that seems to be used these days mostly to imply the dominance of someone or something over another. In the "Star Wars" movies, for example — especially the early ones — Darth Vader was often seen from low angles.

    At the time "Citizen Kane" was filmed, most movies were made on sound stages, not on location. Thus, most indoor scenes could not show ceilings. The low–angle shots in "Citizen Kane" were designed to give viewers a feeling of intimacy by showing ceilings.

    "Citizen Kane" didn't always use actual ceilings. It often used material that looked like ceilings and created the illusion of an ordinary room while managing to conceal boom microphones.

  • Aside from the cinematography, the movie used storytelling techniques that were, if not entirely new, certainly unconventional.

    Most of the story was told in flashback, not chronologically. Montages were used to show the passage of time. And background information was provided early in the form of a newsreel that was inspired by the newsreels of the period.

  • The movie also pioneered techniques in makeup, special effects and sound effects, some of it the result of Orson Welles' experiences in radio.

  • And "Citizen Kane" introduced the moviegoing public to many people — performers and others — who would be significant in years to come, including Bernard Herrmann, who wrote an Oscar–nominated score for the film.

    Herrmann, a longtime Welles collaborator, had a distinguished career, writing scores for films by Alfred Hitchcock, Joseph Mankiewicz, François Truffaut, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma and composing music for the original Twilight Zone TV series.
Beyond all that stuff, though, "Citizen Kane" had many memorable moments, made possible by the talented cast.

Like the musing of Kane's friend and associate, Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), about a persistent memory of a girl he saw briefly some 40 years earlier ...

... and the agony of Kane's second wife, Susan (Dorothy Comingore), as she tried to come to terms with his death.

The magic of a movie begins with the writers who put thoughts and ideas on paper, but it is the great actors and actresses who breathe life into those words and the composers who write music that complements the story. "Citizen Kane" may have had one of the finest such ensembles I have ever seen.

Everyone remembers Kane's cryptic "Rosebud," uttered on his deathbed.

But I also remember the adult Kane's revealing conversation with his guardian after signing over his holdings during the Depression.

"If I hadn't been very rich," Kane said, "I might have been a really great man."

"Don't you think you are?" his guardian asked.

"I think I did pretty well under the circumstances," Kane said with that bemused Orson Welles smile.

"What would you like to have been?" his guardian persisted.

Kane glared at him. "Everything you hate."

There are many such moments in "Citizen Kane." The character is loosely based on William Randolph Hearst so, in a way, I guess, it is a journalist's story — but not really. Kane was cynical about his profession, even seemed weary when the subject came up.

It might have been possible to tell that story with Kane as a leader of another industry, but I doubt that it would have been as effective.

As the newsreel that opened the movie told the audience about Kane and the first half of the 20th century, "All of these years he covered, many of these he was."

Even so, "Citizen Kane" was not so much the story of a newspaperman as it was the story of a man — born into poverty, raised in wealth and privilege — and isolated by it as an adult.

It's a floor wax and a dessert topping.