To a certain degree, the movies Citizen Kane (1941) and Speed Racer (2008) sit on the opposite ends of some sort of spectrum for me. One is a movie I acknowledge as one of the greatest movies ever made, but which I don’t particularly enjoy watching. The other one is the film that I’ve described as “the worst movie that I ever thoroughly enjoyed”. Guess which is which? And which one shall I actually write about in this post?
I’ve decided to go with Citizen Kane, partly because I remember it better – though it’s been a long time since I’ve watched it all the way through. Usually now, I use certain scenes of it for teaching. These have included the famous “breakfast” sequence, the scene where Kane and Susan argue about the review that Jed Leland has given about her singing, and some of the Xanadu scenes with only Kane and Susan. But my personal favorite to use in this way is the Kane’s childhood scene. That plays like it’s own little mini-movie.
I know of one person who found watching Citizen Kane in its entirety, at the time anyway, to be worst film-watching experience he’d ever had. Now, I’m not saying that everyone isn’t entitled to their own opinion, but I do think that guy was missing something. There’s no doubting the significance of what this movie accomplished as far as the development of the medium of film is concerned. This isn’t just because of one scene or technique, but rather elements that occur in nearly every moment of the movie: compositions, camera movements, story-telling techniques, innovative use of sound, phenomenal use of focus, and more. It’s not that Citizen Kane invented cinema, but it did play a significant role in defining what it was capable of up until that point. I don’t think we can say the same thing for Speed Racer.
But didn’t I say that I don’t really enjoy watching it? It’s true. I haven’t watched the whole thing for years. If I’m going to pull out an old classic, I’m much more likely to tune into Singin’ in the Rain or Buster Keaton’s The General. So does that mean Citizen Kane is really only watchable for students of film-making, or for some critical elite? That’s not what I’d say.
Citizen Kane is a film that is about trying to discover who somebody is, and ultimately failing. That’s not some sort of artsy assessment – if you watch the film, that’s literally what is about. It’s about a probing examination into a man’s life that resists easy definitions. It explores many different aspects of his character, from a wide variety of points of view. As each moment unfolds we discover more about the subject, seeing moments of triumph, of tragedy, of pathos, and even irrelevance. The audience-proxy character (a journalist whose face is never seen clearly) attempts to discover what lays at the root of all of these contradictions, but fails. And it feels real, because frankly sometimes life and people are like that. Even the famous “twist” at the end is a bit empty if we expect it to provide for us solid answers.
Citizen Kane is not what you’d call a “disturbing” film (some people seem to like to seek that out, I’m not sure why), but it is a highly uncomfortable one. It uses vastly rich cinematic language to depict for us a life that was full of things but basically devoid of meaning. In fact, there comes a moment, toward the end, when Kane is alone and he throws a famous temper tantrum. He clutches a snow globe, and whispers the famous line, “Rosebud.” I remember watching that for the first time and having a profound moment of realization. I thought at that moment, no matter what happens to me in my life, as long as I continue to know God, my life will never be that empty. So it was an encouraging truth to remember, but a challenging cinematic experience to want to repeat.
This movie was director-star Orson Welles’ first feature film, made when he was 25. It’s brilliantly shot, well written, and acted by a very capable troupe of performers (Welles himself, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, and many others). When I was studying film in college, we sort of looked at Welles as representing a goal we knew none of us would ever really reach. Could we, in just three years from when we graduated, achieve such a compelling cinematic vision? Really, I have no idea how anyone would d0 that. Certainly I have not. Orson Welles made Citizen Kane when he was 25, I’m making movies like No Shame in the Grandma when I’m in my 40’s. Not really much of a comparison.
But in the end, that is good and right. I don’t really want to be Orson Welles, any more than I want to be Charles Foster Kane. I liked making No Shame in the Grandma. Ice arcing, man! It’s awesome!
But I will defend Kane’s reputation as one of the greatest American films ever made. And for anyone interested in studying or understanding what you can with film, it’s worth an examination.
Now it may be time to go check out Speed Racer again…