Orson Welles at 100
In the Shadow of its Reputation
Citizen Kane and Orson Welles at 100
By Dan DeWeese
itizen Kane is grand. It is imposing. It is solemn, majestic, and momentous. But is it moving? Kane-the-character lacks a certain emotional component—it has been replaced, it seems, by outsized ambition—and the film reflects this. Orson Welles’s first film is a masterful feat and definitely, as it desperately wants to be, impressive. But it does not perhaps reveal the human heart.
For this reason alone it’s safe to say Citizen Kane is not, as it is often billed, the best film ever made. I make that claim not to damn the film, but to loosen the way we (or maybe just I?) look at it. No other film has lived in the shadow of its own reputation the way Kane has, and though film fans who have not seen it on the big screen owe it to themselves to do so (it screens at Northwest Film Center on December 12th and 14th), this may be for reasons that don’t excite most filmgoers, because they are largely (and here I invoke the hated term) technical.
Despite the fact that it isn’t an “effects film” in the science fiction or fantasy mold, an overwhelming number of shots in Kane involve a visual effect of some kind: scale models, prosthetics, tricks of the lens, tricks of composition, clever cuts, items hidden in shadows, and items revealed in mirrors. Space is truncated or elongated, we watch through windows or drop down through a skylight. There are few, if any, shots in which Welles places the camera in a merely functional position. He abhorred the merely functional—or perhaps it is more accurate to say Welles seems to have felt a film’s function was never to be merely functional. What we are watching when we watch Kane is two hours of a young man (Welles was twenty-five when he made the film) trying, over and over again, to impress us with tricks.
This is a difficult thesis to employ when selling the film as the best ever, though. Citizen Kane is the most important movie ever made because it is two hours of outlandish camera tricks. That doesn’t really work, does it? Shocking technical innovations, as much as an audience might admire them, don’t necessarily lead to an absorbing experience. (Check the IMDB user reviews for a discussion of whether the film can be watched without falling asleep.) Nevertheless, when touting Kane’s importance, film scholars tend to make grand claims about the narrative content. The Northwest Film Center’s own capsule description claims “The film is really a meditation on loss of innocence and the collapse of the American Dream, long before those tropes became well-worn.” The loss of innocence has been a trope of art in every century, of course, and the American Dream’s failure to appear on demand has been lamented ever since the invention of the concept. Welles already had the disillusionment of The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and other Lost Generation texts from the 1920s to look to, and in film, antihero gangsters were already coming to their sad demises in the 1930’s (James Cagney’s The Public Enemy was released in 1931) while the “newspaper genre” of The Front Page, Platinum Blonde, and others flourished in the same decade. Citizen Kane’s narrative material, then, was actually fairly safe stuff on which Welles could hang his exercise in visual virtuosity. By riffing on the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Welles and co-writer Herman Mankiewicz didn’t have to invent a story from whole cloth. Even the screenplay itself, with its leaps through time, is a bit of a technical exercise.
So though we have been sold Citizen Kane as a powerfully elegaic and symbolic film, it’s fine to forget this. Welles’s talent wasn’t in the creation of supposedly original material, nor was he a Capra-style populist looking to please a mass audience with fables. Welles liked to put a spin on pre-existing stories and forms (e.g. what if a news report was used to deliver fiction about Martians landing?) and enjoyed discomforting the audience. Citizen Kane is likewise more eccentric and strange than it is symbolic. Welles is an ironist whose inclinations lie far closer to the neighborhood of David Lynch than they do to Steven Spielberg.
Welles was a manipulator, and Citizen Kane may be his smoothest manipulation. We should offer the film the respect of not expecting to like it. The spectacle—whether masterful, grotesque, or both is up to audiences—is best examined as big as someone is willing to project it.
Dan DeWeese is the author of the novel You Don't Love This Man and the story collection Disorder. He has been writing about the history of speculative cinema.