Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Citizen Kane (1941)

Release Date:
1 May 1941 (USA)

Orson Welles

Herman Mankiewicz (screenplay)
Orson Welles (screenplay)

Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane)
Joseph Cotton (Ledediah Leland)
Dorothy Comingore (Susan Alexander Kane)
Agnes Moorehead (Mary Kane)
Everett Sloane (Mr. Bernstein)

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(viewed SA 26 Jan 2008) This movie is a masterpiece. The performances were exceptional; the drama is intense; the attention to cinemagraphic detail is remarkable; and above all, every concrete shown to the viewer is integrated and contributes to the film as a whole.

Charles Foster Kane is a monomaniac, a bully, and a second-hander. At root, all he wants is to be loved by others; every action of his, even those that seem to be out of love for others, is calculated (or miscalculated) to garner adoration. There are shades of Gail Wynand here, though with at least two crucial differences. Wynand earned his newspaper; Kane did not. And Wynand's soul was not that of a second-hander, though in the end both Wynand and Kane ended up destroyed by the ultimate second-handedness of their drive for power (Wynand) and love (Kane).

As a foe of political bosses, Kane comes across as essentially good, though there is nothing here to show that he had anything more than vaguely left-leaning ideas. He was denounced by the conservative "establishment" as a communist and denounced by communist labor leaders as a fascist.

What the film drives home, I think, is that one cannot invert causes with effects. Rewards must be earned. It's almost comical to hear the echo in the cavernous castle of Xanadu that Kane builds for Susan. Or perhaps after all he built it not for Susan but as a monument to himself. They can barely carry on a conversation in the ridiculously barren hall, which Susan occupies just a corner of in order to put together her jigsaw puzzles. She doesn't even like the place - in fact, she hates it. In its collosal and brutal misunderstanding, the structure itself stands as a symbol of futility, a testament to the principle I wrote above: rewards must be earned. A monument built to Charles Foster Kane's greatness could no more reflect true greatness than Kane's building of an opera house could make Susan a great singer.

The writing here is brilliant. Of the innumerable moments worth mentioning, I'll limit myself to a few. Kane's Inquirer, like Wynand's Banner, prints according to his personal agenda, and the movie makes clear that however good Kane's intentions are he is not constrained to the truth. (This despite the written declaration he makes to his audience promising to tell the truth, a marvelous plot device that comes back to haunt him at a key point later in the movie.) Kane's best friend, Jedediah Leland (played magnificently by Joseph Cotton), said he never believed anything the Inquirer printed, a poignant comment because it was uttered about Kane's last word being "Rosebud," which was in fact true.

Another moment: When the first Mrs. Kane begins, "People will think - ," Kane bursts out, "What I tell them to think!" Later, Kane revealingly described his second wife as "a cross-section of the American public," reminding me of something that Ellsworth Toohey might have uttered.

And then, when Kane is leaving Xanadu after throwing a fit over Susan's departure, he walks between two parallel mirrors, suddenly multiplying into countless identical images of himself, to be scattered to the public like crematory ashes. The observation is made when Kane first met Susan; there are two kinds of loneliness: Susan's, as a result of not knowing enough people, and Kane's, as a result of knowing too many.

I suppose on the surface Kane's behavior could be attributed to "selfishness" - we are repeatedly told that Kane clearly "loves himself" - but I think there is enough in the film for a critically-thinking viewer to identify that the opposite is true. In the end he ends up with nothing. A monomaniacal lust for power and adoration is not a formula for happiness.

(viewed SA 26 Jan 2008) I had seen this before. I’m sure it meant less to me the first time I saw it, but it was obvious where Mr. Kane went wrong. While he gave the appearance of a strong value system and self-service, his life was structured around the opinion of others. So it was a good movie – epic in scale, well-done, and interesting, but I wasn’t really keen on seeing the downward spiral of a vigorous man ending his large life not with a bang, but a whisper (I know it's whimper, it just doesn't end that way). The movie is reaching for something, but offers no heroes for the viewer to grasp.

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