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January 1, 2012

10

There Will Never Be a Greater Film Than Citizen Kane

by NIR SHALEV

It all began in 1872, when a former California senator had a bet regarding whether all four of a horse’s hooves are off the ground at the same time during a trot. He hired English professor Eadweard Muybridge to use his latest invention, a type of motion camera to record the event. After that, with the advent of the moving pictures French “filmmakers” took over the process and motion pictures were in full swing. Then came the Russians; most notably and importantly Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), whose editing techniques are studied and fully utilized even today.

And then in 1941, came Orson Welles. He wrote, directed, and starred in his first full-length film Citizen Kane and history was made. What’s so important about his film is that it utilized everything that was used throughout the previous six decades’ worth of filmmaking techniques and various approaches to storytelling.

Citizen Kane, based on the life and times of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, tells the story of a young boy, Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) whose parents had traded him for money. His mother believed that he would be much happier in his new, rich life than living with them in a mining town. As Charles grew so did his obsession with collecting things because his purpose in life was lost. He was selfishly compensating for the loss of his “original” childhood by filling up his “new” life with everything that he could collect and he was doing so with the money that he’d earned selling newspapers. After all, he owned the company and used dirty politics and tricks to expand his territory to a national level. Charles went through two wives, both mostly unhappy, and lost a son of his own and also his best friend. In the end, he died alone and all of the billions of dollars worth of statues, paintings, cars, and animals, along with his newspaper business and gigantic mansion went to waste.

So what makes Citizen Kane the most accomplished, magnificent, entertaining, and perfect movie ever made? Well, aside from the terrific, character-driven story you have one of the most technically proficient films that had been made to that time and it still puts most films, if not all films today to shame.

Citizen Kane utilizes every trick in the book and not a single one is put to waste. No one at that time had used camera angles as low or as high as Welles did- even cutting holes into the floor and placing the camera at literal floor level; no one had used the transitions that he did; no one had used musical numbers, shadow puppets, and a pterodactyl in the same film; no one had used optical illusions like he did, using them to develop characters instead of simply to entertain moviegoers; and no one had the audacity to join the writers’, film actors’, and directors’ guilds in order to accomplish said feat. Orson Welles was born a genius and it shows with each viewing of his masterful film debut. Of course, because it was different than what Hollywood was used to seeing for the prior 40-plus years it was panned and discarded, and his carte blanche status at the studio was revoked.

I have watched Citizen Kane many times, an accurate number I cannot recall, and it never fails to astonish me. Its gorgeous black and white cinematography is to die for; the brilliant sets, evoking seven different decades’ worth of knickknacks and memorabilia are beautiful rendered; it has sharp and lyrical dialogue that amuses me even today; each character’s development is fully realized and they all seem like human beings and not caricatures; the aforementioned optical illusions (like the scene where Kane stands by a desk with a couple of colleagues and the windows in the background seem to be normal in size, and then when he walks away from the desk and toward the windows they seem to grow many times in size, creating the metaphorical illusion that Kane is a small person); and of course, the story of a man that had it all and yet would quickly trade everything for his “original” childhood.

There are numerous sequences in the film that bring tears to my eyes, usually due to every character’s fragile humanity. There are others that make me laugh, like when Kane turns 24 and tells his adoptive father that since his newspaper business is losing a million dollars a year and would probably continue to do so, he’d eventually have to close the place in 60 years. The showy sequences always feel genuine and were written with the intention of being interesting, entertaining, and important to the story, and all at the same time.

There is a kind of magic feeling that emanates from every shot in the film. That feeling is never dull, never feels repeated or superfluous, and has managed to remain within me for years. I believe that that magic feeling will rest in my heart for as long as I live and will always make an appearance whenever I re-watch the greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jan 3 2012

    Nir, you’ve written a wonderful appreciation. “Citizen Kane” is truly the ultimate riposte to the claims that great films are dull and that entertainment value is antithetical to greatness.

    “Kane” is essential viewing on the merits and as a cultural touchstone. On that note, did you enjoy the breakfast scene homage in “The Artist”?

  2. Jan 3 2012

    …I knew this was coming…

    Of course I did! It was hilarious! I was the only one in the theatre laughing but to my surprise, the theatre was packed at that showing and there was only one walkout (within the first twenty minutes).

    “Kane” is the textbook to filmmaking and many dismiss it as the greatest film ever made, even though it’s an important film specifically because it’s THE textbook on filmmaking. That’s what annoys me. It has managed to become the greatest filmmaking textbook, therefore it’s the best film. Plus, it’s so damn entertaining!

    And here’s a little tidbit for yah: apparently, The Artist was influenced mostly from F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and City Girl. Ironic, no?

  3. Jan 11 2012

    Excellent write-up. I’ve only seen it once, but I loved it. I know I didn’t catch every little detail, and I know I probably still won’t when I reach my tenth viewing. I’ve seen precious few films that I could consider its peers, quality-wise.

  4. Jan 11 2012

    @George, thank you.

    “Kane” is also the only film I’ve seen in which making the young actors look old with makeup looks good.

  5. Jan 11 2012

    Great write up. If you’ve seen the film that many times you’ve probably watched it while listening to Roger Ebert’s commentary. If you have not, I highly recommend it. It’s on the Criterion disk. It is perhaps the most informative commentary track I have ever listened to. (Yes, even pointing out the pterodactyl from the re-used footage.)

  6. Jan 12 2012

    That’s how I know about the pterodactyl! lol

    The commentary was originally on the Criterion laserdisc, yes and it’s also on the 2-disc DVD and on the 70th anniversary Blu-ray editions. And there’s another commentary track from Peter Bogdanovich.

    Ebert has been my insight and inspiration for over 7 years, even though I don’t like as many contemporary films as he does (he’s much more lenient) but we do agree on quite a few bad film together. I remember watching “Kane” for the first time and then immediately rewatching it with Ebert’s commentary. And I did the same with the Criterion release of Floating Weeds (1959). It’s become my favourite Ozu film.

    Ebert also has a great commentary track on the Dark City DVD re release and Blu-ray. :OD

  7. Jan 12 2012

    Yes, I’ve listened to his Dark City commentary, too. I wasn’t too impressed by Bogdonavitch’s Kane commentary. He starts off by saying that he doesn’t feel this is even one of Welles’ better movies, then spends minutes at a time not saying anything, just watching the movie. Unlike Ebert he was obviously unprepared.

  8. Jan 12 2012

    True. But his commentary on The Lady from Shanghai was good. Informative as to Welles’ career at that time, how the studio butchered yet another film (all of his films after Kane, actually). I was just impressed that Welles used an Irish accent in the film and it never left his lips.
    …unlike DiCaprio and Diaz in Gangs of New York…

  9. Apr 1 2015

    wow! so you are moses.. gosh

  10. May 29 2015

    :D

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