dir. Orson Welles
with Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane et al
What’s so good about Citizen Kane?
You’re always wary of saying anything about a film like Citizen Kane. Are you just following the herd – “Best film ever made!” Are you being all rebellious and iconoclastic – “It ain’t all that!” Are you just regurgitating old opinions and rehashing old observations – “The angles! The cinematography!” What’s new to say about Citizen Kane?
The first time I saw Citizen Kane was at 4am during a bout of insomnia, which I followed up with the other Best Movie Of All Time, Vertigo, at 6am, also for the first time, before heading out to a day’s teaching. I watched both of them because I had to. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy them – in fact, the opposite. It can be a magical thing, insomnia, when you find the right thing to do with it. Curled up close and blinking on the sofa watching these fabulous movies was a truly special experience. My memories of both films are bound up with that moment forever.
I was a media and communications lecturer at a college in town where a colleague had recently asked me to cover her film appreciation evening class at The University. So, I dug out my old copy of How to Read a Film and duly reminded myself about metonymy and synechdoche, about signs and syntax, about diegetic and non-diegetic sound, about mise-en-scène, about montage and mixage. I put a lesson plan together for the ten weeks of the course based on seriously scant notes I’d been passed by my colleague – which consisted mostly of pats on the shoulder and “you can do it in your sleep” kind of non-advice.
Lacking resources, I patrolled the many cheap DVD boutiques of the city centre and spent half my fee arming myself with piles of classic films with which to illustrate the many brilliant teaching points I was sure to make. I scouted the room in advance, sourced a projector and some woofy speakers that didn’t look much but when the lights went out sounded amazing. So with my laptop loaded and my stack of DVDs primed, I had a proper mini-cinema set up in a cosy wee room on the 9th floor ready to give my first lesson. And, after that first lesson, I went into a tailspin of panic and paranoia for each of the remaining nine weeks of the course. Hence the insomnia.
It was hellish. Teaching – sorry, “teaching” – that course was one of the hardest teaching gigs I have ever done. Everybody in that room knew more about film than I did. I mean, I know a wee bit about film. I can do textual analysis on a film as convincingly as the next media studies graduate. I know how to talk about film beyond “I liked that bit where he goes…” I know the critical vocabulary, I know about Cahiers du Cinema, about auteur theory, about the studio system, about the star system. I know the complete works of Krzysztof Kieślowski, for god’s sake.
But I ain’t no buff. This was a room rammed with buffs.
My course outline looked something like this:
Week 1: Introduction: Ways of describing film, vocabulary of film criticism
Week 2: Special effects: A history of film from Metropolis to The Matrix
Week 3: Types of Stories in Film: Film Noir, Western, Science Fiction & Genre mixing
Week 4: Music and Sound in film: from pre-talkies to sound design
Week 5: Influences: films that quote other films & texts
Week 6: The Director: authorship in film & the auteur theory
Week 7: The Editor: What is editing? What do editors do?
Week 8: The Writer: The job of the writer & re-evaluation of auteur theory
Week 9: What’s So Good About Citizen Kane? Special case study
Week 10: It’s a Wrap: Course overview
Each week had scenes from half a dozen exemplar movies, with time and chapter references from the DVDs noted in my lesson plan (this is before portable electronics were actually properly portable, before 3G & wifi, before Youtube had even been thought of). I thought it looked pretty robust.
Until I started talking. About what, I don’t know. Anything. Genre. Framing. Juxtaposition. David Lynch. Alfred Hitchcock. But I swear everyone in that room was doing that Kevin Bridges thing behind my back as I was cueing up the next clip. It was hateful. I was so nervous. I felt I had to teach them stuff, but teach them what? I felt like a total fraud.
But they were probably just as nervous as I was, sitting there in the dark with a bunch of strangers, all of them wondering why my head was ballooning up in front of them like a massive hot red fuzzy sun. Silently wondering when the fuck I was going to stop talking about stuff they either already knew or didn’t give a fuck about and put the next clip on. Which was the thing. They never spoke. Even in the rare moments when I wasn’t gibbering and a movie wasn’t playing, no-one said anything.
The film appreciation class was on a Thursday. I had a full teaching schedule in my day job, but I’d spend most of the week preparing for this one class, watching these movies, selecting clips, in-points, out-points, finding other clips to pair and contrast them with, finding a through line, a teaching point, trying to come up with something original to say, trying to end with a flourish and a connection to the following week’s theme. And every Wednesday night I wouldn’t sleep for mentally playing out meticulously in- and out-pointed scenes of personal humiliation. On repeat. By the time I got to the class I was a wreck.
I used The Matrix a lot. I had missed it when it was on general release, but had been recommended it by a friend. It blew my mind on first and second viewings. By the third, I was convinced it was a modern miracle of blatant cinematic thievery – which the Wachowski Brothers got away with, even more than Tarantino, somehow, because it was sci-fi. They had created a movie with such gloss and shine and verve that it all felt too groovy and futuristic and zeitgeisty and full of new groundbreaking tech to even be thinking about nicking from old films. But sure enough, there’s the opening to Vertigo in the opening rooftop chase. There’s Godard’s jump cuts. And there’s every deep focus shot from Citizen Kane.
Which has the weird kind of reverse effect of making Citizen Kane feel ultra-modern. Sure, it’s black and white. Sure, the costumes are old fashioned. Sure it’s stagey and roomy and big. Sure the “News on the March” segment could be trimmed. But the way each scene is composed and sutured together feels fresh and fast, and it just oozes panache.
I still find it dazzling. I still am massively entertained by the way Orson Welles plays with time like a concertina, squeezing decades together in a single line of dialogue, or the way he zips through the trajectory of a doomed marriage in less than 120 seconds of banal chat, or the way he frames the entire history of a relationship in fewer than half a dozen words. But he also plays with time in a much bigger way: the chronological structure of the film is baroque in its complexity. There are rooms within rooms.
Entire books have been written on Welles’s use of projection, of back-lighting, of chiaroscuro, of severe angles, of various bits of mechanical jiggery-pokery to achieve the many tricks of the eye that contribute to the film’s striking aesthetic, so I won’t even try to do justice to that here, merely remark on the sheer joy of being guided from one frame to the next by a master of light and shade and scale. For all that it is a monochrome film, the nuance of tone and colour achieved in each scene is completely remarkable and a treat for the eye.
What’s new for me this time is that I realise that watching this film is the closest I’ve come to watching a piece of theatre in two dimensions. It’s perhaps understandable, given Welles’s background with his own Mercury Theatre, that he should create a theatrical masterpiece as much as a cinematic one, but it’s not expected – not every master of the stage necessarily becomes a master of the cinema. But those sets, that camera work, those scene transitions, even the shot transitions, are the work of someone who has taken on the defining quirks of a new medium with fresh eyes and a fresh intellect. Kane feels like it takes cinematic story-telling to rarely accessed artistic heights. The question of why nothing has really been seen like it since, leaving aside theories of Welles’s own brilliance/ intransigence, is one for the academics.
Which gets us back to the question of talking about Citizen Kane. It seems to require an academic’s erudition and specialist knowledge of cinema history. It seems to call for absolutes – the best, the most influential, etc. I think I thought I was saying something new when I paired it with The Matrix for my film students, but perhaps not. It’s a film, seemingly, that you can’t talk about without talking about it as a “film”, about its construction, about Orson Welles as co-writer-director-producer-star-auteur, about other films.
Personally, I found watching it again to be a delight. It’s a joyful film, clever, dazzling, beautiful, funny. I love the exuberant energy in scenes like Good Old Charlie Kane. I love Bernard Herrmann’s nuanced score. I love the performances of Mr Bernstein, Jed Leland, young Charlie’s mother, Mr Thatcher – as an ensemble they can be pretty uneven, a few clowns and pantomime turns at the edges, which only adds to the boisterous theatricality of it. And I love that bit where he goes to Leland, “Sure we’re talking: You’re fired!”
I’m not sure how well I answered my own question in my film class. I’m not sure how well I answered it here. But who cares because just like my film studies class, no-one is really listening, just waiting for me to finish.