The Elephant in the Cinema
It is, in many ways, a classic tale of the American dream: a young man inherits tremendous wealth and influence, at the cost of being raised in an essentially loveless environment. He comes to adulthood with a pathological need for the affection he himself finds almost impossible to give to others. He becomes an influential figure in the media and politics, though not without the odd sex scandal blighting his progress. When he eventually faces rejection by the voters, he and his supporters blame this on fraud at the ballot box. An isolated, somewhat embittered and lonely figure, he retires to his estate in Florida. Where, who knows, he may watch what he declared a few years ago to be his favourite movie, Orson Welles' little-known 1941 production Citizen Kane.
Yes, having looked at Netflix's Kane homage last week, it feels appropriate to revisit the original – also, and this is just between you and me, the moment may be approaching when this column has to go into a state of partial or total hibernation for an indefinite period, and I think we should try and get all the major movies done before that happens. So: Citizen Kane. What's all the fuss about?
Well, Citizen Kane is the Citizen Kane of mainstream movie-making, which isn't actually very informative except to suggest just what kind of status this film possesses in our culture. For decades it was virtually a shoo-in whenever they held a poll to decide the greatest movie ever made – and of course the problem with this is that it can raise expectations to an unreasonably high level. I first saw the film when it was shown on TV for its fiftieth anniversary, and I was left distinctly underwhelmed by it, and cheerfully nodded along with a short film made by Robert Kee suggesting it is in fact greatly over-rated.
Since then, I have moderated my opinion of it somewhat, possibly due to the fact I have done a lot of reading about Orson Welles and his career in the last few years and better understand the extraordinary background to this film – how a radio and theatre actor and director, still only in his mid-twenties, was assiduously courted by Hollywood and offered an unprecedented deal, how Kane only came about when an adaptation of Heart of Darkness proved unworkable, how the production ran into serious trouble when the media mogul William Randolph Hearst (not unreasonably) concluded it was based on his own life, and so on. That said, for many people it is still probably just the film with the sledge.
As far as the story is concerned – the major strokes of which I have alluded to, somewhat facetiously, already – the striking thing about it nowadays is how resonant it all feels. In many ways Citizen Kane is not a movie which has dated, at least stylistically, and yet watching now it almost feels topical much of the time. There is something almost uncanny about the way the major beats of the film chime with those of the life story of – and here we must put a name on the elephant in the room – Donald Trump.
That said, if we're going to talk about Citizen Kane as some kind of weird accidental prediction of the rise of Trump, it's worth mentioning that Kane himself never makes it to the governor's mansion, let alone the White House. Reality has less of a sense of moral propriety than the movie business, it would seem. Citizen Kane is, apparently, Trump's favourite film, but – with his usual almost uncanny talent for wrongness – his take on the film is at odds with the consensus: he finds Kane to be a tragic figure, isolated by his great wealth, undone by poor choices of sexual partner. In short, Trump is a lot more sympathetic towards Kane than Orson Welles ever was, which probably tells you everything you need to know.
The film is really about a man who chooses the love of power over the power of love – although Welles does open the door a crack to finding some pathos for Kane, with the final suggestion that it was childhood trauma which turns him into the emotionally stunted monster he eventually becomes – and while it is solid, it is not especially innovative or thought-provoking. The film's reputation rests not on the story itself, but how it is told – Citizen Kane does have its own visual style, or perhaps I should say an array of visual and storytelling techniques – use of handheld cameras, extended flashbacks, innovative cuts and fades, unusual compositions, and extensive use of deep focus.
There is a sense in which Welles is clearly writing the book on cinematic storytelling which everyone else has been dipping into ever since; the film is stuffed with casual bits of brilliance such as the breakfast montage. The consistent invention of the film is daunting, but as one looks at it more closely one does almost get the sense that Welles is often just showing off – the shot where the camera appears to pass through a neon sign and a pane of glass is justly famous, but it gets repeated twice more. And I do think there is something in one of Kee's main criticisms – that the techniques and devices employed by Welles don't always serve the story. There's another famous shot of Kane walking between a pair of mirrors, and his reflections dwindle off to infinity – and it looks great, but how is it helping to tell the story at that moment?
Given the fact that we barely see Kane himself through our own eyes, but overwhelmingly through the recollections of others, you might expect Welles to make the most of this and exploit the possibilities implicit in the use of multiple perspectives – Kane's ex-wife is hardly going to remember him in the same way as a devoted, long-serving employee, for example. But this doesn't seem to happen – Kane is Kane, consistently portrayed by Welles throughout the film.
Then again, I suppose the director would have said that this is a character study, not a film about the unknowability of character. The concluding irony of Kane is that the journalists conclude there isn't a single easy key to understanding a man's life and personality, after which the film suggests that the exact opposite may be true. Perhaps this simplistic approach to psychology is another reason to be more critical of the film.
One could never say that Citizen Kane is not a landmark, classic film, though: ascertaining the extent of its impact on modern film is a bit like trying to map the coastline of the UK without leaving the centre of Northampton – Orson Welles marked out much of the territory people have been using ever since. That Hollywood was never again able to really make full use of his faculties was surely a tragedy for them both, but this film alone means that Welles is assured of immortality for as long as the medium persists.