Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Great Movies: In Defense of The Greatest American Film

I continue with my series of personal musings about the state of moviemaking and moviegoing, by taking another look back at an old masterpiece.  It is a film that I didn't warm to at first, and after watching it closely, reading about its history, what it represented, and how it inspired many great filmmakers, I learned to appreciate it and admire it. 

Soon it grew on me: the stark and clever imagery, the intelligent and witty dialog, the brassy and often playful music score, and the beautifully realized labyrinth of a plot.  Nowadays, I truly enjoy it.  Even though it is very familiar to me, I am still amazed by its freshness, and its ability to show me new things with each viewing.

I now agree with Pauline Kael, (a hero of mine), when she said that it was one of the most enjoyable great films ever made.

I have pondered this essay for weeks....thinking that I wanted to be careful not to do it an injustice with hasty opinions badly expressed.  This film deserves the care and perfection it offers its viewers, and an acknowledgment of the intelligence and sensitivity of its audience.

I have been disheartened to read on-line movie reviewers claim that this milestone film is overrated.  Seems that moviegoing has become more of an amusement park attraction than a participation in the humanities.  Many truly artistic films which require thought, active engagement, emotional openness, and an appreciation of human nature, alienate some of those who attend movies for a temporary visual thrill,  or the empty fullness of a happy meal.

I still get excited when I think about this film.  Essentially, it is a mystery story.  A journalist, trying to fashion a conclusion to a newsreel about a famous and wealthy newspaper magnate, looks for the meaning in this man's life by interpreting his dying word.

As we begin, we are drawn in, ominously, to the lighted room of a castle, to the man's deathbed, the placement of the window remaining fixed in the frame even as the shots move closer, change perspective.  And suddenly the light goes out....

The structure of the plot, which is basically a psychological profile of this great and hated man, tells the story in bits and pieces, with each segment providing a little more to the puzzle. The newsreel itself gives us information about the man's life that completes the biography without ever being mentioned again in the movie (for example, the death of his first wife and son).  The rules of cinematic time are bent and re-connected in breathtaking and economical ways, moving us though an exciting history of the man's triumphs, losses, and tragic flaws. This kind of non-linear storytelling was groundbreaking in its day, and has rarely been as successful.

A snow globe is broken early in the film as his dying word is uttered.  We see it appear again, imperceptible, in the corner of the parlor of his future second wife....mothers are mentioned...a wistful expression appears on the man's face...clues abound, but don't stand out as clues...The globe appears one more time as the man, having lost love yet again, tears apart a bedroom in a rage.  When he finds the globe in his hand, he cannot bear to break it...he utters the word again...and for the first time, we see him in tears, aging and broken.

Here is a rich man who had everything except the primal love that he lost in childhood.  By the time the film ends, no one in the film ever discovers the meaning of his last word...but we do.  And it is absurd in and of itself.  Yet when the deeper implications expand in our minds (the tragedy of family abandonment, his striving for greatness to compensate for loneliness, his last remnants going up in smoke), it is chilling and profoundly moving.

When I finally understood this multifaceted, ambitious, and tragic character, I felt I knew myself better, and the motivations of others like him.  The ability to present a character so vividly that one can translate that understanding into a deeper wisdom of our own world-- that is the greatest gift that  motion picture art, (any kind of art) offers a viewer.

There is a cold, detached aura to the film.  (Note, for example, how the narrator, with whom the audience closely identifies, never shows his face.) The film's style and construction is of a piece with its title character: demanding, complex, enigmatic, and forceful.  It is not a
"crowd-pleaser",  but it offers huge emotional and intellectual awards to those who give it a chance, and re-visit it.  It is silly to claim that the movie is no good because it is no longer a popular title.  Great works of art typically are not those immediately sought out by a mass audience.

Orson Welles.  Charles Foster Kane. Xanadu.  The Inquirer.  A Declaration of Principles.  A glass snow globe. "In search of my youth".  "Rosebud".  I hope you may wish to see "Citizen Kane" for the first time, or give it another look.  Calling any piece of art the greatest of all time is a difficult proposition.  But the motion picture is a relatively young art in America, and "Citizen Kane", with its innovation, freshness, honesty and intelligence, is a worthy claimant to that mantle.

Overrated?  Not at all.  We must do a better job preserving cinematic traditions, and championing for posterity the kind of classic cinematic art that aspires to exploring the human condition.  Movie lovers need this cinematic foundation,  just as students of other art forms revere their respective artisitc traditions. 

We need to support critics, on-line or otherwise, who have earned a claim to expertise, and do not dismiss great works of art because they don't conform to a narrow definition of what's popular, pleasurable, or cool.  We have to cultivate an appreciation of fine films that may not seem relevant now, but that are actually rich in universal themes, emotions, even techniques.

All art forms have their respected classics, and great artists.  Beethoven, Monet, Dudhamel, Robbins, Austen, and yes, even Welles-- deserve respect for their achievements and influence, and should not be disparaged by those who may not yet be ready to appreciate their artistry, their beauty, right away. 

So forget the intimidating, inflated labels, and see "Citizen Kane."  Actively engage with it. Watch every part of the screen carefully. Make your own discoveries. Enjoy!


  1. I'm still not too fond of this much, I wonder if it's because I'm not American...

  2. This is one of those classic films you can never watch enough of, and as a young journalism student, it fascinated me. Perhaps it was the obvious parallels of Charles Foster Kane and William Randolph Hearst, I don't know. Either way, there's no question that it is the greatest movie of all time. Excellent post, Tom!

  3. I have to agree this is far from overrated. It's funny a handful of critics go after this rather than easy targets like Singin' in the Rain, which is obviously trash.

    And to explain the recent abundance of crap I've watched, they're all Razzie nominees. Last week was '80s Razzie nominees. This week will be '90s nominees, assuming I don't get bored and move on to the 2000s. If there's any Razzie nominee you want to champion, let me know. I sat through Newsies for a friend, so I can handle anything.

  4. I remained concerned for the future of Citizen Kane and others like it in this uncertain cultural era. Tom, I hope you and others like you will continue to remember these classics.
    Andrew, I hope you give Kane another chance, you might see something fresh and new.
    Adam, I am not too familiar with the Razzies as I usually seek to avoid these titles. But didn't Sandra Bullock win one last year? maybe you can cover that film(whatever it was).