Citizen Kane is considered the one of the most important movies and one of the best movies of all time. When I first saw it as a young teenager, I thought it was a way too depressing movie and forgot about it, other wondering why everyone thought it was so great. Then I saw it was on the syllabus for my Film Studies 1940 to the Present class at NC State. I wanted to reconsider Citizen Kane with new eyes. I wanted to look at it with a more critical lens than before. So here’s what I found out:
One of the reasons Citizen Kane is so brilliant is that every single flashback is different from the previous one. The reporter goes to various people to find the secret of Charles Foster Kane’s last word, “rosebud,” and every single person tells a different version of how they related Charles Kane. Some, in the early interviews, viewed Kane for favorably but some in the later viewed Kane more negatively. But throughout, the impression of Kane changes with who is telling the story. His former best friend has a different story to tell than his second ex-wife.
The other reason Citizen Kane was brilliant: it was a technical achievement as well. Citizen Kane used a method called Deep Focus, where, instead of the background or foreground being blurry, the background, mid-ground, and foreground were all in focus. Thus, every single area of the screen can be important. Also, instead of quick takes between people, there are long takes, without cutting – which enabled the viewer to take the environment more carefully as well as the subject. Also, instead of keeping the same lighting throughout, there is harsh lighting and more shadows as Kane grows older. What all of this shows is a master of technique to use the elements of the camera as part of the story, rather than as an unobtrusive observer.
So the story broke the system: it didn’t follow the technical rules or the old narrative rules. It told its own story according to its own rules. By any account, it should be considered brilliant. And it is: however, it is the subject matter that I still don’t like: Citizen Kane is like the anti-Christmas Carol: Kane dies alone, rich in physical wealth but emotionally bankrupt. Throughout the entire film, he serves himself and this pushes away anyone who ever cared about him: his friends, his two wives, and others who care about him. In the end, no one really knows him, but all it was filtered through the fact that Kane served only himself. Kane collected statues towards the end of his life, leading my professor to speculate that he had statues because they were lifeless and he could control them. This was because he tried to control people he was close to but he was unsuccessful.
Get the picture? Citizen Kane is an extremely depressing film about a wealthy man who dies alone. Narratively and technically brilliant, but not really a movie I’d want to watch again, given the subject matter. The technique could be used for any idea, but it’s used for one that leaves you feeling empty rather than uplifted. Citizen Kane may be a great movie, but it’s not one I’d want to watch again.
What do you think? Do you think the narrative and technical achievements override any feelings about the story itself? Using the same elements that Orson Wells used, what type of story would you tell?