You have to marvel at those poor souls who look at a portrait by Rembrandt as they would floral wallpaper, or read a poem by Yeats and register it in the same way they would an article on fly-fishing; people who simply don’t get it and most likely never will regardless of education or experience. I’m not suggesting that everyone has to have a passion for the arts, but there are those who, while mostly indifferent when it comes to art, know that there is just something to a Rembrandt or a Goya that a typical painting simply does not possess, even if they are unable to express what that particular thing might be. Then there are folks like Harrison Crawford whose review of Citizen Kane begins, after describing, briefly, Welles’ infamous tenure as a wine salesman, as thus:
It wasn’t until college that I had a chance to see Kane on a big screen in an actual movie theater. And at the time I parroted the enthusiasm it had generated in many of the intellectual pillars of the arts crowd, the same analysts who adored the movies of Jean Renoir, Francois Truffaut and Ingmar Bergman. “Wow! Magnificent! An unbelievable cinematic achievement! Orson Welles, the original auteur! All hail, Caesar!”
Last week, I saw the movie again. This time the youthful enthusiasm I originally had for it was mostly absent. In my maturity I tend to agree with the mature judgment of Orson Welles himself, who near the end of his life told a friend he thought a “cold wind” ran through Citizen Kane.
For those unfamiliar with the movie (and that would probably be almost every reader under the age of 40), let me summarize it: A reporter fails to find the meaning of a lonely tycoon’s dying word.
Yes, you read it correctly. Does this sound like a riveting story? Would a millennial nerd, hearing that tagline, be energized to cast away his iPod and his Twitter surfing, put on his jeans and run to the nearest art house to see a revival of it? Ahem, I DON’T THINK SO!
It is true: there are numerous film students and critics who claim to appreciate great works, including Citizen Kane, without actually understanding why those works are great and end-up “parroting” what others I have said. Crawford claims to have grown out of this, developing a perspective independent of others, but while he didn’t truly understand why Kane was great when he was a student he still manages to be clueless despite his “maturity.”
First off, look at his synopsis of the film: “A reporter fails to find the meaning of a lonely tycoon’s dying word.” This is more like a succinct description of the film’s ending, but whatever. The main issue is that Crawford simply doesn’t get that whether a story is “riveting” or not comes from how the story is constructed. This means that a movie merely about a man going for a walk on a Tuesday could potentially be great, or riveting. “Would a millennial nerd…” This is just silly. It’s as if Crawford is still the student in college for he’s evoking some rather sophomoric ideas in regards to art. So what if a nerd living in 2015 or 2265 or 2982 wouldn’t be excited by (Crawford’s) tagline? What does that have to do with the movie’s quality, which isn’t dependent on one’s emotional relationship towards it? Citizen Kane was great when it came out and it is still great now whether or not a film nerd today may or may not like watching it. Crawford almost has the right idea, that great art should have a timelessness, but he’s just one of those people who doesn’t quite get it.
He moves beyond his own synopsis and summarizes the film in some length. Here’s how he describes the ending:
Though revealing much about Kane’s character—namely, that he was an arrogant, self-centered, manipulative jerk who consistently betrayed his friends and threw money at his problems— the various interviewees leave Thompson’s original inquiry unanswered. At Xanadu, Kane’s massive Florida pleasure palace (modeled after William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon, as is much of Kane’s life and career modeled after Hearst), Thompson observes some of Kane’s bric-a-brac being thrown into an incinerator. One of the items is the snow sled from his Colorado childhood. Unbeknownst to Thompson or anyone else, the burning flames reveal “Rosebud” on the sled as the movie closes. A yearning for the lost innocence of childhood, perhaps? We can’t tell.
Note his disingenuous use of “the royal we” and how he claims to not understand the symbolism of Rosebud despite claiming that it represents “the lost innocence of childhood.” Yes, he puts what the symbol means in the form of a question, but that’s just a ruse: he knows that’s what the sleigh represents, but putting it in question-form is Crawford’s special way of implying that the movie has somehow failed in expressing this, and that he is, somehow, above the film itself. Of course, Crawford isn’t going to touch on the ending beyond its basic meaning (no mention of the fact that the symbolic sleigh is now not only lost to Kane, but to everyone else as well, especially to those who were searching for a way to understand Kane as a person.) He knows what he is supposed to get, but he perhaps isn’t impressed and, instead of trying to think about what the film does at a level deeper than what Sparknotes suggests, he blames the film itself.
But, alas, there’s more to drama than mere technical excellence and brilliant acting, just as there’s more to dentistry than successfully pulling teeth. The dentist who pulls out a tooth painlessly and thoroughly—but who pulls out the wrong tooth—would have done better to leave the patient alone. And, in making a movie about a man who shows no redeeming virtues of any sort, Welles has pulled the wrong tooth out of his audience.
For all people, even all villains, have some redeeming virtue. Evil monsters, from Goliath to Captain Ahab, have always had something about them, some talent or capacity for achievement, some quirky bit of charisma to remind us that, if they ever learned to switch sides and fight for good, we might actually learn to like them. But Charles Foster Kane has no shred of any of this. We are told repeatedly, ad nauseum, by the likes of Susan Alexander Kane and Jed Leland, that Kane lived only for Kane. We do not see that he has really earned anything that he has been given in his life. In consequence, we get bored after a while. The uniformly selfish spectacle of his personality gets tiresome.
A selfish, rich and manipulative male—what is compelling or unusual about this? History, drama and literature are awash with the stereotype. Welles, and perhaps even more guiltily, Herman Mankiewicz, the co-credited screenwriter who was older than Welles and should have known better, went over the top. Didn’t they realize the monotony of egotism needed at least a little moderation?
Crawford is correct, despite the clunky comparison to dentistry, that technical excellence does not automatically equate to artistic greatness. And he’s also correct that villains in real-life aren’t merely villains, but contain, with varying degrees, nuance (though I would have used a different word instead of the over-the-top “virtue,”) but look at how he describes a villain that is redeemable: someone who is charismatic, talented and, if things were different, might have been on the “right side”; now, doesn’t this fit Charles Foster Kane to a fucking tee? Isn’t one of the reasons why Kane is considered a tragedy because it depicts a great man (charismatic, passionate, ambitious, and ingenious enough to expand his empire) who, despite his greatness, dies alone? Did Crawford even watch the film? Or, better yet, did he watch the film with blinders willingly, or unwillingly?
“The uniformly selfish spectacle of his personality gets tiresome.” This criticism would apply to a movie like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that is nothing but drug-addicts doing silly, drug-addict things; however, in Citizen Kane we get not only Kane’s selfishness, but the impact and various consequences of his selfishness. And it’s not like Kane just does a bunch of self-serving shit (Kane ends up doing things for others as well, but whatever) and then end-credits. Did Crawford miss the irony at the end that, despite Kane’s commitment to filling his inner-lacks, is alone and utterly lost to himself? What about the ways Kane’s life is depicted? Going back to technical excellence, Kane is a great film that uses lighting and editing and a (somewhat) nonlinear structure to make the watching experience more interesting. Instead of a continuous stream of selfishness, we swerve between moments, via other characters’ perspectives, to try to cohere a portrait of someone. In various scenes, we see Kane looming larger than all else within the frame; we see Kane in focus while objects in the foreground are in a haze; we see Kane trapped within an infinite reflection of himself through the mirrors at the end. Such things are the result of excellent technique in the service of narrative; Citizen Kane becomes not just some story of a selfish oaf, but an interesting and well-crafted tale of a man who happens to be selfish amongst many other things.
“A selfish, rich and manipulative male—what is compelling or unusual about this? History, drama and literature are awash with the stereotype.” Do I even have to address such stolidity? Fine. This goes back to a point I made earlier, that you can make a movie about nearly anything and it could potentially be supernal if in capable hands. Kane is excellent because it is not only a great portrait of a singular entity, but it’s also applicable to the thousands or millions of “great men” that have traversed human history. This is because, while it’s great in its depiction of a single person, it’s outwardly great for it touches on things universal, going beyond shallow and transitory explanations. Timelessness is one of the requisites for a great work of art, and Citizen Kane proves itself.
So, that shows how–oh wait, there’s more? Great.
Younger generations today, in trying to find a parallel to Hearst/Kane in their own experience, might consider Rupert Murdoch, the distant and mysterious majordomo of the Fox News empire. But Murdoch as a young man was not well-known. Perhaps a more easily decipherable young gun, a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg, might resonate with them more and suggest some type of modern day incarnation of Kane. But Jobs and Zuckerberg both illustrate the complexity of fascination: though arrogant, wealthy, domineering and opportunistic, these men had a palpable genius, a sense of innovation which lent itself to humanitarianism. Welles and Mankiewicz, despite their flair for drama, deprived their Charles Foster Kane of this.
Crawford must have watched the movie in the same way a dullard looks at Monet and only sees the colors and shapes. He just sees some bloke being selfish on the screen whilst missing pretty much everything else. However, you, the reader, might have managed to see something yourself: a running theme in Crawford’s “review”–the suggestion that Kane doesn’t “hold-up” in the new century. Here he implies that Kane is somehow now irrelevant to millennials for they have such archetypical figures as Jobs and Zuckerberg. But anyone can see how Jobs and Zuckerberg are often compared, rightly or not, to Kane and it’s not because the character just happens to be wealthy. Hell, Crawford even admits to this: younger generations filter certain real-life figures through Kane because they represent much of what Kane does. If Kane didn’t have a “palpable genius, a sense of innovation which lent itself to humanitarianism,” then why would people use him as a point of reference? Crawford is trying to make a point, but, unfortunately, reality keeps undermining him. Boo.
Here’s how Crawford concludes his review:
Largely as a result, it is unlikely anyone in today’s world who is not a cinema aficionado, a cognoscente of craft, will find Citizen Kane appealing. Unlike George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life or Rick Blaine in Casablanca, torn and tortured heroes of two other classics of the 1940’s, Charles Foster Kane doesn’t seem to know the difference between good or evil, or to care. In retrospect, he resembles the aging, obese caricature Welles himself became: rich but totally irrelevant.
Bullshit. Plenty of people appreciate Citizen Kane because they actually watched the movie, unlike you. And even if a small fraction of the populace doesn’t care about the film currently, or films in general as an art-form, that doesn’t make Kane less relevant. If we’re going to use time as a measurement of greatness then it would behoove us not to measure how many people approach a work in a single decade or generation, but rather if that particular work survives after numerous decades. If not many people watch Kane now, that doesn’t mean people are going to stop watching it in 2095. In contrast, a million people might watch Terminator: Genysis this year, but is anyone even going to know its name twenty years from now? And another thing: is knowing the difference between good and evil really your metric for measuring the quality of a character? Get the fuck out of here. I would say Kane knows the difference, but, screw it, it’s redundant at this point to argue at this point.
Is Citizen Kane the greatest movie ever? Perhaps not. Hell, I would argue that it’s not even Welles’s best film, but it’s still a damned fine film, one that is not just innovative but whose numerous innovations help serve the story and deepen it. Crawford, in writing his review, probably felt the need to form a corrective to the popular perception that Kane is the “greatest movie in the history of forever ever,” but, while he’s not calling it the worst, he seems to be trying way too hard to adopt the other extreme. You see such behavior from teenagers and hipsters whose response to a superlative is to take on the polar opposite position: “Dark Side of the Moon isn’t the best album ever–in fact, it sucks fucking doggy dick!” But neither side realizes that the truth usually, though not always, lies in between the opposites of the spectrum. Crawford falls for a very peculiar trap: he really, desperately, wants to be the guy that sees “the light” whilst everyone else remains fixed to the shadows on the cavern wall. But, at least when it comes to assessing art, he is blind. Despite what he might think of himself, he really isn’t that different from the guy he was in college–he just happens to represent a different camp.
I imagine Crawford at an art museum, shuffling past the various exhibits, shaking his head and muttering to himself as he looks at Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais and then Duchamp’s terrible conceptual art, viewing both with the same, uncomprehending gaze. Some people, bless them, can’t tell the difference between greatness and crap and only have silly justifications to provide for their lack of sight. The answer gets lost in the clutter and, like the reporter who’s given-up on his search for meaning behind a man’s final utterance, Crawford leaves the building unknowing of what will survive the generations and what will vanish in the fire.
Okay, enough of these pseudo-critics. I now want to get back to posting movie reviews and crappy poems. I just need to…wait…
What is that?