Saturday, November 12, 2011

In Defense of Citizen Kane

The following is my brief contribution to True Classics' The Great Citizen Kane Debate.

In 1952 Sight & Sound polled the world’s leading film critics to compile a list of the best films of all time. The magazine has repeated this poll every ten years, to show which films stand the test of time in the face of shifting critical opinion.  Orson Welles' debut masterpiece did not appear on the initial 1952 list, but Citizen Kane did claim the top spot in 1962, and has held its position every decade ever since.   And of course, this seemingly universal adoration for the film does not stop there.   Topping poll after poll after poll over the past sixty years or so, the formidable Kane (a film as brazen as its director and its subject) is today considered by many to be a film without peers - the greatest film ever made.  A bold statement indeed.  Now the question we must ask ourselves here and now is, "Is Citizen Kane truly the greatest film ever made?"  

I still remember when I first saw the great Kane.   I was a seventeen year old high school senior and I had decided to sign up for a new elective our school was offering.  It was a film class and among the films I got to see for the first time here (Psycho, Bonnie and Clyde, Lifeboat, Wait Until Dark) was Citizen Kane.  The class was a full semester, and half of that time was spent on this one film alone.  I remember when we first watched it - before any discussion on it - and how blown away I was by it.  I was still just a novice, budding cinephile at the time, and had no real idea of film theory or the art of cinematography, so I was no expert, but damn did I love that movie.  Once we began discussing the film, breaking it down scene by scene, going over the films that influenced it and those films influenced by it, it grew even greater in my esteem.

Now many critics and cinephiles over the years have placed Kane at the top of their list out of mere rote.  Everyone says it is the greatest, so it must be.  I have a good friend who says "Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made - no other answer is allowed."  Of course this is all a bit ridiculous.  First of all, to name the greatest film(s) is just an impossible thing to do.  Everyone has different opinions of greatness.  But at the same time, if you turn it around and name your favourite films, which is more personal and less canonical than naming the greatest, there are still those who would disagree with you.  If we all had the same tastes this would be an awfully boring place to live.  There are also those who, though they make sure to claim respect for the film itself, cannot claim to enjoying Kane at all.  If a favourite film is one that you can watch over and over again, then yes, Citizen Kane is one of this critic's favourite films, even without taking into account its myriad of cinematic flourishes that could very well make the film then greatest ever made.

As far as its greatness goes, perhaps the idea of it being listed pretty much everywhere as the greatest film ever is a bit of an overkill, but there is really no denying its greatness - even for those who claim not to like it.  Yes, the idea of it making groundbreaking strides in cinematography and art direction, his work in deep focus, is a bit of a misnomer.  Welles, along with his DP Gregg Toland, were greatly influenced by the German Expressionism filmmaking going on throughout the 1920's and early 1930's.  In fact Toland had worked on several of these films himself.  But even if Welles was only doing what was already being done in European cinema and early American sound cinema, he was changing it and making it work in his own unique way.  Creating his own Wellesian cinema that would in turn influence so many after him, like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Joel and Ethan Coen, Paul Thomas Anderson to name just a few.  Welles would go on to make other great films, from The Magnificent Ambersons to The Lady From Shanghai, to Othello and Macbeth, Touch of Evil, The Trial and Chimes at Midnight - all of which also have that Wellesian style that was gleaned from past film history and transformed into his own bravura style.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that Citizen Kane is a great film.  Personally I do not list it as the greatest, instead placing it in the number five spot of my all-time favourite list (behind just The Red Shoes, 2001, The Good the Bad and the Ugly and Psycho).  But considering that among the thousands of different films I have seen, from the nearly 120 year history of cinema, to place at number five is a pretty big deal.  And my love is not just a nostalgic look at the film - seen at the start of my obsession with the art of cinema - but just because it is a great film overall - no other answer is allowed.  It was the first film I ever bought (on VHS - remember those!? and eventually on DVD and now the gorgeous new Bluray boxset) and will always be one that I can and will watch over and over and over again.  For those who do not like the film, one can only blame a lack of taste.  I am half kidding with that last line, for everyone has different tastes (as I state above), but in the case of Citizen Kane, perhaps those different tastes should be reevaluated.  So that is my case.  It is more of a love letter to Kane than an actual appraisal of the technical and artistic brilliance of the film (a gushing school girl love letter, not the critique of the knowledgeable film historian I usually try to portray), but it is my case. and I am sticking to it.  It is my defense of Citizen Kane.  End of story.  Rosebud.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post in defense of Citizen Kane.

And you're absolutely right--even if you don't like the film, it's really hard to not at least acknowledge the technical brilliance. It really is a study in filmmaking.


Kevyn Knox said...

Thanx for the kudos.

My defense was much more emotional than analytical, but I think I got my basic ideas across.

Just finished reading your contribution to the whole shebang. Very articulate piece. I left more of a comment there.

Thanx again.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. I loved hearing about your first experience watching the film, because I think it's a special moment no matter if you end up liking it or not.
I personally love Touch of Evil more, but Citizen Kane is where it all starts, and it's a stunning piece of work.

Thanks again for a great article.