“I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a… piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a missing piece.”
Citizen Kane. Often cited as the greatest film ever made, it’s also the best film to rave about if you want your Intro to Film class to know that you’re that guy. I joke, of course, and I actually think Citizen Kane is a phenomenal film. Is it the greatest of all time? I would say definitely not. However, the film has found its way on the top of all these “best movie ever” lists, including the infamous AFI Top 100 which I’m currently working my way through, so it’s impossible to view this thing without some sort of caution or skepticism. I’ve seen Citizen Kane twice now, and I’ve edited this review (Nov. 2016) extensively after my second viewing, primarily because I have a lot more to say about the movie, and I think I have a better understanding of why this movie is so acclaimed in the first place. I also appreciated this film a lot more on my second viewing, but I’m still of the opinion that there are better movies. I would unflinchingly call it one of the most important movies ever made, but no, it’s not the best.
Citizen Kane tells the story of the fictional newspaper man Charles Foster Kane throughout his life. Based heavily on the life of William Randolph Hearst (who despised the film), the film actually begins with Kane’s death and his mysterious final words: “Rosebud”. As journalists frantically search for the meaning of his final words, we are given insight into Kane’s life from childhood to death through the recollection of various figures. The unifying thread throughout the film is perhaps meaning and fulfillment, as we see Kane fill his life with all kinds of “stuff” in an attempt at satisfaction. By the end of the film, when we’re finally presented with the meaning of Rosebud, the film suggests what we may actually seek the most come our final days. It’s a narrative on an epic, sweeping scale as we jump around from present to past, with “Rosebud” used as a framing device for the entire film. It’s a smart decision on the film’s part, because every story we’re told is filtered through the lens of this looming question: What mattered most to this man?
The cinematography of Citizen Kane, along with its editing, mise-en-scene, and various other factors by its undisputed auteur Orson Welles (who also stars in the film) help build an experience that film-goers had never witnessed before. Simple transition effects, dissolves and fades, are used with such intention to convey meaning, and the film truly feels ahead of its time. You also see innovative camera techniques that Welles literally invented while filming to tell the story he was seeking. You can read all kinds of stories about Welles digging trenches into the ground to get the perfect shot or dismantling furniture as the camera moves through it in order to line up the perfect shot. If you watch for these things, particularly with any idea of how other films were being made at the time, it’s honestly astounding. This is the most impressive thing about Citizen Kane to me. Orson Welles brings artistry and innovation to the medium in order to tell this story, and this devotion to craft is apparent in every single shot, most of them using some form of hidden special effects to achieve the proper look.
While the film’s narrative holds an arguably equal level of quality due to its powerful thematic exploration, this is maybe where the film’s reputation loses me. I did mention the clever use of the journalists and the Rosebud framing device, but it creates a lot of down time in the film which reduces its rewatchability for me. There’s some really powerful stuff in the movie, truly stunning scenes that change the way you think about success, media, legacy, humanity – but there’s a lot of meandering between these themes so that the film feels sort of muddled and slow. I’m also let down by a lot of the dialogue and the awkward pacing of some of these scenes, often repeating concepts unnecessarily. I think the film spends too much time with the journalists, and I think all of the characters could be more unique. Even the most interesting characters, aside from Kane, can be summed up with a few simple traits. There’s not a lot of dynamic dialogue that you might hear from a more well-written film, and it leaves you bored on occasion in these long conversation scenes. I still think this is a phenomenal film, one of the greatest from its era, but I just don’t see the case to be made for “greatest film ever.” It has the innovation and the artistry necessary for such a label, but the moment-to-moment aspects of the film just aren’t there for me.
Calling Citizen Kane the greatest film of all time is such a tricky question, because you obviously have to weigh some perspective. When the cinematic techniques were so revolutionary and powerful in 1941 but they’re now being used in dog food commercials, it takes away from the impressive feat that Citizen Kane actually is. If you asked me to list 50 films I’d rather watch right now than Citizen Kane, it wouldn’t be hard. I’m impressed by the film, mostly just by the story behind its production and how Orson Welles managed to change the game in pursuit of great art, but I wouldn’t even call it the greatest film up to 1941. Maybe I’m more interested in narrative than spectacle, but the film feels somewhat hollow to me. Not in the sense that there are mistakes, just in the sense that I’d rather see something more interesting. By what criteria can we dare to call something the greatest film ever made? However, there are those who love this film that much, and they may still have some solid evidence to back up this claim, that is until you show them Air Bud 4: Seventh Inning Fetch, and the whole game is changed once again.
Films Left to Watch: 994