Tuesday, August 7, 2012

DVD Review: Citizen Kane

There is a scene in Citizen Kane where the wife of the titular character has just finished singing at her opera premiere. I didn't hear anything awful about her singing, but the audience is quiet at the curtain call. Kane begins clapping like a maniac, trying to convince by his plaudits that they have just witnessed a masterpiece. 

 Kane's reaction in that scene reminds me of how movie critics praise the mediocre Citizen Kane.

My brother in law, Mr. Pink, asked me to review this movie for the blog, so I sat down last week and popped it into the DVD player. For those unfamiliar, the story revolves around Charles Foster Kane, who dies a lonely old man at the beginning of the movie, murmuring “Rosebud.” A reporter is then assigned to interview the people in Kane's life to understand his life. Through piecemeal we discover the life of a poor boy who was given up by his parents to a rich upbringing who buys a newspaper to shape public opinion. He pushes hard with questionable ethics to run for election, only to be derailed. His personal life and business life also slowly implode from his self-interest run amok.

Let's start with the good: Orson Welles is an amazing actor. 

 I was blown away by the transformation he presented in Kane's life. Wells was only 25 years old when he starred in this film and he projected not only worldly maturity, but he wore the weight of age with amazing believability Most of the time when I see an actor playing beyond their years, even with modern makeup effects, it usually falls flat. But Welles magically ages in every part of his performance. It was an absolutely fascinating performance, worthy of accolades.

The directing and cinematography are also top notch. I will gladly show clips of this film in my classes to demonstrate how to masterfully use light and shadow. Also Welles was masterful in his use of space and how to make characters look big or small in order to get across an emotional reality. Kane at first seems larger than life in the screen, but then as the movie progresses, he slowly gets swallowed up by the largess of his cavernous home.

But Citizen Kane is missing the most important element a great movie needs: someone to care about. Even in movies full of reprobates like Reservoir Dogs or Wag the Dog have characters that you either empathize with or find charming. Citizen Kane has neither. The movie is supposed to draw you in with the great mystery of Kane's life. But I could never care about him. I couldn't even find myself caring about any of the supporting cast. Part of this is purposeful on Welles' part. The reporter investigating Kane's life, Jerry Thompson (William Alland), is rarely given any face time. He is always obscured by shadows or angles of the camera. Wells wants you to feel like the one who is investigating his life. But there is no emotional tether to the character at all.

The second problem is the story structure itself. The film begins with a 10-minute news reel summarizing Charles Foster Kane's life. A 12th of the movie feels like an abstract of the plot. Not only is this too long and kind of boring, but it sucks all of the air out of the narrative. The whole journey was about discovering who Charles Foster Kane really was. But in the first 10 minutes I hit all of the major plot point so that there is no dramatic tension. Within these first few minutes I know that he ran a newspaper, ran for governor and lost because of a scandal, married the president's daughter (who later died), married again and tried to make his wife an opera star but failed, built a lavish estate called Xanadu but got divorced and died alone. These aren't spoilers, this is the movie's opening. Some movies start with the end of the character arc with great effect (e.g. Titanic and Young Guns II). But Citizen Kane doesn't just give you point A and C and spends the rest of the time exploring B. It gives you A, C, E, G and then explores points B,D, and F. The story gives you no room to be surprised.

Citizen Kane is lauded as one of the best films ever made.

It's not.

It is a decent film and it is an important film in terms of the development of cinema. But like Charles Foster Kane himself, it has a powerful reputation with very little emotional substance.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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