Thursday, December 09, 2010

Citizen Kane (1941) Dir. Orson Welles

Many times I watch a movie and wonder, "Why isn't this a classic?"  Normally the movie in question is an obscure genre piece from the 1970s that most people today have never seen - e.g. Report to the Commissoner (1975).  Sometimes I watch a movie and wonder, "Why is this a classic?" - e.g. Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo (1970), Andrey Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972), Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990), or It's A Wonderful Life Frank Capra (1946).  Welles' Citizen Kane is a movie I understand and recognize as a very important piece of American cinema but frankly the movie leaves me...shrugging and wanting more and frankly wondering what the big deal is about Orson Welles.

I have to say that I've seen Citizen Kane several times, especially when growing up.  My father took me to a revival theater to see it back in the 1980s.  At the same theater I had seen noir classics served up as double features and had a deep love of Bogie and Bacall, Lorre and the Fat Man, and even loved Widmark though he scared the shit out of me.  Hell, thanks to my father and grandfather I had seen Triumph of the Will (1935) - as a follow up to a UHF airing of World at War.  So when I was a kid I loved Citizen Kane.  I certainly didn't pick up on some of the details that my film professor pointed out but growing up I was a big fan of Welles.

Now, nearly two decades since I had seen Citizen Kane in it's entirety - until today - I must say that I am not impressed.  If I was going to be snarky I would say that Welles was the Tarantino of his day.  A gross sweeping generalization but at the core I think that statement has merit - a subject for another article.  Kane is an amazing piece of American cinema but not because of Welles (certainly the man influenced every aspect of the film) but because of cinematographer Gregg Toland, composer Bernard Herrmann, editor Robert Wise, and Mel Burns' make-up department.  Citizen Kane is brilliantly shot, lit, scored, acted, dressed, recorded, and written.  In some ways I wish that I could have seen a stage production of Kane by these men instead of their movie.  

But I was bored and I'm not sure why I was bored.  Maybe it's the same reason Olivier's Hamlet (1948) makes me want to claw out my eyes or why the majority of Jim Jarmusch movies fill me with an urge to dig for, study, and eat my boogers.  In all honesty, I think Kane is so frightfully dull is because of Welles.  Not as director, writer, or iconoclast but he's kind of a shite actor.  Don't get me wrong, Welles is a brilliant Harry Lime and Hank Quinlan but as Kane he just is...frankly...pretty lacklustre.  Every time Welles was on screen he was outshone by the Mercury Theater cadre.  The search for the truth about Charles Foster Kane is more compelling than anything involving Kane on screen.  In the confrontation with James W. Gettys (Ray Collins) Welles just doesn't deliver the on screen impact that Collins does.  Joseph Cotton is brilliant in his role at C.F. Kane's old friend and Cotton brings out aspects of his character that I had never seen (or been able to understand during previous viewings) before.

However, Welles does have one shining moment as an actor.  The building audio/visual cuts leading up to his bombastic speech and the way he delivers his campaign speech is brilliant.  Maybe it's the remastered cut of Bailey Fesler and James G. Stewart's sound design but Kane's speech has an amazing reverberation and resonance.  During this scene Welles is projecting to the balcony and he sells it.  Fuck, I would have voted for him.

While watching Citizen Kane I kept thinking about Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007) and comparing the two.  Lewis' Daniel Plainview is a magnate through strength of will - with a heavy dose of psychosis.  Welles' Kane is a magnate through charisma - with a heavy dose of...I do not know...narcissistic Freudian issues?  Charles Foster Kane is a pathetic creature where as Plainview is simply, and ultimately, a monster.  Perhaps this is what Welles was going for, not an "absolute power corrupts absolutely" but more of a tragic Shakespearean (Lear not Richard III) character.

Interesting that in the course of writing this review I want to watch Citizen Kane again just to make sure I didn't miss anything which, in the end, causes me to dislike the movie.  Unlike There Will Be Blood, Kane  does not grab me by the lapels and shake me but unlike There Will Be Blood I'm not attempting to analyse why I did or did not like the film.

Maybe, and this may sound a bit obtuse, but that's what makes a great piece of cinema (or art or literature).  You might hate it and want to rub the offending object on your nether-regions but what you saw evoked a response, and more importantly and vital, an intellectual exercise.  I know that sounds trite but how many times (or how easy is it) have you or I dismissed things out of hand?  I pissed and bitched and moaned about having to watch Citizen Kane however I feel that I've taken something away from the movie, and, really, when it comes down to it...ain't that what movies are about and the reason we keep watching them?

      

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