In high school, my journalism teacher screened a few of the more significant films about the profession. I recall that All the President’s Men and Shattered Glass were my favorites. She told me that she would screen Citizen Kane, but at three hours it was far too long to reasonably fit into our class periods. Actually, Citizen Kane runs a tight two hours, but I can’t blame her for the misunderstanding. This film has grown so titanic in our cultural imagination that even its runtime balloons.
Ask someone what Citizen Kane is about. No, seriously, go and ask. I’m curious. If they’ve seen the film, they’ll probably give you the logline: “A journalist interviews the friends and loved ones of a reclusive newspaper tycoon to discover the meaning of his final word: ‘Rosebud.’” I asked some of my friends for their impression of the film from popular culture. One simply sent, “Newspapers :(“ If you like, because what thinkpiece in 2016 would be complete without him, here’s Donald Trump giving his take on the film’s message:
Citizen Kane isn’t a film anymore; it’s a benchmark. It’s the ur-classic, used to alternately distinguish (“It’s the Citizen Kane of its genre!”), defend (“It’s not trying to be Citizen Kane!”), and deride (“It makes [bad film] look like Citizen Kane!”) People treat it as though its value is more symbolic than anything else. Kane the film slips from cultural memory, as Kane the contextless title grows in it.
Eerie in all of this is how closely the film’s arc through history resembles the arc of its protagonist. After the iconic (a redundant word, for practically every frame of this film is iconic in some respect) opening scene of Kane’s death, the film transitions to a lengthy faux obituary newsreel. This ten-minute sequence takes us through Kane’s life and times, point by point, from his first breakout success to his passing. When the lights come up on the newsreel, the room of journalists discussing it reflect on how little it says about the man himself. Kane as depicted by the newsreel is less than the sum of his parts.
The same can be said for Kane the film. We celebrate its 75th birthday today, 75 years of thinking and talking and writing and fighting. (Kane the character dies at the age of 78.) In all that ceaseless discourse, we lose sight of what the film actually is. We talk about Citizen Kane with the assumption that everyone listening has seen it, or at least knows what it is, and we have an unfortunate tendency to equate the two. If you’ve seen Citizen Kane, then this isn’t such a bad thing. Having a context for what the film is lets one navigate the conversation around it with ease. The problem is with what we leave in our wake.
The presumption of knowledge leads to inevitable disappointment from new generations of young viewers. I was completely befuddled when I first watched Citizen Kane in high school. The gates of heaven didn’t open up, the angelic choirs didn’t sing, my DVD player didn’t glow with a warm golden light. It was just a movie. I went in assuming that the film’s greatness would be obvious to me. I knew very little about cinema at the time, but surely the all-caps Greatest Film In History wouldn’t require any work on my behalf to understand. I just didn’t get it.
I get it now, I should say, with the benefit of years of film education both personal and academic. Citizen Kane is a great film. Welles’ ambition is as infectious as his intensity; each new scene of his aging main character brings a deeper, more mature sense of empathy, just as each precisely-framed deep-focus shot or vigorous camera movement brings a new jolt of excitement for the form. Welles has an unparalleled cinematic intuition, sometimes manifesting in unpretentiously cheeky ways. The jump scare of the squawking bird near the end of the film was inserted to wake up audience members who had dozed off, lest they miss the climactic final scenes. Welles was always intrigued by the interplay between form and function, as far back as his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Cinema is a tool of its own creation for Welles, a device which manufactures itself as art. He would explore this in greater and occasionally more explicit detail in his later works.
I made the mistake of thinking that a great film doesn’t require anything of its audience. I wanted Citizen Kane to be obviously great. A truly great film requires a lot of its audience. It requires engagement, whether it be intellectual, emotional, or comical. You need to step up to Citizen Kane’s level. And I don’t say that because it’s a particularly difficult film to read. It’s not, in all honesty, which is part of what induced my initial reaction. Again, we come back to context. You need to understand what makes its images so striking, what makes its narrative so revolutionary, or the various influences it has had on so many films which went on to be influential in their own rights. To some degree, you just need to be in the know.
And there we have the central conundrum with Citizen Kane. The “Greatest Film Of All Time” moniker implies a teachable quality that isn’t present. I wouldn’t tell a 13-year-old interested in film that they should start with this one, because this film’s greatness isn’t instructive. It doesn’t announce itself in unmistakable ways. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for a young viewer to enjoy or even “get” this film, just that it’s not a film that teaches you how to “get” or enjoy other films.
In fact, its elevated status may discourage younger viewers more than encourage them. The thought, “I don’t get what’s so great about that,” could be followed by, “I should read up on this film to gain a deeper understanding,” but it could just as easily be followed by, “Maybe I just don’t get movies.”
This is the sort of thought process that worries me. I never want any budding cinephile to get scared off because their opinion of a film doesn’t match the mainstream. The lionization of Citizen Kane has nothing to do with Citizen Kane. It’s about how film culture turns its favorite works into idols and forgets what made them great in the first place. The same fate befalls Kane the character. At the film’s end, after all his searching, the reporter who was tasked with learning the meaning of Kane’s final word comes up empty. He doesn’t know what “Rosebud” means. He realizes that Kane’s greatest mystery is that he had no mysteries: In the end, he was just a man. We then watch as Rosebud, the sled he played with as a child, is thrown carelessly into a furnace with the rest of his possessions. Kane the man becomes the black smoke pouring out of Xanadu’s chimney, and he dissipates into the night air. All that lives on is Kane the icon, Kane the myth.
Citizen Kane is a great film. 75 years from now, I hope we will still remember why.