March 27, 2012

#1: Citizen Kane

And finally we made it to the top. Citizen Kane. Orson Welles was 25 years old when he filmed this masterpiece of world cinema -- and as Bret so succinctly put it, "how old were YOU when you filmed your first best movie of all time?" Well, I was 24 when I started this blog and I'm 27 now. I can't hardly believe that, but it's true. And luckily, I don't think my best work is behind me -- but I can't imagine topping Citizen Kane as a writer, actor and director, and though Welles had an amazing career, he hit his peak at 25. The film premiered just before his 26th birthday. Wow. I spent my 26th birthday overserved at some dive bar, but that's neither here nor there. Onward!

Company: this came up quickly as I was called off from rehearsal, but several friends still made it! Bret, who cried at the end of this movie when he was a weird little 8th grader ("All he wanted was his childhood!"); Joe, art hound; Hannah, film fanatic; Matt, always up for cinematic adventure; Kecia, sunstroked from the weird March warmth and guzzling water; Ali, aloe-dispensing nurse; Paul, newly engaged but without his wonderful partner Ryan tonight; and Katie, once she got off work.

Cuisine: it was the last go around, so we made it a feast! Chips and salsa, M&Ms, several cheeses (hard and soft), salami and basil, fennel crackers, white grapes -- and Ali's raspberry almond cupcakes with roses on top. Themed! A fantastic and filling way to end this project.

Okay, two minutes in and we're treated to a shot like this? Oh my eff.

Citizen Kane topped this list the first time it was compiled in 1998, and again in 2007. It's just the ultimate combination of elements, and broke many conventions along the way. Where to begin? To start, Welles completely eschewed the idea of linear narrative, beginning near the end of the story and then doubling back to tell the story of the life of Charles Foster Kane (played remarkably and at various points throughout his life by Oscar nominee Welles), an egomaniac newspaper tycoon who made news and was news. Movies do this all the time now (I'd love to go back and count how many of them are on this list!) but Kane marked one of the first times this was done so successfully.

Now is as good a time as any to point out something Bret mentioned: the major plot hole in the movie, which is that Kane's last word ("Rosebud") is muttered in solitude. No one is in the room to hear him say it, but the film explores the world's fascination with this cryptic final message and the search for its meaning. But I think this in fact isn't a mistake: by the end of his life, Kane's private life is so public that even words spoken to no one are still heard. Perhaps that's the meaning of citizen here: the word really means "a member of a state" -- and Kane may have meant for his life to be his own, but by bringing himself into the public eye so readily and vigorously in his youth, he could never escape public scrutiny, even on his death bed.

A large portion of the film is told as though in a comic book: the pace of it is extraordinary, and montage is put to great use. I love the two-minute scene in which sixteen years of his marriage to his first wife (Ruth Warrick) is shown disintegrating in a series of vignettes over breakfast. It's quick snippets of dialogue, and only hair and wardrobe really suggest the passage of time. There's also the brilliant "News on the March" sequence near the beginning, after Kane's death, acting as a sort of public eulogy, a cinematic obituary, with a verging-on-cartoonish voiceover. You sort of don't know what you're watching, or if the whole film will be like this -- and then bam: lights up on the screening room where the film was playing. Meta!

The film also made incredible use of deep focus, thanks to the incredible cinematographer Gregg Toland. In shots like the one above, every plane of view is in focus, even the young Kane playing outside in the snow. This is not a simple technique to achieve, and requires a lot of precision and firm decisions. Here, Welles had to stage what was happening in the foreground, and time it exactly with what he wanted to have happening in the background. While wikipedia-ing deep focus, I was glad to see many great films, including many of this list, that make extensive use of this technique. (Shout out to the only Harry Potter film listed, my favorite: Prisoner of Azkaban. I will defend that movie to the grave.)

The young Kane is essentially sold by his parents to a banker, Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), who acts as his guardian and trustee. When Kane inherits his fortunes at the age of 25, he reimagines the New York Inquirer, steals all the best journalists from other news organizations, and generally lowers the quality standard of the news he's printing, resorting to flashy headlines and sensationalized scandals instead of real news. The film documents his rise to fame and glory, the disintegration of his first marriage, and his campaign for governor.

His first marriage ends when his wife discovers he's having an affair with the "singer" Susan Alexander (a weirdly horrible but perfect Dorothy Comingore), something he'd probably secretly wish could stay private but ends up on the front page of his own papers. Their relationship isn't much better -- in fact, it's probably worse than the first, given that Kane pushes his wife into an opera career when she clearly doesn't have the chops. After all, she's a "singer."

The great irony here is that Susan Alexander doesn't particularly want a public life, yet she marries Kane and is forced into one for his personal gain. He doesn't want to be made a laughing stock by his untalented wife, but rather than allow her to step out of the limelight, he pushes her to near-total exhaustion. She wasn't built to be a public citizen the way he was, and their marriage crumbles because, well, it's lonely at the top, Charlie.

His whole life, as the film portrays it, is framed in his pursuit of wealth and glory, but by the end, after two failed marriages and without a real friend, Kane is left alone at Xanadu, the unfinished pleasure palace named after a similar one built by Kublai Khan in the 13th century, with all of his stuff. This extended mirror shot, visualizing Kane's solitude, is something of a cliche today, but notice the deep focus! That's crazy.

Rosebud is in there somewhere.

Well, for those of you who don't know the twist about Rosebud at the end, I won't spoil it for you like it was spoiled for me as a child by this Peanuts comic strip. Seriously, how could I have known?! Needless to say, it's one of the great twist endings of all time, summarizing the entire moral argument of the film in one image. It's genius.

So let's see... Sensationalized news. Public scandal. Tortured childhood. The pursuit of wealth. Rags to riches. Failed marriages. Spiritual poverty. Unsolved mystery. Mediocre artistic talent. What isn't American about this movie? They got this one right, folks. It's no accident that Citizen Kane ranks as the masterpiece of modern cinema. Is it perfect? It's close, maybe as close as they come. It certainly has a lot to recommend, and very little with which to disagree. Do you love Citizen Kane, or do you think it's overrated? Does it deserve this #1 spot, twice over?

YOU GUYS. I made it to the end! A little under 27 months later!

Well, now what?? A cine-smackdown for the top ten on this list -- then a retrospective or two -- then maybe a poll about what to do for the next project! Thank you all SO much for reading, it's been fantastic to see all these movies. But I'll wait to wax about this for the retrospectives. On!


  1. Oh, Maxxy I'm so proud of you. Congrats! Beautiful writing, too. (And I'm right there with you on AZKABAN.)

  2. Dear Max, nice job with the 100 movies - but you should watch Citizen Kane again as you missed a lot of the more important parts of the plot.
    For instance:
    He is not "sold" to a banker but has to go away to get the education needed for the time after he inherits his fortune.
    He is not lowering the quality standards of his paper but supports the case of the labour unions and other anti-establishment topics.
    His wive does not find out about his affair but the current governor makes it public to kill the campaign of Kane. etc
    Have fun watching the No. 1 again