September 30, 2004

Through the Ether

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Yesterday, I watched Citizen Kane for the fourth time. And once again, I watched ‘Rosebud’ blacken in the flames of Xanadu’s fireplace with frustration.

I want it grab me, submerge me, suffocate me under a blanket of genius. I want to see the purported greatest film of all time. But each time I”m left shaking my head.

Call it the ‘Mona Lisa’ effect. Nearly anything you read touts DaVinci”s portrait as an incomparable masterpiece, a visual revelation without peer. Naturally, there is a certain expectation built in your mind. And then you actually see it. Wow. It sounded a hell of a lot more interesting in those convoluted sentences.

The same could be said of Orson Welles’s supposed 1941 masterpiece. Everything I read had imbued into my consciousness the greatness of Citizen Kane, how nothing since has been more ‘modern,’ and how major film innovating effectively ceased after it”s production. Year after year, Kane tops the lists of greatest films, in everything from the American Film Association”s Top 100 American Films to Sight and Sound’s 2002 poll, in which both critics and directors voted Kane as the finest work ever produced in the medium. Wearing the belt of ‘History’s Greatest Film’ can be a crushing expectation. And perhaps I had set the bar so high, that disappointment was inevitable.

But after round four with Kane, I’ve realized that this just isn”t true. Once I got past the hot air of film theorists and historians, I had an epiphany: the film just isn’t that good.

Now, in all of pretentious asshole commentary history, that might be one of the most pretentious comments pontificated by a pretentious asshole of all time. But really, this conclusion is unavoidable.

Nearly everyone I”ve talked to, students and film professors alike, give a shrug when Citizen Kane comes up. By all accounts, Kane isn”t even Welles’ best film. The Magnificent Ambersons, overwrought and contrived studio ending included, was a superior work. It seems that at one point, probably in the ’70s, it was decreed that thou shalt love the Kane. And we”ve been clinging to this dogma ever since.

That is not to say that Citizen Kane even borders on being a mediocre film — it’s brilliant, and surely deserves to be considered amongst cinema’s masterpieces. Welles”s use of deep focus, wide, low-angle points of view, and disjointed narrative is amazing, especially when placed in the context of the time it was made. For a film that was produced in the vein of Hollywood studios, it bears little semblance to the other Hollywood films of its time. The opening sequence might be the best ever. It still unfurls like the broken passages of a dream. Most importantly, and perhaps the point most stressed by its supporters, is that Citizen Kane lent a new authority and freedom to the director. Film no longer had to be linear entertainment, it could be art.

But even then, films beyond the pale of Kane have seemingly elevated the art form higher. Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, made two years prior, seemingly broke just as many rules as Welles’s film. If we want to talk modernity, Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, which was actually made 13 years before Citizen Kane, feels just as fresh and revolutionary as anything made today. It’s an absolutely hypnotic work, it’s close-ups of Joan’s anguished face searing themselves onto the chords of our memory. And then there are the masterworks of other film giants. Films like Federico Fellini’s La Strada, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, Akira Kurosawa”s Rashomon, and Bae Yong Kyun’s Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? all surpass Citizen Kane in creativity, visual composition, emotional relevance.

As true as it may be, I don’t think the ‘Mona Lisa’ effect is a valid excuse for Citizen Kane either. I know that I approached both The Brothers Karamazov and Ulysses in the same manner, having been inundated with dietary information about how important and amazing both works were. And neither disappointed. Both provided me with the reckoning I was promised. But Citizen Kane seems oddly deficient. I’ve looked exhaustively for the revelation in Kane. I’ve tried to be swept that moment of filmic transcendence. And still it remains as elusive as the meaning of Charles Foster Kane’s dying words.

Archived article by Zach Jones