A Citizen’s Take on “Kane”

If you can get past the whole “Greatest Movie Ever” reputation, “Citizen Kane” is actually a lot of fun to watch. I have to admit that, like many viewers, I too was intimidated by this reputation for a long time before finally picking up the movie. I didn’t go to film school, so I thought many of the narrative and stylistic touches would be lost on me. But, instead of the self-important, artsy film that I expected, I found a moviegoing experience in “Citizen Kane” that was surprisingly modern-feeling and well-paced (even by today’s ADD standards).

Widely regarded as a disguised version of the life of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, “Citizen Kane” tells the story of Charles Foster Kane and his rise to power. Covering roughly 65 years of his life, Kane’s story is recounted by five of the tycoon’s friends, whom a magazine reporter tracks down in an effort to uncover the meaning of Kane’s final utterance.

Employing five narrators to transmit story information, Kane’s portrayal becomes more complex by showing different sides of him, depending on who’s talking about him. Each narrator’s account is also predominantly restricted to his or her range of knowledge. While the reporter uses the various narrators to gather data, the plot uses them both to furnish us with story information and to conceal information. The narration can motivate gaps in knowledge about Kane by appealing to the fact that no informant can know everything about anyone.

The reporter’s search, from the standpoint of narration, is a very complex one. At one level, our knowledge is restricted primarily to what Kane’s friends know. Within the flashbacks, the style reinforces this restriction by being shot in fairly static long takes, strictly confining us to what participants in the scene could witness. Director Orson Wells avoids cutting or other techniques in these scenes that would move toward a more unrestricted range of knowledge. Opting for long takes is one of many major stylistic touches used by Welles in the film, which also include great camera tricks (my favorite being the famous shot of Kane walking by a mirror and being reflected infinitely) and fun easter eggs, such as the “K” motif appearing in Kane’s costumes and in his mansion’s settings.

There is no denying that “Citizen Kane” broke new ground when released in 1941, but its influence is still everywhere in cinema. Just a few months ago, I couldn’t help but think of Welles and “Kane” when I watched “Black Swan” and saw what director Darren Aronofsky similarly and ingeniously did with mirrors and his title character. And, I certainly sensed a strong similarity between “Kane” and another 2010 film, “The Social Network,” in their respective narratives on one powerful, central character through different perspectives. But, the ultimate modern version of “Citizen Kane” has to be 2007’s “There Will Be Blood.” Both films tell the epic, rags-to-riches story of one man and the corruption of the American Dream. It may be blasphemous, but I think “Blood” is the stronger film, not to mention the best movie to be released in this new century. However, I will acknowledge that “Blood,” along with countless other films, wouldn’t be possible without “Kane.”

Source citations : David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, “Film Art: An Introduction,” McGraw-Hill (p. 88, 334, 339)