Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source Warner Home Video DVD
The first time I watched Citizen Kane was during my second Christmas holiday home from the quaint little liberal arts college I attended. My mother had just moved into a lakeside cottage after an acrimonious divorce (her fourth) and I was there to commiserate. Having been away for two years honing my juvenile snobbish attitude, I wasn’t exactly eager to look up any high school friends who might be home from college as well and my mom wasn’t all that interested in getting out of her robe and slippers, let alone going out of the house. Instead, we kept the fireplace stoked, baked chocolate chip cookies, and watched movies on cable. We watched Julia Roberts receive her unlikely salvation from the streets via Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. We watched the absinthe-soaked reveries of Jose Ferrer’s Toulouse-Lautrec in John Huston’s Moulin Rouge. And I’m pretty sure we watched at least one Pauly Shore movie, which always gave my mom a chuckle even as I sat writhing in horror for the duration.
Come New Year’s Eve, we decided to put on our party hats and head down to the Elks Lodge that was the only source of entertainment on the isolated peninsula where my mom lived. The tiny village used to be bustling with traffic heading over the bridge crossing the Sandusky Bay. Upon the replacement and relocation of the bridge by a gleaming steel monstrosity, used as much as a bridge by commuters as a toilet by seagulls, the old iron and wood bridge began to decay and rust, and the village began to decay and rust along with it. The barrenness of the once lively coastal town was a perfect metaphor for our mood that winter, but we were determined to make the most of our holiday. We were going to be jubilant, dammit, whether we liked it or not.
My mother, for the most part, enjoyed herself immensely at the lodge and it was good to see her in high spirits again. Her joy wasn’t infectious, however, despite the free-flowing liquor and champagne that I, only just on the verge of turning twenty, took full advantage of. Just after midnight, when the party showed no signs of winding down, I hiked back alone through the heavy snow toward the cottage. I tended the fire, ate a couple of cookies, and clicked on the television. Upon the screen came what looked like an old newsreel. It talked about the life of this guy who seemed pretty important, even though I had never heard of him. I watched for a couple more minutes, finger on the remote, waiting to click to something more interesting. Abruptly, the newsreel ended and there was a dark screening room full of men talking about what they had just seen. I watched a few minutes longer, just to see where this was going. That few minutes turned into a couple of hours, as I could never bring myself to turn the channel. Every time I thought I knew what was going to happen, the movie took a left turn and gave me something else entirely. For a long time, I didn’t even know what I was watching. It was only when I flipped open the TV Guide to see what the hell the name was of this nutty picture that I discovered I was watching one of the all time great American classics. When my mom finally came home, I had to tell her all about what I had seen. It may have been the late hour, the alcohol, or the way I recounted the convoluted plot, but she didn’t seem too impressed. I, however, knew I had seen something pretty amazing.
I can’t even remember how many times I’ve seen Citizen Kane since that night, but it’s become a constant companion to me ever since. Every time I came across it on television, I had to stop and watch it to the end, no matter how late I had come in on it. Over the years, my relationship to the film changed and evolved. I studied the rhythms and cadences of the writing, the technique and style of the shots, the knots and twists of the plot. I learned much of the screenplay by heart, shrieking Dorothy Comingore’s lines along with her and then hooting with laughter. Later I began to think the film inferior to The Magnificent Ambersons, which I felt showed more mastery of the form and less blind ambition, even in its severely truncated condition. I read Pauline Kael’s book on the film, I heard Laura Mulvey speak on it, and I even begged a professor not to show the film as an example of the classical Hollywood style, telling her that it was this film that tried to break every rule of that style. Eventually, I grew to accept Kane as a very good film, possibly even a great film, but one that most people believe exists as an entity of itself, outside of film history, in a vacuum. Sixty-some years after the premiere of the film, viewers and critics seem unable to see in it the bits and pieces of influence Welles picked up from his predecessors: the low angles and dark lighting of John Ford’s films of the 1930s, William Wyler’ experiments in long takes and deep focus with cinematographer Gregg Toland, Jean Renoir’s fluidly mobile camera, Rene Clair’s ingenious use of sound. For me, the film has become a pearl in a long string necklace, just as beautiful and important to the whole (in this case, film history) as its neighbors.
I probably saw a few hundred films before I saw Kane, and I’m sure I’ve seen at least a few thousand since. It’s not my favorite film of all time; it’s not even in my top twenty. I don’t consider it the best film ever made, American or otherwise (I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you what is if you asked me). Still, I recognize it for the undeniably towering achievement that it is and can see the long shadow it casts on all filmmakers, particularly those making their first film and walking that fine line between inevitable greatness and unbearable hubris. Most of all, it represents for me the joy and pleasure of turning on the television late at night, expecting nothing but a moment of entertainment, and getting carried away by a film that stays with you for the rest of your life. My discovery of Citizen Kane on cable on New Year’s Eve was not just seeing a great film for the first time; it was a small but significant part of a time that has had a lasting impact on my life from then until now.