There was a man, a certain man...
Films of Shame
Breathes a name?
Lots of claims
Not all of my Films of Shame will start with a plot synopsis in the form of a poem, but the above nicely sums up the story of Citizen Kane: in which the title character dies and his last word is rosebud. Reporters speak to lots of people from his life in the hope of finding out what the word means and hence gaining some insight into one of the most famous men of their generation.
The film was written, directed by and stars a 26 year-old Orson Welles. And the youthful energy and audacity of Welles comes across in every frame of the film. I knew how ground-breaking the movie was supposed to be at the time, and was interested to see if that would still hold true to someone watching the film almost 70 years later.
For example, I was listening to a podcaster describe Hitchcock's 39 Steps, and how every chase/action scene felt cliched since they had been copied by some many directors since. This, despite the fact, it would have been 100% original and innovative at the time.
However, in the case of Citizen Kane, the movie still feels surprisingly fresh and full of vitality now. This is despite the fact a lot of movies by a lot of directors who will have been profoundly influenced by this piece.
Two things stand out in particular. The first is the way each scene is framed. Through out the movie, you will have Kane in the centre of the screen, in the background, in focus, as two or more characters discuss him in the foreground, also in focus. This deep focus is used in pretty much every scene in the movie, and gives you the sense that both Kane and the accounts about him are equally significant.
Secondly, the narrative structure was also ground-breaking at the time. It starts out with a newsreel, giving the audience a ten minute factual account of Kane's life. We then cut to a room where journalists are watching the reel and criticising it: saying it doesn't get under the skin of Kane. So the rest of the film is told in the form of flashbacks of the people Kane was close to. Since they're based on subjective accounts, we only ever see Kane from someone else's point of view, and are never quite sure how accurate a picture we are getting.
Overall, Citizen Kane is a movie anyone with at least a passing interest in film should see. It has a complexity and depth that few films have managed to emulate since. For a classic to be described as such, its story, as oppose to its cinematic techniques, must stand the test of time. Most of all Citizen Kane succeeds in this regard, as the movie forces us to question who we are at our core, and what is most important to us. What is our rosebud?
Perhaps the movie itself better sums up the plot than my attempt at poetry earlier, since they sing all about Kane about half-way through the film. Fans of the White Stripes may recognise the lyrics from the song "The Union Forever":
There is a man - a certain man
And for the poor you may be sure
That he'll do all he can!
Who is this one?
This fav'rite son?
Just by his action
Has the Traction magnates on the run?
Who loves to smoke?
Enjoys a joke?
Who wouldn't get a bit upset
If he were really broke?
With wealth and fame
He's still the same
I'll bet you five you're not alive
If you don't know his name
What is his name?...
It's Charlie Kane.
It's Mister Kane.
He doesn't like that Mister
He likes good old Charlie Kane.