Friday, April 10, 2015

I'll Bet You Five You're Not Alive If You Don't Know His Name

A two month retrospective series of the films of Orson Welles has begun here in Austin.

It is a joy for me to write about the first of these screenings that I attended, which was in a theater downtown and projected in 35mm.

My Declaration of Principles

I.   I will provide the readers of this blog with a review of Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles) that does not in any way mention the context of the film's production, any of Orson Welles's other films, first time innovative techniques, or the basis of its central protagonist on any real people.

II.  I will also provide them with a review that doesn't mention anything about the man Orson Welles, his life, his career, or any of his other personal aspects or characteristics, or the reputation of this, his first film, as being widely considered to be the greatest film of all time.

Citizen Kane focuses on character over plot. What perfunctory plot there is to speak of is nothing more than a journalist trying to track down Charles Foster Kane's last words: "Rosebud." The journalist visits Kane's widow--Susan Alexander, goes to the archives of the late Thatcher--Kane's banker and guardian, then to Bernstein and later Leland--Kane's business colleagues. And finally, the film ends with a reveal that shows Rosebud was Kane's sled he lost as a boy.

The prologue (following the shattered snow globe) is original and riveting in its imaginative execution. The newsreel is constructed as a media decoy that is believable in its authenticity. We are introduced to Kane through a wide array of diverging viewpoints of opinion. Many of them negative, few sympathetic. But we are hooked and want more.

The magic of Citizen Kane arises out of the scenes of memory; melodramatic, and fanciful, the first of which being the boarding house scene, which relies on Kane's until recently destitute mother (Aggy Morehead) morosely ascribing him to the care of Thatcher after she's inherited a goldmine (literally) to get the boy away from what's hinted at to be an abusive domineering father.

Chronologically Kane begins as a sympathetic hero that overcomes tragedy to crusade for the poor masses of Americans. He's not interested in money or power--he wants to make a change. This is the germ for what proves the arching toxic melodrama. Kane works at his career and his marriage because of altruistic principles. Then we see his eventual ugly, inexplicable, saddening decay and departure from everything he once stood for.

For the man who seems on a sure track to the United States presidency, and the sky being the limit, his options diminish rather quickly.

Citizen Kane also shows the intertwining relationship between melodrama and tabloid. The bitter comeuppance Boss Jim Gettes has in store for Kane, the tabloid love nest banner, is the surprisingly sudden final nail in Kane's coffin.

The rise of Kane is full of hope. The depiction of the Inquirer offices, the revelry and celebration that go on there, the snappy witty dialogue all paint the past in a brilliant luster that gives the film its lasting glow. On the contrary, it is Xanadu that crushes all hope with its decadent darkness, oppressive painful remorse and chaotic lack of any principle other than avarice of property--including Susan, who becomes nothing more than one of his statues.

Another trait worthy of admiration in Citizen Kane's structure is the continuous jumping from one location to the next, both geographic and temporal. The film's pace is relentless. And the efforts bestowed upon each of the different locations is evidence of the finest craftsmanship the classic Hollywood Studio System was capable of.

What else is there to say about the lasting draw of this fictitious larger than life, spoiled, impulsive, shallow, hedonist? Other than asking ourselves how far really are our own ambitions and dreams from his?


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