Saturday, November 12, 2011

It Can't Be Love, For There Is No True Love

So True Classics is hosting a debate this month concerning Citizen Kane:

Here’s your chance to either defend Kane’s position as King of the Cinematic Mountain, or to knock it off its storied pedestal. At some point during the next month (until November 13th), put up a post on your blog either explaining why Kane deserves to be numero uno, or lay out your reasons why it is overrated. And if you are among those who feel that Kane is not the best movie of all time, tell us which film really IS, in your opinion, and defend your choice!

The entries will be judged by Carrie, Nikki, myself, and a couple of guest judges whom we haven’t determined yet. We’ll be looking at several factors, but first and foremost, we’re looking for enthusiastic, informative, and entertaining entries that will engage us–and your readers–in lively discussion. And we will award prizes to our top three favorites entries!

I'm vocal in my aversion to ranking movies or indulging in any kind of canon-building that involves hierarchies of any kind. I learned my lesson young when Star Wars lost the best-picture Oscar to Annie Hall. The twelve-year old me was outraged! Mind you, I hadn't seen Annie Hall at the time, but it couldn't POSSIBLY be as good as Star Wars! When I finally DID see Annie Hall a few years later (and once I was old enough to actually appreciate it) I felt like an idiot. Mind you, Annie Hall is NOT a better movie than Star Wars, but neither is Star Wars a better movie than Annie Hall. In fact, the two have nothing whatsoever in common with each other apart from their comparative excellence, and when you get to that level of excellence, notions like "best" and "greatest" become pretty damned meaningless.

Which brings me to Citizen Kane, and I guess I can get this out of the way first: Citizen Kane is NOT the greatest film ever made. Seriously, every time I see this assertion, I roll my eyes, because there's absolutely NO SUCH THING as "The Greatest Movie Ever Made." Even for its time, it's impossible for me to separate Kane from the great flowering of classic Hollywood from 1938 to 1942. Kane is an important film to that flowering, maybe even the central film to that flowering, but it's not the whole story. It's not even the whole story for the year it was made. I'm NOT one of those people who would retroactively give Citizen Kane the Oscar for best picture at the expense of How Green Was My Valley, the actual winner, because, well, How Green Was My Valley is one of the most beautiful things on this Earth. I doubt even Orson Welles himself would grouse about losing out to John Ford. I mean, Welles claimed to have learned how to make movies by watching Stagecoach over and over again.

In the broader context, can anyone really make an argument that Kane is "greater" than Sunrise? Than Metropolis? Than City Lights? Than Seven Samurai? Than any number of other great films? I can't. Let me pose this question: if the basis for Kane's greatness is its synthesis of film language or the way it assembles diverse idioms into a cohesive whole or its influence on the way movies are actually structured, how can we say Kane is a greater film than The Birth of a Nation, which is similarly influential, perhaps to an even greater degree?* The arguments for Kane's primacy look kind of shaky when you put them into this kind of context.

Isn't it enough to acknowledge that Citizen Kane is a legitimately great film without insisting that everyone worship at its feet? Arguing that Kane is legitimately great is an argument from fact, and you can document both its influence, its critical stature over the years, its innovations, even its cultural impact simply by looking at the movies that come after it. If a film is still being parodied fifty years after the fact on a children's cartoon, as Kane was on Tiny Toon Adventures in 1990, you simply can't make it go away by asserting that you don't like it.

Mind you, I understand why someone might not like Citizen Kane. It's an intellectual movie filled with mostly unlikeable characters, and if you prefer movies that appeal to the emotions more than to the intellect, then Kane is probably not for you. This is an argument from taste, just as arguing that it's "The Greatest Ever" is an argument from taste. It doesn't validate or invalidate Kane's greatness. Superlatives are always arguments from taste, and these sorts of conclusions are always dubious because they are beyond the realm of facts. They aren't verifiable.

I should probably pause for a minute to implore whoever is reading this to hold off on sending me any poison pen messages telling me how much of an ignoramus I must be for denying that Kane is the greatest film ever made. Obviously, I know nothing about film. Likewise, I would prefer not to be congratulated by Kane haters for pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes. The truth of the matter is that I absolutely adore Citizen Kane. I understand its greatness and I bask in it every time I watch it. It's a film that I find to be bottomless. I find some new experience in it with every new viewing. It's a film of such grand visual pleasures and impish formal delights that I never tire of it. It's one of my favorite movies. Not THE favorite, but A favorite.

A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life's end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?

--Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

A few years have passed since my last viewing of Citizen Kane. More years than I maybe realized, actually, because as I was watching the film this morning, I kept hearing Jack White in my head talk-singing lines from the movie in The White Stripes' "Union Forever." I don't remember even having heard of The White Stripes the last time I watched it, so it was probably sometime during the last millennium. That makes me feel old, by the way, because The White Stripes were one of those awesome bands I saw "back in the day." And do you remember what I was saying about cultural influence? Yeah.

Credit goes to Jack White this time around for focusing me on the actual lyrics to the song at Kane's Florida party, to which I previously never paid much attention. "It can't be love/For there is no true love," is a particularly bitter commentary. I'm not sure how I ever missed it before, but that's what I mean when I say I continue to find things in the movie that make it new.

I don't remember having read Jorge Luis Borges's assessment of Citizen Kane the last time I saw it, either, but I remember having a conversation about the movie sometime around 2002 in which I was introduced to it. Borges describes Kane more concisely than I ever could when he described the film as a labyrinth without a center. Kane himself, Borges tells us, is a "chaos of appearances." The famous mirror scene in Kane seems to act as an exclamation mark for this way of thinking.

The film itself is a chaos of appearances, too. I remember the first time I saw the film when I was a teenager. My first impression of the film, before it was even well and truly started, was that it was a horror film. I based this on the ominous opening shots that cast Kane's Xanadu as a Gothic haunted house. There's a funhouse element to this, too: the first shot we see of Kane's nurse is a distorted reflection in the glass of the snow globe. The opening of Kane is creepy as hell. Of course, Kane has a more direct relationship with film noir, given that it's a kind of "metaphysical detective story," (Borges again). But it's also a Gothic, featuring the return of the repressed and a fractured, multi-viewpoint narrative that circles around a central mystery. All of this in spite of the fact that in the most basic of ways, its narrative is utterly banal. "The poor little rich kid whose wealth can't buy him love?" Oh, please. But if you think that's what Kane is actually about, you are sorely mistaken.

The form provides all the clues, rather than the plot. The elephant in the room is the character whose viewpoint is absent in the film. Kane himself. The movie clues you into this, too, with the puzzles that Susan Alexander is shown doing and the throwaway at the end when the reporter says Kane's life is a puzzle with some of the pieces missing. We don't know anything about Charles Foster Kane at the end of the movie, no more than the reporter does. Welles is thorough enough to carry this through into the movie's trailer, in which Welles himself and Charles Foster Kane do not appear.

What Kane is really about, then, is the existential lot of humankind: we are destined to be abject mysteries to everyone we know.

I think the last time I watched Kane prior to this morning, it was to find the pterodactyls. This is the impishness of Orson Welles. Great whacks of Citizen Kane were constructed from the leavings of other movies on the RKO lot. Welles had his pick of elements and the pterodactyls are part of this. They're in the backdrop shots at the party in Florida that Kane throws for Susan Alexander. The footage itself was shot for King Kong, or possibly Son of Kong, and the fact that there are dinosaurs in the movie hailed as the greatest of all time makes me warm and fuzzy inside. Kane is otherwise a special effects movie, too, most of them so subtle as to not read as special effects, but one or two of them are showy, like the shot that ascends the rigging of the Chicago Opera House where Susan Alexander has her debut. One of the subtlest is the deep, deep focus of the shot where Kane's parents sign Charlie Kane over to Mr. Thatcher, with Charlie framed in the window. The footage of Charlie in the window was a rear projection shot. The camera could go deep, but not that deep. Gregg Toland was as much a trickster as Welles. Welles claimed to be hurt by suggestions that he placed himself and his own authorship of Kane over the contributions of his collaborators, and he rightly points out that he shared his title card with Gregg Toland.

Of course, Kane is an albatross around the neck of the career of Orson Welles. I sometimes think that Welles is the cinema's version of Herman Melville: Both have the great early work that is the greatest thing ever (Kane, Moby Dick), the long eclipse, the great late work rediscovered (Touch of Evil, Billy Budd), the other unknown masterpieces (The Piazza Tales, Pierre, Othello, Chimes at Midnight), and the great mindfuck (The Confidence Man, F for Fake). Welles and Melville are alike in this, too: they are among the most disillusioned artists America ever produced. I've often wondered what Welles would have made of Moby Dick, but I have to satisfy myself on this point with his performance in John Huston's version of the story, playing Father Mapple.

The terms of the blogathon state that if you deny that Kane is the greatest movie of all time, you have to name something to unseat it. I'm not going to do this for obvious reasons, but I will say this: Kane is only my third favorite of Welles's movies. Don't get me wrong, this depends a LOT on what I've seen recently and what kind of mood I'm in, but both Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight stroke my own specific cinematic appetites a little more pleasurably than Kane, and I watch them more frequently. But, as I say at the outset, I don't really like to play favorites, and I would be a fool to claim that either of those movies had the same kind of impact on cinema as a whole. If this all seems wishy washy, well, then so be it.

*n.b.: I am willing to entertain arguments denying the greatness of The Birth of a Nation, because that film is deeply problematic. I won't go so far as to compare Griffith to Leni Reifenstahl, but similar question marks attend the film.


Mykal said...

I love Kane, but never have been sure whether it's Kane I love or the Legend of Kane. It's a film nearly impossible to see with virgin eyes. I grew up reading film stuff and similar pulp trash (my mom had tons of books abut movies around the house), so Citizen Kane came to me as a full blown god before I ever saw it.

I did take a whack at Kane once but, lacking the balls to face it directly, I came at it sideways: Monster Kane from Green Xanadu!

Yes, I've posted a link on your blog. I feel shame.

Mykal said...

PS: I feel compelled to admit this film started my lifelong crush on Agnes Moorehead.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Mykal,

I think it's almost impossible to write about Kane and say something new, too. A lot of writing about Kane is arguing about how it is/isn't the greatest film ever made or it's pouring over minutia a la the post David Cairns did a few months ago when he discovered that the octopus in the newsreel footage was fake and swiped from a Fu Manchu serial. Which is interesting, I guess, and goes to Welles's boundless creativity, but it's hard to find something legitimately new about the value of the film.

Don't worry about posting the link. I do that kind of thing without shame. And since I moderate my comments, I don't worry about other people doing the same. I can always nix it. It's the social capital of the internet, after all.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Oh, and I can't tell you how delighted I was to see Agnes Moorehead as the warden in Caged a couple of years ago.

Andreas said...

Christianne --

Great post, I agree with most of it. Just two notes to add:

1) You say that Kane is "an intellectual movie filled with mostly unlikeable characters." I have to disagree. It has its dour and puzzle-oriented parts, but it also has plenty of emotion. Jed and Charlie's friendship and break-up; Susan's suicide attempt; the monologue to end all monologues about the girl with the white parasol? All break my heart every time.

As for unlikeable characters: what about Jed and Charlie, in their younger, less bitter days? I love 'em. (You can't hate Joseph Cotten, really.) Or lovable, loyal Bernstein? I feel like they're all old friends.

2) You mentioned David Cairns' writings on Kane in a comment, and the pterodactyls in your post, so I felt obliged to link to this:

More Cairns, talking directly about his dinosaur-related research! Hope you enjoy.

Laura said...

I practically shouted "YES, ME TOO!" when you said your initial reaction to Kane was that it was a horror film. I mentioned on Rachel's blog that Kane's dark, eerie atmosphere is what really separates it from a lot of the more studio manufactured movies of that time. Something about Kane just feels different from other movies, and whether or not that's a sign of greatness lies, well, with the audience, I suppose. But I personally don't see how anybody could view it in any other light. Great post!

Aubyn said...

I really love your explanation of why there is no such thing as The Greatest Film Ever. That's what I was trying so hard to get across at the beginning of my piece, but you just sum it up so perfectly, in way that's completely clear and intelligent. Bravo.

That aside, there's so much else I admire about your essay here. The inclusion of the Dickens quote, the mention of the song, your commentary on the visuals, on Welles as an artist. I would quote the parts I enjoyed but that would be too long. And I agree with you that Borges perfectly described the film in only a few words.

As to the question of whether Kane has likable characters...hmm, I'm not sure that they're unlikable, it's just that I always feel distanced from them. To a certain extent, everyone feels like a manifestation of Kane and the film makes the point that what you know about a person is in the end very little. I don't have the sense, watching Kane, that I'm kicking back and having fun with old pals, the way I do with Casablanca or Mildred Pierce or The Apartment. Doesn't impede my enjoyment of the film, it's just a different kind of story.

Anyway, this was a fantastic piece of writing, even by your high standards, my dear. I'm glad you shared it with us.

Kevyn Knox said...

Fantastic piece!

I do love Kane very much. I place it at #5 on my all-time list (and yes, obviously I am one of those that make lists). Now this is not saying it is the fifth greatest film of all-time, just my fifth favourite.

I love your arguments for and against the film - or at least against the idea of the idol-worshipping of said film.

Of course this whole debate, this whole argument, is merely just more of the same old same old that has been said both for and against Kane lo these many decades. It may be impossible to actually talk about the film itself (from any point of view) without it coming down to this debate. That is a shame really, since the film is a stunning work - even if it may not be someone's particular taste - and can be enjoyed on more than just a love it/hate it basis.

And as for the film having mostly unlikable characters, I hope you are keeping Joe Cotton's Leland out of there. Even in his later bitter days, he is a blast.

Great piece indeed. I have long been a big fan of your site and of your writing. Keep up the great work.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Kevyn, thanks.

I think I said "mostly unlikeable," so there's wiggle room. And Jed Leland isn't onscreen for great whacks of the movie.

I used to make lists. I gave it up because it feeds my OCD in bad ways.

Hi, Rachel.

"Distant" is a good word for the characters in Kane. The nature of the movie, I guess. And I know what you mean about movies as "fun." Kane is a great film, but Casablanca is a great movie, if you catch my drift.

Hi, Andreas.

Damn that David Cairns! Spoiling my fun! They're pterodactyls, I say! Pterodactyls!

Joel Bocko said...

Excellent piece, much of which I agree with, although I actually tend to tackle the film from another angle - story first, then form - partly out of perversity, partly because I came to the film first as a kid, and was focused on the story aspect.

And since it went up today, I will join Mykal in deviousness (albeit without html code since I've found that to be iffy in blogger comments):

Warning, though, it is quite long.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi Joel,

Long is good. I like meaty blog posts.

Thanks for stopping by.