Orson Welles’s legendary Citizen Kane turned 75 years old earlier this year (along with M&M’s and Joan Baez) and today, Warner Bros. released its anniversary Blu-ray edition, prompting me to fantasize about hyping it with a nifty line like “This isn’t your great-grandfather’s Citizen Kane!”
Except that it is, and there’s no way around that. A longtime Kane fan, I can’t help but guess the film’s venerable reputation as “The Greatest Movie Ever Made” seems like a crock to 21st-century audiences. For starters—as any film professor will blearily tell you between bleak post-screening shots of vodka—this generation’s cinemaniacs react to anything shot in old-timey black and white every bit as cheerfully as English majors being told they have to learn Middle English to dig Chaucer.
True, great-grandpa couldn’t have known that Donald J. Trump—grab ‘em by the Rosebud, baby—would be providing a real-life update on Kane’s poor little rich boy three-quarters of a century later. Welles’s and co-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s own real-life model was media magnate William Randolph Hearst, who helped foment the Spanish American War to sell newspapers but, unlike the Donald, never made it to the White House. Nobody today thinks of Kane as sensationalistic, but in 1941, it was a reckless, gossipy portrait of a public figure in a position to take revenge—which Hearst did, doing his considerable best to trash the movie’s box-office prospects once he failed to outright suppress its release. Alec Baldwin’s Trump caricature on SNL was creampuff stuff compared to Mankiewicz turning Hearst’s pet name for his mistress’s clitoris into the name of Charles Foster Kane’s lost childhood sled.
Once Hearst had shuffled off this mortal coil, which he had by the time Kane was rediscovered and hailed in the 1950s, the movie’s topical impudence wasn’t the main reason critics fell over themselves to vaunt Welles’s precocious masterpiece as cinema’s answer to the Taj Mahal. (The critics who got the Taj Mahal comparison rolling were mostly French anyhow, so the screenplay’s zesty American-tabloid ingredients would have been largely lost on them from the get-go.)
In their eyes, Kane’s major glories were Welles’s exuberant flair and technical showmanship: the deep-focus photography, the stylized use of shadows and light, the witty editing segues. No less bedazzling was the kaleidoscopic fun of assembling Kane’s story from multiple perspectives (drunken ex-wife, disillusioned best friend, loyal lieutenant, et cetera). On top of that, Kane was the crown jewel in Welles’s midcentury coronation as movieland’s ultimate thwarted genius—proof of what he could do when he was given total creative freedom, which never happened to him again.
How meaningful is any of this in 2016? For obvious reasons, the movie’s visual and auditory audacities aren’t likely to knock people’s socks off anymore. By today’s standards, Kane is awfully talky and performed in a high-handed, consciously theatrical acting style whose cleverness and bravado is alien to audiences raised on artless-looking behavioral realism. It’s hard to see how Citizen Kane could be more at odds with contemporary movie tastes. Never mind how that’s not exactly a disincentive to cherishing it.
Even so, I’ve never seen much point in turning a movie into a cathedral, let alone insisting that everybody else had better worship there. A few years ago, when Kane got bumped by Hitchcock’s Vertigo from its traditional top spot in Brit movie magazine Sight And Sound’s once-per-decade critics’ poll, some graying pals of mine reacted as if their favorite security blanket had just been swiped by soccer hooligans. But wanting “The Greatest Movie Ever Made” to stay “The Greatest Movie Ever Made” until the end of time is an awfully sterile view of the medium’s possibilities.
If Vertigo looked like a hipper choice to the poll’s younger voters, the fact that it’s in color couldn’t have hurt. But another reason is that Hitchcock is the unequalled master of a genre he pretty much invented—that is, the opposite of Welles, whose chaotic career hangs together primarily as a species of hyperbolized autobiography. From horror flicks to high-tech thrillers, we live in an age that prizes genre filmmaking and Kane isn’t easily categorizable other than, well, being Citizen Kane.
So, here’s a recommendation for Kane newbies: forget about that “Greatest Movie Ever” business, which won’t do you or the film any favors. Break out the M&M’s (but not, please, Joan Baez). Enjoy the idea of Charles Foster Kane as the ur-Trump if you feel like it. Watch Kane without any preconceptions and you’ll be surprised by how sprightly and entertaining it is. As Welles himself knew better than most, entertainment can be a terrific gateway drug to movie art.