Catch-Up: April’s Shame – Citizen Kane (1941)

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I had tried watching Citizen Kane many times before, but never made it very far. I was almost always bored by the lengthy newsreel sequence. Then eventually, I gave up trying in my late teens. But I have officially made it through the movie, arguably referred to as the greatest movie ever made, and I’m not so sure.

On first viewing Citizen Kane seems stale. The newsreel sequence is far too long and seems like it might be completely unnecessary. It’s long and tedious. The make-up goes between pretty good, to J. Edgar level. The film itself is an examination of the life and death of Charles Foster Kane, a would-be politician, millionaire, and newsman. The character is partially based on William Randolph Hearst, Samuel Insull, and Harold McCormick. And the story takes place after his death as a news reporter talks to people from his life to uncover the meaning of Kane’s final word.

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On further viewings, the newsreel sequence does seem a bit long, but is completely necessary. It provides a base for the story of Charles Foster Kane to be built on and provides one of the many versions of the kind of man he was. Maybe it just seemed stale because it’s used in other movies so much, most recently that I can think of, Iron Man. And it’s use just seemed like lazy story telling, but when Citizen Kane first came out, it wasn’t.

That’s something that I’ve had to keep in mind on my further viewings, that Citizen Kane broke a lot of new ground in film. A lot of which has been copied and re-copied for years, to the point where it is embedded in most of today’s films.

The idea of telling a story not through the linear narrative is perhaps the greatest gift to film Kane could give the world especially along side the idea of the unreliable narrator. The news reporter is given many different angles and theories on Charles Foster Kane from people that all had very different opinions of him. Were they telling the truth, or were they using his death to get even and show the world the version of him that they saw. It builds a complex character and makes the final reveal stand out. No matter what version was right, Kane’s final word highlights what he really cares about and who he really was when everything else was stripped away.

Without non-linear story telling, or multiple/unreliable narrators some of my favorite films might not have been made: Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, The Godfather Part 2, and The Social Network.

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The story telling is really what I eat up in this movie, but the effects and cinematography are a huge impact on current cinema as well. Deep focus was rarely used in those days, keeping the background and foreground in sharp focus. The up-angle camera shot and his crane work continue to inspire filmmakers. I can’t help but wonder if this being Orson Welles film debut helped him break new ground. He hadn’t been in the business to know “how things were done.” He did it the way he wanted to because he had never seen it done any other way.

There have been a few lists floating around the internet with movies to make sure your kids seen before a certain age. They mostly include the original Star Wars movies and the original TMNT films. By today standards, those movies don’t look as good, but if a kid seems them at the right time, they have more of an impact. Citizen Kane should be on a similar list. If you’ve already been spoiled by great, more modern cinema, then you really have to work to appreciate Citizen Kane. I’m not sure it’s still the greatest movie ever made, but it’s certainly up there and it certainly paved the way for whatever film holds that title.

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