The UnPopular Opinion: Citizen Kane

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THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!


Look, I know that there are an equal number of people that love CITIZEN KANE as those who merely respect it.  My opinion may not inherently be an altogether unpopular one.  But the fact that it is routinely voted the best/#1 film of all time, coupled with the point that there are indeed people who genuinely love it as a film in and of itself, has inspired me to share my opinion on this... I don't know what.

Which is that I in no way see it as even a good film, let alone "the best film ever made."  There are certain elements about it I respect, because it would be awfully ungrateful not to do so considering the profound effect Orson Welles' supremely (at the time) unorthodox filmmaking methods have had upon all of cinema since.  But that doesn't mean I have to like the film at all, which, as I said, I most definitely don't.

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"You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man."

CITIZEN KANE is an awfully curious beast.  Made when Welles was 25, with mostly untested (in terms of cinema experience) actors and a titanic behind-the-scenes tug of war that nearly prevented it from ever existing, CITIZEN KANE is first and foremost a labor of pure of love.  On that ground alone, I certainly respect its existence and Welles' extraordinary perseverance.

And it is very true that Welles made use of quite a few techniques, both in terms of narrative structure and technical storytelling, that had not existed up until that point.  Many aspects of filmmaking that we take for granted now, be it the use of visual metaphor or fractured/episodic storytelling that jumps back and forth in time or certain elements of camera language, all had their grand beginning in Welles' cinematic leviathan.  But that impressive technical trickery is all the film really has going for it, and if I'm not going to brook such a thing these days with movies like SUCKER PUNCH then I'm certainly going to make an allowance for CITIZEN KANE just because it's in black and white.

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"Hello, Charlie. I didn't know we were speaking..."
"Sure, we're speaking, Jedediah: you're fired."

I have no problem with CITIZEN KANE because of its age - I love plenty of older films.  They're what I grew up watching, so I'm well aware that the tone and pacing of the storytelling was different in the forties from the way it is now.  But good goddman is this film slow.  While new at the time, and theoretically useful in terms of exploring the mystery of Charles Foster Kane, the plot structure of interview and recollection bookended by newspaper investigation just does not work well at all considering the story being told and the character(s) being explored.  It removes conflict from this particular story in a general sense, and the recollections are then spread far too thin to maintain any sense of interesting evolution or conflict on their own.  I'd even say that the almost episodic structure makes me feel as though I’m missing out on certain steps in Kane’s story. In trying to encompass a life so large as Kane’s, the story loses the meat which might truly tie it together and make it memorable on an emotional and intellectual level.

It is, all in all, just a supremely unsatisfying story. One could even liken it to PROMETHEUS in that sense – a film which, while exceedingly pretty, asks all sorts of questions and revels in its own mystery without providing any answers.  Without even providing many tools with which audience members might find the answer out for themselves.  This is then compounded by how the story within the film itself has no real resolution. The film might technically have one becuase the structure comes full circle and "The End" is written across the screen, but the story and characters do not, and so the experience of watching it is made all the more frustrating.

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"Love! You don't love anybody! Me or anybody else! You want to be loved - that's all you want! I'm Charles Foster Kane. Whatever you want - just name it and it's yours! Only love me! Don't expect me to love you ."

“I don’t think any one word can explain a man’s life,” says the reporter who has spent the whole film searching out the meaning of "Rosebud," Kane's dying word.   Well it's a spot on thing to say, because nor can Orson Welle's one movie explain a character as vast as Charles Foster Kane.  It of course doesn't help that the film chooses to ignore the chance to explore any touch (brief sled bits excluded) that might make Kane remotely human, relateable, or understandable, and instead center solely on a selfish, cruel, achingly ambitious, nigh-on sociopathic man whose ruthlessness knows little boundary.  There must be something human if we're to sympathize with such a man, and "Rosebud" is simply not enough.

CITIZEN KANE embodies the exact same style vs substance debate that still rages to this very day, encapsulating it just as perfectly as every flashy film that chooses to let the cool new toys and tricks far outweigh any of the other considerations that make up a good movie.  Is it still the most influential? Very possibly.  But that doesn't change my thought that, on the whole, it is far from the greatest film ever made in terms of cohesive and comprehensive cinematic achievement.  On those terms, in fact, it consistently comes up largely lacking for me even under the label of merely "a good movie."  Meaning that, at the end of the day, by the time the credits roll there is far too much left hollowly echoing through time for CITIZEN KANE to be anything other than an instructional piece of celluloid.

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“He never believed in anything except Charlie Kane, he never had a conviction except Charlie Kane in his life.”

Oh, and if you have any suggestions for The UnPopular Opinion I’m always happy to hear them. You can send along an email to [email protected], spell it out below, slap it up on my wall in Movie Fan Central, or send me a private message via Movie Fan Central. Provide me with as many movie suggestions as you like, with any reasoning you'd care to share, and if I agree then you may one day see it featured in this very column!

Extra Tidbit: The audience watching Kane make his big election speech was actually a photo, and not comprised of real people at all. Reportedly, "hundreds of holes were pricked in with a pin, and lights moved about behind it" in order to generate the illusion of movement.
Source: JoBlo.com



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