Friday, May 31, 2013

Director Spotlight #14.2: Orson Welles' Citizen Kane

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the great cinematic magician Orson Welles.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 100/A

At this point, it’s difficult to discuss Citizen Kane and not go over the same points most people have brought up over the past seventy years: it’s considered by many to be the greatest film ever made. It’s loosely based off of the life of yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst, who didn’t much like it. It’s the main reason that Orson Welles was both cemented as one of the all-time great directors and as a filmmaker who would struggle to get any of his projects off the ground. It’s practically untouchable, to the point where it’s often met with either blind adulation or contrarian dickishness. It’s a shame, considering how lively and vital the film still is to this day. The greatest movie ever made? It's certainly in the conversation.

Charles Foster Kane (Welles) has died, impossibly rich but alone, cut off from much of society. His last word, “Rosebud” is a mystery. Reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) is tasked to find out just what Kane meant with his final word, and goes about interviewing those who were closest to him: his mistress and second wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore); his right-hand man Bernstein (Everett Sloane); his former best friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten); and his cynical butler Raymond (Paul Stewart). Each person gives a portrait of Kane- generous with his time but closed off, needy for love but with little love to give, a man who had everything and lost everything that was important.

Much has been made of the style of Kane, which mixes realistic and formalistic techniques like nearly no other film before it in a way that would influence everyone from Martin Scorsese to Francois Truffaut. The deep focus technique Welles uses is often cited as a realistic technique, as it gives the viewer a chance to direct attention to any part of the frame, and the long takes are also cited for their realism. Yet Welles (with the help of master cinematographer Gregg Toland) often uses these devices in a formalistic way. In one notable scene, Kane loses much of his fortune and negotiates with his bitter former caretaker, Thatcher (George Coulouris), and the depth of field keeps Kane, Thatcher, and Bernstein all in perfect focus, arguably showing realistic technique. But as Kane walks into the background, one should pay attention to the windows- what at first looked like a normal size window is now revealed to be huge, towering over Kane, making him seem tiny just as much of his wealth is being reduced. It’s enormously effective, expressionistic camerawork, and the fact that it’s a long take only adds to the magic of it.

“Magic” is an appropriate word. For Kane, Welles mixed plenty of diverse influences- the realism of John Ford and Jean Renoir, the formalism of the German Expressionists and Eisenstein, a love for baroque design, Shakespeare- but blends it together with some impressive trickery that makes the film seem like it was made for more than it was. Many of the sets were just simple Hollywood sets, but Thatcher’s Memorial Library and Kane’s mansion are made to seem gigantic through the use of wide shots and echoing sound design. Kane’s grounds are made foreboding with some fog and fades that make us feel like we’re getting a peek at something we shouldn’t. Thompson (ably played by Alland) is made an effective audience surrogate simply by the fact that he’s constantly either cloaked in chiaroscuro shadows or only shown from the back. Characters seem larger than life because of how low the camera (and often the ceilings) are. Transitions through time seem natural simply by the sheer force of Welles’ will- everyone recalls the whip pans in Kane’s series of breakfasts with his first wife as they gradually grow more distant. It’s both an effective, dynamic way to show just how their relationship has grown strained and, when Welles pulls back to reveal that they’ve gone from a small table close together to a long table far apart over the years, show just how psychologically removed Kane has become from someone he professed to love.

Still, the realist supporters would have some support with Welles’ use of long takes, which, in the style of Chaplin, give great support to the performers. Welles convinced RKO Radio Pictures to let him use the Mercury Theatre players for the film, and they’re uniformly marvelous: Agnes Moorehead as Kane’s aloof mother; the eternally stuffy Coulouris as Thatcher; Dorothy Comingore as Susan, a naïve girl smothered by Kane’s affection and his insistence that she continue singing even though she’s not talented; Everett Sloane as the hilariously sycophantic and loyal Bernstein, who wants nothing more than to bask in Kane’s glow; and especially the great Joseph Cotten as Leland, a man who goes from true believer to skeptic at the church of Charles Foster Kane, his closest friend, and the man with the clearest view of who Kane is- an idealist about to be corrupted, and a man who cannot love openly the way he demands to be loved openly.

Of course, much of the glory also comes from Welles’ background in radio- he’s fantastic at using sound cues as both underlines of action (think when the snowball hits Ma Kane’s boarding house) and as ways to jar the audience (that fucking terrifying cockatoo screech). He also brought with him, from The Mercury Theatre On the Air, a man who would become one of the greatest composers in film history- Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann would win the Oscar that year for another film, but it’s hard to imagine his work on The Devil and Daniel Webster is half as varied and dynamic as his work here. The music goes from foreboding and mysterious (the Expressionistic opening) to ecstatic and overwrought (NEWS! ON THE MARCH!), from joyful to lonely in childhood, from Kane’s delightful song (THERE IS A MAN!) to Susan’s opera, to the ultimately haunting strains in the film’s unforgettable final moments. The film would be a masterpiece no matter what, but it’s hard to imagine it being quite as great without Herrmann’s work, probably the composer’s best score next to Vertigo.

Still, this is Welles’ show, not only as a director, but as an actor. Kane is somewhat of a cipher at times, but a deliberate one- we purposely never know everything we could about him. He’s ingratiating, charismatic, funny, and often admirable in his ambition and idealism, but he’s also temperamental, petty, and filled with righteous (and sometimes not so righteous) fury. There’s plenty of Welles within Kane- the wunderkind status, the egomania, the charisma- but Welles notably had more love to give than Kane. As played by Welles, this is a man desperate for any kind of affection whatsoever, and a man who has a clear idea of some of his faults but still manages to make grave mistakes all the same. It’s easy to see why many might flock to him (he is Orson Welles, young, handsome, and with that gorgeous velvety voice), but it’s just as easy to see how one might easily be pushed away.

Certain people (particularly Pauline Kael) have tried to give more credit to co-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz for the ingenious structure of Citizen Kane. One shouldn’t underestimate Mankiewicz’s contributions (he did get most of the inside information on Hearst), but it was Welles’ original concept, the structure of interviewing Kane’s close friends has its origins in the abandoned John Brown play Marching Song, and the thematic similarities the film shares with all of Welles’ greatest works. As with his earlier work Marching Song (not to mention his adaptations of Shakespeare plays), Welles shows a clear-headed view of public figures- they’re not just larger-than-life, but they’re often enigmatic. No matter how much we may think we know them, we’re only getting part of the picture. This is especially true of Kane, who is “loved by many…hated by as many more”, vilified as both a communist and as a fascist (Kane’s take: “I am….an American”). He is everything to everyone, and perhaps a champion of the people, but because he’s imperfect (read: has an affair), he’ll never hold public office.

There’s something in being a public figure that’s destructive to Kane, initially just a boy in a simple home. When he’s taken away from his childhood home with his beloved (but very cold) mother, any chance of a normal life goes away. He’ll forever be forced to try to be something great, and even as he gets every knick-knack, statue, or gem that he could ever want, he’ll forever be doomed to a lonely, sad life. Kane’s every action is a search for validation- from the public, from his lovers, from his friends- and any rebuke is taken very personally. In a key scene between him and Susan, he speaks of his search for his youth in his mother’s old possessions, but it’s little more than a sentimental, nostalgic yearning for a lost past. This loss of innocence will echo throughout Welles’ filmography, but few films in his filmography (and perhaps through all of history) articulate it quite this well.

Still, Kane is a moral man, at least at first. He resents Thatcher for taking him away from his mother, but also for his exploitation of the common man, and he’s willing to crusade against Thatcher and for the working man with his paper. He’s well-meaning and willing to lose millions. But are some of Kane’s tactics shady (supporting the Spanish-American War for monetary reasons, accusing a man of anarchism to gain information)? And is his devotion to the public not based out of his desire for love? Kane makes the Declaration of Principles to the public, but the clear-headed Leland has at least some sense that Kane’s idealism is untenable, and he becomes our moral voice against Kane’s megalomania. There’s a slow draining of idealism in both of the two- Kane is too busy building monuments to himself, and where Bernstein might sing the song of Charles Foster Kane with great passion, Leland knows that his friend is being changed. The look on his face of defeat and sadness after he learns of Kane’s affair (not to mention his pushing Susan into an opera career) is that of a man who’s lost complete faith in his friend.

He’s not the only one who loses faith in Kane. Welles’ expressionistic style helps showcase the sense of isolation in the film, particularly in the opening, in which the “NO TRESPASSING” sign and the mausoleum-like home of Kane show just how lonely his death was, but it’s nothing compared to his ultimate downfall as his final connection to humanity, Susan, falls away. When he and Susan first get together, he remarks that they’re both lonely, but she has little sense of how lonely a relationship with Charlie Kane is going to be. His demand that she pursue a singing career is less a push for her happiness than desire for validation for his own feelings about her. As he claps, alone, in the opera house, it’s a devastating moment of loneliness for both Susan, no doubt deeply embarrassed, and for Kane, who sees this as yet another form of rejection.

When she attempts suicide, he finally does relent, but it leads to her being smothered by a man who closes her up in a tomb of a home without really letting her know who he is. When she does leave him, it’s perhaps a huge weight off of her shoulders (even if she can’t completely escape him), but it’s final severance from humanity for him. As he tears apart her room in single-minded fury, he’s lost almost everything, all while giving almost no one an idea of who he really is. Of the many symbolic shots and images in the film, one of the most powerful is that of Kane walking next to a group of mirrors, showing the many false Kanes next to the one real one- we’ve known aspects of his personality, but he’ll always remain just out of reach.

And that speaks a great deal about who Kane is- someone unknowable. Rosebud, the sled, as it’s revealed in the greatest crane shot in cinema history, explained for a few fleeting seconds, and then taken away, is certainly an aspect of Kane- the promise of a youth lost, now just a hollow echo for a man who wound up empty and alone. It’s a piece of the puzzle, as Thompson aptly puts it (“a missing piece”), but he’s right that it’s only one piece, and that it can’t define the man completely. The final moments of the film are heartbreaking not only because it’s another aspect of the man lost forever, but because the journey for Rosebud’s meaning would have been empty even had it been successful. The man who desired love from all never had a chance.

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