Friday, November 27, 2009

Citizen Kane Part One

Years ago, for about 6 weeks, I co-hosted my own Siskel and Ebert-type cable TV program called Classic Movies in which I, along with my co-host and producer, Jeremy Davis, each week discussed and showed clips from two of our favorite vintage films. One of the films I chose was Citizen Kane and the clip I particularly wanted to talk about was a scene out of the memoirs of Mr. Thatcher, the custodian of Charles Foster Kane’s huge fortune, who expresses his frustration with Charles’ do-goodism and his desire to own a money-losing newspaper (Charles: “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper”) that Thatcher regards as trivial. But before I say more about this clip, which I think encapsulates Welles’ cinematic mastery, let me mention a few of the clips I rejected owing to their iconic status.

I couldn’t use the famous opening, which shows a series of lugubrious overlapping shots of Kane’s great pleasure palace, Xanadu, and culminates with his dying words – “Rosebud” – and the shattering of the glass ball. It has been shown and reshown dozens of times. It would have been similarly banal to run the mock-newsreel reviewing Kane’s life followed by the reporters trading wisecracks in the dark screening room. And it would have been hopelessly redundant to screen the famous portrait of Kane’s marriage to his first wife, Emily, which in about a minute details how their union deteriorated and includes Kane interrupting his wife’s words: “People will think...” with his own definitive “…What I tell them to think!” Nor could I include the often seen sequence in which Susan Alexander Kane, Kane’s second wife, debuts as an opera singer. Her voice is not only undistinguished, she can’t quite stay on key, and as we listen to her struggle to get the notes right, the camera gradually moves higher and higher above the stage until it stops, centered on two stage hands listening. They look at each other in silence, their faces impassive, until finally one of them signals their shared derision by holding his nose between his thumb and index finger.

I hope it’s obvious why I mention all these other scenes. There are many others I could have included. Citizen Kane remains a cornucopia of memorable movie making, telling a story with visuals as well as it has ever been done. Whether all these great scenes add up to a great movie is, of course, an entirely different but still interesting question, one I will attempt to take up in my next post. But before tomorrow comes, let me return to the scene I DID choose for that cable program of mine and explain why.

Mr. Thatcher sends a letter to Kane with suggestions for how he might invest his fortune. We see an aide reading Kane’s response out loud to Thatcher. Kane rejects all the suggestions except for a small New York newspaper that he wants to manage. His final line, “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper,” is repeated aloud by Thatcher with a “grrr,” as he looks directly into the camera (quite unusual at that time). What follows are a series of headlines from the newspaper to which Kane has decided to devote his energies. Each one is either a sensational distortion of the truth or an expose about the corruption of the financial industry, Thatcher’s bread and butter. In the series of scenes that we see, each newspaper headline is held up to the camera and then pulled down to reveal an angry Thatcher glaring directly into the camera, usually accompanied by a growl. For the final headline that is shown, it, too, is held up to the camera, but instead of revealing the face of Thatcher when it is pulled away, we see Thatcher standing in an small office, revealing for the first time in the film a very young Orson Welles sitting at a desk, holding a cup and saucer in front of his impish face. Mr. Thatcher says, "Is this your idea of how to run a newspaper?" Welles as Kane, but in a way, very much as Welles, too, says, "I don't know how to run a newspaper, I just try everything I can think of." A fascinating commentary, not just on Kane, but on Welles, the filmmaker, who when given, as Welles once put it, "the biggest train set in the world," tries everything he can think of to make his film stand out. Incidentally, for years afterwards, one of the things said about Welles was his openness to innovation. Film People who had wanted to experiment with something different for years, but had been told repeatedly NO, now had a chance under Welles to try out their most creative ideas.

The scene continues from there, with Welles giving one of his best performances, one part wryly charming college boy, another, impassioned man of the people, still another, gadfly to his grim benefactor. Part of the fun of the scene is in knowing the subtext - how much Welles resembled Kane. When, as Kane, he tells Mr. Thatcher, "you don't realize you're talking to two people..." he was also describing the many contradictions and divisions in his own character. William Randolph Hearst, the publisher who was said to be the true subject of this project bears a cursory similarity to Kane, but Welles - the democrat who wants total control and the artist who seeks popular acclaim - is a better model for Kane than Hearst ever was.

And yet, Welles WAS an artist. Kane as businessman and politician, was a man who made things happen. As an artist, a poet, if you will, Welles was in W.H. Auden's words, someone who "makes nothing happen." Yet that nothing so carefully conjured by Mr. Welles (and it is worth noting that Welles was an accomplished magician in addition to everything else) continues to haunt us, to call us, to insist on being seen again, offering up endless lessons on the art of moviemaking and even a handful on the art of life itself.

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