Orson Welles and `Rosebud' Ride Again
Film experts argue over the importance of `Citizen Kane'. FILM REVIVAL
`CITIZEN KANE,'' due tomorrow for a 50th-anniversary revival, was a box-office disappointment in 1941, launching Orson Welles's reputation as a filmmaker too bold and inventive for his own good. ``Kane'' has gathered momentum ever since, however, becoming a staple of revival theaters, classrooms, and on television, with its story of a newspaper tycoon who becomes an American legend at the expense of his own soul.
To mark its half-century celebration, I asked a dozen film experts for brief comments on the film. The results were predictably unpredictable.
Fred Camper, writer and lecturer on film and art, Chicago:
``Citizen Kane'' is a superb film. It is also the worst film of a great cineaste, as Welles himself wrote of Eisenstein's ``Ivan the Terrible.'' ``Kane's'' technique, while brilliant, and beautifully expressive of its theme of individual grandiosity, is far less profound, far less unified, than the style of later works, such as ``Touch of Evil.'' ``Kane'' is very much a young man's film, a film of stunning moments, which coheres more thematically than visually. In later Welles, every a rea of the screen, each part of each image, vibrates with an intense physicality that speaks, almost musically, to every other part of every other image. ``Citizen Kane'' is a personality; a later Welles film is a universe.
Ray Carney, professor of film and American studies, Boston University:
Melodramatic mumbo-jumbo. Exuberant, gorgeous nonsense. Fun? Of course. A profound work of art? Hardly. It takes more than bombastic rhetoric, gaudy visuals, and scenery-chewing performances to make a masterpiece.
``Kane'' is an all-American triumph of style over substance. Welles is Kane - in a sense he couldn't have intended - substituting razzle-dazzle for truth and hoping no one notices the sleight of hand. The movie is indistinguishable from the opera production within it: attempting to conceal the banality of its performances by wrapping them in a thousand layers of acoustic and visual processing.
Critics obviously enjoy being told what to think or they'd never sit still for the hammy acting, cartoon characterizations, tendentious photography, editorializing blockings, and absurdly grandiose (and annoyingly insistent) metaphors. My personal nominee (along with ``Psycho'' and ``2001") for ``one of the 10 most overrated films of all time.'' When will film studies grow up? Even Jedediah Leland [opera reviewer in the film] knew better than to be taken in by ``Salaambo's'' empty reverberations.
Annette Insdorf, film professor and department co-chair, Columbia University:
``Citizen Kane'' remains one of the richest audiovisual experiences in the history of the cinema. The expressive sound track - including music by master Bernard Herrmann - led Fran,cois Truffaut to call it ``a radiophonic film,'' while the cinematography by Gregg Toland was literally groundbreaking: In order to shoot an extreme low-angle shot of Welles and Joseph Cotten, they had to make a hole in the floor! His dramatic black-and-white lighting and deep-focus photography revitalized American film narrative, telling the story not only via plot and dialogue, but composition, camera angle, and a heady mix of visual styles.
Its influence - especially of narrative structure rooted in flashbacks - has been pervasive. As Truffaut's ``Day for Night'' beautifully demonstrates in a dream sequence - where a boy steals pictures of Welles's film from the front of a movie house at night, with organ music rising on the sound track as he runs away - ``Citizen Kane'' is a film to worship.
Wendy Keys, executive producer/programming, Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York:
My most recent experience with ``Citizen Kane'' - which is one of those rare films that you don't watch but experience again and again - was when I presented a dissection of the film by [critic] Andrew Sarris for a group of New York City schoolteachers who gather each summer at Lincoln Center.
After showing the film in its entirety, Andrew spent three days taking it apart, turning the pieces around and examining them from every angle. The remarkable thing was that after this intensive scrutiny and after a second viewing the film retained all its original mystery and power - much to the astonishment of the teachers themselves.
And like Everett Sloane who, in the film, tells the poignant story of an unknown woman in a white dress drifting by him on a ferry many years earlier and his daily thoughts of her - I, too, reminisce fondly about my experiences with the film, sometimes shared, sometimes not.
Phillip Lopate, essayist and novelist, New York:
I first saw ``Citizen Kane'' on TV, cut up by commercials but still impressive, when I was in high school; I've seen it several times since in revival houses. From the first the film seemed to me a bit chilly, hollow, the parts greater than the whole. But what parts! - so inventive and pleasurable to look at moment-by-moment.
I was fascinated by all those first-person narrators, especially Joseph Cotten. At the time I was obsessed with the dynamics of male friendship (still am), and I think I identified with both parts of the Cotten-Welles relationship (later repeated in ``The Third Man''): that of an essentially civilized, prudent guy who envies his flamboyant and rule-flaunting pal. The handling of the Cotten narrator in ``Citizen Kane'' is extremely literary. For the first time (in my experience), a subjective first-person narration, highly partial and possibly distorted, was being insinuated over the ostensibly objective photographic record. While still in college I made a film that tried to cram three unreliable narrators into 20 minutes! Hopelessly muddled. I guess I was trying to do ``Citizen Kane.''
Vlada Petric, professor of cinema and curator of the Harvard Film Archive, Harvard University:
``Citizen Kane'' is one of those films that perfectly demonstrate what a truly cinematic achievement means: Watching it without the sound generates the impact of a glorious ``optical symphony''; listening only to its sound track stimulates extremely dynamic visual imagery; studying its script (even with Welles's numerous directorial remarks on the text's margin) confirms that it stops short of describing in literary terms what one experiences while perceiving the film in the movie theater; and see ing it on a TV screen (the bigger the worse) is like trying to aesthetically appreciate Rembrandt's paintings reproduced in the newspaper.
Lucille Rhodes, filmmaker and film professor, Long Island University:
After 15 years of teaching ``Citizen Kane,'' I can barely utter the word ``rosebud'' and patently refuse to discuss its meaning.
Sometimes I show it next to its opposite, De Sica's ``The Bicycle Thief,'' a '40s work which hides its artistry in the cause of realism and meaning. Then I have to bite my lip and listen while my freshmen insist that Welles is the greater artist. However, I have to admit that every once in a while I get trapped in the screening room and can't avert my eyes - and then I am again seduced by the sheer bravura and grandiosity of Welles's feat of abstract filmmaking.
Warren Sonbert, filmmaker, San Francisco:
``Citizen Kane'' made film originality viable: Never before had narrative structure been rendered so flexible yet so resonant. Self-conscious art now entered American cinema. The deliberately scratched and faded imagery of ``Citizen Kane's'' opening faux-documentary montage remains to this day dazzling in its power and bravura. The lack of heroic-character focus embraces shifting points of view and enchants the viewer with the freshness of its investigative rigor.
Armond White, arts editor, (New York) City Sun:
It's the greatest American movie about seeing. But the clue gets lost on TV. The big screen yields Welles's slyest in-joke, where he dissolves from a last close-up of Susan Alexander, repeating the image of her left eye in a stained-glass window at Xanadu. The shot is a gift; Welles's knowing wink to film lovers everywhere. Watch for it.