Sunday, May 8, 2011

Citizen Kane's Birthday

In addition to it being Mother's Day, there remains a far less important matter that still can't be ignored: Citizen Kane turns 70 today. Seventy years ago, the alleged 'Greatest Movie Ever Made' was finally released, but not before having nearly been burned, bankrupting the studio which green-lighted its making, and destroying the life of the most talented artistic genius America has ever seen. For over fifteen years after its initial (and limited) release it languished in film vaults, virtually forgotten until the advent of TV syndication.

An attack on Kane's value is long overdue. No film lover under the age of 50 can possibly remember a time when the debate over the 'Greatest Movie Ever Made' did not begin and end with Citizen Kane.

But you won't get it here. Kane is an inescapable fact of film, haunting all the great movies that come after it, and even haunting those that come before as though they prefigure all of Kane's developments. It is an astonishingly intimate look at larger-than-life themes. Like all great tragedy, it brings to earth a flawed hero who would fly in the clouds. Is it the greatest movie of all time? I have no idea, nor do I care. All I know is that it's f---ing great. No matter how many times I've seen the movie, it remains fun. So many of the movies which we talk about as though they are 'visionary' films by 'visionary' directors from 2001 to Metropolis to Lawrence of Arabia to Wings of Desire to Rashamon to L'Avventura to JFK to Pierrot Le Fou are simply not worth the effort to watch. These are films (like so many others) which disguise their lack of any basic human intelligence or interest under a pretense of loftiness. People can (and do) claim that each of these films is somehow making a 'great statement' about the world, but art does not exist on any terms so simple as a 'statement.' People fear complexity, but the pleasures of great art lie in ambiguity. The great pleasures of art lie in asking questions, not in having them answered. And because so many people fear seeming unintelligent or unperceptive, they pretend to like movies which can't possibly give them much pleasure.

I fear that some people may soon feel the same way about Citizen Kane. There's certainly been a lot of bull written about Citizen Kane over the years. But I would ask every person who feels tired of getting Kane forced down their throats to forget everything everything they've ever heard about the movie. Just watch it, frame by frame, and let the story it tells wash over you. It can be watched in an extremely philosophical manner, but it never has to be. It can just as easily be watched as 'just another movie' that shows us a piece of extremely gripping drama, and along the way we also get comedy, incredible looking shots, great music, great writing, and all of it completely in the service of the larger work. It may all add up to the greatest masterpiece of the cinema. But when it's this much fun to watch, who cares?

This isn't the time to get into potential interpretations of Citizen Kane as a take on the American Dreams and myths, or the parallels between Kane with the totalitarian dictators of the 20th century, or an epistemological examination of what we truly know about any person, or a metaphysical interpretaion of what illuminates a man's soul. Charles Foster Kane could be any and all of these things. But more importantly than any of them, Citizen Kane is a good movie. It's a fun movie. It's a gripping movie. This is why it's held up over seventy years, and why it will probably continue to do to people who come long after us.

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