Citizen Kane (1941)
10/10
Why Is "Citizen Kane" the Best Film of All Times?
31 October 2015
Anyone who sees "Citizen Kane" (1941) for the first time today does so because he or she has heard that it is the greatest film ever made. One simply doesn't come across the film by accident on TV, watching it "for what it is," so to speak. The common approach of seeing it to believe it can be at best exhilarating and at worst hostile. Unfortunately, the latter is usually, although quite understandably, the case. For how can one do anything but look down at a film that elitist snobs have praised for years and years? One simply must prove oneself right by falsifying the critics' claims, leaving the theater or the living room with a shrug and a condescending comment: "it was okay." This will not do. It is a great tragedy if "Citizen Kane" suffers from these kinds of incidents since it ought to be treated with the same kind of respect as Shakespeare's "Hamlet" or Beethoven's "9th Symphony". In order to make this happen, or perhaps enhance someone's viewing experience, I would like to try and explain not why "Citizen Kane" necessarily is the best film, but rather why people have considered it to be. There are over a thousand reviews of the film on this site, and mine will probably drown in the vast sea with them, but hey what can I lose, and who doesn't love talking about Welles and "Citizen Kane"?

One might begin with the basic fact that "Citizen Kane" wasn't immediately praised and considered the best film that has blessed the silver screen. It was a financial risk for the RKO studios to give free hands to the novice prodigy Orson Welles, who had gained quite a reputation with the radio show of H. G. Wells' "War of the Worlds", and not surprisingly it didn't pay off. Despite the praises of a few critics, "Citizen Kane" was soon forgotten, and the film wasn't, for example, screened at American cinemas during the late 1940's and early 50's. In France, however, the film was just discovered after the war, and the leading critic of the country, André Bazin hailed it as a masterpiece of the postwar stylistic tendency he characterized as spatial realism. Bazin's disciples, who we all know now as the nouvelle vague directors, followed and adored Welles' masterpiece. François Truffaut proclaimed that "everything that matters in cinema after 1940 has been influenced by 'Citizen Kane'." Thus the film's reputation grew and its new found reputation slowly found the other side of the Atlantic as well. But why did this happen? Why wasn't "Citizen Kane" forgotten, and why, for one, did it arouse the interest of Bazin?

First, it ought to be highlighted that the story of "Citizen Kane" is excellent. Loosely based on the life and times of media mogul William Hearst, "Citizen Kane" tells the story about a lonely giant who conquered the American media. It's a story about a man who dedicated his life to possession, but tragically became to be possessed by it himself. As one might have noticed, I am using the past tense, and such is the nature of Welles' narrative in "Citizen Kane". The film begins with the protagonist's death, and then portrays the attempts of a journalist trying to figure out the meaning of his last words -- "Rosebud" -- by interviewing people who knew the man. "It will probably turn out to be a very simple thing," he supposes. This kind of structure was not considered the done thing back in the day. Although the basic structure of finding out a person's past goes back to Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex" as well as numerous detective stories, the uniqueness of "Citizen Kane" lies in the use of different perspectives, creating a non-linear narrative that has echoes from ancient drama and epistolary novels.

Yet it wasn't really the intricate story that most fascinated Bazin. What Bazin emphasized was the film's style. Although all scholars have given up on the phoenix myth of "Citizen Kane" and its innovative use of various cinematic means, it is simply a fact that the film made the style public, thus standardizing it for Hollywood. The aesthetic features of the so-called spatial realism, which Bazin adored, supported by the technological innovation of the BNC camera, include deep-focus cinematography, sequence shots, and deep-space composition. These had been used before, but hardly with similar, dare I say, philosophic unity. This stylistic tendency is enhanced by Welles' relentless use of heavy low-angle shots and dynamic montage sequences. There are innovative cuts that spark imagination and soundtrack solutions that open the story and its characters to new dimensions. "Citizen Kane" is often celebrated as a bravura of the art of mise-en-scène since it puts a lot of emphasis on pre-filmic elements such as setting and lighting, but the real gist of the film's brilliance lies in the unity of these together with cinematographic and post-filmic elements.

More remains to be said, but space is running out. The end of the matter is, I guess, that none of the individual elements of "Citizen Kane" are, precisely, individual. They have not been distinguished from one another, but rather resonate luminously together in a unique fashion. Technological innovation goes hand in hand with aesthetic inspiration and both support the whole of story, theme, and style. Such unity may not have been present in Hollywood before 1941. From the groundbreaking use of the BNC camera to themes of power, loneliness, and defeat, which are reflected on the level of style, using setting and editing, for one, to reflect the emotional distances between the characters or their existential experience of emptiness, "Citizen Kane" remains a gem to any lover of cinema. It's up there with immortal works of art from poetry, music, and painting. It is, like all great art, a tightly and beautifully sealed original whole which is why (instead of one big nameable innovation) the film has been considered to be of such magnificent proportions.
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