It’s the 70th anniversary of Orson Welles’s masterpiece Citizen Kane:
Audacity and genius his trademark, and with a third medium to conquer and transform, Welles didn’t think small. With the Mercury players in tow, he enlisted veteran satirist and screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. Together they crafted a story that began with the death of an enigmatic protagonist, and explored his life through flashbacks told from multiple points of view. As questions are answered, questions are raised. The script ultimately compares a man’s life to a jigsaw puzzle missing pieces, and thus impossible to solve. The writers very loosely based the title character of Charles Foster Kane on William Randolph Hearst, thus incurring the newspaper titan’s wrath. Welles, Mercury, RKO, and the studio heads endured journalistic scandalmongering, and the film eventually earned a blacklist. Welles would later remark, “If Hearst isn’t rightfully careful, I’m going to make a film that’s really based on his life.”
By coincidence, as related by Welles in his autobiography, he once found himself alone in an elevator with Hearst. It was the night of Citizen Kane’s San Francisco premiere, and Welles invited him to the opening. “He didn’t answer. And as he was getting off at his floor, I said, ‘Charles Foster Kane would have accepted.’”
Everybody talks about the movie’s formal innovations, but I wish the content would get more love. As A.O. Scott says, “Citizen Kane shows Welles to be a master of genre. It’s a newspaper comedy, a domestic melodrama, a gothic romance, and a historical epic.” Pauline Kael said Kane was “more fun than any great movie I can think of.”
Citizen Kane is The Beatles of movies, not just because of its universal influence and acclaim, or because it really does live up to the historical hype, but because on top of its arty aspirations, what it really wants to do is entertain the hell out of you.
Also, if you’re watching it carefully, the movie’s self-reflexiveness hides and reveals a devastating history of media. You’ve got CFK, accidental heir to a fortune based on “oil wells, gold mines, shipping, and real estate,” who trades it all for a communications empire: newspapers, radio stations, paper mills, opera houses, and grocery stores, only to be pushed to the margins after a failed political run in favor of the next generation: magazines and movies, the trade of the newsreel producers who try to track down the labyrinthine origin of “Rosebud.”
The whole movie’s about trying to invent something from nothing, about pretenses to real value, and how that whole house of cards tumbles apart. Eventually you’ve just got a giant room, where you can’t tell the art from the jigsaw puzzles, the childhood heirlooms from the tchotchke snowglobes. Everything propping up value disintegrates. (That’s what Kane figures out at the end, by the way, not that he misses his sled or his mom.)
As Borges wrote, it’s a metaphysical detective story that leads us to a labyrinth with no center. All that’s left is paper, just kindling for the fire.