Sight & Sound List #2: Citizen Kane (1941)
O Orson! My Orson!
by Elisabeth Geier
For a long time, I knew Citizen Kane only as a cultural reference, primarily through the classic Kids in the Hall sketch in which Dave Foley struggles to recall the title of the film, and Kevin McDonald screams at him, “it was CITIZEN KANE it was CITIZEN KANE it was CITIZEN KANE!” Throughout my teens and twenties, I couldn’t have told you what the movie was about, but if it came up in conversation, I could nod knowingly and pretend to know why it mattered. Ah yes, I’d say, of course, the great film classic Citizen Kane.
Why do we play at knowledge when we are young, pretending to understand cultural artifacts we have not actually experienced? Who am I kidding with this “when we are young,” this “we?”? I am a grown-ass woman, and recently, on a first date, I pretended to know all about the band Beirut. That guy was like a boy genius, I said of the lead singer, a fact I picked up without ever having listened to the band. I don’t know why I didn’t just say I’m not really familiar with them. I guess I was trying to seem cool. You can guess how well that worked out. I actually have listened to Beirut since, and I like them a lot, and that is one good thing I took from that date. Another is that pretending to understand something feels wrong, but sometimes it’s hard not to fake it.
At age 27, in grad school, I finally watched Citizen Kane. A writing professor shared an excerpt of Peter Bogdanovich’s interviews with Welles, and spoke enthusiastically to the class about how much there was to learn from these conversations, and again, I pretended to know what the man was talking about. Welles and Bogdanovich, I nodded, classic interviews, of course. Then I went home and immediately bumped Citizen Kane to the top of my Netflix queue. My ignorance granted a certain purity to the experience; without knowing exactly why it was considered one of the Greatest Films Ever Made, I could make up my own mind about what I saw.
The first time through, Citizen Kane held my attention, but I wasn’t particularly moved. I didn’t much care about this newspaper tycoon, his failed political career, who and what he left behind when he died. I thought the aging make-up was pretty good for an old movie. I loved the way scenes were staged, with actors stacked strategically across the frame. But the story told within those frames seemed rather thin. Citizen Kane was nice to look at, but it lacked the depth of character I prefer. But speaking of nice to look at, holy moly, Orson Welles. That guy was a stone-cold dreamboat. When Charles Foster Kane first strides into the newspaper office in his coat and hat? Shut up. No, keep talking, Orson Welles.
I fell into a deep internet hole, searching for photographs of Orson in his prime, reading about his early days in radio, his transition to film, and his youth. Oh god, his youth. “At age 25, Orson Welles reinvented filmmaking with Citizen Kane, a movie based loosely on the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.” At age 25, I reinvented snacking with Elisabeth’s Sad Little Toaster Oven Pita Chips, a recipe based loosely on how poor I was and how I needed to find some use for the pita bread going stale on the kitchen counter in my basement studio apartment. Now I was age 27, still living in a basement, still completely unaccomplished and, honestly, afraid to try.
Why do we constantly compare ourselves to others? Why do I keep asking questions I can only answer for myself? Maybe it’s a middle child thing; I’ve always been a little obsessed with age, and what happens at what stage of one’s life, and it continuously blows my mind that a 25-year-old can make any movie at all, let alone one of the Greatest Films Ever Made. Of course it’s ridiculous to compare myself to Orson Welles. For one thing, I have no ambition to make a film. For another, our backgrounds are nothing alike. Being 25 in 1941 was a lot different than being 25 in 2007. Finally, duh, he’s Orson Fucking Welles. But still.
I turned 30 in May, and have been freaking out ever since. Time seems to have fallen in on itself; yesterday I was making a list of Goals to Accomplish by Age 30, and now my twenties are suddenly my past, and very few items are crossed off the list. Many people I love and respect told me that my thirties would be great. One’s twenties are a collection of confusion and mistakes, they said, and one’s thirties are when one becomes a fully realized adult. For months, I joked that I couldn’t wait to wake up on May 2nd to find my entire life fixed, the anxieties of my twenties gone, my path now clear and brightly lit. Of course, I wished for the joke to come true. Of course, this is as ridiculous as comparing myself to Orson Welles. My thirties have barely begun, I am the agent of change in my own life, blah blah blah. But still.
According to critics and scholars with the credentials to make such claims, Welles never again did anything else as important as Citizen Kane. Even if you enter blindly and watch it without knowing why it changed filmmaking—the technical innovations, the use of point of view, showing a ceiling in a shot, for heaven’s sake!—you know its reputation as a Great American Film. “It was CITIZEN KANE, it was CITIZEN KANE, it was CITIZEN KANE!”
It was the director’s first creative triumph, and though he had a long career, though he made what many consider to be objectively better films, it remains his most influential. Orson Welles peaked well before the age of thirty, and spent the rest of his life trying to live down his own reputation. So maybe it’s better to bloom late.
But sometimes, it’s hard not to worry about never blooming at all.
In the late 1930’s, when Welles started planning his first feature film, he wanted to focus on “some big American figure.” Howard Hughes was the first that came to mind, but Welles eventually switched to Hearst. Sixty-five years later, Martin Scorcese ran with his own film about Hughes. At age 23, I went to a matinee showing of The Aviator and broke down into sobs during the scene where Howard Hughes locks himself in a room stacked with jars of his own urine. Like they say, one’s twenties are a difficult time. Locked doors and pee jars didn’t feel so far off.
Last Friday, at age 30, I re-watched Citizen Kane, with all the knowledge and context I’ve picked up in the past few years. Alone in a living room in Oregon, I did not completely break down, but after it ended, I felt incredibly on-edge. There is something about this story of a powerful, isolated man, as there is something about Howard Hughes, as there is something about Orson Welles himself. Their singular obsession with success is relatable, even as it repels.
The line between wanting to succeed and setting yourself up for self-destruction seems so thin. Returning to Citizen Kane reminds me what I still have not done in my life, and what I’m still afraid might happen if I try. I’m thirty years old, and my Orson is forever 25, and god, oh god, what have I ever done?
The real Orson Welles got old. He drank a lot, burned some bridges, acted in a few terrible/hilarious television commercials, never matched the success of his very first film, and died of a heart attack at age 70. He was by most accounts pretty happy with his life, but who knows. Welles once told an interviewer that the only reason he was able to make Citizen Kane, the only way he stumbled into reinventing filmmaking at all, was through ignorance. “I didn’t know what you couldn’t do,” he said in 1960, at age 45. “I didn’t deliberately set out to invent anything. It just seemed to me, why not?”
Elisabeth Geier is a grown-ass woman with a picture of young Orson Welles taped to her bedroom wall.
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- rockatensky said: He entered the world of cinema with Kane but left the world of art with F for Fake. Both are brilliant, but FfF is just beyond words. If you haven’t had a chance to see it, do it asap.
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