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Citizen Kane Oscar

For a mere $1,200,000 you could own an Academy Award from 1941. On Tuesday 11th December  2007 Sotheby’s New York will be auctioning none other than Orson Welles’s Best Screenplay statuette for Citizen Kane, the only Oscar he ever received. One of the most iconic pieces of memorabilia ever to come to auction, it is  now conversely famous for not being a Best Picture or Best Director Oscar, often regarded as a tragic ‘mistake’ by the Academy and as one of many injustices in Welles’ career.

Of course it is not a mistake at all for the Academy to make such decisions. The Oscars are often criticised for choosing a ‘lesser’ film over a ‘greater’ one – Ordinary People (1980) instead of Raging Bull (1980) is often rolled out as an example – but any movie fan would be supremely naive to believe that they are judging the Best Picture category using the same criteria as the Academy. Movie fans are often solely referring to aesthetics: form, performance, narrative, style, whereas Academy  decisions are often determined by political or financial factors, leading to the Academy’s voting to reveal a set of brand values. Films that appear to push boundaries, such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) or Crash (2004), are ultimately bound by a set of aesthetics that constrain the scope of the writing and visual style, which in turn constrains the social comment. 

Best Picture awards for expensive epics that appear to be rewarding aesthetics are more likely recognising financial gain (Gone With the Wind (1939), Ben-Hur (1959), Titanic (1997), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)). Off-screen Citizen Kane had already caused highly publicised difficulties with the powerful William Randolph Hearst, and on-screen it was an audacious, young movie with a fresh visual style that revealed a rebellious spirit. The Academy values are not always easily visible, leading filmgoers to resent the lack of Best Picture Oscars for films such as Citizen Kane or Raging Bull.

The Best Screenplay statuette has also become an icon of a long-standing authorship debate. Many have questioned Welles’ contribution to the screenplay of Citizen Kane, which was also written by veteran screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Debate has raged over exactly what each writer brought to the screenplay, some believing that Welles, being the auteur that he is, of course co-wrote the screenplay. American critic Pauline Kael famously criticised Welles in her essay ‘Raising Kane’ (1971) for his lack of involvement, championing Mankiewicz as the neglected author (indeed he penned the entire first draft).

If you want to get your hands on clues as to Welles’ contribution to the script, his copy too is going under the hammer at the very same auction. Fully annotated and scribbled on, it’s another absolutely unique piece of memorabilia. Both items can be snapped up for a mere couple of million dollars. Go for it.

 

Christian Hayes.

Citizen Kane The Greatest Film Ever Made

Citizen Kane holds the weight of cinema on its shoulders. Often cited as ‘The Greatest Film of All-Time’, the film maintains an unusual place in film history. This post attempts to outline one particular way in which the film gained its unique reputation.

The accolade in fact refers to the Sight & Sound poll taken every ten years. Kane took the top spot in 1962 and has not budged in over 40 years. In 1952 it was De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves that came out on top and at that point Kane did not even feature.

Although critics were enthusiastic about the film on its release in 1941, Kane was not a particular success with audiences. It had become partly-notorious for an attempt to suppress its release by William Randolph Hearst, the tycoon who took offense at the parallels between Kane’s life and his own. The film did however gain several major Oscar nominations alongside other key titles of the year such as How Green Was My Valley, The Little Foxes and The Maltese Falcon, claiming one win for Best Screenplay.

So something clearly changed between 1941 and 1962 for Kane to be selected as the pinnacle of all cinema. This shift can perhaps be pinpointed to post-war France where all the American films that had been prevented entry during the war suddenly flooded its screens. So its audiences were experiencing Hollywood cinema of the early 1940s in a condensed period of time, an experience that clearly had an effect on many of its young viewers. When the French magazines Cahiers du cinéma celebrated popular Hollywood cinema throughout the 1950s it was perceived as a strange affectation by other contemporary European film magazines such as Britain’s Sight & Sound.

However, when these very critics, such as Truffaut and Godard went on to spearhead the nouvelle vague in 1960, their films became praised as milestones in contemporary cinema. This therefore posed problems for Sight & Sound critics who were enamoured by the films of the nouvelle vague yet against the popular Hollywood cinema that the New Wave filmmakers celebrated.

‘The French Line’, a 1960 Sight & Sound article, took a look at the ten-best lists published by Cahiers du cinéma. They were pleased to find revered titles as Ivan the Terrible (1944), Les Quatres-Cents Coup (1959) and Wild Strawberries (1957), but were very surprised (and dismayed) to find titles such as Rio Bravo (1959), Run of the Arrow (1957), Wind Across the Everglades (1958) and Vertigo (1958). The author wrote, ‘One’s first reaction might be to conclude that these men must be very foolish’ [1] but based on the evidence of their films found it was hard for the writer to accept Resnais, Truffaut, Chabrol and Godard as fools.

Classical Hollywood cinema was therefore being reassessed in the 1960s and indeed many of our contemporary perceptions of cinema were cemented at that time. It was also a period during which the reputations of Hollywood figures were being reconstructed. For example Humphrey Bogart became a romantic cult hero for young movie fans – as reflected in Jean-Paul Belmondo’s adoration of Bogart in A Bout de Souffle – and retrospectives of Buster Keaton’s films elevated him out of the shadows as a master of cinema. Similarly Orson Welles became seen as a crucial cinematic icon.

One of the defining characteristics of Orson Welles’s cinema is a struggle for control. Indeed a great number of Welles’ films were taken out of his hands and re-edited (or chopped up), including The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Lady From Shanghai (1947), Othello (1952), Mr. Arkadin (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958). Then there were all those projects that never made it, either unfinished or doomed from the start, such as It’s All True (circa 1943), Don Quixote (circa 1955) and The Other Side of the Wind (circa 1972). [2]

In Welles’ persistence to make films in the face of resistance from studios and financiers he became an inspirational hero for filmmakers and cinephiles, his cinema ingrained with a message of never giving up for cinema’s cause.

Critics and cinephiles believed Welles to have been greatly misunderstood and mistreated by a Hollywood who could not see the brilliance in his work that was so clear to them. Welles’ tragic fall from grace and his role as an underdog against the system only heightened adoration for him. He became seen as a neglected ‘genius’ whose opportunity to flourish had been crushed by a system so clearly against originality.  And it was Citizen Kane that defined this tragedy, becoming the iconic film that represented much more than the film itself.

The Sight & Sound poll reflects this shift and in 1962 we find the point at which Citizen Kane cemented an extraordinary reputation.

Christian Hayes.

[1] Richard Roud, ‘The French Line’, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1960 p.167.

[2] For more information on this see the illuminating documentary The Lost Films of Orson Welles (Germany/France/Sweden, dir: Vassili Silovic, 1995) which includes many clips from both unfinished films and curiosities.

Kane K 2 

Sitting with a friend in the bar at the Curzon Soho recently, after having watched a movie that we had both been underwhelmed by, I found myself bringing into the conversation another film, Citizen Kane, and the subject of a certain discomfort I have always had with this film. The argument went as follows: “While Welles evidently seems to feel that the story of Kane’s life is always from the point-of-view of one or other of the characters – never objective – whenever I finish watching the film I always feel as though I’ve been told a fairly substantial biographical narrative. And what’s more I can’t really remember and am not overly bothered which sections were told by whom and in what order… Because despite vague references to the storyteller within each of the flashbacks, the style of these flashbacks is nevertheless overwhelmingly omniscient.”

I wouldn’t of course retract the validity of either of the phenomenological cinematic experiences expressed above – nor necessarily the possibility that they may point towards weaknesses in the work. I can’t help but wonder, however, whether it was overly simplistic to imply that the central project of Welles’ film was to present an “anti-portrait”, a point blank refusal of objective identity, and with this a narrative about the complexity and mystery of the world.

Jorge Luis Borges took up this position on Citizen Kane in a review in 1941 arguing that at the end of the film, “we realize that the fragments are not governed by any secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances.” Further Borges saw Welles’ film as teaching us that, “no man knows who he is, no man is anyone.” And Borges’ review has been quoted a number of times. The first line in Laura Mulvey’s 1991 book Citizen Kane in the BFI Classics series quotes Borges’ claim that the film is “a labyrinth without a center.” (1.)

These are key elements of the film, I will argue, but they are not in themselves central. In this piece I will show that these elements of Citizen Kane are at times conceived as a “natural” locus around which it is inevitable that all other aspects of the film will be discussed. I suggest that this may have served to cloud matters. Through close textual analysis I present a very different way of reading the film, just as important, that may have been left unrecognised as a result of its being at odds with these consensus perspectives on the film.

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It is widely known that Orson Welles and co-scriptwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz had some disputes over Citizen Kane’s script, originally written by Mankiewicz with the title “American” but considerably re-worked together. The famous example is of Welles stating that Mankiewicz insisted on showing what “Rosebud” actually was – namingly Kane’s sled – while Welles felt that this was shameful “dollar-book Freud” and would have preferred the word’s meaning to remain unknowable. Many at the time of the film’s release felt that Welles didn’t deserve his co-screenwriter credit and so certainly didn’t deserve to share the Oscar for the Best Original Screenplay. This position was consolidated years later in Pauline Kael’s thoroughly well-composed though somewhat excessive attack upon Welles in her 1971 article for The New Yorker, “Raising Kane.”

It seems to me that the general emphasis on the unknowability of Kane and the anti-objectivity of Citizen Kane may be in part the result of this. Welles’ argument that Mankiewicz made the film overly-rationalist with his Rosebud-MacGuffin may well have had some influence on critics who decided to come out in support of Welles as the film’s “true author” by building up the case for Citizen Kane as his labyrinth. Indeed Mulvey’s book explicitly criticises Kael’s article and specifically Kael’s claim that Mankiewicz deserves sole credit for the screenplay. And although Peter Conrad claims in his Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life (2003) that the film’s “labyrinth does have a centre” Conrad picks up Borges’ metaphor to argue that, “Citizen Kane is wrought with Daedalan cunning, made up of puzzles and riddles. Like a myth it conflates or superimposes different stories. Hearst’s story merges with that of Kubla Khan, from whom Kane borrows the name of his private kingdom; their story is also Welles’.” (152.)

To clarify here, I am not claiming that any of these critics are incorrect in perceiving Citizen Kane to be a mysterious and complex film. Rather I want to propose that this mystery is not the central point of the film. Just as “Rosebud” is not the answer to the puzzle, neither is an abstract, mysterious absence of meaning. Although the idea of telling the story of one person’s life through various different people’s point-of-view was original this is not in itself adequate evidence of the film’s greater complexity than the usual Hollywood fare. In fact this technique only serves to make more apparent than usual a typical Hollywood characteristic. I turn here to David Bordwell in The Classical Hollywood Cinema (1985):

Since classical narration communicates what it ‘knows’ by making characters haul the causal chain through the film, it might seem logical to assume that the classical film commonly restricts its knowledge to a single character’s point-of-view. Logical, but wrong. … The overwhelmingly common practice is to use the omnipresence of classical narration to move fluidly from one character to another. (31.)

This characteristic of the average Hollywood movie is all the same made more apparent than usual – and so partially ironised – in Citizen Kane’s direct presentation of its multiple storytellers to the audience through the trope of having journalists interview these characters.

Nevertheless, while there may be tiny hidden contradictions, these multiple narratives in Citizen Kane overall generally reaffirm one another. The notion that Kane cares only about himself, for example, is stated both by Jedediah Leland and Susan Alexander in each of their narratives. Likewise the jumps back and forth through different past time periods and repetitions of these time periods never, to my knowledge, highlight distinct contradictions.

More to the point, and to return to my original argument, even when we are purportedly watching one character’s flashback the visual language does not appear to do a great deal to assert throughout the flashback that this is the case. These scenes often use regular shot/reverse-shot patterns and other elements of the Hollywood continuity system (along with many very innovative visual techniques) that help to maintain Bordwell’s “omnipresence of classical narration.”

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Initially I perceived this to be a failure of the film to live up to its apparently intended fractured narrative style, but closer analysis of some of these scenes has left me uncertain as to whether I was being too hasty and overly simplistic in this matter. Indeed the first flashback of the film is ambiguous even as to who rightly “owns” it. As Thompson reads from the now-dead Thatcher’s journal we see the scene of Thatcher taking the young Kane from his childhood home. This is certainly Thatcher’s story, but should we assume that the visuals are as much Thompson’s, since he is the one reading and so visualising the scene? Clearly we have here a metaphor for the relationship between writer and director, with the director applying the “vision.” (As well as Welles’ ultimate fantasy, that the writer could turn out the perfect script but be dead so not want to bother with taking any credit: no wonder Welles did so many adaptations!)

As this first flashback progresses there are various signs that suggest that the power in the scene is in the hands of neither Thatcher nor Thompson, but is rather being signed over to the young Kane himself as the owner of the scene (and not only an enormous wealth.) First example: a shot in which the camera appears to be showing Kane in the snow from the outside turns out to be shot from the inside as the camera tracks back to reveal Kane’s mother at the window.

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The same track backwards shows Mrs Kane face on (a rare example of a plain face-on image in the film) and follows her fairly long walk through the front room into the kitchen. To me this image can be considered emblematic of Kane’s fantasy image of his mother: it presents both the household as warm in comparison with the snow outside and a vaguely fetishistic steady image of his mother. Kane’s mother is nevertheless visibly moving away from Kane himself, who we continue to see in the background of the shot, suggesting the irreplaceable loss that Kane will always feel. The young Kane being stuck outside this house is surely suggestive both of the older Kane likewise forever outside of his fantasy of his past (seen in the paperweight that he keeps) and of the falsity of this fantasy since even the young Kane was never actually in symbiosis with his mother and the family house.

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Second example: this deep-focus image as Kane’s mother and Thatcher discuss Kane’s future places Kane dead in the centre in the background of the image.Third example: a careful composition shot near the end of the scene presents Thatcher telling Kane what a lucky boy he is to be adventuring to the city, while his parents watch on. Very quickly, however, the viewer’s attention is drawn away from Thatcher to young Kane’s intensely angry stare up at Thatcher.

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Kane dominates the viewer’s attention just as he will throughout the story. As Kane attacks Thatcher with his sled it appears as if his destruction of this careful composition foreshadows Kane’s future destructive and even self-destructive fate. (Self-destructive since Kane parallels with Welles destroying his own composition here.)Fourth example: As Kane’s mother makes it clear that Kane’s father would like to beat him, Kane re-directs his angry glare towards his father. Everything anti-authoritarian to come from Kane seems to be implied here.

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Far from the notion of Kane’s identity as mysteriously absent and primarily refracted through other people’s perspectives in this scene Kane has immense control, even over other people’s flashbacks, just as he takes so much control within the film’s plot. Paradoxically it may even be the case that the script’s technique of purporting to tell the story from multiple points-of-view actually pushes Welles’ film closer than the usual Hollywood movie towards that rarer form that Bordwell notes – of a film restricted primarily to one character’s perspective. Citizen Kane is a film at least as much about power, in terms of form as well as content, as it is about mystery and the absence of objective truth. Without wanting to overstate the case, with this reading a person could argue that the film’s centre sits squarely with Kane himself: as the locus around which power relations play out, not only in the film’s plot but also in its style. I am certain, however, that Citizen Kane is about many things beside this that I haven’t been able to touch on here. I also feel sure that this perspective would benefit from being considered alongside other perspectives on the film.

Ben Dooley.