Saga of a Laughing Giant:
The 60th Anniversary of Citizen Kane
By Joel Maguen
year marks the 60th anniversary of Orson Welles' masterpiece,
Citizen Kane, a movie many believe is the one of the few
truly towering achievements in cinematic history. The last several
years have seen heaps of praise lavished upon the film that would
both make and break Welles in the cannon of cinema. It was placed
at the top of the American Film Institute's "100 Greatest
American Films" list a few years back by the same Hollywood
community that acknowledged Welles' cinematic legacy during his
lifetime, yet could not find enough strength to open their pocketbooks
in the 1970s when he attempted to complete his semi-autobiographical
swan-song to Hollywood, The Other Side of the Wind. The
gradual erosion of Welles' acting and directing career is simple
to account for in retrospect: He hit his apex on his first time
out with Kane, and everything that followed paled in comparison.
It's tough being your own measuring stick, or so it goes.
a fixture in the world of radio (remember frantic residents
phoning authorities in fear of martians running rampant after
War of the Worlds was broadcast?) and theater (thanks
to his inventive productions of Shakespeare, such as a Voodoo
Macbeth set in Haiti and Julius Caesar set in
Fascist Italy), the wunderkind Welles was poised to conquer
the world of film in 1941 at the precocious age of 25. And so
the original movie trailer for Citizen
Kane tells the story of the rise and fall of Charles Foster
Kane, a publishing magnate who emerges from a childhood in a
backwards midwestern family to ultimately monopolize the American
printing press by the time he has the first growth of stubble
on his chin. The film is still hailed for its refreshingly creative
story structure (the narrative explores numerous clashing perspectives
on the life of Kane told by a number of different characters)
and technical innovations, such as deep focus from extreme foreground
to extreme background, unorthodox lighting schemes emphasizing
shadow, and the brilliantly realistic use of make-up to capture
the aging process of the characters.
myth has it, Welles and his Director of Photography, Gregg Toland,
were agonizing over a shot composition exhibiting Kane after
a failed bid at the Governor's seat. Wanting to visually display
the fall of a giant, Welles and Toland proceeded drill a hole
into the concrete floor of the set, placing the camera beneath
the floor level on which the actors stood. Not only did this
shot innovate the low-angle composition so common in film's
visual vocabulary nowadays, but it was one of the first instances
in which an actual ceiling was shown on celluloid. With typical
Wellesian nonchalance, the filmmaker would later downplay the
innovation, stating, "You can hardly go into a room without
seeing a ceiling
that's all it was. Not because I thought
the ceiling in itself had anything beautiful to say."
ultimately serves as Welles' ode to the longing for and simplicity
of youth amidst the flurry and turmoil that comes hand in hand
with the complexities of adulthood. How can one forget the last
image of the film, in which Kane's boyhood snow sled, "Rosebud,"
burns away in a furnace, explaining the old man's much contested
last words that leave us guessing throughout the entire film.
The irony of it all is that Welles was still a youth himself
during the making of the film, and in many ways, everyone seemed
to expect him to outdo himself during the post-Kane years of
his flailing career. Just as it was an impossibility for Kane
to relive the distant memory of Rosebud, it was hardly possible
for Welles to replicate the freshness and naiveté with
which he jumped headfirst into the making of Citizen Kane.
filmmaker Francois Truffaut once summed up the film as "a
demonstration of the force of power and an attack on the force
of power, it is a hymn to youth and a meditation on old age, an
essay on the vanity of all material ambition and at the same time
a poem on old age and the solitude of exceptional human beings,
genius or monster or monstrous genius."
must be laughing from his grave after witnessing last week's
60th anniversary screening of Citizen Kane at the El
Capitan Theater in Hollywood, CA, where it originally premiered
in 1941. The general public's monotonous fascination with the
film is perhaps most ironic in light of the fact that Welles
seemed to warn against the dangers of obsession via the tragic
decline of Charles Foster Kane. No other film in Welles' solid
body of work will ever be received with the same pomp and circumstance
as his ambitious debut. Well, the joke's on us, Orson. Keep
laughing, old chap.
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