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The Saga of a Laughing Giant:
The 60th Anniversary of Citizen Kane

By Joel Maguen

This 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.

Already 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 he did.

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See the original movie trailer for Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane
Movie Trailer (1941)

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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.

As 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."

Kane 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.

Legendary 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."

Welles 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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