Saturday, October 24, 2009

Citizen Kane (1942): at the shrine

Director: Orson Welles (1915-85); duration:114 minutes

It requires a measure of audacity to write about this most famous and admired of all films but then what are films for but to see and enjoy, and what harm can a bit of additional appreciation do, even though one may start with a favourable preconceptions the size of a mountain? After all I could list a number of celebrated films which have turned out to be more educative than enjoyable. I saw Kane yesterday (for the second time) and I found it as rivetting and racy as a Tarantino thriller with a comparable amount of loquacity thrown in. The minutes flew.

I still remember my first viewing maybe five years back and remember being transfixed by the opening shot. Let me pay my homage to this greatest of opening shots. Time is night.  An iron grill of a gate, sombre in the darkness.  A "No Trespassing" sign (there will never again be such a no-trespassing sign!) and the camera travels upward revealing the letter K (for Kane). In the background Xanadu, a palace on top of a  mountain, looming  gothic.  Xanadu is "world's foremost pleasure ground and the costliest monument since the pyramids which a man built for himself"(quote from the film). The camera moves up and up as though on a flight of stairs till it reaches a lighted room: the chamber where Kane is dying. The funereal music that opens the film also seems to signify that death the visitor is knocking at the door. It's already over.The music is reminiscent of Schubert's sombre lied "Death and the Maiden .The closing shot of the film is equally memorable, as the thick sooty smoke rises obliquely backward as if in the monumental triumph of indiscriminating death to the chords of the same dirge as at the open. The ascending column of soot is reminiscent of the gurgling  chimneys of Auschwitz in Schindler's List ,

But all is not sombre between the covers though it we do see all the merriment and brave posturing in the light of the already revealed ending. The film is based on the life of Hearst, a (then) contemporary press magnate . The film opens with Kane's lonely death, surrounded by nothing but his acquisitions. We are then shown a 10 minute newsreel narrating the events of the celebrity's life: his enormous wealth, his great influence by virtue of the power of his yellow journalism, the abortion of his political ambitions, the failed marriages, the decline of his businesses during the Great Depression, and the lonely end years.

The movie plot hinges on the mystery of the last words he spoke: "Rosebud". Thompson, a reporter is assigned the job of fiding out  the significance of these mysterious words as a key to discovering the man's personality.

This is but the skeleton. There is magic and mystery in this film.

First and foremost it is in the architecture of the plot, supported by sublime cinematography. It is the portrait of a man, the drama of a life, and a parable of Life. The story is non sequential and the past, present and future collate with each other not as it happened but as it must have flowed in the mind of the young and precocious director. It is a whole made of pieces and the pieces join together in a perfect fusion, like the pieces of a jig-saw, giving us a wrenching and pathetic portrayal of human destiny. As the story proceeds, the man unpeels, layer by layer.

The story proceeds with unrelenting energy and speed without stopping for a single breath or wasting a single shot. Each moment  seamlessly unfolds the next as though derived from an unfaltering inner spring of  inspiration. This quality of compressedness, a density which is able to express a lifetime in two hours without leaving out anything is an achievement in human portraiture reminiscent of sixteenth entury drama.

Much has been written about the inspired black and white cinematography. It is a poetry of camera so one must content oneslf with a few examples. Snow falling on a cottage turns into a glass paperweight. The camera descending on the drunken Susan. The cathedral like library which houses Thatcher's archives. The encounter of  Kane as a child with his future guardian. Kane in the hall of mirrors.

It is indeed the hypnotic vision of a prodigy of  five and twenty-Welles' age when he made the film. Worthy of the author of  "Kublai Khan" , who built the wondrous Xanadu.

Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Roger Ebert's review


Anonymous said...

I love this movie, but honestly feel that its quality is somewhat blown up by most, because of its influence.

Fun example of its influence that your post made me see: in Om Shanti Om, there is a similar shot of snow turning into the crystal ball thing (not quite a paperweight, but very similar).

Anonymous said...

Damn. I forgot something: for me, the true greatness of the movie lies in the fact that even in the happiest parts, I could feel vacuousness. Especially that scene with the reporters from the other paper and the dancing with the showgirls.

S. M. Rana said...


Yes, that showgirl scene! I think it's effective for the ridiculous sycophancy and shallow worked up gaiety---we see everything from the altitude of the grim opening shots. We see the shallowness for what it is while enjoying it (I thought the song and show-girls sequence rather catchy and entertaining.)

Literary Dreamer said...

Ah yes, Citizen Kane. An enjoyable and artistically brilliant film, whether one thinks it is the best movie of all time or "just" one of the greats. The Magnificent Ambersons is also a great film, with some of the best use of light and shadow I've ever seen.

strangerland said...

I was looking for posts on mathematics and philosophy, but now I know where to look for my movie reviews. Kane suggests that the press hasn't learned anything new in the intervening years.

S M Rana said...


Welcome Stranger from Strangerland!

The philosophy is liberally sprinkled over the reviews and I believe the reviews are only a figleaf for blowing my trumpet.

Maths is my ex and the affair was brief and stormy.The high point was my encounter with Paul Erdos and my subsequent solution of the following problem of his: Consider n integers having the property that all subsets thereof have a different sum. Then the sum of the reciprocals of the members of this set has a least upper bound. This bound, in terms of reciprocals of powers of two, is hard to type out.