Home / Digital Xanadu: Citizen Kane on DVD

Digital Xanadu: Citizen Kane on DVD

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Last fall, Citizen Kane was released to DVD. For a film that many consider the best ever made (It was named the American Film Institute’s top film of all time and it frequently tops the list of Britain’s snobbish Sight & Sound magazine), this release – on what is currently the best home viewing format – is long overdue.

Just as the reporter in Kane hoped to have the many facets of Charles Foster Kane’s personality revealed from many angles by his survivors, being able to savor an excellent cut of Citizen Kane at leisure allows the many facets of the movie to be revealed from many angles. It’s a chance to study a film touted by its makers as ushering in a new phase of cinematic realism, which of course, was nothing of the sort-and film history is all the more better for it. To Generation-X’ers, Kane is proof, long before the Indiana Jones films, that special effects can work in a movie without a single spaceship. A film that was an attack across the bow of an enormously successful 78 year old plutocrat by a precocious 26-year-old bursting at the seams with a combination of pretension, condescension, talent and emotions that he could barely contain can now be explored, almost like a novel. And looking back at 60 years ago, it’s easy to see how far “the working man” has come, and how technology and education have helped to level differences in lifestyles between classes. Finally, watching Kane now is to watch a movie made just months before Pearl Harbor, that was re-released just after America has gone to war again.

That Welles felt he had to top his previous achievements-his “Voodoo” Macbeth, his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, his updating of Julius Caesar into a parable against fascism – is well known. RKO had given him the “the best electric train set in the world” – a movie studio and contract that gave him a license to kill: the final cut on a motion picture. Welles looked at the Hollywood state of the art, circa 1940, and no doubt thought, “this will not do”. So he set out to assemble the trains exactly as he wanted to see them run, challenging established conventions of lighting, structure, acting, and sound. And to do it within a budget that would let RKO greenlight his film about an American tycoon.

Smashing the Magic Carpet

We all know the result. The “Triple prologue” – Kane dying in the glum and expressionistic Xanadu, followed by the “News on the March” fake newsreel, and then the shooting into the lights projection room scene-must have alternately dazzled and confused 1941 audiences. And the elliptical narrative – a decade before Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, and seemingly light years before Quentin Tarantino was even born – was also a far cry from what audiences had come to expect. Hollywood, particularly with the advent of talkies, specialized in smooth transitions and smooth narrative flows, propelling audiences smoothly along a celluloid magic carpet through a plot. Smooth was the operative word, and the introduction to Kane was anything but.

On the other hand, life is also rarely smooth, and Welles and co-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz probably felt that the jerky transitions before the film settles down to tell us the “real” story, would seem more realistic.

Looking sixty years back into time, Citizen Kane seems anything but realistic. And yet, Greg Toland, Kane‘s cinematographer, repeatedly stressed realism in his post-Kane interviews and essays, despite the fact that the film’s low-slung camera angles and endless shadows are not how most people experience life. Of course, Hollywood has a history of inventing techniques for the goal of increasing realism, but later appear as nothing more than additional stylized techniques to tell a story. Brando’s acting was once touted as a new form of realism. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (which bookends Kane on many 20th Century greatest films lists) was viewed by many, at the time of its release, as a realistic preview of fin de siècle space flight, but is now of course properly seen as one of the most stylized films ever made.

A Movie Theater in Every Home

Not surprisingly, there’s a political subtext in Citizen Kane. Kane, in his 1916 campaign for the governorship of New York is seen as a proto-New Dealer, bent on helping “the working man”. After Kane is disgraced by his political rival for having an affair (it does seem like this film is set in a millennia before the names Clinton, Packwood and Condit became household words, doesn’t it?) Jed Leland tells Kane, that the working man is “turning into something called organized labor.”

That those working men have since turned themselves a highly educated, affluent middle class, who can afford to have home theaters to watch their DVDs in, would have made Hearst and Kane blush. A miniature movie theater in every home? This would have astounded social critics of the 19th century. Saint-Simon, not to mention Karl Marx, would be rolling over in their graves.

The home theater, at least the kind that resembles an miniaturized version of a classic movie theater from the 1920s, was first built in the late 1980s by a man named Theo Kalomirakis, who wanted to recreate Samuel Rothafel’s legendary Roxy movie theater in the basement of his Brooklyn brownstone. Kalomirakis once told me that what plays into the mythology of the home theater “was the Hollywood screening room, where we used to think that only the big movie stars and the producers could have a screening room in their house. You know, everybody’s playing movie producer right now, with their movie theaters. Everybody can share a little bit of that exclusive magic that was only the domain of Hollywood up until home theaters came around. So we all bask in that kind of glory.”

Today, any American making a reasonable income can have a home theater. They may not afford to employ Kalimarkis to design something as lavish as the Roxy in their basement, but they can certainly play movie producer, with their own “screening room,” electronic versions of the projection room shown at the end of the “News on the March” f-for-fake documentary in Kane. But it wasn’t “reform” as Kane would have predicted (read: the soft socialism of the New Deal) that brought that level of affluence to the American worker. It was the combination of America’s post-World War II dominance, immediately followed by the information age. In Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave, he argues that the third wave, his term for the information revolution, first began to replace the second wave (the industrial revolution) in 1959, the year that white collar jobs began to out number blue collar jobs in the US. These jobs required greater education, greater independence of thought, greater ability to improvise than the mass men of 1916.

And while the cost of living may constantly be going up, home entertainment has radically bucked that trend. When Citizen Kane came out on laser disc in the mid-1980s, it was released by the Voyager Company as part of their “Criterion” collection of classic films. It cost $124.95, if you knew where to find it, and a laser disc player was somewhere in the vicinity of a grand. Today, you can buy Kane at Wall-Mart on DVD for $24.95, and a player for $200 or less. (Incidentally, the Kane DVD comes with a crystal-clear transfer, auxiliary optional audio tracks with commentaries by either Roger Ebert or Peter Bogdanovich, and a second disc, which contains the PBS documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane. That’s a helluva lot of entertainment, film history, and film scholarship for twenty-five bucks.)

Laser discs of course, had their final great fling as a collector’s medium in the late 1980s, when Toffler’s second wave receded and the third began to finally dominate the economy. In order to adjust, this was the period when numerous large companies were forced to decide between massive layoffs (temporarily hurting lots of people) and closing down (permanently hurting even more people). Rather than hide out, as Kane did, during the Depression, in Xanadu, the CEOs that weathered that recession did it by retooling their companies to meet the times and its technology.

Orson and Michael and William and Roger & Me

Which brings us, oddly enough, to Flint, Michigan. Compare, if you will, Welles’ “stunt” of a drama with Michael Moore’s stunt of a documentary, Roger & Me. Hearst’s rage (now primarily thought as likely being over the film’s “portrayal” of Marian Davies, which even Welles later admitted was a cruel and unfair) cost Citizen Kane hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. It didn’t help that RKO’s marketing department, the same folks who could only come up with the lame “It’s Terrific” slogan to promote Kane, was too lacking in brain cells to exploit the epic marketing coup that Hearst handed them. Citizen Kane‘s inability to turn a profit, coupled with Hearst’s actions, ultimately blackballed Welles in Hollywood.

Incidentally, Welles was far from blacklisted – a far, far too loaded a word to describe what happened to his career post-Kane. He worked constantly in movies, both in front of and behind the cameras. He just couldn’t come to grips with the seemingly obvious fact that movies have to turn a profit, which means they have to connect with a mass audience. Even Kubrick, the most avant-garde of American directors, knew instinctively that he had to build his films around large, popular themes – nuclear hysteria, outer space, horror, Vietnam, and sex. His one film that didn’t have a theme that a large audience could immediately tap into, Barry Lyndon, failed to turn a profit in the US. He wouldn’t make that mistake again for the three films he had left in him.) Welles couldn’t find a plot or protagonist that a mass audience could bond with.

In contrast to Welles, who was brought to Hollywood so that RKO could tap into his proto-superstar status, nobody, and I mean nobody, had heard of Michael Moore prior to Roger & Me. And unlike Hearst, General Motors raised nary a peep about Moore’s childish yet incendiary documentary, and Moore became, at least for a while, a superstar in the counterculture set.

Of course, Roger & Me was as loaded a film as Citizen Kane was. Moore couldn’t risk arranging an interview with Roger Smith, then GM’s chairman of the board, or else, he’d have no film (and irony of ironies, he wouldn’t now be living in a 1.9 million dollar home in Manhattan). And once Welles and Mankiewicz cooked up Kane, they had to have some Hearst in him, otherwise, there’d be no controversy, there’d be no chance of an exasperated Hearst appearing in public with steam coming out of his ears, as Erskine Sanford practically does in Kane. Of course, they got more Hearst than they bargained for.

Theater, Radio and Magic

Unlike Roger & Me, Citizen Kane is a dazzling-looking film, crackling with tricks originating from Welles’ background in theater, radio and maybe even…magic. Up until 2001 and Star Wars, there might not have been another film with as many special effects (in the form of miniatures, matte paintings, process shots, rear projection, sophisticated sound mixing, and probably every other form of studio slight-of-hand that existed in 1940.) But Kane is seen, if not as a realistic film, at least as a plausible one. We know that there aren’t manned space missions to Jupiter, X-Wings, and Death Stars. But who knew, particularly those in the audience on that fateful May 1, 1941 evening when Kane debuted, that Xanadu was almost all fake? That the giant Thinker-like statue of Walter P. Thatcher in his “Memorial Library” was a miniature that seamlessly flowed into a live set? That the stunning and seemingly infinite camera move up the curtains and rafters of Kane’s Chicago opera house was nothing more than curtains superimposed on top of other curtains on top of miniature riggings and rafters?

When combined with the final superimposition of the two stagehands, it’s a devastating throwaway shot, but merely a bit of trickery from Welles’ top hat (not to mention Linwood Dunn’s optical printer). It would be aped fifty years later in Batman Returns, and almost a decade after that in Dark City.

And compared to those two techno-noir films, Kane, the granddaddy of film noir, doesn’t appear a bit dated. Indeed, Citizen Kane feels modern in in a way that virtually no other film from the 1940s does. (Of course, it helps that Welles’ creating a straw-businessman to bring down became an eventual standard of Hollywood, from The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to Wall Street to American Beauty.) But visually, Kane is right at home at the Hollywood kitchen table with the expressionism of Blade Runner and Tim Burton’s two Batman movies. With Quentin Tarintino’s elliptical structures. With Kubrick’s experimentation. Only its politics date it, and for that, we should be glad.

(Note: This essay appeared previously in Spintech.)

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About Ed Driscoll