Could there be a more daunting endeavor in all of film criticism than to say something new, let alone profound, about Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ thinly disguised film a clef on the life and crimes of media mogul William Randolph Hearst? For sixty years, almost every major writer and thinker on the cinema has weighed in with an appreciation, if not with outright idolatry: Bazin, Agee, the Cahiers du cinema group, Sarris, Kael (who wrote the notorious 1971 New Yorker essay, “Raising Kane”), even dabblers like Sartre and Borges, who famously observed it to be a “labyrinth without a center.” Indeed, the vast number of Kane-inspired texts that litter the landscape of film history is seemingly rivaled only by the scores of crates, statues, and other assorted detritus that clutter the floors of Xanadu’s Great Hall at the source text’s conclusion.
And the accumulation will continue, guaranteed by the long-awaited DVD release of Citizen Kane (Special Edition), advertised on TV (most frequently on WTBS, which, like the RKO library, is owned by latter-day Hearst, Ted Turner) as “the best film of all time.” But if the popular press is (again) heralding the “re-discovery” of a masterpiece, in actuality, Kane has lingered in the public consciousness for decades, and rightly so. Kane is, yes, almost every bit as good as advertised, especially in its newly restored format. The sixty-year flood of hype and hosannas hasn’t dulled its edge. Rather, the multiplicity of interpretations and analyses has only confirmed, and thus enriched, the central conceit of the film: that, to paraphrase Thompson (Joseph Cotten), the crusading journalist whose search structures the picture’s plot, no single word can explain a man’s life. Further, no single appraisal has ever explained Citizen Kane—but making the effort is its own reward.
Simple, straightforward evaluation of Kane is by now beside the point. I haven’t the stomach to pretend for the sake of polemics that it’s anything less than a towering accomplishment. Yet my gut feelings about this tour de force are, I suspect, much like that of most film buffs: reverence but not passion, admiration but not adoration. Kane, with its stupefying camera technique and puzzlebox narrative, is manna for anyone who has ever believed in the potential of film as an art. Still, many Welles aficionados prefer the flawed but glorious The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which, like Kane, documents the passing of an often inglorious yet vital era of American history. There is affecting tragedy in Kane, too; it radiates from the performances of both Welles (as the old, debilitated Kane) and especially Dorothy Comingore (as the broken alcoholic suffering a loveless marriage to a pitiless despot), who never received the accolades (nor the roles) she subsequently deserved. But the misfortune never cuts too deep, never as deep as the comparably small agonies that befall the Ambersons do. The bravura technique—the celebrated deep focus cinematography by Gregg Toland, Bernard Herrmann’s wide-ranging score, the dense sound mix—is exhilarating; it also overwhelms our senses. In that we delight in solving the film’s jigsaw visual and sonic design, we are discouraged from registering the characters’ losses too deeply.
And yet, the digital-coated perfection of the DVD transfer complicates my feelings about Welles’ technique; how can one quibble with the exuberance, the unmitigated joy he derives from these audacious formal games? The picture and sound quality of the transfer is enough to shame one into silence. I’ve had the pleasure of viewing a pristine 35mm print of Kane, and the new DVD looks as good on a TV set as that print looked on the screen, certainly an incalculable improvement over the horridly muddy VHS version that Turner Classic Movies has been peddling for the past few years. If any “classic” film was in desperate need of video restoration, it’s Kane, with its crystalline deep-focus compositions and jet-black shadows. The DVD rescues those effects, and you need look no further than the early scene in the “News On the March” screening room for confirmation: you can now clearly make out people’s faces (including those of featured players Joseph Cotten and Erskine Sanford, moonlighting here as extras) in the darkness, even while the light-dark contrast of the original film has been remarkably preserved. Later scenes do seem a bit too bright (see, especially, the interior of the El Rancho nightclub, when Thompson first interviews Susan Alexander Kane), but this seems a relatively small price to pay for such crisp resolution.
The DVD’s “Special Features” deliver, more or less, as advertised. The Kane storyboards, although they are displayed at a pre-determined speed (you can’t pause on a page or scroll through all of them at your own pace), are nonetheless instructive. The original pressbooks and theatrical trailer, both of which emphasize the incoherency (“Some called him a hero—Others called him a heel!”) that colors the accounts of who Kane was, underscore the desperation distributors must have felt at the prospect of selling a film without clear-cut heroes and villains. The second disc in this two-disc set is devoted to The Battle Over Citizen Kane, a recent Oscar-nominated documentary that, although dry and overlong, does a fair job of contextualizing the film’s Hearst angle, as well as apportioning delightful trivia about Welles’ prodigious eating habits and the fact that he was imbibing mixed drinks by the age of eight.
The main attractions among the extras are full-length audio commentaries on the film by critic/television personality Roger Ebert and director/Welles confidant Peter Bogdanovich. Ebert’s is, perhaps surprisingly, the superior of the two; while many of the tidbits he dispenses can be easily found in books like Robert Carringer’s meticulous production history, The Making of Citizen Kane, Ebert nonetheless offers an engaging tutorial on the film’s many photographic effects and on how Welles, Toland, et. al., expertly, used the power of suggestion to compensate for budgetary shortcomings. Bogdanovich offers a few insights, mostly in the form of anecdotes derived from long-ago conversations with the auteur-cum-raconteur (Welles died in 1985), but his observations are too often useless (“Notice how [Welles] plays different ages at various different times… How he did it, I don’t know”) or simply repetitive.
Still, even if Welles himself had risen from the grave to record his own running account for the folks at Warner Home Video, the disc’s cleaned-up sound and image would still be the real reason for owning it. This achievement will no doubt encourage further comment on how utterly contemporary Kane seems, as if it could have been made yesterday. Still, ironically, the picture is so clear on the DVD that certain flaws in production design (no doubt economically motivated—the film was brought in for less than a million) are now exposed, like the shabby rear projection in the Xanadu picnic scene (actually “jungle” footage from an earlier RKO production, Son of Kong) or the seamy, Caligari-style makeup used to age Welles, Comingore, and Cotten.
But such flaws are, perhaps, fitting. The incongruous wedding of the old-fashioned and outmoded with the shockingly modern (the naturalistic, overlapping dialogue; the elliptical cutting) keeps with what in the end strikes me as the point of the picture: to mock the analytical impulse, to parody the very idea of certainty or wholeness. The labyrinth without a center, the puzzle without a solution—Welles was also a pioneer in the art of the put-on. One’s response to his movie is dictated by one’s willingness to play the sucker. And why not? Stylistically, Citizen Kane is a triumph of inexhaustible invention. It delights as few other films ever have or will. But to believe in it as the greatest ever made, to accept the party line of the American Film Institute, Sight and Sound, Roger Ebert, and company, you have to swallow a despairing worldview that puts art before humanity—rather than stress their interdependence. So, yes, we’re right to trade minutiae about low ceilings and “lightning montages”: better to revel in the youthful swagger of Kane‘s execution than dwell for too long on the abyss at its core.