Review by Trylon volunteer Peter Schilling
How I wish that viewers new to Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane, could see it without ever having heard that it was “the Greatest Film Ever Made”, as I had in my youth. In a story I’ve undoubtedly shared way too many times, I was roughly ten years old when I first saw Citizen Kane. My father hauled my brother and me to the enormous Temple Theater in downtown Saginaw, Michigan, and with a crowd of maybe two hundred (which seemed miniscule in a theater that held nearly ten times as many souls), we watched a scratchy print of Kane. It has probably been my favorite movie ever since.
This was 1978, and seeing great films meant hoping that the networks or local TV stations would set aside The Love Boat and The Six Million Dollar Man now and again to broadcast a great movie (if you were lucky you knew someone with a dynamite 16mm collection.) Unless you lived in a city that had a theater like the Temple, you just didn’t see a classic picture.
My Dad took us to see Kane after a year of watching in horror as his two children went berserk over Star Wars. In an act I’m sure he instantly regretted, he painted a pair of yardsticks green and red with black electrical tape around the handles for us to use as lightsabers (and which were great to beat each other with total impunity), and had to listen to our endless Star Wars chatter and that damned soundtrack for a whole year. Sick, no doubt, of that one and Close Encounters he finally hauled us to see Kane. As I think about this now, I honestly don’t know if he’d seen it at that point. (Considering he wasn’t born when it came out, and was undoubtedly not a staple of regular television programming, there was a good chance this was his first screening, too.)
Imagine a ten-year-old and an eight-year-old watching Citizen Kane (and I think my brother John was there—maybe not). The broken narrative, the melancholy adults that the reporter Thompson hunts down, Rosebud, the opera, the lines of beautiful women that enthralled me in the party scene—it was a lot for a kid to take in. From the weird “News on the March” newsreel at the beginning (what the hell is a newsreel?) to it’s dour ending, I tried my best to keep up. I failed… but Kane made me excited about complex films, and it was certainly the first movie that I didn’t understand but wanted to know more.
Naturally, at the time I tried to frame it around something I understood, and that was Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. Like the eponymous boy in The Little Prince (which Welles at one point adapted into an unfilmed screenplay), Charles Foster Kane is less William Randolph Hearst and so much more the young Orson, bouncing from experience to experience in his fruitless quest for true love. Here was a curious and melancholy figure, trying desperately to hold on to his childhood as he grew older. And reporter Thompson’s wandering from person to person—from Susan Alexander Kane to Thatcher’s empty marble library to the wheelchair bound Leyland—these were like the sad adults that occupied the asteroids in Saint-Exupery’s classic novel that I loved more than anything.
It wasn’t until high school and then a few times in college that I was truly able to deepen my understanding of the man Orson Welles and his incredible first feature (as a ten-year-old I checked out Pauline Kael’s The Citizen Kane Book, which didn’t help one iota). As you should know by now, Kane a strangely autobiographical film, one that examines its creator’s longing for his “lost” childhood (which included the early death of his mother and the strange caretaking by his distant father and someone who may have been his mother’s lover), but also accurately predicts his own fate—lost and nearly broke in his later years, Welles sadly came to resemble, to a degree, the old Charles Foster Kane.
Sadly, an every-ten-year poll in the British magazine Sight & Sound, ranking the great movies of history, has saddled Citizen Kane with the title of “The Greatest Film Ever Made” for almost fifty years until Vertigo (screening May 14 at the Heights Theater as part of our Hitchcock Film Festival) upended it three years ago. But really, if I were one of the critics polled, I’d include Kane on my top ten, which amounts as a vote for Best of All-Time. You can argue all you want about Kane’s status in the cinematic firmament, for me Kane is the best because of my personal connection with it… and the fact that, to this day, and after probably two dozen viewings, it remains tremendously entertaining.
So I beg you: Watch the movie, friends. Just watch the movie.
For Kane is a wonderful movie, in that it is a rollicking entertainment, not just a serious examination of loneliness and wealth, nor a collection of magnificent setpieces and daring cinematography and great, audacious performances. It is all that, the serious examination and technical hoo-hah and ACTING, but I don’t think Welles intended us to be anything but wildly entertained. That’s what he was, when he told stories on the radio, on stage, as a magician, or a director—an entertainer. Kane is by turns crazy and fascinating, hilarious and bumbling, circus-like and borrowing from the great vaudevillians, and boasts remarkable camerawork and cinematic storytelling that continue to influence movies today. It’s just a great fucking picture.
So if you plan on seeing Citizen Kane this weekend at the Trylon, try as best you can to experience the same fun you’d have if you were going to Singin’ in the Rain, His Girl Friday, or, hell, maybe even Star Wars. Citizen Kane is meant to be a great time at the movies, and you’ll get that, especially in a theater. And bring your ten-year-old—who knows, maybe one day she’ll remember it as being her favorite as well. — Peter Schilling
Peter Schilling is a Trylon volunteer and the author of Carl Bark’s Duck
CITIZEN KANE screens Friday and Saturday, May 1 and 2 at 7:00 and 9:15, and Sunday, May 3 at 5:00 and 7:15 at the Trylon. Advance tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.