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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Imperfect 'Citizen Kane'

by Philip Martin | May 4, 2021 at 3:00 a.m.

I heard last week that Rotten Tomatoes, a site that aggregates movie reviews, has added a negative review of "Citizen Kane," which drops it out of its "100 Percent Club." Movies like "Paddington 2" and 2018's "Leave No Trace" are rated higher. (As of Sunday there were 65 movies on the RT site with a perfect score and more than 40 reviews.)

No serious person should be upset by this. The point of a review shouldn't be to deliver a verdict -- to turn a thumb up or down--but to consider the piece at hand. While I like Rotten Tomatoes and find it useful, I don't always agree with how it characterizes reviews as either "fresh" or "rotten." And, aside from a couple of occasions where they've called to ask whether I thought my review was more positive than negative, they decide.

This is a relief, because my position is that almost every review I've ever written is mixed. Art isn't a competition and shouldn't be scored as one. Most movies are sort of average, and if you have a problem with sort-of-average movies you probably shouldn't be a film critic.

"Citizen Kane" is, however, a remarkable movie that deserves to be considered the canonical epitome of American filmmaking. You might not like it best--you might not like it at all--but its greatness is undeniable. It is the place to start when we consider what movies are and why they matter.

"Kane" and its director Orson Welles have been on my mind recently, partly because of David Fincher's "Mank," a Netflix movie about screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and the making of "Kane," which was nominated for a few Oscars.

"Mank," written by Fincher's late father, is inspired by Pauline Kael's famous 1971 essay "Raising Kane," which forcefully argues that Mankiewicz, not Welles, was the essential genius behind the film.

"Mank" is a fine movie, though it's difficult to imagine many people who aren't already steeped in the lore surrounding "Kane" would find it interesting. It's very much an inside baseball project, a Hollywood movie about Hollywood movies.

One way to look at it is as a screed against so-called auteur theory, directed by one of our foremost auteurs. To really get "Mank," you have to know "Kane." You should understand a little bit about the techniques cinematographer Gregg Toland developed to shoot it. You should know about Mankiewicz' reputation as a ruined talent, and the way writers like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald were broken on Hollywood's wheel.

You should know at least a little film history, and about how Mankiewicz, as Kael wrote, "spearheaded the movement of that whole Broadway style of wisecracking, fast-talking, cynical-sentimental entertainment onto the national scene."

Movies with so many prerequisites usually appeal to a rather narrow demographic.

That's in contrast to "Kane." While it may be silly to designate any one movie as the greatest ever, at the very least we should recognize "Kane" as one of the most important Hollywood films ever made and one that, 80 years on, retains a capacity to entertain a wide audience.

On the most superficial level, it's a gorgeous film, with a silver-cream luster punctuated by opaque and impenetrable blacks. If its story seems a little obvious to modern audiences--it is at heart a middlebrow Freudian fable that says nothing more profound than the lives of the rich are as lonely and empty as any--it still manages to say it beautifully.

Without minimizing Mankiewicz' contribution--and he probably was the sole author of the screenplay--what's genuinely great about "Kane" is not the story it imagines but how it is realized. The genius is in the execution; the brashness of Toland's revolutionary deep-focus camera as it sweeps over baldly artificial sets, a great leaping joy at having discovered untapped possibilities in a medium that had prematurely settled on a vocabulary of gesture and musical cues.

"Kane" would not have made a great novel. It is not always coherent. What is the question to its final "Jeopardy" answer--uttered by a dying Kane, who answers in an empty room (with only the audience there to hear)--of Rosebud? Is it what drove Charles Foster Kane to become what he became? The reporter played by William Alland can't figure it out. Neither can any of the great man's former intimates.

"I don't think any word can explain a man's life," Alland finally admits.

We watch the excesses of Xanadu, all the treasure and junk amassed by voracious Kane during his lifetime, being cataloged and sorted. And his childhood sled--Rosebud--being flung into an incinerator.

This is an elliptical image; the sled might be (and usually is) taken as a symbol of Kane's lost childhood.

But we should remember that, more than anything else, "Citizen Kane" is a hit piece, a barely disguised attack on William Randolph Hearst, the press magnate turned politician, who once, the story goes, had the drunken Welles forcibly expelled from one of the parties he hosted for the Hollywood elite at his estate at San Simeon.

Welles made "Citizen Kane" in retaliation, hiring Mankiewicz in part because he knew a lot of the old man's secrets (there is an alternative theory of "rosebud" that can't be safely alluded to in a family newspaper), and effectively crippling his own film career in the process.

I like to think Mankiewicz also drew on Welles' megalomania for inspiration for the Charles Foster Kane character.

Regardless of whether or not Welles earned his screenwriting credit--and the Oscar that eventually came with it--even Pauline Kael would have agreed that writers and cameramen and composers do not on their own make movies. It was part of Welles' genius that he was able to coax from these men what no one else had before (and no one ever did again).

Mankiewicz, Toland and Bernard Herrmann could not have, without Welles, produced "Kane." Maybe we can attribute to Welles a certain glee discernible in the movie. Welles knows exactly what he is doing and to whom he is doing it.

No wonder Hearst was enraged; the attack is not only vicious but in some respects undeserved. ("Mank" takes pains to correct the record in the case of Marion Davies, who is portrayed in "Kane" as a talentless ditz; Amanda Seyfried was nominated for an Oscar for her much more accurate portrayal of Davies as a shrewd businesswoman and talented performer.)

"Citizen Kane" is not perfect, but it is unlike any movie that came before it, and it has shaped essentially every seriously intended film that's been made since. Ninety-nine percent will have to suffice.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

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