Movies 16 Feb 2010 03:11 pm
Back in the early ’90s when I was teaching at a parochial high school in Sidney, Ohio, one of my students was obsessed with Citizen Kane. His father told me he watched it almost every night and could quote large portions of it from memory.
There are few films that are better fetish fodder. Until this last week, when I watched the film twice, I hadn’t seen Orson Welles’ masterpiece for more than ten years because my old VHS copy had crapped out. That’s too long to go between viewings, but it had the advantage of making the film fresh to my eyes again.
Citizen Kane is one of the few films that works wholly like a piece of literature, inviting repeated viewings and challenging its audience to grow along with it. The story of Charles Foster Kane — such a thinly disguised pseudonym for real-life newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst that Hearst’s censure of the film was enough to suppress it for years — resonates as a story of power, hearkening back to a time when newspapers, and the people who made them, could actually shape public policy.
Everything about Citizen Kane works. I am an unrepentant apologist for old films, urging modern viewers to look past the dated feel and sometimes hokey sentimentality to probe their dialogue and acting. Even with my favorite film, Casablanca, I have to disregard some of the Hollywood extravagances of earlier eras, reminding myself that it’s a 1942 movie and allow myself to get swept up in the story again.
No such apology is needed for Kane; it feels wholly modern, a movie that could have been released last year, except that nothing last year comes close to topping it for the intelligence of its script, the power of its cinematography, and the sheer skill of its actors. On the two-disc DVD version I watched, the film looks as pristine as its reputation among all those critics who consistently label it one of the best.
The second disc is a two-hour documentary, The Battle over Citizen Kane, focusing on Welles and Hearst and how this film changed both their lives. Watching it is what made me give Kane two viewings so close to one another — it’s that good.
I don’t know if I’ll be watching Citizen Kane again tonight. Obsession like that belongs almost exclusively to the young. But I know that I could watch it again, and find something new to marvel about or quote.