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Citizen Kane- Style over Substance?

Citizen Kane is a controversial film, not only for what it portrays, but for its reception among the film community. While many people hail the film as the greatest of all time, several critics find that the movie lacks emotional depth and speaks more to American’s preference for style over substance. While I don’t think it deserves the title of “greatest movie of all time,” to characterize the movie as dull or insignificant, as some critics have, seems like a bit of a stretch.

After screening the film, I found its technological experimentation in cinematography and sound to be advanced, even in a modern context. This is an aspect of the film most film critics agree with. However, in the interview by Peter Bogdanovich, Welles himself notes that there are gratuitous shots which utilize a certain style for no significant reason other than experimentation. If we define what makes a film the “greatest movie of all time” by its lack of extraneous shots, then Citizen Kane falls short of the mark, whereas a film such as Casablanca, where every shot, scene and technicality contribute to the overall film’s tone and story, fits the bill.

Bogart and Bergman In "Casablanca"

Other than technological experimentation with long-shots, depth of focus, and camera angles, the movie’s form is also experimental, yet contributes to the movie’s premise. We construct Kane’s precarious persona through stories and flashbacks. We never get a true sense of the character whose identity the film seeks to unravel. Some critics may lay claim that the lack of three-dimensionality in the Charles Kanes’ character detracts from the film, but in doing so, they seem to miss the film’s point. How can anyone know a man who is self-centered through the eyes of the people who knew him? We are meant to walk away from the film with the sense that we never got the full story, like the journalist in the film.¬†While it is revealed to us what Kane meant by the utterance, “Rosebud”, it only provides us with the recurring notion that Kane was a man who lost everything that he ever had and wanted.

At times, the film is as schizophrenic as the character it seeks to portray. However, I feel this detracts from the film, as opposed to enhancing it. At certain points the film seems surreal, at times realistic; it flirts with noir and farcical comedy. While this may be the effect of attempting to chronicle a man’s life, for a work of art it sometimes comes across as disjointed.

Orson Welles as Kane

I think Citizen Kane would qualify as one of the most influential films of all time in that it defied conventions, thus creating new ones, mostly in the field of cinematography. The narrative, though disjointed, does not provide us with full disclosure, but it allows us to formulate our own opinions- another wonderful aspect of the film. It also typifies the struggle a filmmaker faces when attempting to defy convention and make a piece of art dealing with political issues. The film was believed to be about the life of William Randolph Hearst, and Mr. Hearst expended a lot of energy to make sure the movie would be a flop. Welles struggled on many levels to get the film made and many people believe it led to his undoing.

William Randolph Hearst

While it may not be the “greatest film of all time”, Citizen Kane is definitely worth studying and warrants the attention it eventually received from the film community. It is historically and politically significant and provides us with a philosophy on life, so the argument that it lacks substance falls flat. If anything, it is the film’s gratuitous experimentation which prevents it from achieving the perfection of a film like its perfectly constructed rival, Casablanca.

~ by Jamie Parganos on February 27, 2010.

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