Citizen Kane is quite an anomaly when you think about it. Or at least its reputation is. Can anyone agree on the best novel ever written? If asked, someone might throw out Joyce’s Ulysses, but another might immediately counter with Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Even if you limited the question to novels written in the English language, you’d be faced with devotees of Dickens, Eliot, and Melville, as well as those of Nabokov and Twain, but to name a few. Hamlet is the classic example of great play, but not the universal answer for "greatest play." Putting aside those who would campaign against Shakespeare, you could still find Bard enthusiasts who would argue that the man’s (yes, one man) greatest work is King Lear or The Tempest. Subjects as seemingly limited as “the epic poem” find a clash between the mouth of Homer and the pen of Milton.
Yet, Citizen Kane is “the greatest movie ever made.” It tops every big critical list and anyone who makes a case against it is not simply making an argument for the greatest movie ever made, but distinctly marking themselves out as challenging an accepted truth.
And oddly, so many people who have seen Citizen Kane do not like it or even understand what makes it great. Furthermore, the strangest part of that situation is that, unlike a person’s reaction to disliking almost any other great movie, in this case, they actually accept the blame. I have heard countless people challenge everything from The Godfather to Vertigo to Sunrise to 8 ½ to Star Wars. I myself will piss on most Kurosawa films like they were freshly laid snow and I had an uncontrollable desire to see my name. But the standard reaction for Citizen Kane is, “I probably don’t know enough about film to fully appreciate it.” The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the film, but in ourselves.
So the film sits upon its throne, loved by a few critics and film buffs, unappreciated yet revered by many and unwatched by even more. It is a treasure the masses can never comprehend.
As one of those masses, I was not content. I could not figure out what was worse: being denied a marvelous piece of art or being denied the ability to bash a treasure with all the iconoclastic fury I could muster. But reading a book on Citizen Kane would not be enough. I wanted to see, not simply hear, what a marvel it is.
Thus, the great mission was born. The original plan was this: create a list of essential movies to watch made which were made before Citizen Kane and, for a month or two, only watch those movies. Anything that could possibly use post-Kane techniques was to be avoided like electricity on the sabbath. Naturally, this task was not one I could or should tackle single-handedly. I needed a partner, someone with whom I could share thoughts, reflect, and, most importantly, turn to for impetus after a particularly boring film. I immediately turned to Nick, my oldest friend and another budding film geek. I say “film geek” since neither Nick nor I consider ourselves “film buffs.” There are two types of “film buffs.” The first group is those who think that seeing a few foreign films and renting movies made before 1980 on a decently regular basis makes one a film buff. The second are the real film buffs: those who really just know their shit. Nick and I lie somewhere in between the two; we know just enough about film to know we are not buffs.
Upon reflection, perhaps this mission would have made a great Julie and Julia-esque blog. Too bad Julie and Julia came out after we were two months into it. And I console myself with the fact that, knowing me, only the blog or the mission itself could be of true importance. Were I to keep the blog, the mission would be a reason for the blog and, thus, lose its true purpose and my true understanding. I would be watching movies, taking notes on them for quips to make and so forth, instead of allowing them to envelope me. Though, I admit, I would love Amy Adams to play me in a movie. Meryl Streep could play Roger Ebert or Žižek. Is anyone in Hollywood reading this? You're sitting on a gold mine!
But I digress.
We quickly ruled out the isolation approach. After all, Nick was off for the summer and needed to do something to fill his long days; not watching post-1941 films would be an issue. Also, we both needed to catch up on Mad Men. Of course, with this rule eliminated, the list was able to grow, unconstrained by the necessity of a month or two lifespan. What was once 50 films burgeoned to 120 or so. Soon, we were not only getting the best of the best, but a fuller sense of films at the time. We knew not only the high points of aesthetic value, but the cultural points such as the gangster film or talkie-powered musical.
And, in these “extra” films was where the true value of this mission lay. Sure, it was great in finally getting us to watch such classics as It Happened One Night, Rules of the Game, Battleship Potemkin, and Gone With the Wind. We certainly had a better appreciation for them by watching them in the context of their time (very few people nowadays probably have our absolute thrill at Sunrise’s camera movement). But, ultimately, as fledgling film geeks, we probably would have encountered these greats at some point or another in life. However, there are other films that, while we knew enough about them to put them on the list and therefore might have seen them eventually, might not as certainly made their way to our DVD players in life. They could have languished in our Netflix queue for years, always hanging around spot 73 as newer or more important films took precedent. Man with the Movie Camera, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, My Man Godfrey, Scarlett Empress, Le Jour Se Leve, Strike!: I’m looking at you. Hell, even films like Greed (i.e. those that are deemed among the top, but just seem too long or boring to wallow through) make me more indebted to this list.
Naturally, we also learned a lot about film. Such as the fact that camera movement is really exciting. And that, if a silent film is boring, the benefit is that you can talk through it. And “What’s the idea?” is akin to “What the hell?” whereas “What’s the big idea?” is more like “What the fuck?” And most silent Russian films are exactly the same, many of them being excruciatingly dull. And, over fifteen years later, Pinocchio is still as horrible as when I first saw it. And, while most famous for Intolerance and Birth of a Nation, Griffith’s true achievement is Broken Blossoms. Oh yeah.
We also learned a lot about camera and things like that, but you really don't want to hear that.
As time passed and the months went on (this whole trek started on June 8 of last year), a slight worry began to emerge: what if Citizen Kane was a letdown? While we consoled ourselves with the aphorism of a journey exceeding a destination (and, with over 100 films and 10 months of movie watching, there was no way it could not), we still wanted a big finish. After all, what is a great movie without a great ending, be it a line or a shot? Casablanca, Psycho, and every Wilder film seem to know this to be the case.
This past Friday was judgment day. Film Forum was screening Citizen Kane as part of their Newspaper Picture festival and we knew that nothing could rival a 35mm print on a big screen with an audience.
I can gush about Kane for pages now. But what’s the point? I’m now on the other side and either you’re on my side of the line and already know what I mean or you would just take my word for it. All I will say is this: mission accomplished. Sure, I could have read essays about Citizen Kane beforehand or listened to a film professor, but ultimately, I experienced it. From the opening shots, I saw Welles tearing up the rules of cinema and joyously creating a whole new vocabulary (or at least turning Middle English into early modern English). The whole movie was thrilling; I had goosebumps and a grin with every shot, every technique that seemed new because it surpassed and undid every expectation I had.
So this marks the end of a mission and an abnormal entry. I’m not pessimistic, not even all that thoughtful, but I thought I should share it all with you (and not just to end my two week hiatus). What’s the moral of this tale? Create assignments for yourself. Give yourself homework. And do it with a class or at least a buddy…because that’s the only way you’ll get it done.
Er, no, that’s not the best moral. Um, realize that to watch movies in the context of your time, you should create really long lists and –
There is no moral. I don’t know if anyone would or could replicate this experience. For starters, you need a Nick to your Devin or Devin to your Nick, someone willing to sit through all those movies with you and set time aside for double features and marathons. Someone who can get high just off of a transcendent film experience and who is willing to laugh at Eisenstein’s October. Someone to whom you can comment on how crisp* a movie is or isn’t and note that the inevitable “everyone running” scene has come at the end of a silent movie.
One film we watched was Murnau’s Tabu. We hated it (except for an awesome dance scene). Watching it was the most fun I had that week and one of my favorite memories from last fall. Why? Because it was silent, and I already said what you can do during boring silent movies. Even my mom, who was in the other room, remarked that she was jealous of how much we were enjoying that dull film. A companion like that is hard to come by. I could continue rambling about how this story is less a story about a film or even one about a list of movies, but about a friendship, but this blog is called “Pop Culture Gone Bad,” not “Mass Bromantic.”
But if you want to try, let me know and I’ll post the list. But yeah, aside from that, just another day in the life of a movie geek.
*Have you ever watched an old movie (particularly a really old silent one) and found it almost impossible to believe that at one point, the action on screen was real life people in front of a camera, who looked and sounded just like real-life people? Our blanket term for the level of believability was crispness. A modern movie, such as The Hurt Locker, would be about a 10 on the crispness scale. It loses a point or so with 40s or 50s Technicolor or really, well, crisp black and white. Typical black and white loses another point or so. But, most cases, you can still imagine. As you watch though films from the early 30s or earlier, they tend to get more and more uncrisp (particularly when a silent film is tinted) and you find yourself less and less able to believe that 80 or 90 years ago, all these people looked quite crisp. There is a sound counterpart to “crisp;” we call it “crackly.” Though, whereas crisp increases with modernity, crackly decreases.