What more is there to say about Citizen Kane? It’s at least one of the top two greatest films of all time, right? If not the greatest of all. Why, then, does it so often leave first-time viewers cold? It’s technically brilliant, sure, but sometimes that’s not exactly enjoyable to watch for an hour and 20 minutes. In contrast with, say, Casablanca, the appreciation you feel when you’re finished with Orson Welles’s masterpiece can be mingled with disappointment. The film can fail to draw you in.
Casablanca is also in that revolving top two, and the films couldn’t be more different. Where Welles defies convention, Michael Curtiz (the director who also brought us Ronald Reagan in Santa Fe Trail) exploits and perfects the standard Hollywood formula. What has Casablanca left behind, as a film? Most notably the emotional catharsis we feel once it’s over. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s good, fun entertainment. And Citizen Kane is, well, not.
As much as I love Citizen Kane, it’s flawed as a movie, and it’s flawed as a work of art for everyone. Films are meant to entertain, to fascinate, to involve the viewers in another world. If it’s boring, then it’s not good, no matter how groundbreaking it is. But Citizen Kane is not boring, not if you give it a chance. I think its main flaw is that it requires multiple viewings. I didn’t really like it until the third time I saw it; it’s just so complex that you don’t really get a grip on the scope of the thing until seeing it over again, and then once more. It’s worth it, though. While Casablanca delivers immediate gratification, the value that is embedded within Citizen Kane is worth digging for.
Citizen Kane’s structure is particularly novel, jumping backward and forward in time, taking us from one location to the next with an incessantly roving camera eye, which penetrates (a good example is the establishing shot of Susan Alexander’s nightclub) deeper than the newshounds who guide us. By the end of the film, the press is no more enlightened than when they started as to the identity of “Rosebud,” but the all-seeing camera, present in Kane’s life even when no one is around to tell the story, has found Rosebud amongst the ruins of the decadent, empty life he led.
Letting the audience, but not any of the characters, in on the secret of Rosebud is an interesting decision. In this film more than in most, the viewer must search hard for a character to identify with. Kane, the title character, is out of the question, because his life is so opaque, his character so enigmatic, that we don’t get much more than the investigating press, and never figure him out enough to understand him. Citizen’s supporting cast flit in and out of the film, so that in any given scene, the audience is without any characters to project themselves onto, and must assume the perspective of the camera instead. This camera also shows more than any other camera had before – shooting ceilings and using deep focus techniques – and guides the most immediately obvious logical progression that the film follows: the transitions from scene to scene.
From the very start of the film, when we fade continually closer and closer to the one lighted window in Xanadu, that all-important window holding its place within the frame, we know that the camera, its movement and image, will take us closer to the answers we seek.
However, alienated as we are from the characters of this movie, and even from traditional Hollywood film tropes (linear narrative, two-dimensional characters, newspaper headlines that situate us honestly within the film), we are unable to find truth in the film. Rosebud doesn’t properly elucidate the character of Charles Foster Kane, and although we’ve been given a guided tour of his life, we are no closer to unlocking that secret, the simple answer that any other Hollywood film would provide. Kane has no simple answer, and perhaps this itself is the truth of the film.