Citizen Kane

Adam Burch
FMS 200, TuThur 3-4:15.

Citizen Kane is widely hailed as one of the greatest films ever made (1). Entire books can, and have, been written about the film from a cornucopia of perspectives (2). We have the cultural perspective, where Citizen Kane is an ambassador for Film as Art, and one of the first movies to really penetrate the national consciousness as a “Serious Film”. There is the stylistic perspective, where each scene in the film is taken apart, frame-by-frame, and it is shown that Orson Welles created the definitive library of Classic Hollywood Techniques. We have the historical perspective, where we see its relation to a certain William Randolph Hearst, whom the film takes a lot of inspiration from, and not all of it is flattering (3). Each perspective tells us but one facet of the multi-dimensional gem that is Citizen Kane. To this day, you can still hear academics, critics, directors, and film buffs of all stripes sing the glories of Citizen Kane from the loftiest of ivory towers, to the obscurest of Internet blogs.

This paper is not about Citizen Kane.

This paper is about me, Adam Burch. To be more specific, it is about the Adam Burch that started watching Citizen Kane; about the Adam Burch that finished watching Citizen Kane, and the difference between the two.

But the reason ANY Adam Burch watched Citizen Kane was because of Roger Ebert’s Online Journal. I had heard its praises sung in many a corner of the Internet, and after finally reading a somewhat older post (One of the early entries on Darwin and Evolution, if memory serves (And it doesn’t)) I was instantly hooked. I found myself scouring the archives, reading every entry of Roger Ebert’s, some several times over. When I finally had absorbed them all, I turned to his massive, massive backlog of movie reviews. That proved slightly more challenging, and I quickly decided instead I would just watch this Citizen Kane the old coot kept harping about.

Now to be sure, I had heard of Citizen Kane before. The odd Simpsons reference here, the occasional New York Times name drop there. But that’s all. I knew nothing of any of those perspectives I just filled a paragraph about. I only knew that if I wanted to really be able to call myself a film buff, I had to see it.

To be honest, I was more than a little apprehensive. Honestly, how good could it really be? It was so old, and in black and white, and where was I gonna find it, and wasn’t it supposed to be long, I don’t like long movies, and etcetera, and etcetera. I kept on inventing excuse after excuse, anything at all to put it off. Part of this was certainly the determined laziness of a college freshman. But another part was the determined denial of a college freshman. What if I didn’t like it? How could I ever return to the Internet, knowing that I was so uncultured as to NOT enjoy Citizen Kane? Could I ever look myself in mirror, knowing that I agreed…with Family Guy?

One day, whether in a fit of madness or boredom (memory still fails to serve), I finally took the plunge. And for three of the most terrifying minutes of my life, my fears were real.

It was just so heavy handed! The slow shot up the fence, with fad cuts for each type of fence. The desolate, misty, and abandoned palace, with Tigers, and Monkeys, and Gold Course, and Obviously Painted Background, and Fancy Arches. Such splendor, now sunk so low. Oh woe!

And dear lord, the shot of Kane’s last breath. The snow filter (GET IT? SNOWGLOBE, SNOW FILTER??? ART.), the shot of his mouth, wide angle lens, the covering of his body.

A different Adam would have quit right then and there. It wouldn’t be the first time. I’ve shut down videogames for poor tutorials, and turned off TVs for bad theme songs. There is precedent.

But for some reason, whether it be the shame I would feel at saying I couldn’t get through Citizen Kane, or the belief in the recommendation of Mr. Ebert, I persevered.

And then came the newsreel. To this day, I don’t know if it was luck, or if I had been thinking about it subconsciously the whole time, but all of the sudden, these gears started turning in my head, and a small, harsh, searing light burned my mind’s eye.

There was a time BEFORE the Internet.

There was a time, in this world, before Google. Before Facebook. Before Twitter. Before .com. Before http. Before email. There was a time where this was how people learned about the world outside their town. And if you didn’t watch the newsreel, or missed the paper (which hopefully didn’t limit itself to local news only!) you were shit out of luck if you wanted to know what was happening in the world. I had to pause my pirated, from the Internet, copy of the film, to stand up, walk around my room, and let that fact sink in. And when I felt I was ready, I continued the film.

And I watched as it painted the brilliant picture of a time, not better, not worse, but different. A time where moving meant cutting off ALL communication with where you were. A time where one man could even THINK he controlled all the news. A time when, for some no-longer-baffling-reason, a newspaper could actually make MONEY.

But just as clearly as I saw the differences between my own time and the era this film was portraying, just as clearly could I see the parallels. I saw the corrupting power of money. I saw friendship and betrayal, paranoia and delusion. For the first time I could see laid out in plain sight, something I had long known, but could never express; that no man can ever be summed up in something so simple as a word. We all have layers, upon facets, within folds, and no one can ever truly know us, not even ourselves. I saw what it meant to be human.

For the first time in my life, after the credits rolled, I didn’t start gushing about the ‘sweet FX!’ or repeating the funniest lines. I thought about what I had seen, and what it was trying to say. I started to research the film. I read the Wikipedia article on it, I read Ebert’s review, I read pages upon pages of analysis, from the loftiest of scholarly journals, to the obscurest of blog posts. For the first time in my life, I became, in a very small sense, a critical viewer.

And I have never turned back.

(1) McCarthy, Todd, Citizen Kane (10/14/2001), Variety Vol. 384, Issue 8, Page 61.
(2) Piade, Lynne, Citizen Kane (1991), Smithmark, New York N.Y., 0831745738
(3) Street, Sarah, Citizen Kane (03/01/1996), History Today Vol. 46, Issue 3, Page 48.

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