Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius are using the Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the greatest movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.
This week, they discuss the fortitude it took to make Citizen Kane with a still-powerful William Randolph Hearst ready to respond with fire; they imagine a modern equivalent taking on a pre-scandal Rupert Murdoch; and they explore the irony inherent in the movie’s treatment of journalism.
Landon: Because Citizen Kane has sat at the top spot of so many “best of all time” lists, its contributions to cinema (deep focus photography, dynamic camerawork, a disjointed narrative structure) have become well known. In fact, even though the film is no longer #1 according to Sight & Sound, it’s hard to find anything new to say about a film that has been talked about and taken apart so often.
So, for the moment at least, I’d like to not actually talk about the film itself.
Cole: Haha. Sure. Let’s discuss Kane by not discussing it.
Landon: One thing that typically gets lost in the justifications for Kane‘s greatness is the real-life professional, social, and political risk Orson Welles was taking in making a film “about” William Randolph Hearst
Do you have a take on this?
Cole: To be honest, I don’t know a lot about it beyond the Hearst banning of RKO Pictures from its pages after the movie screened for some critics, and that Welles vehemently denied that the character was based on Hearst even though he so thoroughly, obviously is.
Landon: It goes beyond the ban. According to the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane (and its dramatization in the HBO film RKO 281), Hearst’s influence was so great over all of Hollywood at the time that the other studios joined together to ask the head of RKO to burn all prints of the film in exchange for $800,000. The head of RKO, George J. Shaefer, refused the offer and ended up losing his job soon after, but only because he knew Hearst was going bankrupt and his power was waning.
Still, while Kane was released, it did flop at the box office.
Cole: That’s true. It was a costly mistake. It didn’t get popular until French critics adopted it later on. So does that mean Hearst succeeded?
Landon: Because people like me primarily know about Hearst because of Citizen Kane, I’d say not.
Cole: Well, sure, but it doesn’t really matter now beyond legacy. When he was alive, I imagine he felt a lot of satisfaction seeing the movie flop.
Landon: But when you consider the bankrupcy issue, what you have is a man exercising only symbolic power while his actual power is diminishing, not unlike the end of Kane’s life.
Cole: That’s incredible. It’s like real life wrote a fourth wall-breaking epilogue to Citizen Kane. And it must have taken a lot of courage to make a movie about someone so powerful. I’m struggling to think of a modern day corollary.
Landon: I’d say Rupert Murdoch, but Hearst’s media empire was much more vast and centralized thank Murdoch’s. Maybe if somebody in England made a film about Murdoch…
Cole: His presence is felt here too, but a major studio hasn’t made a sprawling picture based on him or anything. I just can’t imagine a risk averse studio giving a first-time director a large budget and final cut on a movie negatively depicting a massive media mogul. But that’s what happened in ’41. Welles had the hubris and immortality of youth behind him.
Landon: Exactly. I’m always surprised when I remember he was only 25 when he made Kane, but that also seems like the perfect age to make something so audacious.
Cole: Taking on the world is a young man’s game.
Landon: You could argue too that the rest of Welles’s career suffered because of this film as a result of the negative reputation he immediately developed in Hollywood. It’s a reverse on Kane. Welles gained his soul but lost the world.
Cole: Another example of reali life re-writing the story, although for a guy with a bad reputation, Welles still got to make a healthy amount of movies. And he got to make a lot of indulgent ones at that. And they made a movie about him starring Zac Efron! Winner.
Landon: As much as I love Richard Linklater, I don’t imagine that’s the first director Ghost Orson Welles would pick to make a movie about him.
Cole: Because, as we all know, he would have chosen an uncircumsized bull that had been lit on fire.
Cole: You know, I think Kane has a lot of worth as a reminder that journalism didn’t just get shitty over the last decade. We hear so much about its decline, and while people point to a Cronkite-led heyday, it seems like there was only about two weeks where journalism was really worth a damn. There’s a great amount of irony in how the journalists in Kane operate.
Landon: How so?
Cole: They are all lazy, but they get a call to action to do thorough reporting when the King of Yellow Tabloid Horse Shit dies. But what are they spending so much time digging for?
Landon: A sled! It’s a sled!
Cole: Spoiler alert, but yeah, what they’re working hard on, what finally propelled them to the lofty exercise of true journalism…is a piece of trivia about a celebrity. How’s that feel, 2012?
Landon: Good point. by the very reporting of Kane’s own death, his legacy – his brand of yellow journalism – lives on despite himself. It’s like if Rupert Murdoch died and journalists tapped his voicemail for material to put in his obituary.
Cole: Searching for a poem he wrote in whatever Australians call high school.
The object they’re searching for in Kane is completely frivolous. Granted, Kane was a man who affected public opinion and ran for office. It’s not like it’s Citizen Kardashian, but it’s still obsession with celebrity that fuels it all. It’s stellar journalism in the service of paparazzi work.
Landon: Exactly. What they’re looking for is the meaning of this object that only has personal understanding to Kane. But the thing is, in the process of reporting, they bury the lede. Instead of asking “What was rosebud?”, they could’ve asked “Who was Kane?”. The enigma here, of course, is that a person can’t truly be known, but I don’t think thinking of Rosebud as a frivolous object diminishes the movie, especially if it’s a critique on journalism.
Cole: And all of that comes about because one editor wants a different story than the stock one every other news outlet out there is running.
Landon: Let’s push on the irony here a bit more. How do we think Kane would have preferred his death to be reported on versus the way it actually was?
Cole: Oh, wow. Great question. Lavish, unadulterated praise. Do you think that’s right?
Landon: Definitely. And I think Kane imagined often about how he’d like to be remembered. But those thoughts during his life probably imagined his life turning out differently. More elections and fewer puzzles in vast, empty drawing rooms.
So if it’s a knock on Hearst, a formerly dominant public figure that fewer and fewer people know about each passing generation, why has Kane endured?
Cole: Besides French critics loving it?
I feel like it’s only been kept alive by a critical community – filmmakers and cinephiles who recognize its strength or influence (and those who saw it so they could refute it). But intrinsically, it’s about the loneliness and audacity of a man who went from sort-of-rags to riches. What would you say?
Landon: I agree with that, but it’s also a quintessentially American movie. Especially in terms of making a movie about a man who builds his own empire from scratch. It might be Hollywood’s first major finger wag at the idea of achieving the American Dream. And as both Kane and Hearst’s lives demonstrate, empire building is hardly the same as being royalty.
Cole: And that monolithic figures might not be worth our worship.
Landon: Mostly, I’m glad RKO didn’t burn the print for $800,000. Then nobody would have the opportunity to call it overrated.