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Culture Warrior: The Great ‘Kane’ Debate

By  · Published on April 14th, 2010

“But I didn’t go to jail…I went to Hollywood.”

The above line comes from Orson Welles’s last completed film, the pseudo-documentary F for Fake (1972), from the mouth of the man himself as he tells the story of a Spanish radio host who does a similar reading of Welles’s notorious 1930s broadcast of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, with similar results. There’s no telling, as is the nature of F for Fake and Welles’s career at large exploring and occasionally capitalizing on the value of illusion, whether or not this story in particular is verifiable, but this matters not as the sentiment of the statement – that Hollywood values the cultural exchange of lies, fabrication, exaggeration, artistic license – rings profoundly true and comically valid.

The elusive and tenuous nature of both this quote and the experience of watching F for Fake is emblematic of Welles’s career as a whole, a Hollywood history filled with myths and legends, outlandish claims, stories too good not to be true, and – perhaps most characteristic of Orson Welles — partly-realized visions from an outsider/visionary. The idea that Welles was, at least initially, rewarded and celebrated for something he should’ve been incarcerated for is not only industry satire, but Welles’s acceptance of his role, in many manifestations, as a Hollywood criminal of the most threatening kind.

The back cover of my copy of Laura Mulvey’s thorough assessment of Welles’ most famous film, her slim BFI Film Classics book analyzing Citizen Kane (1941), speaks on the back cover of Kane’s “unchallenged reputation.” Where Welles’s claim is vague in its validity, the statement of the back of this book is easily contestable. A whole generation of film students, young scholars and critics, and film fans at large have made a case for the supposedly “overrated” nature of Welles’s seminal work, one often cited as “the best film of all time.” Such a debate took place in February in Cole Abaius’s Old Ass Oscars entry on the film. Here, for what it’s worth, are my two cents.


Part of the backlash at Kane has to do with its title as the greatest film of all time. This isn’t a title that the film itself sought out, but it hasn’t exactly done the film any favors. While such rhetoric associated with Kane was no doubt exchanged between mouths and ears in many a discursive forum for decades after its release, this reputation was solidified in 1998 with the American Film Institute’s release of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. I find lists, by nature, problematic in the same vein as the Academy Awards as they force arbitrary hierarchies as well as a limitless number of titles into an equally arbitrary availability of slots. Concessions and omissions are forcefully made, and lists like this inevitably become meaningless.

The AFI list is problematic in particular for several reasons: 1) it provides hardly any criteria for the AFI’s decision-making or explanation of its process, 2) it doesn’t give any written defense for the movies ultimately chosen, and the television specials covering this list and their numerous others only use pop-culture iconography and appeals to emotion and nostalgia to make their case rather than showing how these films have permeated and influenced culture, or how they have progressed the medium of film at large, and 3) this list is put together by AFI, which is why, of course, the list consists only of American films, but it’s not called “The 100 Best American Films of All Time,” but “The 100 Best Films of All Time,” leaving the uninformed reader to infer that the only great films were made in the United States – thus, the AFI-list is Hollywood-centric, offensive, meaningless bullshit. So, I don’t think Citizen Kane is the best film of all time – not because it isn’t great, because, clearly, it is – but because the designation and title is arbitrary. To say any film is “the best” implies that it succeeds all other films at everything, which is an impossible case, as Citizen Kane cannot, for instance, be the best romantic comedy of all time and the best action film of all time, etc. But Citizen Kane is indeed a great, essential film, and deserves its well-earned spot in the cinematic pantheon.

A Case for Kane

The debate over Kane’s “best film” designation has, over the years, clouded its true significance as the conversation has switched to the semantics of silly cinematic listology rather than focused on the merits of Welles’s achievement.

First off, there’s the obvious: the technical, aesthetic, and narrative breakthroughs. Was Citizen Kane the first great/influential film to use the long shot or deep focus? Certainly not, and, for all we know, Welles could have been channeling Poetic Realist French filmmakers like Jean Renoir or Marcel Carné. Is Kane the first film to use nonlinear storytelling, or to, you know, shoot from low angles and show ceilings? It may have been the first sound era Hollywood production to do all these things (that would require some denser research), but the worth of Kane in this regard is not its crossing of some finish line in terms of innovation (it was certainly the most visible film to accomplish all these things in what was undoubtedly the world’s most visible filmmaking empire back in ’41), but how it used these formal and narrative techniques to create meaning. It’s not simply that one can see a young Charles Foster Kane in the window in the background and his mother starkly in the foreground, but it’s the Oedipal conflict (as Mulvey predictably attests) that such an image manifests. It’s not that we get a segmented, nonlinear perspective of Kane’s life through the film’s then-groundbreaking/now-iconic confessional approach to narrative, it’s that these fragments created a frightening new way to watch Hollywood films, one familiar to consumers of literature but brand new to film: that of the unreliable narrator. Mulvey puts it the following way:

By its very use of inconsistency and contradiction, the film warns the audience against any reliance on the protagonists as credible sources of truth, and it attempts to deflect understanding away from character, away from dramatic interplay between people and their destinies. This undercutting of character identification and credibility also undercuts spectators’ conventional dependence on screen characters to create a moral and orderly universe, in which disorder and immorality, contradiction and inconsistency, are resolved as the narrative is resolved. The audience is left without a reliable guide to find their own means of interpreting the film (23).

Classical Hollywood operated on a system of clear delineations and consistency: we knew the good guys, the bad guys, endings had closure, and the information we saw on screen was reliable. Such is not the case for Kane, a film which forced moviegoers to approach film with an active imagination of inference rather than passive enjoyment. Such ambiguity (in terms both aesthetic and moral) wouldn’t be seen in lasting form again in Hollywood until the ’50s work of Hitchcock and Kazan, and wouldn’t be seen on a regular basis in American cinema until the 1960s. Of course, it’s impossible to get a hold of how this affected American audiences in its day. The cultural and industrial context of Kane’s release can be educated but can’t be experienced here in 2010. However, for many a casual filmgoer watching films ahistorically and without contextual knowledge, the fact that Kane seems in so many ways unremarkable to many a viewer is evidence in and of itself how permeating and influential its stylistic and narrative approach to meaning-making was: by viewing films historically backwards as we so often do today, Kane hardly becomes distinct from films released chronologically after (but personally experienced before) it. It’s a stepping stone leading to today.

If nothing else, however, Citizen Kane is a work of incredible singularity. Orson Welles wrote, directed, produced, starred in, and navigated the criticism and controversy around the film at the ripe young time of his mid-twenties. This is what happens when all the ingredients work together. Welles’s masterpiece is proof of the potential of the powerful artistic mind when coupled with the limitless utility of Hollywood, but it’s also a case that haunted Welles through his later career, a career mired with and characterized by the illusion of artistic completion realized only with Kane. It’s his only ‘complete’ film in that the rest of Welles’s career encountered the conflict of his vision with the possibilities afforded to him by powers outside his control (even the underapprecaited F for Fake was an appropriation, not an original project, of Welles). Citizen Kane is the only complete work of cinema we have to celebrate Welles, a filmmaker who, with each successive attempt at work, evidenced how the continued to be light years ahead of his contemporaries even as he loomed decades over them. F for Fake, for instance, is the first postmodern documentary, the first nonfiction film – in a theme of Welles echoed by Kane – to interrogate the nature and reliability of truth as it is presented to us – a subject that wouldn’t be explored so elegantly again until the work of Errol Morris.

The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, the Don Quixote project, The Other Side of the Wind. All are films that showed hints of Welles’s forward-thinking mentality, but were eventually compromised in some way. Some were preserved in the best attempt at replicating the director’s intent (Touch of Evil), others will never be seen in their intended form (the infamous lost footage of Ambersons). Perhaps the real importance of Citizen Kane, then, is that it’s the only way we can safely venerate one of the greatest filmmakers that never quite was.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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