Orson Welles and `Rosebud' Ride Again Film Experts Argue over the Importance of `Citizen Kane'. FILM REVIVAL

By David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 3, 1991 | Go to article overview
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Orson Welles and `Rosebud' Ride Again Film Experts Argue over the Importance of `Citizen Kane'. FILM REVIVAL


David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


`CITIZEN KANE," due tomorrow for a 50th-anniversary revival, was a box-office disappointment in 1941, launching Orson Welles's reputation as a filmmaker too bold and inventive for his own good.

"Kane" has gathered momentum ever since, however, becoming a staple of revival theaters, classrooms, and on television, with its story of a newspaper tycoon who becomes an American legend at the expense of his own soul.

To mark its half-century celebration, I asked a dozen film experts for brief comments on the film. The results were predictably unpredictable.

Fred Camper, writer and lecturer on film and art, Chicago:

"Citizen Kane" is a superb film. It is also the worst film of a great cineaste, as Welles himself wrote of Eisenstein's "Ivan the Terrible." "Kane's" technique, while brilliant, and beautifully expressive of its theme of individual grandiosity, is far less profound, far less unified, than the style of later works, such as "Touch of Evil." "Kane" is very much a young man's film, a film of stunning moments, which coheres more thematically than visually. In later Welles, every area of the screen, each part of each image, vibrates with an intense physicality that speaks, almost musically, to every other part of every other image. "Citizen Kane" is a personality; a later Welles film is a universe.

Ray Carney, professor of film and American studies, Boston University:

Melodramatic mumbo-jumbo. Exuberant, gorgeous nonsense. Fun? Of course. A profound work of art? Hardly. It takes more than bombastic rhetoric, gaudy visuals, and scenery-chewing performances to make a masterpiece.

"Kane" is an all-American triumph of style over substance. Welles is Kane - in a sense he couldn't have intended - substituting razzle-dazzle for truth and hoping no one notices the sleight of hand. The movie is indistinguishable from the opera production within it: attempting to conceal the banality of its performances by wrapping them in a thousand layers of acoustic and visual processing.

Critics obviously enjoy being told what to think or they'd never sit still for the hammy acting, cartoon characterizations, tendentious photography, editorializing blockings, and absurdly grandiose (and annoyingly insistent) metaphors. My personal nominee (along with "Psycho" and "2001") for "one of the 10 most overrated films of all time." When will film studies grow up? Even Jedediah Leland (opera reviewer in the film) knew better than to be taken in by "Salaambo's" empty reverberations.

Annette Insdorf, film professor and department co-chair, Columbia University:

"Citizen Kane" remains one of the richest audiovisual experiences in the history of the cinema. The expressive sound track - including music by master Bernard Herrmann - led Francois Truffaut to call it "a radiophonic film," while the cinematography by Gregg Toland was literally groundbreaking: In order to shoot an extreme low-angle shot of Welles and Joseph Cotten, they had to make a hole in the floor! His dramatic black-and-white lighting and deep-focus photography revitalized American film narrative, telling the story not only via plot and dialogue, but composition, camera angle, and a heady mix of visual styles.

Its influence - especially of narrative structure rooted in flashbacks - has been pervasive. As Truffaut's "Day for Night" beautifully demonstrates in a dream sequence - where a boy steals pictures of Welles's film from the front of a movie house at night, with organ music rising on the sound track as he runs away - "Citizen Kane" is a film to worship.

Wendy Keys, executive producer/programming, Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York:

My most recent experience with "Citizen Kane" - which is one of those rare films that you don't watch but experience again and again - was when I presented a dissection of the film by (critic) Andrew Sarris for a group of New York City schoolteachers who gather each summer at Lincoln Center.

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