Monday, April 2, 2012
#1 CITIZEN KANE (1941)
Plot summary (with spoilers): An idyllic snowy landscape with a little cabin pans back abruptly to be revealed as a snow globe in a man's hand. An extreme closeup of his mouth. He whispers it:
He drops the snow globe, and dies.
At the movie theatre, before the flick starts up, a News of the World segment begins, detailing the life and times of Mr. Charles Foster Kane, uber bajillonaire extraordinaire, who just died after years of self-imposed exile in his unfinished palatial estate, absurdly named Xanadu.
We learn he controlled newspapers around the US, was married twice, and was both hated and loved by enough people that it was likely he would become President one day, but his campaign was derailed when he was caught cheating on the first wife with whom would be the second. Newt Gingrich scoffs at your lack of ambition, sir.
The news guys who put together the news reel aren't happy. There's something missing in this story. They heard from Kane's butler that the last thing he said was "rosebud", and they decide to find out what exactly that meant.
A reporter goes to this creepily lit large room. A woman tells him it's the "private archives" of Walter Thatcher, a long dead banker who served as Kane's guardian growing up. "Private archives" are...a large book. That's maybe like a diary or something? Something from the Olden Times that rich people had, I'm guessing. The creepy archive lady stands in the shadows and tells the reporter he has twenty minutes.
The reporter opens the book and learns the story of Kane's childhood.
Kane's mother inherited property in her name only, property that was later discovered to be over the world's third largest gold mine. She sells it to Thatcher and makes a bajillion dollars and also stipulates her son Charles...go with Thatcher and learn from him how to be a cold and emotionally scarred capitalistic pig. Mr. Kane protests mildly to the selling of his son, but is overruled and ignored. The Kanes and Thatcher go out into the snow where little Charles is playing with his almost certainly nameless sled and inform him that he's to go with Thatcher on a train that very evening. Charles wigs out and screams and fights it, but the shitty asshole adults are a united front and he has no choice.
Charles grows up under Thatcher's stewardship, and once he's 25, he inherits his bajillion dollars and takes over a newspaper company, throwing the former Editor-in-Chief out on his ear, and declaring his intentions to make the news more sensationalistic and full of innuendo and bias. Kane says the paper is to be open twenty-four hours a day, because there is always news out there to report. Man, what a dummy. News being reported 24 hours a day? If that ever happened in the real world, the media would be constantly ginning up fake controversies in order to fill the endless hours, resulting in less and less actual stories to report until the concept of "real" news itself became nonexistent. Thank God we don't live in that sort of dystopia!
The reporter also interviews Kane's only sort-of friend, Jed Leland, who helped him run the newspaper, and Bernstein, his business manager.
The years pass. Kane's phoney gossip journalism is unsurprisingly well received by the masses and his success grows. He marries a cold fish just like dear old mom, but then one night out, he's splashed by a car driving over a puddle. A sassy young blonde named who doesn't recognize him laughs at him, then offers him a change of clothes back at her place. Her name's Susan Alexander. She's a local small-time singer. She keeps the door open at her apartment while he changes because the landlady doesn't allow her to close the door when men are visiting.
Kane doesn't react to this line which apparently means this was a normal fucking thing for a person to say in the early 20th Century. Wow.
Kane runs for governor, using a giant and extremely unflattering picture on his campaign poster. He's doing well in the polls, until his opponent discovers his affair with Susan. He confronts Kane, his wife Emily, and Susan, and threatens to expose the affair if Kane doesn't drop out of the race. Kane's arrogance and righteous anger compels him to tell the guy to shove it. Kane's wife begs him to drop out to save their son from shame and scandal, but Kane refuses.
The papers run the scandal: KANE CAUGHT IN LOVE NEST WITH "SINGER".
And Kane's political career and marriage ends.
Jed Leland explains to the reporter that Kane's true anger came from the snarky quotes around "singer".
He marries Susan, and hires the best singers in the world to teach her. But her skill is mediocre at best. Kane buys an opera house and buys a performance with Susan as the star.
Leland drunkenly writes a bad review of Susan's performance at work, then passes out before he finishes. Kane comes in and discovers the review, and finishes typing it, then fires Leland anyway.
And then we go backwards to the performance itself. Susan sings with all her might but can't really hit the high notes (in a nice touch, she's not comically movie-bad, she just...isn't good). The performance is over and the audience claps politely as Susan bows, and then in a the best scene in a movie full of incredible scenes, Kane continues to obstinately clap even as the rest of the clapping dies down. He stands up and angrily claps harder and harder until he is the only one doing so, as if he thought be shear force of will he could make everyone keep clapping. It's so unsettling.
Afterwards, he and Susan fight and Susan says she wants to quit but Kane won't let her and eventually she attempts suicide and after that, Kane says she can quit but she wants to leave him. He begs her to stay, despite clearly not giving two shits about her as a person, and she sees that, and leaves.
Then Kane spent the rest of his life at Xanadu, the unfinished palace where he was going to live forever with Susan. He died surrounded by employees.
The reporters stand in the middle of Xanadu among Kane's possessions. They're no closer to learning the mystery of "Rosebud" than they were before they started. They decide that sometimes mysteries don't get solved.
In the last shot, the nameless sled burns.
Review: Best movie ever? No. But pretty damn great. There was some amazing shit in here. The "trick" shots, the hyper realistic dialog where people talk over each other, the playing with time, toggling back and forth between flashbacks and "now", all phenomenal. I mean, how did the camera pull back from inside a snow globe without CGI, anyway? I honestly don't know.
The atmosphere that Orson Wells created was so cold and so creepy and so inevitably grim that I spent the entire movie a little bit sick and on edge, knowing that everything was going to end badly. I don't think knowing ahead of time that "Rosebud" was his sled really affected my enjoyment, but all the same, I wish I hadn't known. The acting here is top notch too, with no one overplaying the drama or weirdness at all, but really drawing you in instead.
As for the "trick" shots. I've heard the arguments before. A director shouldn't call attention to himself with flashy, stylized editing and such. We've all said it, and we've all meant it, and we've all hypocritically carved out exceptions for ourselves when we love the movie anyway. When it works, it works. When it doesn't, we accuse the director of self-indulgent nonsense. My rule is the "trick" shots must enhance the story instead of distract from it. But I'm not special, that's everyone's rule and everyone decides for themselves if the tricky director made it work.
And here, Wells did. This movie is so far beyond any other movie I've seen during this time period or even beyond it. This is a movie that would fit in very well today, and would hardly seem dated at all. It's quite simply revolutionary.
My only complaint, and the only reason I'm not giving this five stars, is that it is ultimately a Character Study and not really a story, and sometimes is just a bit too cold for it's own good. Despite the great acting, I don't think we really got to know anyone other than Kane, and that's a bit of a shame. But still, what a great way to end this. I thought for sure I would find this mediocre at best.
Stars: Four and a half out of five.