Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What If....

What if nobody ever said Citizen Kane was the greatest film ever made?

Think about that for a moment. Think about the ripple effect that claim has placed upon the film. For there is perhaps no greater display of our immediacy to find acceptance in our opinion than in Citizen Kane. The way it attracts like minded individuals to love/hate it. The way the very mention of it splits a room into the distinct, grouped opinions. The way people desperately cling onto their group for reinforcement and encouragment. The way each group is absolutely convinced that their viewpoint is the only realistic viewpoint to be had.

It is arguably the most divisive film in history. From the day it exploded onto the screen, criticism, controversy, admiration, and dissention seemed to follow it at every turn. To possess an opinion on the film at all is akin to declaring sides in a seemingly never ending war. It's consistent prominence on top 100 lists only bolsters those whose fervor against it knows no bounds. However that same presence solidifies those who love it to do so tenaciously.

For my own part, I'm not afraid to say I love Citizen Kane. I first watched the film in 2006 in a history of film class, where my teacher made it abundantly clear where this film sat on the pantheon of quality (near the top). Seeing as I found my teacher sexist, annoying, and creepy, I can't say a ringing endorsement from him was likely to sway my opinion some. Yet as we sat back and watched the film I came to appreciate the film for a reason different than those around me. After all I was surrounded by film majors. A smorgasbord of aspiring film makers, each convinced they would be the next Scorcese, Kurosawa, Wilder, etc. While I don't believe they are indicative of all film majors, they were an unbelievably pompous group to sit around.

So what did they admire about the film? It's place in history. From my perspective they loved it because they wanted to make it. They wanted a film to be that important because they wanted to make something equally so. But in my discussion group for the film I was the lone soul talking up another point. The character of Kane. I admired the way Orson Welles built him. The way he was molded, twisted, turned, bent, stretched, and in a single moment shrunk down to his most basic emotional feeling. Citizen Kane ignited a passion in me for a genre that up until then I had always belittled a dull and boring - much like Kane's own critics. Citizen Kane ignited a love for character studies.

It has been much to my pleasure over the years since having left the 'safe' environment of that film history class to meet people whose view points on Kane are as complicated as the character itself. Those who out and out hate it. Those who admire its history, but cannot bring themselves to like it. Those who love it solely for its history. And, perhaps most importantly to me, those who also find themselves wrapped up in the tale of the character Kane. It is a movie whose social intricacies challenge us at every turn to understand and evaluate our own opinion of it.

So what if it was never called the greatest film ever made? I find myself reflecting on this from time to time. Would I still love it? Would anyone? Would those who hate it as much for its content as for its place in history be so adamant against it? I wonder....

13 better thoughts:

Nikhat said...

I have a similar kind of notion with The Godfather. Is it a great film? Yes. Is it one of the greatest ever? I don't know. Then I start thinking about how people decide greatest ever films and all that jazz and get thoroughly boggled.

As for Citizen Kane, I really love it too. I had watched it because I had heard a bit about it. I thought it was all kinds of brilliance and I remember finding out that it was made in 1941 and being totally awe-struck. One thing I always appreciate is ambition, and I think Citizen Kane is the biggest example of that- story-wise and film-wise.

Dan said...

This is a really complicated question because it's impossible today to understand the effect an older movie had on filmmakers and the audiences of the time. Citizen Kane used techniques in a completely new way and employs complex forms of storytelling that were original at that time.

I watched Citizen Kane in a film class back in high school, and I think it helped add to my enjoyment because we really delved into the style and specific techniques used by Welles. We looked at it from a lot more than just a narrative perspective, which reveals just how remarkable it is.

I think the problem today is that viewers are going in with expectations that couldn't possibly be met by a movie. They're expecting to be fascinated by the story at every turn in the manner of more recent films like Goodfellas or even a snappy older movie like Casablanca. Citizen Kane also really rewards viewers who watched it more than once, and a lot won't give it that chance because they're not thrilled from the start.

Great post!

Mette said...

And what if one hasn't seen Citizen Kane yet? Well, I guess she should do it as soon as possible...

Jason H. said...

I liked Citizen Kane, but didn't love it. There is a lot that I admire about it, particularly the fact that Welles was so damn young when he made it. But I'm glad I'm not the only one who's wondered what the world of film criticism would be like if this film wasn't considered sacrosanct and untouchable.

Here's a thought: what if a "genre" film were considered the best, such as King Kong? Or a comedy, like City Lights? How would "best-of" lists look if a drama was not the standard on which film criticism is based?

Anonymous said...

People would still love it, in fact, I could see a more passionate group surrounding it as an underrated film it it wasn't considered as the greatest film of all time.

As much as I understand why people consider it "the" film, I enjoy it so much that the act of watching it is the reason why it rates so high among my personal favorites. It's a fun film where I enjoy the smart writing and strong storytelling.

So, for me, it wouldn't diminish the film at all. Although, that might be because I saw it outside of the context of knowing it was "the" film in my early days of movie watching.

What I would wonder is what film would replace it? Personally, I think it would be an inferior film, but that might just be because Citizen Kane is one of my all time favorites.

Ryan McNeil said...

@ Mette... If you haven't watched it yet, I'd love to talk to you about it when you do for a possible blog post.

@ Univarn... Dan is right to bring up expectation, since I really think that is what hampers most people's first experience with film. Whether it's a few months worth of marketing hype, or years worth of academic acclimation...expectations are inevitably built.

I think what's amusing about KANE is that it's continually towards the top. Sixty years later, that's a lot of consensus to try and put out of one's head. It must be like hearing Tbe Beatles for the first time and saying ""

Where I fall on CITIZEN KANE is legend by now, but what I find myself wondering these days is this - what will eventually knock KANE off the perch?

Univarn said...

Major thanks everyone for some really engaging and thought provoking comments!

@Nikhat Great is always a hard term to swallow because it's not a concrete defined. However I think it is a gauge of influence, popularity, historical importance, and lasting power. So in that regard movies like The Godfather often rank high among great films.

@Dan Very good point on expectations, because I don't think any movie could ever live up to the title as greatest ever for everyone, let alone a vast majority.

@Mette Aye, you should. But do so understanding its high polarity. I think that will help you in leaps and bounds over those who go in under the vacuum of only knowing it as the greatest movie ever.

@cinemasights That's why I find this hypothetical so intriguing. Because Kane is so firmly rooted in modern film, to remove its importance from the equation would have an unimaginable domino effect.

Think of all the best of lists that include Kane because they feel it's expected. All the best of lists that exclude Kane out of spite or because they're tired of seeing it on lists. So on and so forth.

@McNeil I've seen people's expectations explode simply because a movie trailer had one funny line. I can't imagine those same people's expectations when weighed against what is widely considered the greatest film in existence.

As for what will knock Kane off its perch? I don't know. There's a handful of films that often float around and peak at #1 on the occassional best/greatest films list, but in terms of pure staying power, Kane really seems to be leaps and bounds ahead. My guess - time.

Nick Prigge said...

This is so true. Whenever I find myself in discussions of this film the CHARACTER of Kane is never really mentioned in any depth. It's the techniques and the place in history, as you say. But you know, every time I've watched it what always gets me most is when Kane says to Susan "You can't do this to me" and then she says "Oh yes, I can." The towering figure of Kane having been reduced to rubble, and that moment has nothing to do with anything particularly revolutionary from a filmmaking standpoint.

Rich said...

I suppose it depends on what the alternative would be: as a good-but-not-great movie or as a critical failure. Of course, we know from history that it was the French - and a later generation of American film critics like Andrew Sarris - that elevated the film to its heights. If that hadn't happened - if 'Kane' hadn't crossed over to Europe and been so highly praised - I still think it would've been re-discovered by a later generation of critics. The movie is that good. Whether it would still be considered the best movie ever... that's debatable.

Yojimbo_5 said...

It boggles me that someone who loves film would not find Kane a prime example of stretching a film's capacity for telling a story, not only for its structure-the hall of mirrors of reflections of Kane by his intimates to uncover a mystery—but also the many tricks of perception that Welles used to make the film amusing, the sound transitions, the sporadic use of music (some cues lasting only seconds), the use of space and negative space to suggest vastness, the many little jokes and tricks that Welles throws in every few minutes or so. This movie is just fun, a showman/magician's first emptying of a box of new tricks. For a drama, Kane is just plain fun! And its uninhibited brio with its illusion-making is just infectious.

Dan said...

I think its defining qualities would have risen it to the heights of so many favourite film lists that Citizen Kane would still be considered one of the greatest films ever made.

I was put off it because people told me how great it was, and because it was one of the first films I studied as a teenager in a film class. Studying it didn't work for me back then. I wanted to be entertained by film, I didn't want it to infect my boring academic life. However, since then I've managed to watch the film for my own purposes and found myself thoroughly entertained by it. I could also see why it was rated so highly by so many.

I like the fact you focus on Kane as a character piece. I think for me it is the technical ingenuity and the inventive use of narrative that makes it such a joy to watch.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Q: "What if nobody ever said Citizen Kane was the greatest film ever made?"

A: A lot more people would be willing to appreciate the goodness of How Green Was My Valley.


John said...

Maybe I'm naive, but I think great art stands on its own. If critics or even fans have a tendency to overstate the quality of a film, eventually reality will settle in and it will be exposed for what it is. And vice versa- critics who first see a truly great film and bash it set a trend, but over time, greatness wins out.

In Kane's case, it's a landmark. People may not enjoy it, they may think that there are other films that are better. But there is absolutely no denying its greatness. Whether or not it's "the best ever" is academic, and an impossible question to answer.

I loathe the New York Yankees, but you'll never catch me denying that they're really really good at winning baseball games.

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