Citizen Kane is a title that immediately leads to the question of whether or not I have anything fresh to say about it. The truth is that I probably don’t. Kane is a film that has been discussed, dissected, studied, and endlessly written about. Someday someone — and it probably won’t be me — will look at the film with new eyes and come up with a reading that will blow us all away. Till then I would like to suggest that people approach it as “just another movie” and not as some kind of cinematic holy writ. Keep in mind while watching Kane that Orson Welles himself referred to movies as “the best set of electric trains any kid ever had,” and maybe you’ll get my point.
I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating. I can remember when I first saw Kane on an Orlando TV station late show when I was in high school. I vaguely knew it was a great film (though for some reason I then tended to confuse it with All the King’s Men), but I really didn’t know much about it. And I wasn’t all that jazzed about seeing it — until it started and I discovered that it was anything but the nasty-medicine-that-is-good-for-you I’d more or less expected. No, it was fast-paced and fun — and a lot of it was actually funny. By the time it hit those delightful — and unique — ending credits that also function as a reminder of some of the high points in the film, I was hooked and I was excited by what I’d seen.
Oddly, it would be years before I saw it again. I did try to see a midnight show of it in September 1972 — a day or two before my first year at the University of South Florida started (which is why I remember when this was). It was supposed to be playing in the big theater at USF — where I’d already seen one film when I was in high school, and where I would later be exposed to The Ruling Class (1972), Women in Love (1969), The Music Lovers (1970), the restored King Kong (1933), Ben-Hur (1925), and lots of others. I wasn’t at the school yet, so I bamboozled a friend to travel 65 miles with me to see Kane. The place was packed. Unfortunately, no film ever materialized. After a restless 20 minutes, someone jumped up onstage and asked, “Does anybody know what ‘Rosebud’ means?” He was soon followed by someone else announcing, “You’re all the victims of a hoax by Orson Welles!” It was annoying, but somehow amusing — and I suspect it’s part of the reason why I think of the film more in terms of fun than greatness.
Yes, Kane is a remarkable film. It may not actually do anything new—nearly every one of its technical achievements can be found in earlier movies. But no film had so packed those things into the confines of one single picture. And it tells a particularly trenchant and very American story. But forget all that and just look at it from an entertainment standpoint. What you’ll find is that it’s a very entertaining and always extremely playful film. Welles is having the time of his life simply wallowing in the sheer possibility of the medium for its own sake. Join him on that level and realize that maybe his greatest trick of all lay in him getting away with making an “art film” fun.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Citizen Kane Sunday, May 3, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.