Friday, May 8, 2020

Howie Balaban: The Couch Critic: Citizen Kane

There are some names in American history that many of us probably don’t even realize we’ve heard by the time we reach our teen years. In some cases, we may even “think” we know who a person is or what a person stands for just because one or two things that person did have become such grand moments in our country’s story that we may come to believe that what we “think” we know is all we “need” to know.

Take, for example, Orson Welles.

My first time even learning of his existence was right after he died. It was 1986 and my dad had taken one of my good friends and I to the movies. The animated feature was “Transformers: The Movie” and both my friend and I left feeling our childhoods would never be the same since Optimus Prime had died! (He’s since come back several times, thankfully.)

During the opening credits of the movie, when movies still had opening credits, one of the names listed was Orson Welles. When working on a project in college, I learned that his voice acting in this particular movie was one of the last projects he worked on before his death. He played the planet-eating transforming robot named Unicron.

The rest of my childhood, all the way through high school, I sporadically would pick up on things Orson Welles did or accomplished. Then, during my senior year at Olean High, I took AP English and my teacher, the gone-but-not-forgotten Mrs. Wehmeyer, introduced my classmates and I to some classic cinema. (NOTE: During my time at the Olean Times Herald, Mrs. Wehmeyer passed away. Her death was front page news, and the story I wrote for it is here: 

Wonderful Person, Marvelous Teacher

We read classic books, too, but she wanted us to understand that modern movies are what they are because of what came before. And one of the movies she showed us was Citizen Kane.
I slept through it.

Around the time I graduated high school, in 1998, the American Film Institute began having countdown shows and named Citizen Kane the greatest film of all time. That fall, as a freshman at Syracuse, I had to do a research paper on something incredible that happened with the media (honestly, I do not remember the exact parameters of the assignment) and chose to write about the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938. The paper I wrote focused on Orson Welles, his fellow Mercury Theater actors, and how they frightened the nation by acting out the story – on radio – by giving “live” reports of aliens landing in Grovers Mills. Anyone who tuned in late feared for their lives, but anyone who was with the program from the beginning heard the “this is fictional” disclaimer. And, at the end, Welles essentially said, “Happy Halloween.” To say his voice was dominating would be an understatement. To say he didn’t understand what he was doing would be debatable. To say he was a genius would be diminishing his greatness.

This entire lead-up to me critiquing Citizen Kane is a way of saying that, in short, the movie remains an astounding achievement in so many ways. At the same time, as someone recently wrote on Twitter, it’s also not a movie you can just sit back on a Friday night and rewatch for the helluva it. It’s a movie you respect. In my opinion, it’s a movie that deserves all the praise and respect it gets. 
A year after I slept through Citizen Kane in high school, I finally paid attention to it and was wowed. Sometimes, movies become greater as the years go by because of the backstory surrounding them. Knowing how Welles based so much of the movie on the powerful William Randolph Hearst, and learning about the fight to even get the movie released, made what was accomplished in the movie even more impressive.

Furthermore, filmmakers since Citizen Kane continue to heap praise on it for the way it advanced movies. Keeping in mind that Welles was only in his mid-20s when he starred in and directed the movie he co-wrote, it becomes all the more impressive how his genius, particularly as it relates to Citizen Kane, came almost from his novice skills with a camera. As the story goes, Welles needed certain scenes shot certain ways, including one in which the camera needed to go lower than the floor on the sound stage. Welles proceeded to have a hole dug so the camera could go lower. You could say Welles was one of the many in history who looked at the way things had “always been done” and decided that needed to change. 

A few years ago I decided I needed Citizen Kane in my movie collection and bought the 70th anniversary collector’s edition on bluray, complete with a documentary on the battle to get the movie released, as well as the HBO movie “RKO 281” that was basically that documentary in dramatic form, starring Liev Schrieber as Welles. 

By now you’re probably wondering why, at this point in this review, have I spoken more about Welles than about the movie? The answer is simple: the movie is Welles’ masterpiece and he spent the rest of his career trying to replicate the quality of that work. His career included some fine pictures but none ever reached the level of Citizen Kane, either on screen or in off-screen controversy.

Last time I wrote a Couch Critic piece, I said I simply didn’t “get” Blade Runner. But I do “get” Citizen Kane, because it’s not just a movie. It’s a landmark achievement, and a quintessentially American story in how a person can rise from nothing, appear to have everything, and in a blink, lose it all when that person realizes – too late – that no matter how much you have, in the end, you can’t take it with you.

Re-watching Citizen Kane, we’re reminded of the innocence of youth, the allure of power, and the importance of real love in our lives (especially the fact that people return love, and possessions do not). It is a delicate balancing act trying to make sure we have room for all three. 

Howie Balaban loves movies. He will try to review “classic” movies here on a semi-regular basis as a means of reminding us all they really don’t make ‘em like they used to. The next movie he plans to talk about is Close Encounters of the Third Kind.