The good people at True Classics are celebrating the 70th anniversary of Citizen Kane this month by admitting that while they respect it and recognize its historical importance, they don't actually much like Citizen Kane.
But they're open-minded. True Classics is holding a contest, complete with some really sweet prizes, including Citizen Kane on Blu-Ray. All you have to do is to write a post "defend[ing] Kane's position as King of the Cinematic Mountain, or knock[ing] it off its storied pedestal."
Oh, by Sunday. Did I mention that?
Without going into my usual detail—which is to say, without all the extra yammering that makes the Monkey what it is—these are my thoughts on the subject:
Here's the thing: I can't tell you what you like, or that you're wrong for not liking it. Taste is a purely personal phenomenon. For example, Katie-Bar-The-Door hates cilantro—she's one of the ten percent of the population whose taste buds think cilantro tastes like soap. And who wants soap on their food? Me, it's mango I can't abide. To me, it tastes like feet—and not cute Katie feet with pink-painted toenails, either, but sweaty-feet-that-have-just-run-ten-miles-in-a-ratty-pair-of-sneakers feet.
Can you say either of us are wrong? To you, cilantro or mango might taste like, well, whatever they're supposed to taste like, and you like the way they taste, and I say, lucky you. But since neither Katie nor I can borrow your taste buds, your opinion doesn't hold much water here at the Monkey.
Of course, that leeway works both ways. If you don't like Citizen Kane, you don't like it, and that's okay with me. But neither can you tell me that I don't like it, because, well, I do. We can like or not like anything we want, but whatever our respective opinions, we have to own them.
Not that they've been anything other than polite about it at True Classics—they're truly classy at True Classics. They're just asking.
So why do I like it? What's its claim to the top of the Movie Mountain Heap?
Which are two different questions.
I'll skip the discussion of Kane's importance in film history, which seems well-established and which True Classics doesn't contest. Kane didn't invent modern cinema, but it did rediscover the old one, the artistic, flowing, subjective camera that was lost during the transition from silent to sound pictures. (See, e.g., Sunrise, Metropolis, The Last Laugh, etc.)
And I suspect film noir wouldn't have looked like film noir without Citizen Kane. In fact, now that I think about it, you could make an argument that Kane was the first film noir.
As for liking it, well, first off, I find the story and the characters absorbing, the ebb and flow of relationships—between Kane and Jed Leland, between Kane and his two wives, between Kane and his ambitions—and the disillusionment that eventually sets in as a man with a seemingly unlimited amount of money discovers the limits of his money's reach. And if he can't have it all, how can any of us? (Indeed, can the things most worth having—love, affection, respect, satisfaction, self-worth, peace of mind—even be purchased with money? Money can make people fear you, and for a while it can even fool them into thinking they respect you, but it can't make them like you.)
Here's something else to think about—is Rosebud the reason or is Rosebud the excuse? Or to put it another way, is Kane broken or is Kane simply an egomaniac who wants it all? Or is that the same thing? Because one thing I've learned from all that history I studied in school and after is that it's difficult to achieve real greatness without also having within you the demons that can lead to your downfall. Indeed, the very thing that makes a man great is also, when applied to the wrong situation, the very thing that leads to his ruin. As a study of a great man's fall, Citizen Kane is a Shakespearean tragedy that stands alongside King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth.
But more than its large, operatic aspects, it's the fact that Kane also works on a deeply personal level that makes it resonate for me. Kane is above all else an uncompromising look at aging—the waning energy, the missed opportunities and the nagging sense as your days grow dim that nothing you've accomplished is going to make a damn bit of difference when you're gone—certainly nothing you accomplish can stop you from one day being gone, and that's a sobering enough thought for most of us.
Is Kane the best movie ever made? How can that even be defined? No one movie can ever satisfy every single urge or taste. Sometimes I want to see a comedy, sometimes a thriller, sometimes a romance. Sometimes I want fun-stupid and sometimes I want to take a nap. And sometimes I want something so involving I lose myself in it and come out the other end with a different sense of who I am and what it all means.
For me, Kane is one of those transformative movie experiences.
Fortunately, there's no real need to answer the question. Unless you're actually planning on being shipwrecked on a desert island with a DVD player and a single DVD—and if you are, I'd recommend "How To Build A Boat" over Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Gone With The Wind or any other candidate for best movie of all time—there's no reason why you shouldn't see Kane, and a lot of other movies besides.
At the very least, you'll be able to say whether or not you liked it, and might even be able to say why.