Friday, November 11, 2011

Citizen Kane: Best Ever?

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.

Yuck.

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.

17 comments:

thingy said...

Ooh, intriguing. Yeah, I don't like it. Maybe I'll enter that contest.

Hope the prize isn't Citizen Cane on a DVD.

Cilantro is weird stuff.

Mythical Monkey said...

I think we could start a new trend in movie criticism where we compare movies to food. And possibly vice versa. "Citizen Kane was served with a side order of fresh asparagus which tasted exactly like Breakfast at Tiffany's ..."

I smell a Pulitzer ...

FlickChick said...

I am firmly on the side of "love it." Another reason, aside from all of the above, it makes my hit parade is that, like "Sunset Boulevard," it's a thinly disguised telling of a golden age Hollywood story. Hearst was as much a part of the Hollywood scene as he was the journalism beat, so my love of Hollywood history (albeit skewed) and gossip is satisfied!

Mythical Monkey said...

And I was thinking later that another thing I like about Kane is its technical virtuosity. And sure, it's all in service of a story and if the movie doesn't work, who cares about the technical aspects. But watching Kane and not noticing the camerawork is like watching Astaire and Rogers and not noticing them dance.

Yvette said...

I haven't seen KANE in years, but I loved your shpiel and I might just watch it again one of these days. I have no comment about it otherwise. I don't really have strong feelings one way or the other. I know I should. But I don't.

I love mangoes, in fact I have two ripening right this minute in a bowl in the kitchen. Love mango salsa. Mango ice cream and anything else mango related. HA!

Feet.

Really, M.M. Get a grip. :)

Rachel said...

In the interests of solidarity, I must confess that I can't stand mangoes, either. They don't taste like feet to me, hell, I don't know what to compare them to, I still don't like them. I'm fine with mango ice cream though, especially with Indian food.

As for your Citizen Kane piece, it was excellent and thought-provoking as usual. Glad you decided to weigh in for this debate.

Travis Wagner said...

Transformative is probably the best way to describe this film. I remember watching it and realizing everything I had understood about film had changed forever. I do understand people simply not enjoying the film though...I had that experience with L'Avventura and everybody thinks I am crazy for my indifference to such a "classic" piece of Italian cinema.

Jill (Kittenbiscuits) said...

I'm in the "appreciate it but don't enjoy it" camp. If that makes any sense.

Great post.

mister muleboy said...

I first saw Kane in a revival house with a great projector, and an honest-to-Gahd silver screen.

Let me tell you, you ain't seen black nor white 'til you've seen this picture under those conditions.

Anyway, I like Kane because I am Kane.

Except without all the success and accomplishments and shit. . . .

Mythical Monkey said...

I'm back from a weekend visiting family in Philadelphia -- on to the comments.

I love mangoes, in fact I have two ripening right this minute in a bowl in the kitchen. Love mango salsa. Mango ice cream and anything else mango related. HA!

Katie-Bar-The-Door also loves mangoes and thinks I'm strange because I can't taste them properly.

Rachel on the other hand said, In the interests of solidarity, I must confess that I can't stand mangoes, either.

So, see, I'm rare but not unique.

Mythical Monkey said...

Transformative is probably the best way to describe this film. I remember watching it and realizing everything I had understood about film had changed forever. I do understand people simply not enjoying the film though...I had that experience with L'Avventura and everybody thinks I am crazy for my indifference to such a "classic" piece of Italian cinema.

I had the same reaction to L'Avventura -- I respect it, but I can't say I enjoyed it.

Mythical Monkey said...

I'm in the "appreciate it but don't enjoy it" camp. If that makes any sense.

Makes a lot of sense to me. I do enjoy Citizen Kane but there are other groundbreaking classics that I wind up experiencing on a purely intellectual level.

Mythical Monkey said...

I first saw Kane in a revival house with a great projector, and an honest-to-Gahd silver screen.

Let me tell you, you ain't seen black nor white 'til you've seen this picture under those conditions.


The first couple of times I saw Kane were in a theater, which for me always makes a difference. Plus, I swear I went into it the first time with no pre-knowledge -- this being before the internet, it was possible to remain nearly completely ignorant about a film before you saw it.

I, of course, remain nearly completely ignorant of many things, just not film.

Anyway, I like Kane because I am Kane.

Actually, those early office scenes of Kane, Jed Leland and Mr. Bernstein are a lot like our early days of lawyering -- you, me and mister bellotoot.

That we may have aged and lost some of our youthful energy and joie de vivre is probably inevitable ...

Anonymous said...

I first saw citizen kane in my Video Production classes. They told us, this is citizen kane, its the best movie ever and everyone says so. So I watched it intently, my impression is that it was 'good for the time' meaning in that timeframe, it was truly epic because it was unique then. Since then, every aspect that made it worthwhile, has been improved upon massively since then. Storytelling, cinematography, everything seen in CK has been practiced and employed in many different ways. I think the problem with putting CK on a pedestal for so long, merely discredits all the greater works that came later. I understood the movie and I do give credit for being an example of excellence for that time. Personally, I didn't think it was that great, I've seen hitchcock movies that I thought were much better.

Mythical Monkey said...

Yeah, I have to say, I don't think it does a movie much good to tell people in advance "This is the best movie ever made, love it or leave it." A movie either works on its own terms, without reference to whether it was the first or how personal it was to the director or whether the actors were sleeping together or how much money it made, or it doesn't work.

And whether it works is pretty much in the eye of the beholder.

I will say this, though, that my appreciation of a work of art (both for good or bad) changes over time as my experiences, tastes and concerns change. For example, The Great Gatsby was one of those books I read in high school because I had to, then re-read in my twenties because I was supposed to, but which didn't really hit me in the gut until I was thirty-five and realized I had just witnessed my best friend play the role of Gatsby to his mistress's Daisy Buchanan.

Citizen Kane may hit you differently one day. Then again, it may not. But I say it's time for professors and film critics and anyone else to stop trying to make people feel self-conscious because they don't love Citizen Kane.

Anonymous said...

Tell me where you get such pictures from Citizen Kane with good quality?

Mythical Monkey said...

Tell me where you get such pictures from Citizen Kane with good quality?

I got them from Doctor Macro's High Quality Movie Scans. I get a lot of good stills from there.