So, I finally watched Citizen Kane. This has been the David Copperfield of my movie-bucket-list; I had been advised very strongly to sit through both these masterpieces, and I had been cautiously putting them off, for want of what I call a ‘proper frame of mind’ required to enjoy art. I am still not done with Copperfield (please do not judge me), but Citizen Kane, I am proud to announce, is a mountain conquered.
It would however, be wrong of me to speak of Citizen Kane in the tone of some vanquished beast; for what it’s worth, the movie really did surprise me (and that, is a massive understatement). I follow a general rule when I embark on watching any movie originating a decade ago and beyond: I try not to judge them for the antiquity of the thought process and the archaic audio-visual effects. In most cases, the storyline is strong enough to pull through these minor distractions, or at least the actors themselves cover for the absurdities (I am particularly distracted by scenes involving people driving, and I try to avoid turning my attention to the blurry scenery passing through the window and wondering who decided to paste that view to the scene). Citizen Kane, surprisingly, has none of these issues. Or at least, none that caught my attention right away. What struck me most about Citizen Kane was how immensely relatable it is to the life as we know it now. And to think that the movie is a product of 1941. I believe this is what a classic is all about. The beauty of the simplicity involved in the concept of the movie is that one could make a similar movie – a spinoff, in the modern parlance – out of the life of any of the other characters in Citizen Kane, and if it was made as artfully, would also not fail to impress in the superlative sense.
I shall not discuss in detail the layout of the movie here, which is basically a documentary, told, on the face of it, quite simply. It depicts the life of a man, a citizen like anybody else, only that he happened to lead a more public life than you and me which permitted a peek into his routine, like celebrities the world over do. But that never stopped him from being the daily, boring Joe-the-neighbour, with the regular travails of life. His public life only serves to set up another viewpoint, another entity out of the million who chose to judge him. Charles Foster Kane went through the cycles of victory and failure and wanting and losing and a sweeping acceptance of it all. He embodies a bit of what we have all done and/or felt in our own little lives. His life (like ours) was touched by a multitude of characters, and he himself was a part in many people’s lives, but in the grand scheme of things, nobody was there forever (except perhaps Mr. Bernstein, but in a very small way). Kane was a different man at different times, though the underpinnings of wanting to prove something to himself was a permanent feature. His quest did not really have a direction or a final destination; in my opinion, it was a broad requirement to convince himself strongly about his own goodness and greatness at all points in time. Perhaps this deep-seated insecurity came to the surface as the blatant arrogance he was often associated with, and psychologically, he made compromises all along, and that was possibly what always kept him from accomplishing his mission. His intentions were driven first by the motive of all-consuming power and then gradually turned plain petty – turning round a defunct newspaper, running for the governor’s post, his two marriages, his association with his best friend, Xanadu…. But somewhere down the line, every venture in his life threatened to throw itself off the track, and then like a sinking man, Kane held on to it desperately, trying all legitimate means to keep things from falling apart. It may sound like the man had bitter luck all along, but if given sufficient thought, you get to realise that that is exactly what life is all about – building, salvaging and moving on. Kane was no different from you and me. Contrary to most views stating otherwise, I do think he was not a bad person per se, but something always stopped him from being a good one too.
The other characters in Kane’s life were interesting primarily by way of their association and impact in Kane’s life, though their own lives have been mentioned only fleetingly in the movie. There was Walter Parks Thatcher – the stingy money-minded businessman and guardian to Kane, who was exasperated in his protégé and obviously saw more trouble in the young man than good. There was no love lost between the two, and money was all that bound them together, for Thatcher would have possibly understood no other language.
Then there was Jedediah Leland, whose character was perhaps the most well captured after Kane. Leland was Kane’s best friend through thick and thin, or was at least meant to be, until he fell victim to a combination of incidents, which, while they had their association with Kane’s life, I could not truly trace back to anything that the story mentioned about Leland’s thinking (I mean, if Leland really cared for Kane’s friendship, most of what Leland took offence to could have been dealt with alternatively or at least simply left aside; for instance, that scathing review on Susan would never have worked anywhere except in his idealistic world, as he was technically still a colleague of Kane’s). Leland and Kane’s saga ends poorly, and for want of a better sketch on the personality of Leland, I shall conclude that he was slower in giving up the rosy picture of idealism that he and Kane shared while they were still the bright young things.
No less interesting was the second wife Susan, who easily trumps the first Emily Norton in significance. Susan reminds me strongly of the eponymous nightingale of Vikram Seth’s The Frog and the Nightingale, which would also make Kane the ill-famous scheming frog. Susan was a simple, pliable girl and a good person, which clearly wasn’t enough for Kane. She became his pet project and that is never known to have had a happy ending, and so it didn’t. In fact, her association with Kane seemed to have robbed her of most of her happiness, and Susan almost single-handedly brings out the villainy in Kane’s character. Given her ample presence in the movie and her relative naivety, it seems Susan would have done herself a lot better if she had just fallen for a more regular bloke, instead of being stuck with a selfish megalomaniac that Kane had turned into by the time he had married her.
And of course, there is the mysterious Rosebud – the root of all the trouble. There is no point in my elucidating further on this subject, besides mentioning that it has been a very, very long time indeed, since a twist in the plot has moved me so much. There is obviously nothing dramatic about it; in fact I’m not even sure if it is a twist after all. But it is the beginning of a realisation and an understanding, almost akin to death, which puts things very much in perspective. It almost feels like the story began all over again in the mind as the ending credits start crowding the screen.
Unsurprisingly, Citizen Kane was not exactly a commercial success when it was released in 1941, mostly because of the controversy it ran into with William Randolph Hearst – a powerful newspaper magnate and publisher, whose life seemed to have provided much of the inspiration for the movie. The movie was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but lost that out to How Green Was My Valley (no complaints there). It did however, win the Oscar for the Best Original Screenplay (Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz). What makes this piece of work even more attention-worthy is the impeccable performance put in by a group of screen debutants (most of the major characters were played by performers from Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre group) and the distinctly novel cinematic technique employed. It wasn’t until the end of World War II that the movie was re-released and received widespread recognition world over.
A good movie, like a good book, has multiple layers and plenty of undercurrents, and with repeated viewings at different stages in a man’s life, different meanings come across and we end up relating more and more with the characters. Citizen Kane is one such work of art and has a very The Catcher in the Rye feel to it, in the sense that there is no sugar-coating and no histrionics, but just a plain, almost factual, one-sided story-telling style. So I know that my interpretation of Citizen Kane is at best incomplete, and may even possibly be entirely wrong. But this is a movie that you grow with; you remember instances and snippets and you quote them silently to yourself, complete with the darkness, the contrast and the close-ups, and you wonder if you are after all running along the same road as Kane.