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•Overrated: Citizen Kane

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by Papa Redcloud

Citizen Kane

As a service to humanity I am continuing my list of objects and experiences that are over-rated. I shall persist in sharing with you the fruits of my research and analysis. The items on this list all have some quality--had they no merit at all they surely would never have become over-rated. What characterizes the truly over-rated icon is that its reputation is all out of proportion to the enjoyment, satisfaction, or benefit that can be, or commonly is, derived from it.

Every critic’s list of greatest films ever made places places Citizen Kane right at the top. Well a few jaundiced pundits have been known to rate the film as low as first. Imagine that! The International Olympic Committee (q.v.) ought to look into this obviously errant judging. It is a universally well-known rule of thumb that, whatever movies one honestly appreciates, one must reserve a place at the top of a list for the prophet Orson.

I will concede that Citizen Kane is a much better than average movie. By my standard there are only five hundred films to a thousand films that are demonstrably superior. The great majority of cinematic effusions ever made are worse. For every Maltese Falcon or 39 Steps there are dozens like Libeled Lady and Shh! The Octopus! The question inevitably posed by Citizen Kane, however, is this: can you stand to watch it? I am afraid that the almost universal answer is no. Citizen Kane is everybody’s favorite film to not watch.

Welles, who compared Hollywood to a great big model train set, in his first film used (some say overused) every cinematographic trick known to man. (And a few known only to women, Orson you devil!) It is thus a sort of demonstration film, a how-to guide for aspiring film-makers. But, as many learned types have discovered to their dismay, textbooks rarely make for enduring literature. Textbooks, which are commonly written in a dessicated style, date themselves so rapidly. Citizen Kane is, if nothing else, a period piece. In spite of the dialogue and score, much more engaging than the clinical and calculatedly surreal visuals, what one is reminded of in Welles’s “masterpiece,” is silent movies. One can only work up the same kind of passion for Citizen Kane that one has for D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance or F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. Right clever all three films. But in a dark room they are calculated to send one to sleep.

By the way, if you sleep in a room in which Citizen Kane is being shown you will have nightmares. If you stay awake the horror will be even more real. The problem with Orson’s tricks (every frame involves at least ten) is that, put together, they create a picture of such intensity that the effect on an unsuspecting viewer is the moral equivalent of a very bad LSD trip. People often smoke dope during Fantasia (q.v.). No one would make the mistake of doing that with CK. Or if they have done so, they have not survived to tell the tale.

William Randolph Hearst (q.v.) notoriously hated Citizen Kane because he rightly perceived that it was a sendup of himself. (Although the bullying philistine Hearst deserved everything he got, I think that CK was probably flattering.) He tried to pay RKO to destroy it. Failing that he used his connections and his control of the press to keep it out of threatres. His influence probably did depress the gate (though not as much as the style and content of the film itself). Having applied his muscle to some effect, Hearst made a martyr out of Welles and his debut movie. Much of the CK reputation hangs upon the fact that in its initial release it didn’t get a proper chance.

There are, however, tens of thousands of movies that failed to get Hollywood’s best treatment. Most of the time the producers realized that they had a dog on their hands. Had CK come out in recent years it might have gone straight to video, or been premiered on some obscure cable network. It has the aura of the Independent Film Channel about it. That is where you view interesting failed experiments of promising young filmakers. You can learn a lot from these movies, but they are apprentice, not master pieces.

Welles went on to do better things, like Touch of Evil and um ... did I mention Touch of Evil? and almost anything in which he acted but did not direct. His directorial career was hampered by the reputation he garnered because of the opposition to, and consequent lack of financial success of, Citizen Kane. That is a terrible loss for us, and it was a tragedy for Orson Welles. We cannot, though, make up for that injustice by claiming that Citizen Kane was so good that, in itself, it makes a whole artistic career. Yet that is precisely the tortuous reasoning that leads the cinema mavens to pronounce CK the best film ever made. If we really must worship at the "Oh, what might have been!" shrine of frustrated genius, we might cue up another, better motion picture--vastly enjoyable and, incidentally, one which no one in their right mind ever claims to be the best film ever made--Touch of Evil. (Did I mention Touch of Evil?)

Other vastly over-rated films include Birth of a Nation, Gold Rush, Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur, Vertigo, and The Sound of Music. Also almost anything that won an Oscar (q.v.)--It Happened One Night being a notable exception--and anything by Disney (q.v.). Most of the above-mentioned films or classes of films have merit or contain things with redeeming value. Not so any film by that high budget Ed Wood, Cecil B. de Mille (q.v.). All de Mille films are bottom of the heap terrible, and vastly over-rated. Just think of The Sign of the Cross, The Northwest Mounted Police, The Plainsman, The Buccaneer, The Greatest Show on Earth, and The Ten Commandments. Through his biblical films Cecil B. de Mille did more to damage the reputation of the Christian religion than the Spanish Inquisition. While I don’t think that de Mille’s films are any longer rated very highly, however they are rated, it is too high as far as I am concerned. I hope, in future, CBD will be remembered only as a footnote to his own cameo appearance and to Gloria Swanson’s memorable closing line--"All right, Mr. de Mille, I’m ready for my close-up now"--from Sunset Boulevard.