There is seldom a consensus when it comes to the best. The concept itself is so ultimate and yet so abstract as to defy itself as a label for any single work. What is the best? How does one decide, among a multitude of variables, which example is so superlative as to transcend all others? The ultimate, the pinnacle, the absolute epitome of all works of a type. Strangely until a few years ago there was a consensus of the best in two different mediums which I hold dear. And not nearly as strangely just a few years ago the consensus changed. Change is the normal state of the best. Each high point is a new standard for everyone to shoot for. Eventually it is only natural that “the best” is to be bettered. That is the very nature of the human animal- always to strive to beat the best. Look at sports records. They are made, only to inevitably be broken. But some records stand for so long that even after they are broken, they are such examples of enduring excellence that they can be appreciated. And when that elusive status of “best” is applied to a work of art it is even more remarkable that a consensus can be reached and even more astounding when that consensus lasts for decades.
Today’s gift, and tomorrow’s, are two of those works of art that somehow came to be known as the best in their respective areas, and kept that designation for years in spite of continuing advances in technique, changes in society and public taste, and even the artistic aims of the creators working in those media. Such an achievement can be a mark of true quality or it can be a monument to anachronism. Luckily for the aficionado, both of these works are very much the former.
In the 1960s a strange thing happened. Suddenly one poll after another that asked movie critics their opinion on the best movie ever made started coming up with a single answer. This trend would last for over a dozen years and the only thing more surprising than this sudden universal acclaim would be the movie on which the acclaim was being heaped. This movie wasn’t a great artistic or commercial success when it was first released. It didn’t receive an Academy Award for best picture, or best director, or best man in a leading role. It did win for Best Original Screenplay, a pyrrhic victory at best since the real innovation of the movie was the way it was filmed not the script itself. It was a movie that almost wasn’t released. It was made by a first time director who was a mere 24 years old when he started it. It was so controversial before it was released that it was almost never seen in a theater. And for years after than original release it was to disappear into obscurity. Yet it was so unusual, so innovative, so revolutionary, and so far ahead of its time in so many ways that even twenty years after it was released and then almost forgotten it was able to stir the imaginations of so many film critics that it would win poll after poll, beating such affirmed classics as Gone With The Wind, Casablanca, Snow White, Psycho, The Seventh Seal, and, well, every other movie ever made!
Citizen Kane was Orson Welles first move and arguably his magnum opus. It was an unauthorized and unwanted fictionalized biography of William Randolph Hurst, one of the most wealthy and powerful men in America. Hurst was the owner of a network of newspapers and radio stations- the Rupert Murdock of his day- and he was outraged at treatment Welles had given him in the guise of Charles Foster Kane, a fictional doppelganger who shared so many of Hurst’s foibles that it was impossible for anyone familiar with Hurst to mistake Welles’ subject for anyone else. The satire of Hurst was both subtle and gross. From the castle built by Kane, called Xanadu, which opens the movie and introduces the character (a not-so-subtle allusion to Hurst’s San Simeon), to the central conceit of the movie, the meaning of Kane’s dying word- Rosebud (widely reported to be Hurst’s nickname for his mistress’ genitals). Hurst tried to buy the movie before it was presented in theaters and, failing that, put pressure on the studios and theaters to bury the movie both before and after it had been exhibited. No advertising for the movie was allowed on any of the Hurst owned media. As a result, Citizen Kane disappeared from the public consciousness for years after it was made.
In the late 1960s the movie enjoyed a resurgence among the film literati. The controversy involving William Randolph Hurst was lost to the age of yellow journalism to which he belonged. But the artistry and vision of the movie remained. Welles had shown what a director could be. Citizen Kane was the work of a genius auteur in an era where the studio system was still the paradigm. It remains a rousing, funny film that continues to look as much like a modern period piece as a 67 year old film. It pioneered a combination of techniques that today we consider standard- juxtaposition of different time periods, sweeping camera moves that zoom through landscapes and settle on close-ups, use of media other than movies as framing and expositional devices, extreme close-ups and worm’s-eye views to evoke feeling, cynicism and the anti-hero as protagonist, revolutionary makeup, deep focus, special effects that don’t draw attention to themselves but serve the story. The list goes on and on. Welles was an accomplished amature magician and the movie is full of cinematic magic tricks. Environments that, at first, appear small reveal themselves to be huge sets. Montages compress years into minutes and single scenes. The movie is virtually a textbook for modern film making. And it was made in 1941!!!
If you haven’t seen it, you should. If you haven’t seen it in a while, you should see it again. A true masterpiece. A two word answer for anyone who thinks film is not an art form. Many movies are a waste of the two hours of your life that they take to view. This movie is worth multiple repeted viewings because, like any work of art, it is complexly satisfying.