In 1998, the American Film Institute announced their list of the 100 greatest American films ever made, decided through a poll by 1,500 members of the film industry. Atop the list, above 'The Godfather', 'Casablanca' and 'Gone with the Wind', was Orson Welles' 1941 debut film 'Citizen Kane'. The subject of significant controversy and backlash upon release, the film grew in esteem and stature over the following decades, but while the other films high on the list were recognisable to the general public, 'Kane' was a film seemingly reserved for the "film literate". For many, it may have been the first time they had ever heard mention of this black and white film about a newspaper man in the early 20th century.
This accolade from the AFI may have resulted in a further rift between the public and the film. To proclaim any film as the greatest of all time is an act of folly; film is, after all, a subjective medium, and what may be a masterpiece to some could be a bore to others. By placing 'Citizen Kane' at the top of a list proclaiming the greatest of American cinema - an art form essentially invented in America to begin with - the conversation shifts from its specific attributes to its position as a cinematic monolith, an act of histrionic hyperbole that, once again, places a target on its back. It's certainly feasible to see 'Kane' as one of the great American films, but by crowning it the greatest - not once but many times in the years since - it's impossible to come to the film with fresh eyes and not view it through that lens, which will inevitably put it (as it would with any film) at an enormous disadvantage.
This was certainly the case when I first saw the film as a teenager, on a worn VHS copy I'd borrowed from the library. I was squinting through the distorted image trying to make out this revered film, expecting to see something that would change my whole perception of what cinema could be; the apex of the art form, as any budding film-obsessed teenager might expect from The Greatest American Film Ever Made. Of course, I was disappointed. Of course, I found the film confusing and boring and underwhelming. Much of that may have been the compromised viewing experience, but I suspect it was also my impossible expectations, the kind that no film in the world could possibly fulfil. It was on my second viewing many years later, when the film was beautifully restored and released on DVD, that this problematic lens faded away and I was able to come to the film on its own terms. And what I saw blew my mind into a million pieces.
To fall in love with 'Citizen Kane' is to begin an obsession, one befitting of a film where every unusual, disorienting detail was scrutinised by its creator to within an inch of its life, much like the life likewise obsessed over and scrutinised in the film. The rambunctious Welles was obsessed with magic for most of his life, and 'Kane' was perhaps his most sophisticated magic trick. To weave together a titanic story about American idealism, greed and capitalism, structured in a manner that demands full intellectual and emotional engagement from its audience, and somehow managing to also be wildly entertaining, surprisingly funny and with the propulsive energy of a freight train.
The conceit at the heart of 'Citizen Kane' is one that reaches back to the very crucible of dramatic storytelling itself - the ascent of a powerful figure and the hubris that brings about their downfall. Charles Foster Kane is the mythical American giant, the beneficiary of a great fortune ripped from the earth, his will forged in the fires of moral conviction and belief in American freedoms and the rights of man, and ultimately crippled by his own greed, lust for power and a futile search for what is left of his humanity. One could argue that Kane is America itself, a country constructed on the back of stolen land, built on dreams of liberty and freedom, only to solidify as something cold, cruel and inhuman. 'Citizen Kane' is as significant a statement on American identity as 'Moby Dick', 'The Great Gatsby' or 'Death of a Salesman'; the folly of man representing the folly of a nation, and as with those other great works, fashioned in the form of arresting entertainment - the hunt for a monstrous whale, a tragic hedonistic romance, a quiet family tragedy and, here, a pseudo-detective story.
Perhaps what makes the film still feel so potent and dangerous is the fact that this great artistic statement on ambition and hubris is itself an act of ambition and hubris. Welles had not yet demonstrated the skills to be able to not only tell but portray a life as complex as the one he and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz had concocted of this mighty figure of American industry. In fact, he hadn't demonstrated any skills with filmmaking at all, his work until that point mostly having been on stage and radio. The fact that 'Citizen Kane' broke so many rules in narrative and filmmaking may have been as much Welles and his collaborators pushing against the traditions of the form as much as not knowing what those traditions were in the first place. 'Kane' feels like a film teetering on the edge of disaster, walking a tightrope that could come apart at any moment. Even just Welles' decision to cast himself in the role is an act of foolish daring and arrogance, to think that at 25, he would have the skill to chart the rise and fall of a life, to understand the transition from youthful idealism to adult pragmatism to aged weariness, fury and mistrust.
'Citizen Kane' is a matter of artistic life and death, of throwing in everything you have, no matter the consequences.
And yet it succeeds, surpasses expectations, perhaps because of that very ambition and hubris. We can analyse this film to the end of time, but what drives it is instinct, that glorious alchemy that can only occur when great artists come together with a story they need to tell and do so from their gut, not just their head. 'Citizen Kane' is a matter of artistic life and death, of throwing in everything you have, no matter the consequences. That is what makes Gregg Toland's cinematography so dazzling, Robert Wise's editing so lacerating, Mankiewicz's dialogue so shattering. It's even there in Welles' performance, the moments where his self-conscious star-making falls away and he unleashes a raw fury, where Welles and Kane merge to become a single primal being backed into a corner of his own making, a prison of his own design, an abyss of his own fashioning, where the ambition within him and the belief in himself as a supreme being crash with titanic force against the world itself. 'Citizen Kane' may be an intellectual feat and an artistic marvel, but in the end, it is a film of blood and muscle and sinew and bone, of human beings as wild animals tearing each other apart for the scrap that will make them stronger, smarter, more powerful. Running underneath some of the finest filmmaking the cinema has ever seen is a river of white-hot bile, boiled by wrath.
It seems impossible that 'Citizen Kane' can be 80 years old. There hasn't been a moment in those 80 years where it hasn't felt contemporary and immediate, connected directly with the social and political turbulence in which it is viewed. There have certainly been successors, not in terms of quality but in terms of soul, from the maniacal madness of Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson's 'There Will Be Blood' (2007) or the spectacular rise and soul-crushing fall of Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher's 'The Social Network' (2010). It is an urtext to which we return, peering through its smoke and mirrors to understand its infernal, glorious mechanics, to marvel at it and puzzle at it and be moved by it and horrified by it and endlessly entertained by it.
Whether it is the greatest American film of all time - even the greatest film of all time - is beside the point. No film can be the greatest of all time, no matter what any list or history book or overenthusiastic film buff (myself included) will say. I'd come to 'Citizen Kane' expecting a dusty old object, lofty in its legacy and self-importance, but once the dust was wiped away, found a film of staggering dynamism and power. Of this I am certain though - 'Citizen Kane' is, without a doubt, one of the greatest fucking films I've ever seen.