In the midst of a completely technical education, there is very little ‘Humanity’ that I studied. That, only because my college made it compulsary to take 4 courses in the stream. I simply glided through those courses as a mandatory duty – like a dutiful engineer who hates everything but engineering. I even cheated a little by sneaking in Economics amongst those 4 courses. In other words, I , like most of my batchmates, thwarted all attempts by the college to give me a ‘complete & well-rounded’ education. Years down that road, I do regret not taking up a greater interest.
I saw Citizen Kane for the first time in one of such courses (called Art & Technology). The movie was screened after class hours – which meant an evening away from the usual campus life – something that we resented awfully. And as the screening started, a black & white image appeared, accompanied with a loud, sharp voice that is typical of the movies from that era. In other words, all elements that had the potential to heighten a disinterest already present. The only thing that I remembered from that movie was the breakfast scene between Kane and his first wife Emily. In a run of 4-5 consecutive breakfast scenes, Orson masterfully depicted the changing relation between the spouses. Even with my disinterest, I was able to appreciate the subtlety. But that was about all.
Thankfully, my second experience of Citizen Kane was a more rewarding one. The movie is about the life of a newspaper tycoon, who begins his career on grounds of idealism but eventually gets enamored with the smell of success, and leads his newspaper into a very yellow and very popular journalism. His single-minded and overbearing pursuit of money, fame and power leads to his eventual alienation with his friends, lovers and principles. The movie begins with his death and traces his life through interviews with people he interacted with.
Its true that the plot of the movie is not terribly path-breaking. There are a lot of movies which are loosely based on the lonely man at the top. However, Orson’s rendition of the theme is nothing short of perfection. He has turned the biography in a mystery, as a newspaper reporter attempts to understand the meaning of Kane’s dying word – ‘Rosebud’, which leads him to reconstruct the tycoon’s life.
Then there are several subtle depictions like the breakfast scene. For instance the focus on ‘No trespassing’ sign both in the beginning and the end of the movie and the picturization of the palace life with jigsaw puzzles, countless statues and endless mirrors. I particularly loved the shot where Kane is shown in the many mirrors of his palace – nothing could have shaped his isolation and loneliness better.
The movie of course courted many good reviews, and the critics applauded it for its innovation. For the first time a movie used a combination of elements such as newspaper reports, narratives, diary entries and memories to tell its story.
Jorge Luis Borges summarized the movie very succinctly when he called it a
…metaphysical detective story, its subject (both psychological and
allegorical) is the investigation of a mans inner self, through the works he has
wrought, the words he has spoken, the many lives he has ruined.
However, at the time the movie was released, it was largely affected by the negative publicity efforts of the media tycoon William Randolph Hearst who went all out to keep the movie away from public, as it was said to be (rather very closely as many believe) based on his life. He was enraged with the ‘negative’ and lonely portrayal he recieved.
But despite all the controversy and the battles over the movie, it made its due mark and is regarded as one of the greatest American movie ever made. That may be a little bit of an overreach, but certainly not way off the top mark.