Sunday, February 1, 2009

Don't Make a Scene: Citizen Kane

The Set-Up: "What is this thing called Love?" is the name of the song. Some of you will look at that question and try and answer. I look at it and focus on that word "thing." "Thing" implies an entity--something of itself, even apart from the participants, maybe. "Thing" also implies something strange and undefinable.

What is this thing called "Love?" During the month of Valentines we'll take a look at five love scenes that aren't quite love scenes. They're not your typical embrace and clinch. Not your "kissy" scenes. (Well, one is, but it's something else!) They are moments quite powerful in their repercussions. They distract. They interrupt the status quo. They kill. That's quite the ambitious little entity.

We'll start with this short scene from "Citizen Kane." It's short. It's a passing wisp of a side-step. But no one forgets it. It's an indelible moment, and Welles allows it a simple presentation, allowing it to stand on its own.

Orson Welles made no bones about who "made" "Citizen Kane." He was always generous with his praise--he even shared his directing credit card with his brilliant cinematographer Gregg Toland. Nobody does that. It's always been up to people who weren't involved in the production to argue the points.

The famed film critic of "The New Yorker," Pauline Kael contributed a long, rambling essay "Raising Kane" that, boiled down from its massive length of speculation and gossip, opined that writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, was just as responsible for the brilliance of "Citizen Kane" as its fulsome director. She postulated that the structure and form of "Kane," considered radical in its day (narrative bridged flashbacks...really?), was the product of Mankiewicz' script and Welles merely followed his blue-print, and further dismissed Welles' work saying he borrowed his ideas from other movies (like the forgotten horror film "Mad Love" starring Peter Lorre).

"Welll,...yes and no." French film critics came up with the "auteur" theory to make it easier to name the "one" responsible for a film (and it works with Ford, and Hawks, and Kurosawa and Kubrick, and many, many others) But it stretches the point to say that films are the product of one person, especially these days of CG and other craftsmen. Few directors "do it all," there is no one "author" of a film, as a book. It's a pastiche, a community-quilt created through the work of many hands—the ideas coming from the writers, money-men, actors, crew. Rather than being an "auteur" (which simplifies things, in theory), the director is the funnel for these ideas—the Judge and Editor of Taste, the ringleader, the Master of Ceremonies.

Welles said it best in his post-"Raising Kane" interviews with Peter Bogdanovich: "The movie director must always remain a slightly ambiguous figure, after all, because so much of what he signs his name to came from elsewhere, so many of his best things are merely accidents over which he presides. Or the good fortune he receives. Or the grace."

The fact is Herman J. Mankiewicz wrote "Citizen Kane." And Orson Welles re-wrote it, and directed it, molded and shaped it, polished it, turning it with the brilliant craftsmen of RKO and his Mercury Players from "American" (its original title) into "Citizen Kane." In the archaeology of movies determining the definitive "who did what" is like searching for the Grail...and as fool-hardy.

But there is one certainty. In every interview where its come up Welles always gave the definitive credit for this particular scene. "It's brilliant. That's pure Mank'" is what he would say.

The Story: "Rosebud." "It's probably a very simple thing." The last utterance from the lips of newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) is the quest of the shadowy reporter Thompson (William Alland) and he is now crossing the country dredging up Kane's history searching for rosebuds and finding only thorns. Maybe that's the story. But, Thompson's editor is convinced that "Rosebud" will be the perfect period to the story of Kane's life. That period has turned from a question mark to a mad dash. Now, Thompson talks to Kane's accountant, Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), with Kane from the beginning "and now...after the end." And Bernstein, always focused on what's ahead of him, takes a momentary...and rare...side-track to not talk about Mr. Kane, but to talk about himself, in a moment...of reflection.


Bernstein: Who's a busy man, me? I'm chairman of the board, I've got nothing but time. What do you want to know?
Thompson: Well, Mr. Bernstein, we thought maybe...if we could find out what he meant by his last he was dying.

Bernstein: That...Rosebud, huh? Maybe some girl...there were a lot of them back in the early days.
Thompson: It's hardly likely, Mr. Bernstein, that Mr. Kane could have met some girl casually and then 50 years later on his deathbed and...

Bernstein: Well, you're pretty young, Mr...Mr. Thompson.

Bernstein: A fellow can remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.

"Citizen Kane"

Words by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles

Pictures by Gregg Toland and Orson Welles

"Citizen Kane" is available on DVD from Warners Home Video.

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