Citizen Shame:
By Daniel Kraus

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The conflict between me and Citizen Kane began in college, where it was required viewing in every film class. This shouldn’t have been an issue, but somewhere between the Kurosawa and the Mamoulian and the Renoir I missed my first screening of the Orson Welles classic, then my second, then my third. Soon, I just gave up on it and gleaned all I needed from textbooks—Gregg Toland, deep focus, sets with ceilings, Rosebud, the whole shebang. The weird irony of film school was that you could become an ace film scholar via textbooks alone—without having to sit through one single scratchy, out-of-sync, black-and-white, pre-Spielberg film.

To others, my shirking of Kane must have seemed downright obscene. I had nothing personal against Welles. In fact, I rather enjoyed his work in Transformers: The Movie and Necromancy (Welles in a cloak! The sheriff from Twin Peaks! Naked witches!). It’s just that I was busy. And frankly, all the "Citizen this" and "Citizen that" got on my nerves a little.

Like many others, I presume, I found a large portion of film studies a big waste of time. Very little of it seemed meaningful, and the parts that did rarely interacted with real life in a meaningful way. My relationship with movies was and has always been complex—I watch many of them, I even make them, yet my mental jury is still out on the net worth of the medium. Next to the novel, or the painting, or the song, film still feels like an impure art form, a weird puree made from all of the above.

Shockingly, I found immediate work as a film writer after graduation, and have spent the greater part of the last five years writing about film in what I hope has been a semi-meaningful way. I have tried to remove films from the feedback loop of "film criticism," emphasizing instead how any given film does or does not reflect or interact with actual life. In this time, I have also written and directed two feature films. All in all, it’s been pretty fun.

Casting a shadow over my fun was Welles. The AFI voted Citizen Kane the best American film of all time in 1998. I was 23, which was almost the same age Welles was when he made Kane. Therefore I decided to do a spot check on my talent by watching Kane.

I rented the bastard 20 or 30 times over the next year, grabbing the "anniversary" edition one time, the "definitive" version the next, and the "definitive, and this time we mean it" version after that. Yet Kane wallowed beneath copies of Psycho II and Jerry Maguire, and other really good films. My Blockbuster renting record may have made me look like some sort of slavering Kane hound, but alas I knew less about Kane than ever.

The recent DVD release of Kane got me thinking about my old nemesis again. What exactly was I afraid of? There were several possibilities.

1) It was going to be too good, and was going to depress me on several different levels. One level being the mediocrity of my own talent, another level being the humiliating realization that all my film teachers had been right.

2) That I wasn’t going to get it. Chained deep within my subconscious mind were the obscure works of Godard, Bunuel, and Melies, all of which I had seen at one point and not understood, nor cared to. Worse, I had never known if my bafflement had stemmed from not being able to read the subtitles, extreme academic anxiety, or just old-fashioned stupidity.

3) That it was going to be boring. Sure, this was the film that writers like Roger Ebert and directors like Peter Bogdanovich hailed as an incomparable masterpiece. Yet, I noticed that neither network television nor HBO were scrambling to play the thing after Friends or Sex in the City. There had to be a reason for this.

Therefore, instead of waiting for a Kane re-issue to reach my local stadium-seated, THX movie theater, I treated it like any other flick I might rent, and watched it on a Wednesday afternoon, a few days ago to be exact, interrupting the film to answer the phone twice and go to the bathroom once.

And to be truly honest, when those words "Citizen Kane" jumped on screen, a little chill ran through me. Here it was. The greatest film of all time. And who was I, slumped back in a bean bag chair with a Little Debbie Devil Crème Pie and a snoring cocker spaniel? I didn’t even deserve to be watching it. Nevertheless, I did just that.

To "review" Citizen Kane would be redundant. I watched it as Joe Couch Potato instead of Mr. Critic anyway, so who cares what I thought of it? The important thing is that I watched it, and took it like a man. Right?

Well, if you’re really interested…

I liked it.

I thought it had really good make-up.

The frame story was naïve—a newsreel company trying to "dig up" what Kane was "all about," desperately trying to decode his last word. I believe in a man like Kane, but not in men like these reporters.

Welles was great—better than he was in Necromancy. His directing legacy, however, seems to lead directly to Guy Ritchie’s Snatch. Anyone who denies this is lying.

But what really got me was the structure—how, with each new re-telling of Kane’s life story, we got a new angle—and clarification—on who Kane was. It took three points-of-view before I could really appreciate Kane writing that bad review of his wife’s opera performance. He wasn’t doing it for his writer pal Leland, to teach him a lesson. He wasn’t even doing it for his wife or the public, to prove to them his principles. He was doing it to reprimand himself for making her sing and her subsequent failure. Her music career was a failed investment and as with all failed investments, he must suffer a loss.

Although I’m hesitant to call it the best movie of all time, or even one of the best movies of all time, it is without a doubt a flawed but audacious debut that has all the piss and vinegar of the most passionate, experimental independent filmmakers today. And that’s not boring, or intimidating, or confusing at all. That’s inspiring.

Me and Orson? We’re buddies.