In 1941, the world changed. Yes, Hitler invaded Russia and Ted Williams hit .406, but I'm talking about important change.
Orson Welles invented the movies.
I'm well aware that there was a movie industry before "Citizen Kane" opened at Radio City Music Hall and that the great work by Sergei Eisenstein, Charlie Chaplin, John Ford and Frank Capra had all been done. I'm aware that for most Americans then, the movies were a twice-a-week habit, and that the Hollywood machine was at its highest pitch, cranking out about 800 features a year. And I'm well aware that just two years earlier, in 1939, Hollywood had an extraordinary year, a year which is forever looked upon as the high-water mark of the studio system.
But nevertheless, in 1941, Orson Welles invented the movies -- or least he invented
the direction that the movies would henceforth take. He invented . . . the '40s, '50s, '60s (brother, did he invent the '60s!) and the '70s and the '80s and especially the '90s.
These thoughts flood to mind in the wake of a viewing of the restored "Citizen Kane," rereleased 50 years after it first blew onto screens amid controversy, rumor and legend. Seeing the film on a big screen today (as you will be able to do when it opens at the Charles Thursday), one is struck by its almost shocking freshness. Unlike so many other great movies of the past, "Kane" doesn't demand that you will yourself into a spirit of compromise and forgive it a variety of politically incorrect sins as well as a number of artistically incorrect ones. It just is, that's all; it's immediately recognizable by the lights of today's films -- ironic, hip, witty, somewhat fractured, essentially the act of a very young man showing what he could do and so full of his confidence that he could even afford to pretend to be modest. (Best phony-humble credit line in movie history: At the end of what most critics agree is the greatest American sound film, the screen reads merely: "Production -- Direction: Orson Welles"!) "Citizen Kane" didn't anticipate the future: It guaranteed it.
Welles invented that which is the commonplace among sophisticated viewers of movies. He invented the consciousness movies, that envelope of shared experience in which viewer and director and critic now meet for discourse. He invented the common language of movie-awareness. (He also invented, I should hasten to add, me. That is, he invented a cinema rich enough and deep enough to sustain, in newsrags the world over, extremely lucky young men and women who got paid to go to them and then shoot their mouths off in print the next morning.)
It could be said also, as a corollary, that he therefore invente the director, but this is more a critical perception than a reality. He invented the "accessible" director, the director of style and charisma who would himself become a bigger star than his actors or his story.
It is partially but not entirely a matter of images. There were great movies before 1941 and there were great visual movie moments. Think of the Odessa Steps sequence in "Battleship Potemkin"; think of that delirious moment in "Stagecoach," when the young John Wayne rears up out of the prairie and Ford, heretofore the most conventional of craftsmen, suddenly zooms the camera in on the young stud, as if to say to all the world, "This is your new star." Think of the exquisite stroke of genius by which Victor Fleming tilted the camera just at the moment
the Wicked Witch hurled the hourglass at Dorothy and her friends cowering at the locked castle door, and how that one slanted image seemed to sum up all her beautiful nastiness, give it the power of unforgettable myth.
All true. Yet somehow different. Those movies were imagined primarily as versions of stories that existed already. They were rooted in other narrative forms; the great American films were versions of other stories. They came from books or plays or magazine serials. In each case, they began with a fealty to Aristotelian unities -- time, place, character, rising action, climax, denouement. Consequently, screenwriters were ex-playwrights or newspaper hacks or burned-out novelists (real novelists, of course, such as Hemingway, couldn't be tempted to sell out to Hollywood; only those who'd spent their advances before finishing their manuscripts, like Faulkner and Fitzgerald, were willing to stoop so low.)
The origin therefore determined the approach: It was the pane of glass technique, borrowed from the fourth wall of the proscenium stage. We watch from here what is going on over there. What happened beyond the window or the wall was contrived, compacted, focused, but it nevertheless clung to a conceit of naturalness. Nowhere in the construction was there acknowledgment of its artificiality. It was supposed to be real; you weren't supposed to notice that it was a movie.
Of course, at its highest form, such "naturalism" was inherently anti-natural. For example, it borrowed from the stage the conceit of "dialogue," in which people spoke in full sentences and waited politely for other members of the conversation to complete their thoughts before responding. It also borrowed the whole first act, second-act, third-act structure, conjuring up a neat, tidy, romantic world, at its highest pitch the stuff of national dreams, as in "Gone With the Wind" or "The Adventures of Robin Hood."
Welles came to his first movie job knowing all this: He had a sound background in classical theater, a love for Shakespeare, but at the same time he was no hidebound conservative. He'd made a stunning reputation on Broadway and national radio by turning things inside out. The radio experience had been particularly stimulating for him -- as it had been for all of America on Halloween night 1938, when his Mercury Theater of the Air produced H. G. Wells' "War of the World," to astounding consequences.
It's worth it to give "War of the Worlds" a listen today: It's brilliant radio and it was clearly a dry run for some of the techniques, particularly in the way it aped the pretensions of
documentary (something Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea were not prepared for), complete to ambient sound, that halting, jammed, jangled confusion of language that we now recognize from a hundred thousand prime-time news shows as the sound of reality.
Welles also had what was until the breakthrough of the baby boomers in the mid-'70s probably the sweetest deal in Hollywood. Within reason, he could do anything he wanted, so desperate was the faltering RKO studio for a hit and so completely in need of his energy and the energy of his players.
Thus Welles had been given, at an early age, an extraordinary gift: unlimited artistic freedom, a sense that his identity was bound up in tearing down rather than protecting, the company of kindred spirits, and no grown-ups to pay attention. Throw in his own precocious gifts as a performer and the guidance of smooth old pro Herman Mankiewicz (who wrote the screenplay and who some say is as much the auteur as Welles; I am not one of those people) and finally a Depression-inspired tinge of radical politics, and the stage had been set for extraordinary accomplishment.
Perhaps it helped that he knew so little and was so untrammeled by roles. (He once said anyone could learn enough about the technical stuff to direct a major film in an afternoon.) Thus his original conception was cinematic: From its first moments to its last, "Citizen Kane" has been imagined as a movie; it's not a version of any other thing. Film is its primary existence, not its secondary. It was a movie that cried out, "I am a movie." It was as much a trick of photography as a trick of drama. But it was
also a trick of narrative.
Where the great American films that had gone before relied on the literal narrative, Welles understood instinctively (as he understood a number of things instinctively) that such narratives weren't the only way to convey dramatic information and in many cases weren't the most efficient. Thus the model underlying "Kane" isn't the beginning-to-end story, it's the jigsaw puzzles that the second Mrs. Kane (Dorothy Commigore) works on in the boring fastness of Xanadu, the Kane pleasure palace in far-off Florida.
. Welles and Mankiewicz could have told their rags-to-riches-to-bleakness story of a William Randolph Hearst-manque far more chronologically. But they understand the relationship between content and form. Casting the materials as the adventures of an investigative reporter (played by the all-but-anonymous William Allard) who interviews sources and puts together
subjective accounts of the great Kane -- versions of Kane from everybody but Kane -- results in Welles' greatest and most audacious stroke: that his very subject was somehow unknowable.
In fact, the movie's greatest joke is a testament to this concept. What impels the reporter in his quest is the meaning of Kane's dying word -- "Rosebud." It is a conceit of a rational world that if you know the last thing, all that preceded becomes clear. Thus "Mr. Ralston" (a proto-Henry Luce) dispatches Thompson. Ralston is a rationalist: A subtle subtext in the film is Thompson's increasing lack of faith in rationalism. The more he learns the less he knows.
In the end, of course, he famously fails; but by that time, he himself is both the world's ranking Kane expert and the world's ranking modernist: He knows the quest for final knowledge is futile and that Kane is somehow, by his very giganticism, unknowable.
I love the witty stroke of revealing the putative "Rosebud" identity as it appears on the burning sled and seems to link up with his lost childhood innocence. Pauline Kael has called this "penny-dreadful Freud," but I see it as a last prank: It seems to explain so much, but, of course, even possessing for a moment God's view of human affairs and knowing all, we still know nothing.
The last image is the first; the camera falls back from Xanadu (which is of course Kane himself) and it ends exactly where it started: on the image of a No Trespassing sign. How radical for 1941 -- the idea that there was something we couldn't know, especially as presented by a young man (he was 25) whose public persona was that he knew it all.
This is very much the lesson of the modern movies, which have become exercises in sensation rather than knowledge. When I ** see a film like "DieHard," I cannot help but think it a bastard child of "Citizen Kane." It's strictly an orchestration of liberated moments that could only exist on film -- its movieness cries out of every exaggerated sequence -- unrooted in naturalistic narrative. Furthermore, its director knows he's no longer responsible for naturalistic narrative -- that he can get by on the sheer style of it.
Orson Welles set the movies free. That's his legacy. What we do with that freedom -- that's ours.*
Note to readers: I will be taking the rest of the summer off to pursue a couple of non-journalistic projects and to use up the ton of vacation time I've accrued over the past hectic 10 years. I'll be back in the fall. See you then.