The jigsaw puzzle vs. the explosion: student reactions to Citizen Kane

Since the student response in my film analysis class to Citizen Kane seemed even more politely indifferent than usual, I thought I'd interview them about their reactions in class. Here's a transcript:

FDr: "Why don't we begin with D saying why you liked it."

D: "The story-telling concept is really unique. The set design and the camera work is fantastic. It really showcases what you can do in a studio. The exposition is really unique. Charles Foster Kane is a really deep character even though you never fully know who he is throughout the story. All of the characters have personalities, and you know a lot about them by the end of the movie."

FDr: "Who else liked it?"

S: "I really liked the cinematography and the acting for an older movie. I also liked the way the ending shots were the exact same and the beginning shots. They mirrored each other like the closing of a book."

FDr: "Other thoughts?"

E: "It had really nice cinematography, but I felt that the plot was not there. They built up this whole two hour thing about 'rosebud.' You want to find out the meaning of 'rosebud' is, and then they drop it in five seconds, like, oh, we didn't find it. Whatever. Not a big deal."

FDr: "And you didn't find it was enough of a payoff at the end."

E: "Yeah."

D: "That's like part of the beauty of the movie, that you can make it the focus of a two hour movie. 'Rosebud' is not really the focus of the movie. It pulls all of the characters together. It's really amazing that you can make an entire film about one word, which ends up being not that important at the end."

FDr: "According to Pauline Kael, 'rosebud' was basically a gimmick. It still unifies the movie. Other people's thoughts?"

K: "I think Kane wasn't very popular in this class because it dealt a lot with newspapers, and that's not very big in our generation."

B: "Most movies now are just made for teenagers, and this was made before that."

FDr: "Yes, it was made more for adults. Since it doesn't cater to your age group enough, you don't like it as much?"

E: "We're so used to big action films."

FDr: "Yes, one could say that all started with Star Wars in which you've got to have a climax every ten minutes."

E: "Yes, when you come to Citizen Kane, it's just the story of a man's life, but there's no big explosions, which we've gotten so used to."

FDr: "Don't you find that sort of sad, that you're looking around for an explosion?"

W: "What D said earlier about film techniques. Yes, they are there, but it seemed like the movie moves really slowly. The beginning seemed way too long, or there was too much suspense for nothing to happen."

FDr: "Well he dies!" Everyone laughs. "You don't care."

W: "We didn't know he was. We didn't know what was happening."

L: "I think it is one thing to look at a piece of art and say, wow, this is technically beautiful, and it's another thing to be moved by it. Citizen Kane didn't move me."

FDr: "Would you all agree about that?"

S: "I'd agree."

K: "I'd agree because, when you're talking about someone so rich as Kane was in the movie, it becomes unrelateable for the audience."

FDr: "So, you want somebody who is poor? Did you have that problem with The Great Gatsby? Aren't movies often about rich people?"

S: "It's hard to relate to a film about a rich person having a sad life. Yes, he's unhappy, but at that same time he's rich, and he has food, a big house. He's got all this stuff, and he doesn't have any room to complain, so I found myself not able to sympathize with Kane."

FDr: "He's not a very likable guy, ultimately, Orson Welles' charm notwithstanding."

D: "Movies about our lives would be so boring."

FDr: "You have youth-oriented comedies. You have Mean Girls. There are a lot of fun films of that sort."

D: "I like Mean Girls."

L: "My problem is not that I didn't relate to a character. It's more if I care about what going on with a character in the movie? Even though it matters less that I didn't relate to him at all, I still didn't care what happened to him."

FDr: "So, given that, all of the technical razzle-dazzle doesn't matter."

L: "Yeah."

FDr: "Other people's thoughts? You talked about the movie being 'trite' in your response. Could you explain what you meant?"

J: "I didn't like the plotline. I thought it was almost cliched in a way, because you see, yeah, there's this mega-rich guy, and he has all of this stuff. Of course, he's not going to be happy, because money cannot buy happiness. I was just sitting here, like, yeah, yeah."

FDr: "You've heard it all before. Part of the problem with an innovative film is that what was innovative is now become a cliche because it changed the movies that came afterwards."

J: "So, it could be back at that time, I could've enjoyed it more, but now it's been drilled into everybody's head."

FDr: "I'm not sure you see how subversive the movie could be towards various figures such as Thatcher, and also the way the movie turns on Kane himself, such as when he says 'We're going to a be great opera star.' The reporters ask him if he's going to build an opera house? He says that won't be necessary. Then, the film cuts to a headline saying that he built a Chicago opera house. The movie messes with him, and therefore, in the process, actively mocks William Randolph Hearst. Does messing with a figure of power not matter to you all? If there's no magical hammer for a character to throw around, or a comic book shield, then you don't get involved? Superheroes on motorcycles jumping out of jets as things explode--that's all you respond to?

L: "It's common in stories to have something extraordinary happen to an ordinary person, and that's kind of what happened in Citizen Kane, but the film could have spent more time explaining his youth. Something extraordinary happens to him, but we have no idea who he was before that."

FDr: "So, you would have preferred a more straightforward narrative arc, not all of the razzle-dazzle cutting back and forth across his life?"

L: "I prefer a little bit more background on Citizen Kane before he became famous."

FDr: "I can see that, but I think the movie wants you to figure that out on your own with all of its pieces of narrative just as the deep focus forces to work harder in viewing the movie. I can see your point, but I think Welles skips stuff that he doesn't think you need."

W: "He's characterizes Kane in such a way so that you want to know more, and then it's just done."  

FDr: "The film is built as a jigsaw puzzle in which we get pieces, and we're meant to unify them as best we can, just as Thompson tries at the end. You don't get them all. Deliberately, you're just getting Modernist shards." I try to summarize Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" as an example of a narrative that gives you multiple perspectives surrounding a central character who remains mysterious and remote. "Couldn't you see that that's part of the suspense of the film, that you don't know everything about Kane, and that's one reason why it's a Modernist masterpiece? You have to work, figure it out as best you can? Then again, most people can blindly accept that Citzen Kane is a classic, but if you have problems with it, then maybe people should be hearing about these perpectives."

L: "It seems like it was a movie made for people who are well educated in film."

FDr: "Orson Welles didn't necessarily know that much about film when he made it. Citizen Kane records a young man's precocious enthusiasm with playing with all of the tools of a movie studio after his earlier career in directing plays and hosting radio shows. When he was first given the tour of RKO studios, he said 'This is the greatest train set a boy could have,' or words to that effect."

C: "I generally liked the film, but I feel like I didn't give it enough justice, because of the fact that you kept saying over and over again: oh, it's a classic film. Perhaps, if you had just said, just watch this. If I didn't know anything about it, I would've appreciated it more. As it is, I sat here, expecting a big revelation. You built it up so much, I was bound to be disappointed."

FDr: "That would be my fault. Guilty as charged. Of the various films we've studied so far, what has been your favorite? What would you say is better than Citizen Kane?"

L: "Moonrise Kingdom."

FDr: "I'm sure Mr. Anderson would appreciate that. Other choices? The first Avengers film?"

S: "I liked On the Waterfront a lot."

B: "Psycho."

K: "Donnie Darko."

D: "Bonnie and Clyde."

L: "It Happened One Night."

FDr: "That's an excellent film. In terms of its emotional effect, that's one of the best, period....  Any last words about Kane?"

S: "You know that scene when Kane claps too long after Susan Alexander's opera performance? I realized afterwards that that's a viral meme."

B: "I think Citizen Kane was really well done, but that didn't change the fact that the plot was boring."

D: "It was a cool plot, you guys. I don't get it." We laugh.

S: "The jigsaw treatment of the plot reminded me of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction."

FDr: "Yes, there could be an influence there."

E: "Just before we watched Citizen Kane, I watched a Tarantino movie marathon, so compared to all of that, I thought oh, this is kind of boring.

FDr: "Yes, too tame, not enough people's eyes being plucked out. We need more violence! We need more explosions! Thanks for all of your thoughts."


DeadSpiderEye said…
Can you separate Kane from it's context? It seems to me to be the one work of cinema that's impossible to accomplish. Post Kane, Wells continually complained of creative interference, likely as a consequence of the way Kane impinged on the real world, but flipping 'eck that body of work remains singularly impressive. Wells was a consummate dramatist, with the insight to exploit facets of the literature of his time that remained overlooked by his peers. The -how did we arrive here- device, oft misappropriated as flashback in both cinema and literature has only recently been re-understood.

Personally, I'm not a particular fan of Kane but Wells's visual sense together with his highly attuned acuity for timing, is something I find compelling. His reputation as a notable wit would be consistent with that but such talent is wasted on telling gags and Kane ends in a punchline.
Kenton Larsen said…
You have the patience of a saint.
Thanks, DeadSpiderEye,

I had supplied much of the historical and critical context of Citizen Kane in class on the day before, and I agree with you about Welles' strengths, but of all the classic movies that we screen in class, Kane tends to earn the most tepid response. I never entirely know how the students will react. Last year, they panned Some Like It Hot for the first time as a one-joke lame movie. Oftentimes, the students can appreciate Kane on a technical level, but it would appear that little of the emotional impact of the movie affects them, with some exceptions.

Also, by having a parrot squawk loudly as the movie cuts to the Raymond's point of view (as if to jolt the viewer awake), Welles admits that his strategy of showing the later, often drearier Xanadu scenes in a more stiff darker way (reflecting Kane's age) could make the last section of the movie somewhat dull.

Thanks, Kenton, but I don't agree. I'm lucky to have such a sharp lively film class.
Anonymous said…
Reminded me of the preview audience comments for The Magnificent Ambersons.
DeadSpiderEye said…
They came down on Some Like it Hot? Oh man, that's one of my faves. That was a fantastic year for films too, I can even watch Operation Petticoat on a good day.