Rosebud Remix 

The Citizen Kane DVD is as coldly magnificent as the original film. 

When the great film critic Pauline Kael died last month at 82, obituaries as well as tributes from her friends and acolytes poured into print. The remembrances tended to mention only in passing what was perhaps the most important, and easily the most exhaustive, piece of criticism Kael ever wrote. “Raising Kane” appeared in The New Yorker 30 years ago, sprawling across a total of 68 pages in consecutive issues of the magazine. The essay celebrated and dissected Orson Welles’ film debut Citizen Kane, which was itself 30 years old in 1971. As it happens, Kael’s death and that double anniversary coincide with the release of a commemorative edition of the film on DVD. Citizen Kane will be the first building block in the collection of any self-respecting film buff, of course. But watching it on DVD re-raises a lingering if heretical question: Why does the film so often ranked as the greatest ever made strike so many viewers as cold, as oddly soulless? It’s easy to appreciate or admire Citizen Kane but hard to revel in it. Put another way: It’s just about the last movie you’d want to watch on a rainy night. In many ways Citizen Kane would seem tailor-made for contemporary sensibilities—at least as those sensibilities existed before Sept. 11. In a languorous voice-over commentary on the new DVD (Roger Ebert provides another, somewhat less breathy one), Peter Bogdanovich says Citizen Kane was 40 years ahead of its time when it appeared in 1941. I’d say 50 or 55 years is more like it. If the movie was forward-looking in terms of narrative structure and shot-making, it was even more so in its supreme self-awareness. It anticipates the age of irony in the way it keeps emotion at arm’s length and tends to be more clever than wise. The newspaper headlines Welles uses to such great effect in the film put words in jocular quotation marks (KANE MARRIES ‘SINGER’) more typical of the late 1990s than the early ‘40s. As Welles himself once put it, sounding like a good post-structuralist academic, our sense of the movie’s subject, the William Randolph Hearst stand-in Charles Foster Kane, “depends on who is talking about him. He is never judged with the objectivity of an author, and the point of the picture is not so much the solution of the problem as its presentation.” Borges once called the movie “a labyrinth with no center.”

Pauline Kael’s assessment—later published along with the shooting script as The Citizen Kane Book, which is now out of print—offers some clues about why these touches leave current audiences so cool. If you’d been lucky enough to ask Kael, she’d probably have told you a bit impatiently that the film prompts that reaction because it’s meant to. In its grinning cynicism, in its distrust of sweeping narratives told in the 80-point type of tabloid headlines, Citizen Kane mocks the very idea of an audience feeling warm and fuzzy about a movie character—or indeed any kind of larger-than-life figure, whether he’s on celluloid or newsprint. Kane, which Welles made when he was 24, was a prodigy’s rebuke to what Kael calls the “poetry” of the “artistic films” (her quotation marks) of the late silent and early talkie period, movies that made you want “to scrape … all that mist and sentiment” from the screen. Kane, by contrast, struck her as “fresh” and bracingly mist-free. In a famous phrase, she called it “a shallow masterpiece.” Coming from Kael, who never went in for the dream-theory of film as a portal to the subconscious, this was the highest praise: The movies she admired most were those able to keep us in what she called “a heightened state of consciousness,” that made us feel “as if the lights were on in the theatre.”

Mostly “Raising Kane” is remembered as the essay that rescued the reputation of Herman Mankiewicz, the accident-prone, charming, brilliant, hard-drinking cynic who wrote the Kane script while drying out in a Southern California ranch town called Victorville. But at its heart the piece is a reflection on how movies age, with Kael concluding that Kane has done so better than any other. It begins with these lines: “Citizen Kane is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may seem even fresher.”

Later, neatly summing up her attitude toward the picture as a whole, Kael writes that the News on the March newsreel sequence early in Kane is “a structural gimmick—though a very cleverly used gimmick, which is enjoyable in itself.” The DVD format makes it possible to examine that and the rest of the film’s gimmicks with Zapruder-like precision. Remote control in hand, it’s almost embarrassingly easy to play film historian and break the film down to its constituent parts. And there’s probably no film that stands up to frame-by-frame analysis as well as Citizen Kane. The commentaries by Bogdanovich and Ebert are especially helpful in this regard. They concentrate on the sleight-of-hand genius of Kane’s visual constructions, along with the mechanics of the low-angle, deep-focus shots for which the film (and its cinematographer, Gregg Toland) are famous. They dote on the theatrical dissolves and the visual and aural transitions from scene to scene. Ebert even offers helpful suggestions about which sections you’ll want to run through in slow motion. Given that Kane suffered the cinematic equivalent of being out of print for much of the 1940s and ‘50s—many of the directors and critics who helped revive its reputation watched it on pirated 16 mm versions—it’s remarkable that we can now own it in this infinitely accessible form for less than the cost of a theater ticket or a couple of CDs. (And we can all breathe a big sigh of relief that Ted Turner never got to colorize Citizen Kane. In his very own Rosebud moment near the end of his life, Welles asked the director Henry Jaglom to promise him one thing: “Keep Ted Turner and his goddamned Crayolas away from my movie.”)

Yet watching it straight through, the overriding sense I get is still, as Francois Truffaut once put it, that Citizen Kane tries to put “three pints of liquid in a two-pint bottle.” The expressionistic shots in the smoke-filled screening room and the Thatcher Library—legendary shots—still look mannered to the point of distraction. So does the opening sequence inside Xanadu, when Kane drops the snow globe and it tumbles awkwardly down a couple of steps before shattering; and Erskine Sanford’s harried performance as the old editor Mr. Carter; and the way Welles contorts his face for what seems like 10 seconds after Jed Leland asks if he can keep the Declaration of Principles for posterity. Some of the most memorable shots are stunning for how casually they snip the bonds we’ve been developing with the film and its characters: the shrieking cockatoo that appears out of nowhere, or the disconcerting quick cut to the smiling black musician (or is he a drum major?), eyes closed and teeth bared, in the banquet scene.

The tribulations Welles suffered in Hollywood after Kane are well-known: Never again would he have even half as much control over a picture. Watching the DVD now you almost get the feeling that Welles understood that this was a one-shot opportunity—that he and Hollywood weren’t likely to get along—and decided that he wasn’t going to leave even a single brilliant snippet on the cutting-room floor (the one deleted scene included on the DVD was cut because it was set in a brothel and didn’t pass muster with the censors). The movie is stuffed with ideas and technique; it races from one revolutionary bit to the next, like a photographer hurrying to finish a roll in perfect but fading light. What Kane, at 60, really demonstrates is how thin the line is between freshness and showiness, between innovation and the self-indulgence we let our geniuses get away with.