The Best of the Best

In an effort to educate myself about American film and its history I set a goal (on my Ultimate To DO list) to watch all of the films listed on AFI's 100 years, 100 movies list. My hope is that by watching these films with a critical eye and then researching their cast, crew and cultural impact I can "home school" myself through film school. 
 Not a bad way to spend some time and save bunches money, huh?

A few weeks ago the hubby and I sat down to experience what AFI has repeatedly called the best American film of all time. In the name of full disclosure it isn't the first time either of us has watched Citizen Kane.  Each of us got to watch it during our respective senior year in Mr. Mehevik's American Civ class.  I guess the hubby actually watched it. I, on the other hand, used both class periods to catch up on my beauty sleep.  If I had known what I was missing, I might have tried a bit harder to stay awake.

Nominated for nine Academy Awards in 1941, it was the feature film debut of Orson Welles.  Welles not only starred in the film, he also wrote, directed and produced it.  Don't even get me started on the fact that he was only TWENTY-FIVE! (cough: Over achiever.) To make the feat even more impressive, Welles took home the Oscar for best screenplay along with his writing partner, Herman Mankiewicz.  While there seems to have been some drama surrounding who actually wrote the script, when the dust settled both Welles and Mankiewicz got writing credits.

The film's plot is circular in structure. As a newspaper reporter investigates Kane's famous last word, "Rosebud," he speaks with a handful of important people in Kane's life.  Each character brings the audience around the story of Kane's life again and again.  With each circle, another layer of the truth is revealed.  The viewer is left with a portrait of a man who had "everything" but died thinking only of a simpler moment in his life before all his "success."

Frame after frame of Welles' masterpiece is worthy of appreciation and awe.  While watching the film, I couldn't help but marvel at every scene's stand alone visual spectacle.  Each frame's lighting and composition captures the audience's full attention and propels the story sometimes more effectively than the actors' recitation of dialog. I don't mean to say the acting or book are less than impressive, just that the cinematography is beyond compare. The play of light and shadow communicate more than pages and pages of the script ever could.

Cinematographer Gregg Toland's innovative use of deep focus is part of what makes Citizen Kane so special. In scene after scene both the foreground and background are in sharp focus. When this was impossible, Toland utilized in-camera techniques (such as in-camera matte shots) to manipulate images and create memorable scenes like the one depicted below.  When Kane discovers the attempted suicide of his second wife, Toland first shot the background and then the foreground and layered the shots to create, what I consider to be, cinematic genius.

For me, Citizen Kane is NOT greater than the sum of its parts.  While I'm in love with the film as a whole, I believe its brilliance is the value of each of the parts.  Every scene's individual composition is what makes this film outstanding. Perhaps it is because it's shot in black and white (I'm a sucker for black and white photography), but I constantly felt as if I was watching a series of brilliantly crafted single images rather than your typical fluid piece of film.  For me, Citizen Kane is the penultimate flip book with every beautifully crafted image more engaging than the next.

Have you seen Citizen Kane?  What did you think?