Friday, December 18, 2009

The big kahuna

In addition to Miss March, I also saved watching Citizen Kane until my wife was out of town. See, she almost certainly would not want to sit through what's widely considered the best film of all time, even though she owns the DVD. (Pause for laughter.)

Actually, Citizen Kane had always been planned for one of the movies I was going to watch this week. Originally, I planned to watch a double feature on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights before leaving Friday night for Australia, where I'll spend the last two weeks of the year. The theme: Each double feature would contain one film I'd already seen, and one I hadn't.

But when I got a low-grade stomach flu on Tuesday, I managed only one movie: Ridley Scott's Alien. (Interesting choice of a film to watch when you've got stomach issues.) A true masterpiece that I didn't appreciate enough the first time I saw it. I love the little details that other sci-fi films take for granted, like the fact that landing a spaceship on the surface of a strange planet can itself be a harrowing experience.

A late workday and last-minute shopping killed any possibility of a double feature yesterday, as well, but I decided to stick to my resolve to watch Kane as planned. That's two nights in a row of movies I'd seen previously. Adding to my collection would have to wait. (Actually, it turns out I did "add" to my collection on Tuesday, as I discovered that Alien wasn't on my master list of films I'd seen. Inaccuracies in my list! Gasp! The horror!)

When I was coming of age as a film fan, I watched Citizen Kane at least twice in film classes, and saw it a third time on some other occasion. But it may have been as long as 15 years since my last viewing, so I was overdue.

And Citizen Kane has interested me especially in the past two-and-a-half months, as I've been accruing my Flickchart rankings. I knew it was time to find out the following:

Is Citizen Kane actually my favorite film of all time, or am I just going with the flow?

Few people under the age of 80 have seen Citizen Kane without first knowing it is considered the de facto greatest film of all time. I knew that years before I finally saw it. And that means it's hard to know how you would have reacted to it in a vacuum. Is it really the greatest, or do you just know it's supposed to be greatest?

It's a question I've carried around with me throughout my career as a film fan, and it got re-energized a few weeks ago, when I was listening to a podcast called Flick Fights. This podcast features a handful of film fans participating live in the day-to-day duels that comprise the Flickchart experience, then arguing about their opposing viewpoints. Citizen Kane came up against something clearly inferior, and though they all picked it to win, in the same breath they acknowledged that actually sitting down to watch it seemed like something of a chore.

I nodded imperceptibly. Could it be that this was my own feeling about it, yet the pressure of so much critical love has caused me to artificially inflate it in my own rankings?

I worried what would happen when Citizen Kane came up against some of the titans on my own list: Toy Story, Pulp Fiction and Donnie Darko, which are currently ranked #1 through #3. Any of those titles could be vulnerable. Though I love those three films, the fact that they're ranked the way they are is still only a function of the duels they've randomly participated in. At any old time, Citizen Kane (currently ranked #18) could come in and shake things up.

But should it? Or is it really "something of a chore?" That's what was to be determined last night.

Well, I'm glad to say that Citizen Kane is as good as I remembered it to be. Some of the techniques Orson Welles uses would still strike you as inventive if you saw them being used today, and this was 68 years ago. At the time he used them, they were completely unprecedented.

What's more, it's not a chore -- it's actually fun. In my mind I'd developed the idea that the movie was probably pushing two hours and 30 minutes, but no -- a mere 119 minutes, or just under two. Even those two hours went faster than I thought they would, full of humor and playfulness. The film moves along at a great clip, with great interweaving of time periods. What an interesting structure for a film -- the ten-minute newsreel at the start basically gives you the whole story of Charles Foster Kane, then Welles spends the rest of the time filling in the details of those broad brushstrokes. You watch it not to find out what happens, but how it happens. Oh, and to learn who or what Rosebud was. I won't spoil that for you here, ha ha.

But I don't need to spend too much time giving you my own analysis of Citizen Kane. Everything I could say has been published ad nauseum in other, more reputable locations.

What I do want to say is that if Citizen Kane ends up being my best film of all time, I'd be okay with it. I'll let Flickchart decide.

I guess it comes down to a distinction between the words "favorite" and "best." And who knows if there's an objective standard for what "favorite" means. The movie I've probably seen the most is National Lampoon's Animal House. But does that mean it's my favorite? Nope. It just means that in my freshman year of college, we watched it every week for three months in a row.

Is Citizen Kane the film I want to watch the most number of times? No. Is it the film I want to curl up with when I'm sick? No. Is it the one film I want to have on a desert island with me? Probably not.

But is it the best?

Yeah, I think it just may be.

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