Film Studies: 'Citizen Kane' must be banned - for its sake, and for ours

Last Friday, at the London Curzons "and at selected cinemas across the country", Citizen Kane opened in the closest to a general release it has enjoyed since 1941. "The greatest film ever made," said the ads. But then I noticed this reckless dismissal, this height of naivete - its "U" certificate. U! No parental guidance! No scholarly introduction? Just that enormous, complex, sensual experience, that song of power, the crowd and applause, that bottomless well of solipsism, for any six-year-old innocent enough to wander into the Curzon?

Sleepless nights followed as I considered the destiny of this great film. Until at some 3.20am or other I had a saving vision, as drastic as it is cleansing. I saw coachloads of schoolchildren being delivered to the Curzon for the first showing on the Friday - like those disconsolate crocodiles of delinquency urged through the National Gallery to behold dumb wonders - a solemn, eloquent figure (I nominate Simon Callow), dressed in black, comes before the throng and stills chatter with these words: "Ladies and gentlemen, children - sadly, it is not possible to show Citizen Kane. Owing to a bizarre circumstance in Mr Welles's untidy estate, the film can no longer be seen."

Quickly enough, the management of the Curzon hears young restlessness and the wailing of betrayed teachers - so they substitute Starship Troopers or Scream 2, and the kids have a jolly enough two hours. The teachers enquire at the box office, "Is this a temporary problem?"

"Alas, no," says Simon Callow. "Citizen Kane has been withdrawn. Like the contents of Xanadu itself, every copy is being collected and burnt."

"But isn't it the greatest film ever made?" whine the teachers.

At which point, I step forward to support the exhausted Callow with this further explanation: "Only if we can destroy it."

You think I'm joking. But sometimes, only black humour can get at the awkward truth.

You see, I don't know if anyone really watches Citizen Kane any more - so that its stretching of space works like music on our pulse. Rather, it's become like the Tower of London - a derelict piece of real estate made more or less credible, worthy and entertaining by the hype of the various Beefeaters who conduct the tour. And in the case of Kane, the Beefeaters are Callow, Bogdanovich, McBride, Brady, Rosenbaum, Carringer and myself, plus the sardonic accounts by Welles himself, a man as good at advertising as he was at magic. The film has become so venerable and celebrated, it hardly has air now to work as a movie.

There is a rhythm in the history of a movie. A great part of the arc of Kane - its soaring across the brightest heaven of invention - is that the picture came top in Sight & Sound's polling of critics in l962, l972, l982 and l992. I would be surprised, supposing another poll takes place in 2002, if Kane was not still the champion of champions. For I have to say - no matter how poorly this reflects upon the medium of film - that I cannot see how anything as large and profound, as modern or entertaining, is likely to be made in the next two or three years. Welles is film's Shakespeare - but look what centuries of that eminence have done to Shakespeare in the minds of the young.

Here's another curious thing about Kane's history: Sight & Sound conducted its first poll in 1952, at which time Citizen Kane did not figure. (You may be interested to learn that in '52, the champion films were Bicycle Thieves, City Lights, The Gold Rush, Battleship Potemkin, Louisiana Story, Intolerance, Greed, Le Jour se Leve, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Brief Encounter, Le Million and La Regle du Jeu.)

No one needed to withdraw Citizen Kane in 1952. The way of the world then was that the only place to see films was in cinemas booked out with new pictures. There was no video; there was little yet in the way of films on television; there was only the Classic art-house circuit that offered "old" films in repertory. And Citizen Kane had been a commercial flop in 1941. It was true that the few books on film spoke warmly of Kane, but it was largely unknown, and effectively beyond recovery.

In short, ladies and gentlemen, it was just about the most desirable film I could imagine when, one day in the mid-1950s, the Classic in Tooting, elected to revive it. I saw it there - alone. I was probably 14 or so, but I was terrified, because I had never been so moved by the medium, and had never seen my hideous future so clearly.

Of course, such a reversal of cultural order is fanciful: how could we pay a police force to stamp out every video? But imagine for a moment the desire that might ensue, the rage at being thwarted or forbidden. Consider the stories that might circulate underground about this great, great work. As it is, today, that is how we feel about The Other Side of the Wind, a Welles film never quite finished, but likely to find some release by 2002. That is sexy, and it may be years before we find the wit to see that the unseen Wind is also a bit of a mess.

But Kane now is like the wreck of a forgotten tycoon who cannot quite find the right word to say before he expires.

Citizen Kane (U) is out now