Film Studies: Outlaw this Citizen for the common good

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The enormous Orson Welles season at the National Film Theatre inspires two hopes. They may seem unlikely, or even facetious. Both actually are founded in the most grave, radical forms of film commentary this writer can imagine.

First, the cafe at the NFT shall serve double meals. Order one egg, you get two; one Chateaubriand, and the plate fills the table. Yes, the budget for the NFT will be strained but surely some caterer will be moved by the daring of the scheme. Its purpose, quite simply, is to convey the dietary regime with which, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the young Orson Welles sustained a 20-hour working day (radio, theatre and film) while carrying on a family life and several secret affairs. I am talking about the equation between energy and genius - plus the way in which a youth with matinée idol looks can end up (by 30 or so) fabulously fat and mocked as a burnt-out case.

Consider that an appetiser. My larger proposal is that, at the conclusion of this season, all prints of Citizen Kane shall be withdrawn from circulation. And all video cassettes and DVDs. Yes, the rights holders in these areas will feel the pinch. But, as a matter of history, they have done very well with the marketing of a film that was a box-office failure in 1941. Moreover, this withholding - if my guess is correct - is only going to stimulate their sales, as and when the embargo is relaxed.

Why this monstrous intrusion on fair trade? Because Kane has become automatic, a given, taken for granted - indeed, it has begun to bore kids coming to the movies afraid and offended to discover that the best movie ever made may be 62 years old.

It's not that I dispute that estimate in any way. Whenever called upon to furnish a Top 10 for Sight and Sound (or its equivalent), I list Kane. Even after having written a book about Orson Welles, I adore the picture - and find new things in its treasury. It is, simultaneously, the most Hollywood and American of pictures as well as a landmark in independence. It is the turning point; it is not just the key, but the lock, the threshold and the edifice.

But I think it has become a critics' toy. A very large part of movie-going is and ought to be a kind of self-discovery in the young. Few kids today can discover Kane. He or she must fall in line, recite the old axioms, and so on. I recall the period, from approximately three months after Kane opened to around 1955 (when it began to be revived). Citizen Kane then was something you heard older, stricken people whispering about. In the one or two movie books that existed, it was referred to in hushed tones. Kids were wild to see it - and once they did they had found their flag.

Now, my plan for withdrawal is not playful. I mean it most strictly. There will be a solemn police force charged with enforcing the ban - called "Thatchers", after Kane's dense guardian. There will be punishments for underground DVDs, and legends of midnight screenings of a true 35mm print on a snowy mountain on the Isle of Mull. Cruel example should be made of miscreants. To peddle in Kane could bring punishments of 12 hours a day with the work of Mel Gibson or Lord Attenborough.

I believe an enormous benefit will begin to accrue. Citizen Kane will again become desirable, longed for, discussed ardently in sealed rooms. It will come closer to magic or a cult. Today, when nearly every movie is so forlornly available, the movie has lost a lot of the romance that came from a brief, large life on the screen, and then oblivion. That assured commercial genius, Alfred Hitchcock, once withheld a group of his pictures - most notably Vertigo. It was 10 years or so, but in that time a box-office disaster became maybe the most sought after movie of its day.

How long should this ban last? A long time, I think. There will be pirate prints, illegal screenings. Books on Orson Welles will swell in sales. Meanwhile, audiences will fall on the nearest relic - The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) - and perhaps it will be voted the best film ever made in Sight & Sound's 2012 poll. Or Touch of Evil. Or F For Fake. Or any of the others. But if you want an answer I will offer this: Citizen Kane remains out of view until... until the first screening of The Other Side Of The Wind, the film that Welles left unfinished at his death in 1985, and for which there have been rumours of rescue and completion ever since - thanks to this or that hugely wealthy patron.

Orson Welles season: NFT, London SE1 (020 7928 3232), 3 Sep to 21 Oct