Why Orson's Rosebud needs to be rediscovered

On the eve of yet another 'Citizen Kane' season, David Thomson asks: has the film suffered from overexposure?
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The Independent Culture

The movies are for young people. A writer aged 59 says that with mixed feelings - perhaps he's losing touch; and if he isn't, maybe that's because he can't quite grow up. That leads to a more worrying thought about movies: that if they are central to our culture, does that suggest we have given up on such old-fashioned hopes as wisdom, maturity, acceptance? Is the whole world doomed to be young - or trying to be young - from now on?

The movies are for young people. A writer aged 59 says that with mixed feelings - perhaps he's losing touch; and if he isn't, maybe that's because he can't quite grow up. That leads to a more worrying thought about movies: that if they are central to our culture, does that suggest we have given up on such old-fashioned hopes as wisdom, maturity, acceptance? Is the whole world doomed to be young - or trying to be young - from now on?

You see, it's not only that movie-going, with all its stress on sex and violence, speaks to the dreams of the young. It's not even that most movies are about young people. Nor is it simply a matter of observing that so many film-makers do their best work when young. No, if you want the nutshell that says it all, it is that Orson Welles made Citizen Kane when he was 25 and that Kane, nearly 60 years later, seems not just the best film there has ever been, but a marker that re-defines competition. Like Tiger Woods, Kane is playing a different game.

For no particular anniversary, as far as I can see, the National Film Theatre is mounting a small season on Kane - a chance to see the film again, to consider the pictures that influenced it (startlingly few), as well as those it has affected (nearly everything made since 1941?). This is all well and good. I introduced a showing of Kane at the NFT myself a few years ago and I was gratified to find that about a third of the audience had never seen the classic before. For anyone in possession of that virginity, the seasoned guide can truthfully recommend the loss thereof. For it is a great, heady experience.

This is a film famous for deep-focus photography that is also one of the well-springs of film noir. At the same time, it plays with multiple point-of-view narratives in a fashion that still obliges the viewer to work hard to keep up. Throw in the overlapping dialogue; the quasi-symphonic music score such as American films had never known before; and the astounding sound effects - and you can see why so much much is demanded of the audience. No one in America had ever made a movie before in which so much was made of detail, to which the audience had to attend. It is nearly an afterthought to add that this is also a story about power, politics, celebrity - and the emptiness that accompanies them all. It was, even in 1941, before the concept was known, a film about a society dominated by its media.

Every year, I daresay, a few more novices see Kane for the first time and decide that they must go into movies. So many directors have had that seminal encounter, and some have memorialised the impact. Thus, in Day for Night, where François Truffaut plays the harassed director, he has a dream of himself as a child in a city at night, coming to a movie theatre, locked and barred, and trying to steal a still from the film. What does the boy use for a hook? His own walking stick - his cane. Not just a nice joke, but one Welles had used in Touch of Evil, where the slob detective, Hank Quinlan, is incriminated when he leaves his cane at the scene of the crime.

I have been writing about the film, and learning more from it, for 40 years, and a few years ago I wrote the book about Orson Welles that I'd known for decades I could not escape. My book is called Rosebud, and it's one of several on Welles since his death in 1985. The same period has seen Peter Bogdanovich's full-length interview, This Is Orson Welles, as well as the first volume of Simon Callow's biography. If I may say so, there is not a dull book in the bunch - you can't be dull writing about Orson. What greater gift has anyone ever delivered? There will be more books, for sure, for no one thinks that the mystery of two hugely talented, charismatic, but self-destructive men - Charles Foster Kane and George Orson Welles - has been resolved.

And yet, something troubles me. I wonder if a similar unease doesn't prompt this new Kane season? You see, in 1952, Sight and Sound, the magazine of the British Film Institute, launched a poll of critics on the 10 best films ever made. As you read the list of winners, don't be too alarmed by unfamiliar titles. This was a long time ago - only halfway through our history of the movies. Anyway, in 1952, the critics voted as follows, in order of merit: Bicycle Thieves; City Lights; The Gold Rush; Battleship Potemkin; Louisiana Story; Intolerance; Greed; Le Jour se Lÿve; The Passion of Joan of Arc; Brief Encounter; Le Million; La Rÿgle du Jeu.

What's missing? Let's settle for the most obvious: Citizen Kane, though it was 11 years old at the time. Why is it missing? When it opened, it was a box-office flop (as well as a critical success). But in those days, old films went away once they had played. There was a small film society world (the breeding ground of Sight and Sound) that ran old movies in 16mm. But it favoured foreign films, and silent classics. Thus the 1952 list has not one mainstream film from the golden age of Hollywood (from sound to film noir, say).

Several things rescued Kane: television in the late 1950s; the reissue of good 35mm prints; and the French praise of Welles as a film genius. To which one might add the ongoing presence of Welles himself, with Mr Arkadin (a kind of week-end house-party re-make of Kane) and Touch of Evil, that terrific noir ferment on the Mexican-American border. When Sight and Sound re-opened its poll in 1962, Kane was number one. It has held that place every 10 years since - 1972, 1982, 1992.

I imagine that Sight and Sound has big plans for 2002, and I don't see how Kane is anything but the favourite to win again. If I'm given a vote, I may decide (once more) that no film has done more to convey the expressiveness of the medium. And yet, I feel a shadow in the steady recognition of Kane at the expense of all else. I feel a kind of resentment in young people who want the movies to belong to them and who prefer the charm of some movie that changed them. I know it meant a lot to me that I saw Kane alone, in 1955, after waiting years to find it. No one can "discover" that film again, alas - or see it in such splendour. And discovery depends upon the emotion of the finder. There's another thing to worry about. No other real art form is so reliant upon this craze for polls. Paintings, poetry, music, buildings, novels - their fortunes rise and fall, but no constituency seems bound to bully the public into lists and hierarchies. Is this pressure part of the load of box-office - or an urge to prove that film is more than tickets sold? Is it one more sign of the youthfulness and the insecurity of those who are mad about movies? Isn't there something shrill in the idea of "the best film ever", and some nagging undertone that maybe the world would have been better off without all those pictures?

Of course, if you're of the generation that discovered Kane, Renoir's La Rÿgle du Jeu and Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari, you feel outraged that the 10 best films are Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, ET, Titanic, The Terminator, Blade Runner, The Truman Show, Raging Bull and Pulp Fiction. But the most alarming thing about that "modern" list is the absence of foreign films. Having lived out an age that felt foreign films were by definition better than English-speaking films, I now feel horrified at the young flinching from sub-titles or alien ways of thinking. And so I feel more inclined to say that the great directors working today are Angelopoulos, Kiarostami, Godard (still), Rivette (still), Chris Marker, Hou Hsiao-Hsien before I come to an American - Robert Altman.

Even alongside Godard and Marker, Kane deserves its place, just as Orson Welles remains one of the most intriguing people of the 20th century. But I recognise the beginnings of reaction, and I'm not sure it does Kane any good to be insisted on, automatically. Have we already fallen into the trap of taking the film for granted? Have we stopped watching it? That's how it could become an annoying monument, a bogey-man, standing in the way - instead of the work of an insolent kid who made Tarantino seem naive.

I think fondly of that age when films were unavailable - and when their desirability grew. That's what Hitchcock ensured when he withdrew Vertigo. And I wonder whether Citizen Kane might not now benefit from some tactful, but lengthy, servicing? Is Sight and Sound sophisticated enough for a by-law that could put Kane out of reach for the 2002 vote? You say that's unfair or artificial? Probably. But in a year or two golf may have to decide what to do when no one has an interest in tournaments that are a foregone conclusion. Of course, we could give up polls for a hundred years. But the kid in us wonders if film would last without them.

It's a puzzle and a joke - yet it's a real issue. Somehow, the old man who waits for me longs for the chance to say, "Ah, you should have seen Citizen Kane..."

'The Kane Connection' (U): NFT, SE1, (020 7928 3232); from Tuesday throughout August