Citizen Kane is not the greatest movie of all time. As we all know, Shoot ’Em Up is the greatest movie of all time. At no point in Citizen Kane does Charles Foster Kane kill a man with a carrot, but I’ll admit that it is, indeed, a great movie, one that blew me away in high school and still impresses me now. It’s a marvel in all respects of filmmaking, and it feels shockingly modern, but so much has been written about the film in over nearly eight decades, what is there left to say? Only the unique perspective brought about by having recently watched F for Fake, Orson Welles’s last movie, before rewatching Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’s first movie. In that precursor to YouTube video essays, Welles explores the many ways we find truth in fiction. It’s fascinating to view Citizen Kane through the lens of the thesis that Welles played with at the age of 58, the obsession with artifice and fakery that was clearly on his mind when he was only 25 and just beginning his film career.
Kane himself embodies the F for Fake mentality since he’s famously based on William Randolph Hearst. Welles took a true story and painted over it with fakery, even going so far as to transform California’s Hearst Castle into Florida’s Xanadu (as if switching coasts would distance the fiction from its subject). But he then went further, introducing the character of Kane via a five-minute News on the March newsreel that outlines Kane’s entire life story…but it’s the myth of the man. The movie proceeds to strip away that myth and attempt to get to the real truth of who Kane is in order to understand the meaning of his last word, “Rosebud.” Yet it turns out the real truth of who Kane is is that he’s a faker of the highest order! Engaging in yellow journalism, he feels perfectly comfortable as a newspaperman posting headlines as long as they’re not not true. Fake it till you make it.
Similarly, Kane’s second wife, Susan, whose tale takes up a significant portion of the second half, lives that “fake it till you make it” life, though more unwittingly. Since it’s the way Kane started his own career, it’s as if it’s the only way he knows \to become successful, and so he does his damnedest to turn her into an opera superstar. He seizes on her dream and, believing that her success or failure is a reflection on him, makes it his own. While I personally didn’t think her singing was that bad — and the audience reception doesn’t make me believe she’s supposed to be ear-splittingly terrible — Welles pans up from the stage where she sings to a stagehand in the rafters holding his nose, a punchline that signals that the reality of the matter is that she stinks. With that in mind, Kane’s furious, intense applause — now popularly used in GIF form to signify sincere, genuine praise — is understood to be the desperate plea of a man trying to will his wife’s career into existence. You can see him trying to convince himself to join the rest of the audience in their polite applause, but once he accepts the truth of his wife’s voice, he accepts the challenge to convince the rest of the world that she belongs on the stage. Yet his first act in this campaign of deception is to maintain a sense of journalistic integrity he certainly did not have early in his career by finishing Jedediah Leland’s scathing review of Susan’s performance. Leland is surprised Kane doesn’t take the opportunity to turn it into a puff piece, and Susan has no idea her husband actually wrote the hurtful review he published. The question that is never fully answered is exactly how much of that review is Kane’s own true feelings and how much is his attempt to play the part of Leland. Truth and fiction merge into one in that theater review, recalling the hoax Welles would later chronicle in F for Fake, where Clifford Irving wrote an “autobiography” as if he were Howard Hughes.
Beyond these two major characters, however, even the editing techniques Robert Wise employs throughout the film highlight how cinema itself is a magic trick that fools the audience. In one astonishing cut, Kane’s childhood guardian, Mr. Thatcher, wishes the boy a merry Christmas, and when Kane repeats it back to him, Mr. Thatcher responds by completing the common phrase with “and a happy New Year.” But it takes him fifteen years to respond because of a clever jump cut that launches us into the future, brilliantly bridging a gap in time. Another edit links the careers of Kane and Susan through, of all things, applause. When Susan first tells Kane of her wish to be a singer, she performs for him in her apartment, and he applauds, and this applause blends seamlessly into the applause for Kane during a campaign event. In essence, what Welles has done is make Kane…applaud…for himself! And if we’re talking about true movie magic, look no further than one of my favorite shots in the film, a shot so nice they used it twice, where the camera zooms from the sign on the roof of Susan’s nightclub to the skylight and then seemingly flies right through the glass and inside thanks to a subtle dissolve. F for Fake, of course, takes these editing techniques and puts them into overdrive, with so much frenetic cutting it calls attention to the way we must connect a series of images to parse a coherent thought out of them.
But Welles’s finest moment comes at a party scene late in the film, where he uses a rear projection backdrop from Son of Kong to offer a jungle setting. In this backdrop you can see fucking pterodactyls. There are fucking pterodactyls in Citizen Kane. Are we to assume these pterodactyls exist in the world of Citizen Kane, just flapping around in the modern-day Everglades? This is the true test of cinematic artifice, as the audience may be content with characters who are far more than they appear to be on the surface or cuts that create critical connections, but a viewer confronted with dinosaurs must truly examine the nature of film. Is Citizen Kane the greatest movie of all time, or do these pterodactyls mean it gets an F for Fake?