24 September 2010

20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 15, Citizen Kane by Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles

Citizen Kane is familiar territory, hailed as one of the greatest movies of all time. Perhaps it's too a little too familiar, a little too picked over. For me, the script at least, was virginal and new, and it was long past time to read it.
     Briefly, Citizen Kane tells the story of a newspaper mogul who reaches near domination of media in the United States, then falls, done in by his massive egotism and his gargantuan need for love. Essentially, a man who has it all, then loses it. It's difficult to read this script without feeling the overwhelming presence of Welles behind every page -- his voice and his face so embody Kane that you can't get away from him.
     Welles and Mankiewicz clearly aimed for Shakespearean greatness: a prince of our time, magnificently gifted, but tragically flawed, ground up by his own hubris is the recipe Aristotle cooked up. They take that story and then refract it, break it up and tell it from the point of view of people who knew Kane. The fragmentation applies to the way time is treated as well: a flashback within a flashback is the default scene, with complexities on top of that.
     The story structure itself creates meaning and reinforces one of the themes of Citizen Kane. Who are we? What is the nature of our identity, or that of those whom we love or fear?  How can we ever know a friend, really, or a husband? Only by what we see of him, by what others say about him. If he's famous, we may catch glimpses through the media, and their stereotyped presentations. 
     It's deeply accomplished, and worth the praise it's won when you consider how the script beautifully marries form to meaning. I could cite element after element of the story that achieves this, and I'm sure a lot of other commentators have detailed these.
     What struck me, too, was that a lot of the devices that receive tribute in the finished film, such as the brilliant sound design and the innovative editing, are in the script itself. Only the script for Ikiru comes close to Kane's careful attention to auditory elements. In fact, if you'd handed the script to another director and if he'd followed the instructions, then critics would probably be talking about that guy's brilliant directorial approach to sound.
     By coincidence, maybe, this is yet another movie masterpiece with a flawed protagonist who fails, which makes three out of the 15 I've read so far: Sunset Boulevard, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and now, Citizen Kane. You could also count Bonnie and Clyde as well as All Quiet on the Western Front. Taxi Driver has a deeply messed up protagonist, but his arc is more complex.

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