Saturday, September 23, 2017

Citizen Cain

If it’s always odd to see films taking their place in the TV listings grid, this oddity becomes sheer irony when the film begins with images of grids. And the grid that separates the dying Kane from the rest of the world is among the first objects that we see in Citizen Kane. Beyond the ‘No trespassing’ sign, a camera movement goes over a wall of barbwire and a steel fence, with a dissolve on the wrought iron letter K and the enigmatic images of a night time Xanadu with parks, monkeys and gondolas. And when the film ends with the unfinished investigation and the shot of the Rosebud sleigh in flames, it’s on the same ‘No trespassing’ sign, and still tip-toeing. 
A similar thing happens with Welles, Fellini, Kubrick or any filmmaker labelled ‘baroque’. We should breathe new life in this word (baroque), making it current. For what is baroque with these filmmakers cannot be reduced to a taste for irregularity or anamorphosis. Rather, this taste must have come to them at the same time they became conscious, one after the other, of a real metamorphosis of what was not yet called ‘audio-visual’ or ‘landscape’. In fact, it’s with baroque filmmakers that the intertwining of public and private life became a real headache.  
‘Rarely a private life has been so public,’ says a description of the film when talking about Kane. Welles was the first one to invent, with Rosebud, a gimmick that is less a fictional ‘last word’ than a ‘sound bite’ left to the voracious media. The line that separated reserve and exhibition, bad faith and pious lie, treachery and illusionism, must constantly be drawn and replayed, and Welles would dedicate his life to doing so. The radio host who scared his fellow citizens with The War of the Worlds will never abandon this line. With his morality, Welles will be torn apart between the desire to become a citizen among others and the desire to remain Kane, meaning Cain.  
There’s no point pushing the first open door of the year by saying how beautiful Citizen Kane is. But there is a point in wondering about the transfer on television of this old masterpiece (1941). For it’s precisely what we now call ‘media’ that Welles is already talking about. It’s leaning over the cradle of the media that Welles has had his best success. This success belonged for a long time to the history of cinema but, with time, we understand more and more that they also represent a kind of historical ‘right to look’ of a filmmaker – Welles, a great mediator – over a world – the media – that is distancing itself from cinema (after having picked its pockets).  
It’s enough to see the fake news report on Kane’s life (News on the March) that opens the film to see how much it anticipates the great pompous TV-obituaries based on archive footage. It’s enough to watch the way that Cotten, Sloane and the others, made up to look older, are filmed in the interviews (with the reporter in an over the shoulder shot) to see how much Welles anticipates the craving for commemorations and survivors’ testimonies that please radio and television so much. In other words, one of the great reasons behind the modernity of the style of Citizen Kane is that Welles was already filming with composite styles and according to several rhetorical stances, as if he would be doing it for a TV channel (which would be the dream of ubiquity of his own Mercury theatre troupe). 
Wellesian wisdom, worthy of Zeno of Elea, says that whatever the technique used, it will miss something in the news (perhaps the essential, but not necessarily). But the Wellesian greatness will never make a big deal of it. It’s the movement towards information that is positive (making good citizens out of us), not the always disappointed belief that truth could be told in full or that it could be expressed in just one word (making us all little Cains, meaning consumed with envy). 
Welles never stopped to invent monsters like Kane, Arkadin, Quinlan and others news traffickers. He exorcised what must have come across to him as his own demon as well as the demon of the century: the art to seduce victims and to get rid of witnesses. The prophet Welles got only one thing wrong: his monsters had a child-like side and a seedy greatness that will sorely miss in their successors heading TV listing grids and channels. 
First published in Libération on 2 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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