In 'Citizen Kane,'welles Invented Modern Cinema

July 21, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In 1941, the world changed. Yes, Hitler invaded Russia and Ted Williams hit .406, but I'm talking about important change.

Orson Welles invented the movies.

I'm well aware that there was a movie industry before "Citizen Kane" opened at Radio City Music Hall and that the great work by Sergei Eisenstein, Charlie Chaplin, John Ford and Frank Capra had all been done. I'm aware that for most Americans then, the movies were a twice-a-week habit, and that the Hollywood machine was at its highest pitch, cranking out about 800 features a year. And I'm well aware that just two years earlier, in 1939, Hollywood had an extraordinary year, a year which is forever looked upon as the high-water mark of the studio system.

But nevertheless, in 1941, Orson Welles invented the movies -- or least he invented

the direction that the movies would henceforth take. He invented . . . the '40s, '50s, '60s (brother, did he invent the '60s!) and the '70s and the '80s and especially the '90s.

These thoughts flood to mind in the wake of a viewing of the restored "Citizen Kane," rereleased 50 years after it first blew onto screens amid controversy, rumor and legend. Seeing the film on a big screen today (as you will be able to do when it opens at the Charles Thursday), one is struck by its almost shocking freshness. Unlike so many other great movies of the past, "Kane" doesn't demand that you will yourself into a spirit of compromise and forgive it a variety of politically incorrect sins as well as a number of artistically incorrect ones. It just is, that's all; it's immediately recognizable by the lights of today's films -- ironic, hip, witty, somewhat fractured, essentially the act of a very young man showing what he could do and so full of his confidence that he could even afford to pretend to be modest. (Best phony-humble credit line in movie history: At the end of what most critics agree is the greatest American sound film, the screen reads merely: "Production -- Direction: Orson Welles"!) "Citizen Kane" didn't anticipate the future: It guaranteed it.

Welles invented that which is the commonplace among sophisticated viewers of movies. He invented the consciousness movies, that envelope of shared experience in which viewer and director and critic now meet for discourse. He invented the common language of movie-awareness. (He also invented, I should hasten to add, me. That is, he invented a cinema rich enough and deep enough to sustain, in newsrags the world over, extremely lucky young men and women who got paid to go to them and then shoot their mouths off in print the next morning.)

It could be said also, as a corollary, that he therefore invente the director, but this is more a critical perception than a reality. He invented the "accessible" director, the director of style and charisma who would himself become a bigger star than his actors or his story.

It is partially but not entirely a matter of images. There were great movies before 1941 and there were great visual movie moments. Think of the Odessa Steps sequence in "Battleship Potemkin"; think of that delirious moment in "Stagecoach," when the young John Wayne rears up out of the prairie and Ford, heretofore the most conventional of craftsmen, suddenly zooms the camera in on the young stud, as if to say to all the world, "This is your new star." Think of the exquisite stroke of genius by which Victor Fleming tilted the camera just at the moment

the Wicked Witch hurled the hourglass at Dorothy and her friends cowering at the locked castle door, and how that one slanted image seemed to sum up all her beautiful nastiness, give it the power of unforgettable myth.

All true. Yet somehow different. Those movies were imagined primarily as versions of stories that existed already. They were rooted in other narrative forms; the great American films were versions of other stories. They came from books or plays or magazine serials. In each case, they began with a fealty to Aristotelian unities -- time, place, character, rising action, climax, denouement. Consequently, screenwriters were ex-playwrights or newspaper hacks or burned-out novelists (real novelists, of course, such as Hemingway, couldn't be tempted to sell out to Hollywood; only those who'd spent their advances before finishing their manuscripts, like Faulkner and Fitzgerald, were willing to stoop so low.)

The origin therefore determined the approach: It was the pane of glass technique, borrowed from the fourth wall of the proscenium stage. We watch from here what is going on over there. What happened beyond the window or the wall was contrived, compacted, focused, but it nevertheless clung to a conceit of naturalness. Nowhere in the construction was there acknowledgment of its artificiality. It was supposed to be real; you weren't supposed to notice that it was a movie.

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