`Kane' lures even Hearst with charm

A force 60 years later, Welles' epic embraced by publisher's heir, festival

Maryland Film Festival

May 02, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Maryland Film Festival opens tonight with its gala presentation of 10 Under 20, an adventurous collection of animated and live-action shorts, with all their makers in attendance.

But the opening feature is Citizen Kane (tomorrow at 10 a.m., at the Charles). It's both an apt opening film for a young festival like Maryland's, and the perfect follow-up to 10 Under 20.

For Citizen Kane has always been the quintessential young man's movie. Orson Welles made his first and best mark in film as a 25-year-old boy wonder with this elegant and turbulent 1941 expose of a magnate who resembled William Randolph Hearst. As a result, Welles grew to represent youth in movie art the way Elvis stood for youth in music.

The latest movie about Hearst, The Cat's Meow (due to open here May 17), is a doddering theater piece compared to Citizen Kane. There's never been a more excitingly externalized portrait of a power maniac. Welles used cunning camera movements to trace the effects of Kane's centrifugal force. He worked out every shade of his hero's good and evil in a scintillating chiaroscuro of the soundstage. And he made the American masses Kane enflamed a vivid presence in his jam-packed frames and crowded soundtrack.

The outcome was something Welles could not have imagined. Whenever a movie has been hailed as a youthful outburst of innovation -- from M*A*S*H to Mean Streets -- it usually owes a stylistic debt to Citizen Kane.

There had been dozens of great American talkies before Citizen Kane. But Welles was fresh from invigorating the New York stage and the national airwaves with his topical productions of Shakespeare and his documentary-style broadcast of The War of the Worlds. He unleashed his brain- and barnstorming talent on the movies in a way that affected other gifted people like a shot of pure oxygen. He inspired not just the new-to-the-screen talent of Mercury Theater actors (including Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead and Everett Sloane); he also brought out the genius of cinematographer Gregg Toland, composer Bernard Herrmann and editor Robert Wise.

It was more than a cinematic explosion; it was a cinematic fragmentation bomb that lodged in the brains of other filmmakers and thus had an influence that grew with every decade. Welles may have conceived the film as a dark parable of the warping power of the media. But he funneled in so much of his infatuation with the movies that audiences have always experienced Citizen Kane as an energizer. And Welles' spirit lives on in it -- as precociousness incarnate.

Winning over Hearst III

And that, it turns out, made one of Hearst's heirs fall in love with it. In 1941, the Hearst newspapers launched a campaign against Kane that scared away top exhibitors and helped the studios label Welles a troublemaker. But after Welles died in 1985, I asked my boss at the time, William Randolph Hearst III, then the publisher of the San Francisco Examiner, for a response -- and he said: "Goddamn it! It makes me mad because I wanted to meet that man. I really wanted to talk about that movie." When the movie's 50th anniversary rolled around in 1991, I asked Hearst, then the editor-publisher of the Examiner, to expand on his feelings. This is what he said:

"The movie is now enormously inspirational to me, and to anyone in newspapers. Unless you have an extremely moralistic approach and are just in a state of outrage from soup to nuts, the movie has wonderful sweep and sort of pulls you into excitement and glamour about publishing, journalism, the media. ...

"There are two major theories of journalism. One of them is the duty theory, in which journalism is a sacred trust, and that you ought to spend every waking moment getting the accuracy right, and being a public servant. And I think for the era we're in today, those are very important ideas. But I also think there's another tradition, and another theory, that has somehow gone and become the reigning theory of something like motion pictures rather than newspapers. And that is that it should be fun, it should be entertaining, there should be camaraderie, there should be a spirit of innovation, with an audience poised to attend the performance, and then you should not only deliver some gripping stories -- you should have a good time yourself while doing it.

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