Saturday, August 18, 2012

With friends like these.. Peter Bogdanovich and Citizen Kane

I've been thinking about the latest Sight and Sound poll and the surprising rise of Vertigo from relatively minor Hitchcock* to the "greatest film of all time." But there's another side to the story. Since 1962, the top film on the once a decade poll was Citizen Kane. Kane's fall to the number two spot is certainly less dramatic than Vertigo's rise, but if Kane has slipped in critical estimation, I wonder if some of the blame rests with Peter Bogdanovich.

Bogdanovich certainly didn't set out to undermine Kane. Orson Welles was one of Bogdanovich's closest friends, a fact that the younger director routinely referred to (if asked "do you want paper or plastic?" there's a better than even chance that Bogdanovich's answer would involve Welles). But Bogdanovich, for reasons too complicated to go into now, has made downplaying the role of William Randolph Hearst an integral part of his defense of Kane. Here, in an interview about the Cat's Meow, is a representative quote.

He also felt his film "could get closer to Hearst" than Welles ever did, chiefly because he claims Citizen Kane was not entirely based on the newspaper magnate. "It's what people can't get through their heads! It was a combination of characters. It wasn't just about Hearst. That's a misconception everybody has that has come from the press and the mythology and people getting it wrong."

I've never seen an interviewer call Bogdanovich on this, which is unfortunate for two reasons: first because it's very much in dispute and second because taking Hearst out of the picture guts the film's political context and undermines many of its best moments.

Citizen Kane is, of course, a work of fiction, not a docudrama and Charles Foster Kane is not supposed to be William Randolph Hearst. (Kane is probably closer to Hearst than Richard III is to the protagonist of Shakespeare's play, but that's a topic for another day.)

But while there are aspects of Kane based on other press lords (making his 'mistress' a singer instead of an actress for example), all of the thematically important similarities and most of the highly recognizable ones were purely Hearst (many of the best remembered moments -- "I'll provide the war" "I'll have to close this place in... 60 years" -- were taken directly from Hearst's bio).

The makers of Citizen Kane play against the persona of Hearst in a similar fashion to the way Condon plays with McCarthy in the Manchurian Candidate. The result is politically rich and incredibly economical film making (for example, the shot of Kane and Hitler played on Hearst's complicated history with the dictator, a relationship that would have been fresh in the minds of everyone in the original audience -- it was a big deal at the time).

By obscuring the context of the work, Bogdanovich has done more damage to Citizen Kane than Hearst and company ever managed.

* Wikipedia: "In the 1950s, the French Cahiers du cinéma critics began re-evaluating Hitchcock as a serious artist rather than just a populist showman. However, even François Truffaut's important 1962 interviews with Hitchcock (not published in English until 1967) mentions Vertigo only in passing"

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