There are certain pop cultural products that achieve a standard of excellence so high it is difficult to hold a polite conversation with those who do not appreciate them. When somebody tells you they hate the Beatles, for instance, you might think, well, hell, this poor slob grew up hearing all that “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” stuff on the radio, and maybe he's never been exposed to Sgt. Pepper's or Abbey Road. But if he has actually listened to their best work and still professes to hate them, you can only figure he's a tone-deaf fool or a lying, contrarian bastard. It's like somebody declaring that puppies suck or that chocolate tastes like crap. Attempting further discourse is futile; simply back away slowly, and once they're safely out of sight, do all you can to avoid crossing their path again.
While those who claim to detest the Beatles may simply be ignored as the screwheads they are, those who hate Citizen Kane need to be sent off to special camps for lengthy re-education. Orson Welles' masterpiece was so huge and so influential that we can scarcely comprehend what modern film would look like without it.
Welles was a child prodigy, and in his mid-20s, he brought decades of experience to his directorial debut. From his years in radio, Welles enjoyed a mastery of sound and a deep understanding of its effects; from his years in theater, he boasted a mastery of acting and a finely trained eye. He once described a movie set as the biggest toy train set a boy could want, and Kane, for all its seriousness, is an exciting, playful film.
Even though it's a portrait of a man who buys the world without managing to persuade a single human being to truly love him, this picture skips right along. You can feel the joy in Welles' formal experimentation, in the way his camera swoops and soars like no camera ever had before. Welles' performance in the title role is masterful, with nary a false note, but in every frame, you can still sense his impish, smug delight in his own precociousness. We see him age (believably) from a rakish young ladies' man into a sour, elderly tyrant. He moves us to laughter and to tears. He dances—for God's sake, he even works in a chance to display his ability to wiggle his ears. Welles is the consummate showoff, but you forgive him because he shows off so well. He excelled in theater and made history in radio, but in film, he found his real calling. He knew it, and he wouldn't rest until we knew it, too.
Many formally experimental films can be dry, technical exercises, but Kane manages to be both formally daring and emotionally satisfying. This is because Welles puts his gimmicks in the service of the story, using them to push us into a deeper understanding of his characters. There is real gallows wit in the moment, toward the end of Kane's first marriage, when the camera pulls back from the table where he's sitting with his wife, and for an instant, the table is lit so that it perfectly resembles a casket. You could miss the effect and still be moved by the scene, but that little Wellesian flourish gives it the perfect punch line.
There is something equally miraculous in another moment, near the film's end, when the eye of Kane's second wife dissolves into a detail from one of Kane's pricy collectables, the perfect commentary on his true feelings for her. It is a moment so subtle as to be almost subliminal; you could see the picture 10,000 times and never notice it, but the moment you do, it's so perfectly right that you wonder why anybody ever bothered to make another movie after this.
But make other movies they did—and lots of them, almost all bearing Kane's influence or, increasingly, the influence of those who were influenced by Kane. Without Welles, modern Hollywood would be unrecognizable. But then again, without the Beatles, there would have been no Electric Light Orchestra or Backstreet Boys. In both cases, we must celebrate the original pop titans without blaming them for all the hunchbacked dwarves who have walked in their long shadows.
Citizen Kane screens at the Bay Theater, 340 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 431-9988. Sun., 3 p.m. $6-$8.