For this installment of Never Seen It, we welcome Jon W. Sparks, editor of Inside Memphis Business. Sparks is a longtime journalist who came from a community newspaper in New York City in 1981 to work at The Commercial Appeal. Since taking a buyout 10 years ago, he’s written for several local and national publications before taking the helm of Inside Memphis Business. He is also an actor familiar to Memphis film and theater fans for his appearances in both locally produced films and on the stage. We were joined by Sparks’ wife, Memphis College of Art professor Maritza Dávila, and my wife, filmmaker Laura Jean Hocking.
Our film is Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane.
Chris McCoy: Tell me what you know about Citizen Kane.
Jon Sparks: I know it makes most of the top ten, if not five, lists of the greatest movies ever. But I’ll be the judge of that.
JS: I know it’s heralded for the brilliance of its writing, the concepts, the ending, the black and white cinematography. Orson Welles, of course, leaves a mark on everything he does. Maybe not always good, but he leaves a mark. And I have seen a little bit here and there.
CM: Anything specific?
JS: I’m remembering shouting crowds and Joseph Cotton. I think there were some spinning newspapers.
119 minutes later…
JS: I’m not accustomed to being on this side of the recorder. This is uncomfortable.
CM: I know! OK. Citizen Kane. What did you think?
JS: When you see films that are biographies, essentially, this film set the standard cinematically, and in so many ways. Movies made today that are biographies don’t have the surprises and the approach this one does. This one is fresh today, because of the story angles it takes and the conclusions it reaches with each scene, the time line going back and forth, with Joseph Cotton reminiscing about the old days. But even then, it’s stitched together differently from anything today.
CM: It’s not a three act play, for one thing. It’s six or seven. It lays out the whole story in the opening newsreel. There are no plot surprises after the first ten minutes.
JS: It’s interesting that the newsreel looked so rough. It was really cheesy, the effects were pretty low grade, which is what you would expect out of a newsreel. Then it begins to tell the story, and it’s very theatrical. They even stage a lot of things in a theater.
Title card from the newsreel sequence.
CM: Does the acting feel theatrical?
JS: The acting is all uniformly good, but you can recognize the skills of the theater people doing it.
Laura Jean Hocking: When they’re talking over each other, that seems very theatrical to me. I don’t think you saw that very much before this movie. I associate it with like, Rosalind Russell and the sort of sassy dame stuff. There’s so many things that happened for the first time in this movie.
JS: You pointed out when they started the shot with a close up of a face and then pulling back into the establishing shot. But the acting was so incredibly skillful. I was knocked out by Everett Sloane’s Bernstein. I love how, in the beginning, an editor is barking out orders to reporters: ‘Go find that guy! What’s his name? Its Bernstein! The manager!’ Then the next time he’s mentioned, it’s again ‘What’s his name? Bernstein!’ It’s like he’s so inconsequential, but he’s the thread that goes through Kane’s life. He never divorced him or ran away from him. Bernstein was there and he understood Kane probably better than anyone.
CM: Bernstein’s take is the most objective of all of them. He never really took Kane seriously, but he didn’t hate him, either.
Agnes Moorehead as Mary Kane.
JS: But he understood him well enough to function with him. The same actor did him from old to young, but in a way he always looked old….And that’s just one great performance. Anges Moorehead, forget about it! She’s got that face that is so hard, and here she is a mother giving up her child.
CM: Her voice breaks when she says ‘Charlie’, and that’s the only bit of emotion that she lets slip through. It tears your heart out! One of my favorite things that has trickled through films ever since is the ‘Citizen Kane shot’, where there are two people in the foreground framing one person in the background. The two people in the foreground are talking about the person in the background, but the person in the background doesn’t know they’re being talked about. That happens at least twice in this movie. The first time it’s mom and dad and the banker, with Charlie framed in the window in the background. The second time he does it, there’s a freakin’ musical scene going on! He shows you how the composition is going to work in the first angle, then he goes to the reverse angle and boom, it’s exactly the same shot from before, with two people discussing Kane’s fate while Kane is dancing around trying to get their attention. Welles rubs your face in it.
The first instance of the "Citizen Kane shot".
Ten minutes later, the second instance.
#2 in context:
Maritza Dávila: I thought the acting was so natural. The first wife was such a lady, and you could tell she always had to act like that, so proper. And Orson Welles. Wow.
LJ: How old was he?
CM: I think he was 24. It’s ridiculous. I’ve wasted my life.
MD: His acting…even when he is so restrained, you can just feel it in him, the feeling that, ‘I have to win!’ All that childhood trauma that he was never able to get rid of. The same behavior that he has with his guardian, he continues that behavior over and over again. With everything.
CM: He would redirect that energy towards somebody else, but it was always the same energy.
JS: I love some of the choices Welles makes. When he gets married for the first time, they tell the whole story with a series of scenes at the breakfast table. They just get farther and farther apart….Now the other relationship, a bit more traditional.
CM: He uses the other relationship to sneak in the jigsaw puzzle, which is really the overarching metaphor for the whole thing. He just sneaks it in there. That’s one of the things that’s great about the screenplay. Everything pays off. Everything you think is just a throwaway detail turns out to be a setup.
MD: The comedic relief throughout the whole movie is so well placed.
CM: One thing that struck me this time through—and maybe this is a result of reviewing movies all the time—is that this is so much denser than anything you see today.
JS: Part of that is at the beginning. They hit all these high points and then never visit them again. I thought, well OK, they tell the story fast, then they’re going to tell it slow. But they didn’t do that. They filled in the spaces. The death of his first wife and son is never dealt with at all. The stock market crash and the Great Depression is the same thing. They kind of go, ‘Oh, well, we don’t have as much money as we used to.’ But expanding on those obvious points is something that would be done today. They would show it with all the tears and everything.
CM: And hearing you say that makes me think, if I was giving advice on a screenplay, I would give that note. ‘Why don’t we get to see him losing all his money? Why don’t we get to see his wife and son dying?’ I would have given bad notes to Orson Welles.
LJH: Once his wife and kid leave you never see them again. You don’t have to.
JS: And that’s good writing, to only say something one time, and say it right. You see that in beginning writers. They’ll tell you the same thing a bunch of different ways, because they’re just so in love with the idea. Just express it one good way.
CM: Have faith that your audience is smart enough to put the pieces together.
CM: So, Mr. Editor of Inside Memphis Business, this is a movie about business and wealth and capitalism.
JS: He was a very rich man who was on the side of the poor man. He was going to devote his life to making the plight of the underdog much better. He was clearly going to make the country great again, in some fashion.
CM: It’s very relevant today, because he feels like Trump. He even does the ‘Lock her up!’ stuff.
JS: That was prescient.
CM: Obviously, the character is based on William Randolph Hearst, but he becomes Teddy Roosevelt for a minute there.
MS: One thing that occurred to me, with all of the things that happened to him, he never matured.
LJH: When Susan leaves, he throws a tantrum and tears her room up.
MD: That was the most out of control he found himself. And then he died. Before that, he was like, ‘I want to make you a singer. Not because you want to be a singer, but because I want you to be a singer.’ He was just putting all of that need into every single person he meets..
CM: And when she says she doesn’t want to be up there in front of an audience that doesn’t want her, he says, ‘That’s when you have to fight them!’ This time, I was like, wow, that’s exactly the wrong thing to do.
JS: He has the resources that, if people don’t want him, he can change. He can buy a newspaper. But she is stuck in that one role, playing that one thing. She doesn’t have the versatility that he has, but he doesn’t see that. If there is anything that’s repeated, it’s that insecure side of him that people kept reminding him of. You just want to be loved. You just want to love yourself. That’s what she tells him when she finally stomps out. He says ‘I need you to do this!’ She says, ‘Oh yeah. It’s about what you need. Adios! Tear up the room! I’m outta here!’
CM: What is this film’s view of business, of capitalism?
JS: It was not very positive, as Hollywood films often are. It had a very low opinion of business. In the very beginning, before we see him as the shabby character he really is, we see him as a heroic trustbuster. This comical character, his stepfather, is the goof. But he’s a typical trust guy. He’s a slumlord who embodies all the evils of capitalism. So Kane goes after him, but not because he believes it.
CM: Kane is not a Marxist.
JS: Kane is a Kane-ist. He’s just sticking it to the old man because he’s the old man…They don’t really make a whole lot about how Kane acquired these newspapers and built an empire. They throw a little bit at you about how he says, ‘We need to raid that newspaper and get their best people.’ Then he just does it. There’s no particular shrewdness that you see in any of that. There’s no great lessons to be learned about how to run your business. You do have the conscience, Jed, who is something of a besotted conscience, who tries to keep him a little bit honest. For god sake, don’t start a war!
CM: The point of view that the Spanish American War was a media phenomenon was not a widespread thing in 1940. People did not think that yet. And they were literally in the middle of a media push to start another war. I feel like it has a much more sophisticated take on politics than on business.
JS: Yes. And again, just an interesting, savvy, storytelling. He runs for office and fails.
CM: Do you think we’re seeing what would have happened if Charles Foster Kane would have won?
LJH: You have the fraud at the polls headline and everything!
JS: I think it’s futile to try to draw too many parallels between the movie and today. What’s happening today has destroyed satire as an art form. Veep is one of the funniest shows on television. You can laugh at the jokes, but the absurdity of the situations aren’t quite as effective compared to our daily headlines.
CM: You’ve been a journalist for a long time. This is about journalism more than it is about business or politics. Kane today would be, who, Murdoch? Roger Ailes?
JS: He’s more of a Murdoch. Ailes was more ideological about it. Murdoch is all about acquiring the properties and getting the reach.
CM: …and this is all collateral damage from Murdoch’s drive to be number one in the ratings. Which is also kind of Trump’s thing. He really doesn’t care about anything about ratings.
JS: His stated need was to go get the people. He wanted to be the voice of the people, and for the people to come to him. He wanted people to love him, and that was through numbers, how it worked for him. Of course today it is so different. Back then one story in one place could make a huge difference. Now a story has to appear in a lot of different places to make any big deal about it.
LJH: But now you see a story that pops up in multiple places and then Fox News will go ‘No! No!’ and it will disappear. Who is even listening to them?
CM: In Kane, you see the end of that phenomenon. You see the Kane network slowly lose relevance because people stopped believing it. I feel like that’s the process you’re seeing right now, a disenthrallment. They’ve finally gone too far. There’s too much evidence. Trump not only is Kane, but Trump is Susan. He gets in the opera house and has to sing, only to discover he’s not a good singer.
JS: But Susan goes on tour. You see Inquirer papers all over America proclaiming her a great singer, and saying ‘sold out audiences!’ But then people go see her and she’s not a great singer. The truth really does matter.
CM: So, is Citizen Kane the best movie ever made?
JS: No. It’s not the greatest movie ever made, but you shouldn’t wait until you’re 67 to see it. It’s a movie that needs to be seen. It’s important on a number of levels. It’s an incredible story about America…In a way it’s like Death of a Salesman. It shows how business and money can take over someone’s life and crush you.
CM: What’s better?
JS: I don’t know…
CM: Vertigo is the one that overtook it in the Sight & Sound poll. Is that better?
JS: I don’t know. I do love Hitchcock.
CM: Personally, I don’t agree. I think this is better than Vertigo. I don’t even think Vertigo is Hitchcock’s best movie. I like Rear Window better. So what do you think is better than Citizen Kane?
JS: I think probably the two Godfathers, just in terms of sheer scope and artistry. There’s brilliance from top to bottom. Another one of my favorite films is Seven Beauties. And I have a real soft spot for 8 1/2.