'Citizen Kane,' André Bazin and the 'Holy Moment'

The celebrated classic is now 70. How a revolutionary Catholic film critic almost singlehandledly sealed its reputation as the “Greatest Movie Ever” — and invented film studies.

Editor’s note: Hear the Register’s film critic on today’s Register Radio episode.

Everyone knows that Citizen Kane — celebrating its 70th anniversary with this week’s three-disc Blu-ray debut — enjoys a bulletproof reputation as “The Greatest Movie Ever Made.” It’s probably topped more all-time-greatest films lists than any other film in history, including the British magazine Sight & Sound’s decennial critics’ polls for the last five decades, among many others. Regular readers may know that the 1995 Vatican film list included Citizen Kane among the 15 unranked titles noted for outstanding artistic significance.

It’s also well known that the movie’s initial reception wasn’t quite so rapturous. Although it opened to universal critical acclaim in the American press, it was hurt at the box office by newspaperman William Randolph Hearst’s war against the film, based on the evident and unflattering parallels between himself and Orson Welles’ protagonist, Charles Foster Kane. Nominated for nine Academy Awards, it won only a single award for its screenplay.

Not infrequently, when people actually see it for the first time, the film is overshadowed by its own legend. “Why is Citizen Kane considered so great?” someone asked me not long ago. It’s a question that has been asked in countless film classes.

What isn’t so generally known is that the film’s prominent place in so many film classes — and for that matter, the fact that there are film classes in the first place — has a lot to do with the work of a revolutionary Catholic film critic and theorist, André Bazin, whose critical theories were shaped by the same tradition of Christian personalist philosophy that informed the writings of Pope John Paul II.

More than anyone else, Bazin, writing from the 1930s to the 1950s, made it possible to take movies seriously as an art form and a field of academic study. It wouldn’t be going too far to call him the “father of film studies.”

Bazin had many influences, but arguably the most potent was that of the Catholic personalist philosopher Emmanuel Mounier, founder of the journal Esprit, for which Bazin wrote as a critic. In 1951 Bazin co-founded the celebrated film journal Cahiers du cinéma and gathered a stable of more or less like-minded critics (including Catholics, Protestants and at least one nonbeliever) who became famous for the auteur theory of cinema.

This view, first expressly formulated by Bazin’s protégé François Truffaut, emphasized the creative vision of the director, who is ideally the primary author (auteur) of a film. A gifted director, the auteurists felt, uses the camera as a writer uses a pen to express his personal vision through his unique style. To ring a slight change on this metaphor, a real director uses the camera as a painter uses a brush. This view of cinema made the director more important than the writer, say, who was only doing what writers had done for millennia — a provocative idea at the time.

Bazin and the Cahiers critics championed the artistic achievements of Hollywood directors like Welles, John Ford, Howard Hawks and William Wyler at a time when Hollywood movies weren’t widely regarded as real art, even in Hollywood. (Ford said emphatically that, to him, directing was “always a job of work … and that’s it,” and seemed bewildered and even irritated that anyone considered him a great artist.)

In a way, Citizen Kane was the auteurists’ Hollywood dream movie, given the unparalleled freedom Welles and his colleagues were given by the studio. At the height of the studio system, producers called the shots, and directors, writers and actors (often under long-term contracts) were considered work for hire. Welles, though, was a wunderkind who was wooed to Hollywood with an extraordinary deal offering him total control of his picture. Thus, the constraints under which other Hollywood directors adored by the Cahiers critics labored didn’t apply to Citizen Kane.

At the same time, Bazin was most interested in how a camera was different from a pen or a brush. In his view, all representative art reflects a basic human need to capture and preserve reality — to nail down moments and events in time and space before they slip away from us. Art seeks to rescue the world from transience and corruption — to counter the flow of time. Still, painting and other visual arts preserve only a symbolic impression of the world filtered through the subjectivity and talent of an artist.

The camera, on the other hand, has the power to actually record and preserve real events in time and space by a photographic process independent of human interpretation. Other visual arts only suggest reality; a photograph is reality. Going a step further, motion pictures capture the continuous passage of time itself, redeeming even time from transience.

Bazin believed that the glory of the cinema lay in its power for realism. He was certainly aware that all filmmakers depend on some level of artifice and illusion, but he preferred such techniques to be limited and subtle, even if they could never be eliminated. In a word, he believed that cinema ought to express and communicate faith in the world, rather than distracting from the world with showy tricks.

Techniques Bazin distrusted included montage (rapid cuts between short takes) and the use of shallow focus to direct the viewer’s attention here or there. Such techniques, he believed, weaken the cinema’s witness to the integrity of continuous time and space. Somewhat paradoxically, Bazin believed that the more faithfully a film presents the real world, the more room is left for ambiguity and freedom, since the viewer is left to decide for himself what is important and where to look, rather than being led by the nose.

Bazin wasn’t against creativity. On the contrary, he believed that the realism of cinema gives it greater creative power because it taps directly into the power of creation itself, to the creative power of God. Bazin’s realism was ultimately personalist, rooted in a belief in the world as revelatory and sacramental, the work of God, the Supreme Person. At its best, film can capture transcendence amid transience and make us aware of sacredness in the midst of fleeting reality: a “Holy Moment,” to cite a catchphrase that is not Bazin’s but has become associated with him.

In Citizen Kane, Bazin saw a “revolution in the language of the screen” — one that blew away the conventions of standard Hollywood storytelling at that time through techniques like deep focus, prolonged takes, chiaroscuro lighting and unusual camera angles and movements. Although Citizen Kane didn’t pioneer these techniques, Bazin argued that it invested them with new meaning and power.

By using deep focus or large depth of field (keeping objects in the foreground and background sharp at the same time) and prolonged takes, Citizen Kane was able to use a single shot where another film might have needed four or five, thus maintaining a “unity of image in space and time.” One of the most obvious examples is the key scene in which young Charles is seen through the window of his mother’s boarding house playing in the snow, unaware that the rest of his life is being decided by three adults inside.

Bazin even found a bracing challenge to Hollywood artifice in some of the film’s more artificial techniques, such as its dramatic use of highlight and shadow (chiaroscuro) and unusual camera angles revealing the ceilings of sets. (Most Hollywood sets didn’t have ceilings because sound-recording equipment and lighting were suspended overhead. Kane overcame this difficulty in some scenes by stretching fabric over sets, creating “ceilings” that were translucent and sound-permeable.)

Thanks to conventional Hollywood techniques, Bazin wrote,

We had come to believe that the faces of beautiful women, when we look at them from up close, are naturally lit by various, judiciously arranged sources; we had come to believe that people don’t turn their backs when saying important things and that ceilings never confine our existence. (“The Technique of Citizen Kane”)

Citizen Kane overturned all those expectations — and in doing so, for all its artifice, it realized Bazin’s hopes for cinematic realism to an extraordinary degree.

Bazin was only 40 when he died in 1958 of leukemia. Had he lived another 40 years, he would have been deeply disappointed at Hollywood’s evolution in latter decades. Rather than progressing toward Bazin’s admittedly unattainable ideal of “pure cinema,” mainstream movies have fled in the opposite direction, increasingly slicing, dicing, mashing and manipulating whatever reality is left to them.

Not that great movies aren’t still being made, even in Hollywood. And, of course, junk was always being made, even in the Golden Age. Still, it’s fair to say that the junk today is, well, junkier — and more movies today work harder to be successful junk than ever before. Seventy years from now, how many contemporary Hollywood movies will merit even a fraction of the attention that Citizen Kane does today — or will then?

Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.