Citizen Kane: Crash Course Film Criticism #1

Citizen Kane: Crash Course Film Criticism #1

Thanks to Curiosity Stream for supporting Crash Course. Hello! As you might have noticed, I’m not Craig
or Lily. My name’s Michael Aranda, and I’ll be
your host for the last third of Crash Course Film. Now, since we’re getting to know each other, let me ask you a question: What’s your favorite film? Maybe there’s a movie that makes you wanna
get fit, or become a spy, or save the world Or maybe you love anything that Zoe Saldana
is in, because she’s just the coolest. Films can have an awesome story or sloppy
lighting, dazzling special effects or characters who are just straight-up stereotypes. All these things can affect how you feel about
a movie, and whether you’d give it a thumbs up on Netflix… because that’s a thing
now. But they can also affect how it fits into
cinema history, and impacts the world around us. We’ll think critically
about a lot of very different movies, starting with an American classic that many people
call “the greatest film ever made.” It came from ambition and some unusual circumstances,
with Orson Welles at the helm. And even though it’s been a long time since
its release in 1941, this film’s technical cleverness and story still resonate with audiences
today. I’m talking, of course, about Citizen Kane. [Intro Music Plays] Calling Citizen Kane one of the best films
of all time is a complicated claim to make. To be honest, the idea of ranking movies and
making a top ten list may be fun, but it’s not what film criticism is really about. It’s about thinking deeply about how the
movie works, both to us as an audience member, and within history and society. It’s about understanding, deconstructing,
feeling, and learning. So is Citizen Kane the “Greatest Movie Ever
Made?” Well, we can’t answer that, because it’s
not the question we should be asking. But there’s clearly something about it that
sticks with us. And maybe that something is its origin story. Orson Welles was hoisted into the spotlight
at the ripe young age of 23, when he was performing with The Mercury Theatre company — a troupe
that he helped create. In 1938, Welles directed and narrated the
radio drama The War of the Worlds, and supposedly struck fear into some listeners who thought
that an actual alien invasion was happening. Welles on the radio: We know now that in the early years of the 20th century… This world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man. But he also caught the attention of studio execs at RKO, one of the five film studios
that reigned during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Not only that, but they gave him complete
creative control, which was, like, really unusual at the time. So he did what any plucky artist in his mid-20s
would do: he packed up his stuff and invited his buddies from the Mercury Theatre company
to come with him to Hollywood. Now, I don’t want to sell them short. This was a group of very good actors. And, despite his lack of experience with the
movie industry, Welles leapt into this project with a lot of ambition, performing experience,
and fresh ideas. He wanted to be involved in as many aspects
of the film as possible, from directing to starring as the film’s eponymous Charles
Foster Kane. Welles filled out his production team with
other talented men from Hollywood who were itching to experiment with their craft — people
like Gregg Toland, a cameraman who contributed a lot to the film’s look and technical innovations. And Welles is credited as co-writer with Herman
J. Mankiewicz, a journalist who hopped over into the world of filmmaking, and was an experienced
screenwriter by the time he worked on this project. Citizen Kane tells the life story of a wealthy
newspaper magnate. The first time we meet Kane, he’s on his
deathbed in a massive mansion called Xanadu, dramatically murmuring his last word: “Rosebud.” The story is told in flashbacks through interviews
with people Kane once knew, like his friend and fellow reporter Jedediah Leland, his business
manager Mr. Bernstein, and his second wife, Susan Alexander Kane. In the last sequence of shots, we find out
that “Rosebud” is referencing a sled he had as a kid, before he was separated from
his family and sent to boarding school with a new guardian. So Citizen Kane could be a story about…
well… a lot of things: the loss of childhood, human flaws, memory, or the complications
of power and wealth. Film criticism is… pretty subjective. But Citizen Kane is also a story that was
influenced by real life — specifically, tycoons like the news mogul William Randolph
Hearst. While Welles insisted the film wasn’t meant
to be a personal attack on Hearst, all of the parallels and the fact that Mankiewicz
was a former friend of Hearst made him take the film real personally. And when you have a buttload of money, and
power over lots of news outlets, your grudges become public. Fast. Initially, RKO and Orson Welles planned on
debuting Citizen Kane at the Radio City Music Hall, like other big RKO movies. But the venue turned it down. Eventually, the the film’s release was delayed
until May 1st, 1941 in New York. And the critical reception was actually pretty
good! A review by Kate Cameron, published on May
2nd in the New York Daily News, called Citizen Kane “one of the most interesting and technically
superior films that has ever come out of a Hollywood studio.” The controversy did mess with the film’s
commercial success, though. It didn’t gain much public traction until
it was released again in the 1950s. So part of what makes Citizen Kane memorable
is that it was an ambitious project, headed by a maverick filmmaker, and had a lot of
drama around its release. We humans do love ourselves some drama. But the content of the film speaks for itself,
too. The creators of Citizen Kane had the freedom
to play and innovate. Many of their technical experiments changed
the way film was being used as a storytelling medium — which, arguably, could be another
way to define “greatness.” It takes a keen eye to notice some of these
tricks, or at the very least some good commentary tracks. A lot of the innovation had to do with cameras. Gregg Toland, the cinematographer, helped
pioneer the use of deep focus lenses, so that everything in a scene is in focus at once,
not just the foreground or the background. Citizen Kane doesn’t use focus to guide
your attention in a scene. Instead, things like dialogue or movement
draw your eye to certain people at certain times. It’s very much like theater, where Welles
had honed his directing and acting chops. They use perspective to surprise you, like
to mess with your sense of scale when Kane walks toward a normal-looking background,
only to be dwarfed by a huge window or fireplace. It’s a neat visual effect, but also punctuates
the story with a little metaphor. You’re seeing this man physically shrink
in his environment as he’s losing control over his business and life. And camera movements are combined with other
practical effects to really immerse you in the story. Take the scene where Kane is a kid playing
in the snow, while his parents are inside a cabin and talking about sending him away. The camera pulls back through a window, and
eventually stops on the other side of a dining table. But, from the final framing, you can see that
the table would’ve been in the way of the movement. The trick is in the set: it’s actually a
mechanical table that splits and comes back together. So the mise-en-scene is never broken, and
the scene can keep playing out. You, the viewer, are none the wiser, because
you’re wrapped up in this incredible illusion of reality the film has constructed. Other practical tricks are used in The Inquirer
office, where Kane’s newspaper staff works. These scenes were unusual for movies at the
time, because there are visible ceilings. Now this doesn’t sound that weird. Because, y’know, normal office buildings
have ceilings. But production teams usually stuck lights
and sound equipment above their actors’ heads. So to keep the movie magic intact, they had
to keep ceilings out of frame. In this case, the lights and microphones are
still up there — just, hidden right above the ceilings, which are made of muslin sheets. They also cut out chunks of the floor to make
room for the camera, so they could get dramatic low-angle shots, making the actors look larger
than life. The trick to Citizen Kane is that all these
effects — which are everywhere — don’t feel like effects in the same way a CGI dragon
does. They subtly draw you into the world. For instance, Welles often blends matte drawings
with physical sets, to make everything seem more immersive, despite a limited budget. This is how they create the beginning of the
film, leading us toward the window of Xanadu and Kane’s deathbed. Plus, it’s how they make the inside of Xanadu,
the outside of The Inquirer building, and audiences during the big campaign speech and
opera. These tricks were accomplished with optical
printers, which let them shoot and light two images or scenes separately, and stitch them
into one. Effects also let them add visual twists to
the story, in ways Welles couldn’t with live theatre. Like when Susan Alexander is performing in
the opera, we crane up from the stage and fade into the rafters to see the opera’s production
team reacting to how awful her performance is. The transition is precise and deliberate,
and nowhere near as easy as dropping a fade into a digital video editor today. Now, maybe you noticed some of these technical
tricks, but they’re done well and not obvious unless you’re paying close attention. And that’s one of the coolest things about
good filmmaking. But, a lot of the time, what makes our favorite
movies so memorable is just a well-told story. And, if you think about it, Citizen Kane doesn’t
really have a mind-blowing plot. It’s a straightforward tale about a powerful,
wealthy newspaper tycoon and his shortcomings, and the dialogue is all pretty crisp and generic. You get a newsreel summary of Kane’s life
at the beginning, but it’s mostly told through flashbacks, and they’re part of what make
the film feel so true to life. And even though it’s easy to link Charles
Foster Kane with William Randolph Hearst, this archetype of a driven, powerful jerk
who just wants people to love him is pretty relatable to a lot of us — even Welles himself. So you might see things you like and hate
about yourself in Kane, or Susan Alexander’s naive optimism, or Jedediah Leland and his
disillusionment with a friend. Honestly, the fact that it’s his childhood
sled isn’t the most profound or surprising twist out there, it’s not like there are
hidden identities or “I see dead people.” But, you have to admit, the film goes all-in
on the idea of lost childhood. Kane drowns his feelings in material objects
and tries to live vicariously through Susan Alexander’s youth, telling her, “we’re
going to be a great opera star.” Or maybe you agree with the film critic Pauline
Kael that the sled is just kinda gimmicky. But critics, including her, don’t call Citizen
Kane “great” because it makes you realize profound things about life, the universe,
and everything. Every scene isn’t a masterpiece, but the
film holds up over time and people seem to get a lot out of it — historically, technically,
or narratively. And, like I mentioned before, the whole idea
of “the best film of all time” is ultimately kind of… silly. It’s more about understanding why and how
we make movies that mean so much to us, or to the world. And that’s pretty beautiful in itself. Next time, we’ll take a hard left turn into
an action/adventure/horror film that’s almost as quotable as Casablanca, James Cameron’s
Aliens. And if you want to watch along with us, there’s a full list of movies in the description! Crash Course Film Criticism is supported by Curiosity Stream, Where you can stream Documentary Films and programs about Science, Nature, and History, including exclusive originals. For example, check out the Emmy winning series, “Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places. Where Hawking takes you on a journey through the stars and around our planet to talk about his favorite places to go. Everything from Saturn to Santa Barbara. Plus, he shares his own stories of curiosity and perseverance. It’s really cool! I mean… it’s Stephen Hawking so you know it’s cool. Curiosity Stream offers unlimited streaming, and for you Crash Course viewers, the first two months are free if you sign up at and use the promo code crashcourse. Crash Course is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check out a playlist of their latest shows like Physics Girl, The Art Assignment, and PBS Space Time. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in
the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of these [nice people] and our
amazing graphics team is Thought Cafe.


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    Dancing Diablo

    So you are telling me its considered a great movie not because it is a good story or because there is a great message… It merely had a good technical movie making tricks… So basically it was as boring as I thought it was. Thanks for explaining sir.

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    Steven Castellano

    Please analyze "My Dinner With Andre". Apparently I'm one of only three people in the whole world who hates that movie, so maybe you can show me what I'm missing in it.

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    I don’t agree with people who say that Citizen Kane’s story is its weakest aspect. It’s essentially The Social Network set in the 40’s.

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    Dustin H

    No one was in the room when he said "Rosebud". I think the movie is one of the best, but it's a huge flaw.
    Despite the butler stating he was in the room, he was not.

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    Paul Lindley

    I thought it was going to be a psychological thriller with a twist at the end but I thought it was garbage,very dissapointed.I know it was made 77 years ago but it tells you about his life in a news reel then hardly adds anything to it!pointless film,greatest film of all time,nah, I'd give it 6/10 at the most and that's just for the effort in the sets

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    Keith Everson

    At the end of the day, I can appreciate the technical details, but I watch movies for entertainment. Citizen Kane fails abysmally at this. The pacing leaves me bored for large portions, and the dialog is so incredibly formulaic and "scripty." It kind of coasts from scene to scene, caring more about set pieces of story information and less about interest or context. I realize that some of these things are because this movie pioneered what is now the cliche, but from my perspective that doesn't mean I'm enjoying the viewing.

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    Samantha Scholl

    I recently studied this film for Arts & Literature and what really struck me about it is the mystery of it all. In the very beginning, when the camera is panning up along the fence, the chain link is in focus and the background is blurry, giving the viewer hints that Kane's life story is going to be a bit fuzzy and that his true self is going to be concealed in some way. Then, the story of his life is told through others, each having their own biases and perspectives on both life and Kane himself. Therefore, we cannot fully trust what they say about him, especially considering how most of them had some kind of falling-out with Kane. I thought it was fascinating how the film took (or, perhaps, helped to form) the concept of the unreliable narrator and translated it into four (five, if you count the butler's brief contribution) unreliable narrators. Because we never see Kane's life through an unbiased narrator or even Kane himself, we as viewers cannot completely discern what is fact and what is exaggeration. Therefore, Kane's real life remains something of a mystery.

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    TestingU 4Research

    I think Crash Course missed the mark on this one by minimizing the importance of the sled and how it related to the motivations, longings, and overall character of Kane.

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    Man Drake

    I'm not of the view that is the greatest film ever made. It is good and I enjoy it, my enduring feeling though is that it kind of blighted Orson Welles. Here is this thing that he did right at the start and it is always hanging over him. Who wants their masterwork to be considered the first thing out of the gate that everything else you do is compared to.

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    Snuggles McSquishbottom

    Citizen Kane was the first DVD I ever bought after switching over from VHS. It coincided perfectly with an unforgettable film studies class in which my eyes were opened to so many things. Thank you, Professor Shetley.

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    Rice Naydon

    Griffith, Eisenstein, Stroheim, Murnau, Gance and Sternberg created all of the film-making 'innovations', and to a superior effect. Kane is good as an assemblage of techniques, but even then, a film like Intolerance utilised many of the same techniques decades prior and is infinitely more sophisticated.

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    Robert Jones

    This movie is so overrated and boring. Avengers Infinity War is the true all time best movie! Suck it, film snobs! You’re just jealous Shitizen Lame never broke 2 billion!

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    Conall McCormick

    You can’t state that one film is objectively the best ever made. Reviewing films is a mixture of the objective and the subjective.

    For instance, “The Godfather” is one of three films I would say are the best of all time. However, my friend thinks “Goodfellas” is a better movie. I don’t have a problem with his opinion in this regard because “Goodfellas” is also an objectively great film too. (For the record I’d give both 10/10 ratings)

    I’d give “Citizen Kane” a 9/10 rating (I.e. “superb”. I think giving it a 10/10 (I.e. “masterpiece”) rating is valid as well as an 8/10 (I.e. “great”) rating as it is acknowledging its objective quality. However, people who give films like “Goodfellas”, “The Godfather” or “Citizen Kane” 5/10 (I.e. “average”) or 6/10 (I.e. “above-average”), or lower, ratings just because they “didn’t like it” don’t have a respectable view regarding films.

    There are plenty of films I don’t personally enjoy watching but can appreciate their objective quality. Take “The Wizard of Oz” for instance. It is an objectively great movie which I can respectfully acknowledge despite my lack of interest in it.

    The biggest lie people make regarding film is that “it’s all subjective”. If you think this then I ask you to compare the films “Toy Story” and “Foodfight” to understand how ridiculous such a statement really is.

    “Citizen Kane” certainly IS one of the best films ever made. However, although objective value DOES exist it does not have an absolute value. It is this final measure where subjective value and interpretation had its place.

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    Subhan's Vault

    orson welles was 25 when he made Citizen Kane – The greatest movie ever made . Here I am 25 sitting , having breakfast watching this crash course

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    The idea of the sled is so great because symbolically, it's obviously a link to his old childhood memories, his only real happy memories until he was taken from his home and pushed into a world of business, money, and power. The sled in and of itself, I think, functions great as the literal "Rosebud." If Rosebud were a person, or a place, or even a specific day, it would be too sappy and probably too predictable. The sled is so great because we see a great shot of it after Kane is taken from his home, and the snow builds up on, signaling the passage of time, the burying of his childhood, and of course intimate screen time with the actual sled. It's unpredictable, yet when we get the twist, it clicks immediately. It also shows how little things really do impress upon our subconscious. Bernstein gives the little speech to Thompson about the woman he saw on the ferry for a second. She never noticed him, yet a month never went by when he didn't think of her. The sled is sort of the same way.

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    Isak Dahl Short Films

    An amazing cinematic masterpiece but not the greatest movie ever made. That title probably belongs to Vertigo, 2001: A Space Odyssey or maybe One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

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    Herman Falck How

    Film criticism isn't meant to be what it sounds like. It is not nitpicking specific details to find and objective "Score". It is meant to be a more professional look into an art form that is consumed by many but understood by few. And of course give interpertations of the films themes, both intended and unintended.

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    Henry TheGreatAmerican

    Damn, you guys need to get to the meat of your videos quicker. Seriously, about 90 seconds before you say anything worthwhile.

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    B K

    I don't know why too many people focus about its techniques though. Yes, it had a great effect in movie history, you can truly learn what life is

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    NPC #001876594

    My favorite movie? Gotta be No Country for Old Men. Followed closely by the best Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back.

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    I am alone in the wilderness I know but this film has some problems. I think its cold and lacks emotional depth. There are so many formal considerations the actors are left as distant pawns on an ornate board. It is a visually superb movie, the lighting, the editing, the camera placement are truly amazing, I just didn't care about anyone in it.

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    Matthew Coon

    Controversial opinion: I don't think Citizen Kane is as fantastic now as it was when it was released. It used very obvious literary devices and doesn't leave much open for interpretation from the viewer. The "moral of the story" is so evident, straightforward, and echoed among so many other films and books that I have a hard time finding it compelling. That being said, for it being released when it was, it was very revolutionary, but as a plot I just don't think there's that much substance there.

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    Out Of Oblivion Productions

    Cool effects, but boring story. To say this is the greatest film ever shows that film critics are technically obsessed.

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    The Black Cat

    I have never seen Citizen Kane. Such a disappointment. Maybe being a member of generation Zen has something to do with it. Hmm…

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    I saw Citizen Kane when I was 18 and didn't really get it at the time. This has helped a lot with understanding why it was so influential.

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    James Greep

    Look, I know I'm going to get hate for this, but I'm going to say it anyways.

    What am I missing here? How is this in ANY WAY a concept for an interesting movie? It's unquestionably the most boring and anticlimactic plot I've ever heard. The camera work is kind of impressive, but pulling back or panning upwards once in a while can't save you from having the dumbest and most uninteresting story ever written. There was NO indication other than his final word that the sled ever held ANY emotional significance to Kane. A sled isn't really the kind of thing you would be thinking of on your deathbed, anyways. I know it's supposed to be a metaphor for a lost childhood, but you can deliver the same message in the form of a story that's actually COMPELLING.

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    Miami SWL Radio

    4:07 the hair and eyes, especially the wrinkles under the eyes of William Randolph Hearst almost perfectly match the guy talking in the video

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    A rare unhurried exhalation greets brave new host Michael Aranada, who brings at least (and at last) a passing acquaintance with the pause (all but disacknowledged on this breakneck but otherwise beloved Channel), inviting rumors of a YouTube comeback for speech that can be heard and comprehended in real time. As he spoke I understood every word Aranada said, a startling Crash Course innovation that really gives one…

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    Daniel Natal

    One of the great (and most original) themes of the movie is its exploration of the nature of identity. You get several different points of view about the man. Before "Kane," this mercurial nature of identity hadn't been explored. Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote a great essay about "Citizen Kane". He found the "Rosebud" device cliche'd, but found the exploration of identity to be fresh and dynamic. What Borges didn't know was that the "Rosebud" device was NOT from Welles, but from Hollywood veteran screenwriter Herman Mancewicz. The "identity" theme was from Welles. But Welles basically ripped it off from a great novel from 1930 by Claude Houghton called "I am Jonathan Scrivener". Anyone who likes "Citizen Kane" should read the book (which Welles admits was a huge influence).

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    Don Trump

    I just watched the movie. And I'm not going to agree wholly or am not against calling "citizen Kane" the greatest movie ever. Having watched a lot of movies on mystery and thrillers, it was one of the best mystery movies I've ever seen. Surprised to know this movie was made in the 1940s

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    Akane Cortich

    agree with half, disagree with half. Movies with or without plots not particularly the issue. Audiences are sucked into the characters and their activities, plots there to end the movie. The type of movie about the nature of the person requires no plot, in fact plot can detract. With Kane we experience the person, that IS the movie, plots is not relevant or important.

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    i asimov

    The "greatest" of anything is a subjective label. Citizen Kane was the greatest film as of its release. The next greatest film ever made stood on the shoulders of Citizen Kane.

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