3. The Citizen Kane Effect
Definition – When a modern viewer is nonplussed by a classic film or other such work of art, because the elements of the work that were impressive or innovative at the time of its release have since become commonplace or outdated.
The Story – “Citizen Kane” is a tremendous film. It’s done quite well for itself without any need for further accolades from yours truly, but suffice it to say, “Citizen Kane” is widely acclaimed as one of, if not the, greatest movies of all time. Personally, before I had ever popped it into my DVD player, I think I’d practically seen the whole movie based solely on the many many homages to the film on The Simpsons. Yet, very often a modern audience will see this film, so firmly acknowledged as a masterpiece, and somehow they have a reaction that roughly amounts to “so what?”
This raises the question – how can a work of art that has awed viewers for generations seem so ho-hum to modern eyes? The answer is a deceptively simple one – Orson Welles did his job as a filmmaker too well.
The innovations he oversaw, with the cinematography, with the score, and with the narrative structure, were all unprecedented in 1941 when the film came out. These developments in movie-making so impressed his colleagues and so inspired those that came after such that “Citizen Kane” became the standard. These dramatic leaps forward soon evolved into part of the very fabric of how we tell stories on the screen, to the point that modern audiences are not only unimpressed by these aspects of the film, but they so take these elements for granted that they can hardly imagine what a movie would be without them.
Even those who understand these sorts of innovations, both in filming and in storytelling are at a disadvantage. While I may be able to understand and appreciate Welles’ use of a special camera that can keep objects in the foreground and in the background in focus simultaneously, and while I can admire him for being the first filmmaker to employ this sort of innovative camera work, it simply does not have the same impact on me as it would if I were sitting in the audience in 1941, watching these techniques used for the very first time. Understanding something’s significance is not the same as experiencing it first hand.
Thus, while a certain segment of the modern audience may still be able to appreciate the fact that certain elements of a film were innovative for their time, it’s at an intellectual or abstract level, and does not quite match up with being able to appreciate those new techniques in and of themselves, without the context of the tens of thousands of films that later adopted the same technique.
I should note, as an aside, that even if you strip away the more novel facets of “Citizen Kane,” you’re left with what is still a well-constructed, well-told story that still manages to connect in some way with most of those who watch it, seventy years later. It’s true that Citizen Kane can engender a negative reaction when it’s touted as an example of pure cinematic excellence, and yet it fails to live up to the viewer’s lofty expectations. Still, even in the most jaded of modern moviegoers, it just as often leads to a reaction of “I don’t see what the big deal is, but it’s definitely good.”
This is because, at its heart, “Citizen Kane” is a great piece of cinematic storytelling. Independently of all the fancy new methods Welles used at the time, the core of the film is made up of a sound plot and strong characters, both of which speak to audiences in the same way that the works of Mark Twain or William Shakespeare are still able to do centuries later. By contrast, I would imagine that fifty years from now, a movie like “Avatar” will not only suffer from the Citizen Kane Effect at a time where immersive 3D experiences will be available on cell phones, but it will suffer an even greater backlash when those audiences are left with a hackneyed, paint by the numbers plot and stock characters. One aspect of the Citizen Kane Effect is that the new elements of a movie like incredible special effects can mask the film’s more fundamental flaws. To Citizen Kane’s credit, it’s more than just an exercise in innovation – it’s a fundamentally sound cinematic work.
Personally, I experienced The Citizen Kane Effect while watching the original “Terminator” film. To me, it was one giant ball of clichés. My friends with a few more years of wisdom under their belts balked at this review. They explained to me while those action movie conventions had since become clichés, they were still fresh and new in 1984, and that an ambitious story like that had not really been in a major motion picture prior to “The Terminator.” Having grown up with a crop of action movies that were all made in the shadow of this film, the one that started the trend seemed cheesy and formulaic to me. What’s more, without being dazzled by those then new and imaginative parts of the movie, I focused more on acting that I found lacking, a score that sounded like it came out of my old supernintendo, and plot holes you could drive a truck through. I’m simply too far removed in time from this movie for it to really grab me. This is another instance where I can recognize what made the film unique when it was released, but I just can’t “get it” in the same way that a contemporary audience would.
I’ve seen The Citizen Kane Effect occur with all kind of movies, television, music, and other sorts of pieces, from Jurassic Park to Seinfeld to The Beatles to Star Wars and beyond. In all these circumstances, while the audience may recognize the work as generally good, that sense of “wow, no one’s ever done that before” simply cannot register in the same way. It seems unfair somehow – if you’re able to innovate so successfully that your style becomes the universal standard, later generations who have been brought up with that standard have a very difficult time understanding what makes the originator so great. They may even dislike the pioneering work because it adheres to a formula that has since become typical, even when the work’s authors created that formula. Still, the Citizen Kane Effect is very common, and recognizing it helps to better appreciate these works.