Citizen Kane [1941]

Citizen Kane [1941] is not the Citizen Kane of movies.

When people talk about “the Citizen Kane of video games” — and flabbergastingly, that hoary old much-mocked phrase still gets hauled out in all sincerity on a fairly regular basis — what they mean is something that legitimizes video games as an artform. At least, that’s the central thrust. If the analogy is at all dwelled upon and not just stated and moved on from, it’s a crapshoot what aspects of Citizen Kane will be posed as the most germane ones. Often zeroed in on are the technical achievements, or some nebulous idea of influence, or something confusing about how it marked the moment when movies were mature and could tell emotionally-true stories in a distinctly cinematic way, or just simply genius masterpiece status. More rarely, you get an awkward attempt to actually catalog the specific features of Citizen Kane, such as its flashback structure or depth staging, and then the analogy is contorted to find a game that has all these qualities or something like it. But a lot of people using the phrase seem to know or care next to nothing about Citizen Kane, save one factoid: it’s considered the Greatest Of All Time.

There’s one glaring issue with this entire endeavor though, and that’s that Citizen Kane did not itself legitimize movies as an artform. Nobody has ever thought that Citizen Kane was when movies finally grew up and became something worth taking seriously. It did not inspire a wave of acceptance and respect for movies in either the mass-audience or academic arenas. It wasn’t even all that influential nor innovative! It popularized flashback storytelling, long shadows, and depth staging during the 1940s, but there’s little strong Kane influence left identifiable in films two decades on. Its bold cinematography typified by striking compositions and a fluid “unchained camera” made possible through technically-elaborate new types of shots was heartily precedented in spirit in late silent era films like Faust [1926], it’s just that those kind of achievements became temporarily much more difficult with bulkier sound cameras in the 1930s. Citizen Kane isn’t considered some kind of watershed achievement in film circles, it’s just a really good movie.

It’s worth considering precisely by what mechanisms Citizen Kane came to be casually considered to be the greatest movie of all time. That definitely wasn’t the consensus when it came out in 1941: It was nominated for Best Film at the Oscars and lost, though it won Best Original Screenplay, and there’s some speculation of conspiracy against it. But all the same, being decently well-received in your time is quite a different matter than being considered the greatest of all time. That sort of reputation never comes right away, besides sometimes in individual hearts.

American movies of the early 1940s arrived in France in a big load after the end of World War 2. A critic and film theoretician named Andre Bazin championed Citizen Kane then and there, and now that it was historical, the effusive praise carried a different cadence. He would go on to found the magazine Cahiers Du Cinema [1951-2022], which among other things would popularize “auteur theory” specifically as a way of championing American directors of the 1940s as visionaries, men like Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks or Orson Welles. Citizen Kane was famously a result of Orson Welles getting a lot of creative control, so it slotted perfectly into that framework. Subsequently, a generation of critics into the 60s and beyond released missives praising Kane to high heaven, while film theory became a common academic institution and Kane reran on TV. Orson Welles’ reputation actually became popularity defined by this idea that he peaked with Citizen Kane, a boy wonder burnout who never matched it and tragically never got another carte-blanche opportunity to, despite the fact that this myth is hogwash on both counts.

But it was another magazine that would carry the banner highest and longest for Citizen Kane, etching it into pop culture as the greatest movie ever even if you’ve never seen it: Sight & Sound [1932-2022]. Famously, this magazine has run an authoritatively-regarded “top films of all time” poll of critics and directors every decade since 1952. Citizen Kane has topped the list every single time other than the first time — #1, Bicycle Thieves [1948] — and in the most recent 2012 poll — #1, Vertigo [1958], an upset which was deliberately coordinated by voters. It’s an impressive run to build a reputation on. In summary, Citizen Kane doesn’t become the Citizen Kane of legend except through a consensus of critics built over a period of decades.

The fact is, it wasn’t Citizen Kane that made people think movies are art. Movies were already a respected artform long past being considered a trifling novelty when Citizen Kane came around. There was about 60 years of history and classics before it, and Bazin was far from film’s first critic and theoretician. If film had any comparable moment where it had to become widely seen as art, it happened in well under a decade to little opposition sometime in the 1900s, ushered by modernist excitement over new artistic frontiers and not being considered children’s stuff. Sure, there were critics and malcontents who took umbrage with, for instance, the medium’s suspicious mechanical qualities or some other philosophically disqualifying feature to separate movies from poetry and paintings, but that wasn’t mainstream discourse. Conversely, American video game culture since at the latest some time in the 1990s and ever since has been sweating its disrespect by culture-at-large regarding video games more as toys for children than art, even now that it’s quite possibly the most popular mass medium there is, with no serious representative for the opposition to the idea that video games is an art form even left to posture against now that Roger Ebert is long dead.

Roger Ebert was a good writer who knew movies well, but his critical line was never bracing insight and theoretical pronouncements: it was friendly consumer reviews, broad-minded save for a few strange hangups and infamously reducing movie criticism down to thumbs up and thumbs down. He wasn’t elite nor elitist, he was the king of middlebrow. I mean, he actually thought Citizen Kane was the greatest movie of all time, how much more basic and middle-of-the-road can you get than that? Yet, in 2006, he became cast as a gatekeeper to artistic legitimacy and respect, as an inordinately central figure of unwise wisdom. Ironically, to rail against him, his stature had to first be elevated. A gate and gatekeeper had to be mentally erected such that video games could be on the other side of them, and though less hostile, that’s also exactly why people talk about “the Citizen Kane of video games.”

Deep down, video game culture clearly wants this fight picked. If nobody’s around actually picking it, we’ll shadowbox ghosts instead, because we’ve just gotten that reliant on an inferiority complex from the medium’s protracted and painful adolescence. Once upon a time, movies looked up to theater and then to literature, but it outgrew that anxiety of influence. Since Spacewar [1962], games have envied movies: sometimes for its literal cinematic qualities; sometimes for its cultural accoutrements like award shows and auteur theory; sometimes for something too amorphous for coherency, a sun that can be chased and chased over the horizon but never caught. It’s a fight for respect that can never be won, because it’s made to be lost, to always be the underdog that doesn’t quite measure up, protesting made-up rules of artistic worth. It can only be dropped and moved past.

There will never be a Citizen Kane of video games. There could be and maybe already is a great video game that receives decades of critical praise, tops lists consistently, is a building block for the field of games studies, and thereby earns a pop culture reputation as the greatest ever, but all that wouldn’t do what people mean by “the Citizen Kane of video games” and make video games a legitimate, respectable artform overnight. Because it always was.

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