By STEVE PERSALL
Which of these phrases best describes Orson Welles' 1941 film, Citizen Kane?
(a) The greatest American film ever made.
(b) The best movie you'll never want to sit through again.
(c) The most overrated movie of all time.
(d) Citizen who?
Actually, it's a trick question. All four answers and a few more are correct, depending upon how many times you've seen Citizen Kane, or whether you've seen it at all.
Personally, I lean toward answer (b) — until Welles' magnificent ambition shows up on television, or in a revival like Sunday's 3 p.m. screening at Tampa Theatre. Then it takes only a few minutes to become entranced by what the auteur accomplished, and how that still influences the way movies are made.
Not everyone agrees. We're a culture that likes to think what's relatively new is better than anything back then. There's no way that a 68-year-old movie eclipses what filmmakers can accomplish today.
The American Film Institute offers a clue. In 1997, the AFI surveyed Hollywood types and film critics to rank the top 100 movies to that point. A decade later the survey was conducted again. Classics like Casablanca, Gone with the Wind and It's a Wonderful Life slipped down the chart, while the trendier Star Wars, The Godfather and Pulp Fiction rose in posterity.
Ranked No. 1 each time? Citizen Kane.
Here are six reasons why Welles' movie endures:
6 The mystery of 'Rosebud.' Nobody learns the meaning of Kane's dying word except the audience, and only in the final shot, leaving plenty to discuss later. That was a jarring change in 1941 after decades of neatly concluded movies. Generally speaking, modern viewers still prefer movies that do their thinking for them. The best films resist doing that.
5 The elliptical life of Charles Foster Kane. Welles and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz jettisoned the custom of telling stories from A-to-Z. Instead, they presented Kane's life through time-shifting, conflicting memories of eyewitnesses, a jigsaw puzzle of personality and chronology. Welles created a nebulous template for such nonlinear films as Pulp Fiction and this year's (500) Days of Summer.
4 'Citizen Kane' was the TMZ of its time. Welles clearly based Kane on real-life publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who despised gossip about his personal life and professional motivations that the movie sparked. Unlike today's celebrities, Hearst had clout to avenge the invasion of privacy. His newspapers hinted that Welles was a Communist. Hearst called in favors to theater chains that refused to book Citizen Kane, ensuring it would fail. The capper occurred at the Oscars when the film and director were booed each time they were mentioned, allegedly on Hearst's suggestion.
3 Orson Welles was the first celebrity director. Already famous at 25 for his radio and stage work, Welles boasted that he would now show Hollywood how to direct movies. Such hubris made headlines, as did clashing with Hearst. Welles was a showman stoking the starmaker machinery, turning his public image into a version of Kane's. And he made good on that boast with an array of arty tricks, becoming the patron saint of filmmakers demanding to be billed above the titles of their movies.
2 Gregg Toland's camera magic. Citizen Kane looked like no American movie before — and countless others since — thanks to Toland and his revolutionary deep-focus technique, allowing everything in the frame to appear sharp. Viewers could choose what to see, rather than being guided by clarity. The result is a movie that can be watched several times to pick up overlooked nuances. Toland was also inspired by German expressionism, using shadows and unusual camera angles to convey ideas. Toland's technique carried over to film noir, which begat the French New Wave, which inspired the film school generation (Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, et al.) of 1970s American cinema.
1 Welles lived the independent filmmaker's dream. Sensing a phenomenon, RKO handed Welles the keys to the studio despite his minor screen experience. He had a then-exorbitant $800,000 budget, a year to plan and 70 days to shoot — rare in that assembly line era — plus complete script and cast control and the holy grail for directors, final cut contractually secured. What you see on the screen is precisely what Welles intended. No questions, no compromises. That an enduring classic emerged from such creative freedom still inspires anyone who calls "action" on a movie set.