The experience of re-seeing a favorite movie after a long absence is not to be entered into lightly. It's not unlike attending your 20-year high school reunion: a lot of paunch, both physical and spiritual, has intervened between who you were then and who you are now.
What, after all, if the movie doesn't measure up to your memories? Does this mean your initial responses were out of line or, worse, does it mean you no longer have the capacity to respond?
The deepest satisfaction, of course, is when we re-see a favorite movie from childhood, or from our college years perhaps, and experience again what first drew us to it. But even then there's a loss: the deepened, "mature" vantage point that the years have given us cannot entirely compensate for the first flush of revelation.
Three movies of crucial early importance to me--each in very different ways--have recently been re-released in sparkling, newly restored prints: "Citizen Kane," "Spartacus" and "Breathless." (All are still in local revival; "Breathless" plays at the Nuart through Thursday.) In all three cases, it's been at least a dozen years since I've seen them, and my recollection of the last time is hazy. But I can still remember what it was like to see them for the first time.
My experience with "Citizen Kane" does not quite fall into the categories I've just described, since my introduction to it at around age 12 was not, I am embarrassed to admit, the unalloyed bliss-out so many others have described. Living just outside New York City, I was in a position to swoop down on one of the frequent "Kane" revivals at places like the Museum of Modern Art or the Thalia (the only theater on dry land, by the way, to slope upwards). When I finally caught it, on a double bill with the also unseen-by-me "The Magnificent Ambersons," I was dazzled but, alas, strangely unmoved. My notions of movie art in those days didn't jibe with "Kane's" almost screwball velocity and daring; I thought it too much \o7 fun\f7 to be a masterpiece. I found "Ambersons" more emotionally profound--still do. But "Kane," in the way it looked and moved and sounded, was so completely unlike any other movie I'd ever seen that its failure to transport me became one of the great puzzles of my "formative years."
This preteen part of my life was, to lift a phrase from a movie critic friend, my "pre-taste" period. I loved "La Grande Illusion" but I also wept at the end of "David and Lisa." Even "Cleopatra," with its monumental colonnades and wide-screen cleavage, lugged its way onto my home-brewed 10-best list. If you grow up to be a film critic, one of the taste tests you learn is this: There are movies that profoundly affect you because they are great art and there are movies that profoundly affect you because they are great schlock.
My problem with "Kane" was that I couldn't reconcile the daring of Orson Welles' stylistics with what I perceived to be the film's schlocky, cornball essence. As Holy Grails go, Rosebud seemed penny dreadful--not the stuff that "art" is made of. I never quite shook off these prejudices in subsequent viewings, although I was always awed by the film's technique. Finally I took a lengthy holiday from "Kane" altogether--the reunions were just too jarring. But the movie's recent 50th anniversary provoked another look-see, and it was as if the response I expected to have 25 years earlier finally kicked in.
It's always suspicious when you come around to a received opinion after years of resistance. I had been frustrated in reading about "Kane" as a kid because it was usually described as a deep-toned metaphysical treatise, and that didn't connect with the crackerjack movie I saw.
It still doesn't, but what I was unprepared for in seeing the film again is how extraordinarily moving it is. Part of its power, of course, is connected to what we now know of Welles' career; his tragedy matches Kane's. But the pyrotechnics that outfit "Kane" no longer resemble gorgeous affectation; the shadows and hollows and echo chambers complement Kane's furious aloneness. As a portrait of the isolating power of megalomania, it now is immensely touching to me. It always seemed technically precocious but now it seems precociously wise too. It's an archetypal American tragedy, as instantly recognizable in our own era as in Welles' and as infinitely reproducible as that shot of Kane reflected endlessly in his mirror.