Citizen Kane and Me (1): Me

What is Citizen Kane? Obviously it’s a movie, but what does Citizen Kane represent, or what do we mean when we say “this is the Citizen Kane of videogames”, or “there is no Citizen Kane in videogames”?

Orson Welles’ masterpiece is usually recognized as the “best movie of all time”, it’s a symbol, it’s the pinnacle of what cinema is capable of. If cinema is an art, then Citizen Kane is the truest artistic expression of this medium; it represents the idea of perfection of an artistic idiom. So when we say “this is the Citizen Kane of videogame”, we’re really saying “cinema became an art with Citizen Kane, or at least this movie helped cinema to be officially acknowledged as an art form, or Citizen Kane is the undeniable proof that cinema is art, so the game X accomplishes the same operation of artistic validation for the videogame industry”. But Citizen Kane didn’t become Citizen Kane (this symbol of absolute perfection) until the 60’s, when cinema was already largely considered as an art, and anyway cinema, at first a simple parlor trick shown in fun fairs, did not become an art because of one movie. Art didn’t suddenly appear during a projection for the benefit of unwary spectators: cinema became an art form because it was conceived and discussed as such by critics, theoreticians and the audience. I could describe Citizen Kane as a simple product created by several individuals working in an industrial fashion, mass produced and distributed in many copies that were more or less the same. I could write about Citizen Kane without even mentioning that it’s a work of art, the same way I would do about some can coming out of an ordinary factory. Would I be wrong? I don’t think so, cinema is by essence an industry, my description of Citizen Kane would be incomplete, but it would still express some undeniable aspects of this object.

So Citizen Kane didn’t appear instantly as a masterpiece for whomever was there the first time it was shown, critics had to present and defend this piece of industrial celluloid as an artwork. When we say, for example, “Shadow of the Colossus is the Citizen Kane of videogame”, we try to bypass this necessary demonstration by bringing art from the outside, as if it was some kind of virus that could travel between words when we compare them, but the sentence “Shadow of the Colossus is the Citizen Kane of videogame” doesn’t mean anything, or it doesn’t unless it’s the coda of a larger argument about the possible artistic value of this game.

More importantly, Citizen Kane doesn’t prove that every movies ever done are works of art, it only shows that cinema can be art. I would argue that Shadow of the Colossus is one of the few examples that videogames can also be art, but again, this doesn’t mean that all games are artworks. I don’t want to step in now in the “game as art” argument, but let’s just say that if any human creation can be art under certain conditions, so why not games? Games do stretch our usual conception of what art is, but there is no universal dictionary containing the one and only definition of every word, especially not of something as subjective and elusive as art (and it’s certainly not the first time in the 20th century that our perception of art gets challenged). An artwork is by essence a singularity, and thus no comparison is possible between two or more art pieces, not in terms of value anyway, and there’s no point in doing so. Lists such as the famous Sight and Sound one are merely tools of discovery, they’re a guide for new cinema enthusiasts trying to find their way in the short but prolific history of moving pictures; Vertigo isn’t a better film than Citizen Kane by any means, it’s only a different one, both masterpieces in their own way.

What common measure or criteria could we use to make this comparison possible? By definition, a masterpiece is immeasurable, eternal and its possibilities are endless, so what tools do the critics possess that could quantify and compare an infinite value? A work of art is more than the simple material object created by the artist, in cinema’s case it is not merely this continuous flow of sound and images that stays more or less the same even if the physical format on which they’re viewed can greatly vary (film, digital, DVD, etc.); a work of art is born out of a personal relationship, art lives in this small gap between an object and his spectator, so my Citizen Kane isn’t your Citizen Kane, nor is it the same Citizen Kane I will see again for the first time tomorrow. But my private relation to Citizen Kane doesn’t constitute the whole of what Citizen Kane is or can be, and if you’re looking for some objectivity in art then it lies in the dialog between all these private relationships this movie made possible throughout the years: if Citizen Kane entertained all these profound and complex conversations between thousands of people for over seventy years, if this movie is still able to generate new reactions and ideas today, then we have to acknowledge this rare and precious potential, even if I myself have no interest towards this movie.

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I like to think of our relationship with art as a dialogue, and a real dialogue needs to take into account the perspective of the Other. If I can’t listen to the Other, I’m soliloquizing, and art cannot thrive without an attentive and altruist audience. I’m not advocating for a total relativism here, but it is impossible to define any piece of art in a definitive manner: there is no ultimate truth in art.

Thus, to acknowledge the artistic value of Citizen Kane, or any movie, I’ve got to make my private dialogue with this movie public, I’ve got to share it with others so it can lives and grows beyond me. So there it is, the purpose of this blog: to share my experiences of movies and videogames.

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Re-reading this now, it seems like an abrupt manner of opening a new blog, far less cordial than the usual personal introduction, so let’s do this necessary presentation as briefly as possible: I’m a movie critic in Montreal, where I write for a film magazine, Séquences, and I recently began a passionate relationship with videogames, so I’m mainly interested in the interrelations between these two mediums, especially in terms of images. I’m first and foremost a film lover, but over the last year my passion towards movies began to weaken, while my love of games continued to grow. I wrote a lot in the last four years about cinema, in French, at first on my own blog and then for the magazine I’m still working for, but now I’m obsessed with games, mainly with their potential as a possible art form, so I decided to create a new private virtual space, away from cinema and closer to games. Writing in English is new for me, so you’ll have to excuse my grammar and syntax – although I’m quite familiar with this language, I’m still insecure when it comes to writing (or talking). Since you have no choice but to write in English when it comes to games (there’s almost no French litterature on this subject), well here I am. Like all blog, this one is a work in progress, so I’m hoping my writing skills will improve with time, and become more natural.

This first post outlined some of the principal ideas underlying what I intend to discuss on this blog, not only cinema and videogame, but also the nature of art and criticism. And as we will see next time, everything comes back to Citizen Kane.

Sylvain Lavallée Écrit par :

“Car une chose est d’apprendre à regarder les films « en professionnel » – pour vérifier d’ailleurs que ce sont eux qui nous regardent de moins en moins – et une autre est de vivre avec ceux qui nous ont regardés grandir et qui nous ont vus, otages précoces de notre biographie à venir, déjà empêtrés dans les rets de notre histoire.” Serge Daney

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