Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sunday Musing - Kane Madness!

Gather round children. It's time for another musing.

Today we're going to talk about the idea of having a "Citizen Kane" of video games. It's talked about a lot. Just Google it. Ebert talks about it, Kotaku brings it up from time to time (not always with games though), and Destructoid to name a few. Though the Destructoid article is probably one of my least the title is nifty. It's something that gamers have been striving for in an attempt to try and prove to the world that video games can and should be taken seriously.

But here's the flaw in the concept. You know how Citizen Kane was first received when it was released in 1941? It bombed. At a budget of $500,000 (that was a lot in those days kids) the film lost $150,000 during it's initial run. There was a huge uproar and bad publicity over the movie, that it was destined to fail. It was nominated for 6 Oscars and every time the film's name was mentioned, it would get booed by the crowd. It amuses me whenever someone starts talking about "The Citizen Kane of video games." Clearly, people aren't aware of the film's history to understand how awkward of a statement that really is.

Here is a brief overview of what the hell happened with this movie. And I'll try to keep it brief.

For those whom haven't seen the movie, it's basically a point by point comparison to William Randolph Hurst's life. Though Orsen Welles never openly admits to it, it's pretty obvious. From the beginning, production of the project was chaotic. Welles attempted to keep the film on a closed set, but eventually a rough cut had to be shown to the press and one magazine took it upon itself to make the comparison between Kane and Hurst. Hurst Publications went into an uproar to ban all promotions of the film and anything being released by RKO, Radio-Keith-Orpheum. Keep in mind at that time; Hurst Publications owned roughly 70% of the media outlets in the United States. They controlled the business (before it was cut up and the whole monopoly thing became an issue). If they weren't going to promote your studio and your movies, you were going to be wiped out.

So after a multitude of legal sessions, RKO and Welles reached a deal with the publication company and agreed to a series of concessions (such as cutting the film from it's 2 hour and a half hour course down to an hour and 59 minutes and limiting the number of theaters that could show the final product). As the film was nearing release, Hurst still wasn't going to publicize the movie (though they had no issues with other RKO films). Which cut out about half of the theaters in the country and limited viewing to larger cities in the few theaters that Hurst didn't own.

Reviews of the film were mixed. And I'm referring to the legitimate, non-Hurst publication reviews. People toted the technical prowess of the film and its break from traditional Hollywood narrative. However, an overwhelming number did not feel the story was strong and alienated the audience. It might be safe to say that even if Hurst Publications didn't ban the film, it probably would not have faired well amongst the general public. It took nearly 20 years before the film was available in Europe and began to receive notoriety, and was inducted into the Library of Congress in 1989. AFI (American Film Institute) didn't add it to its list of Top 100 films until 1998. Basically, it took a really, really, really, really long time before Citizen Kane was accepted by "higher art figures" as one of the best.

Realistically, we as the gaming community should be saying "The Gone with the Wind of video games" as our tagline. That movie was so much more revolutionary and changed the face of Hollywood right out of the gate; where as Citizen Kane took decades to be absorbed into the culture. I'm not talking specifically about numbers, i.e. money. Look at movies before Gone with the Wind and look at movies afterwards. It really did change a lot of what Hollywood was about, and so many techniques created in that film are still used today. Personally, I'd much rather have a Gone with the Wind then Citizen Kane, for video games that is.

I feel that a lot of this idea of Citizen Kane of video games is more of a cliché that we're expected to say. Because Citizen Kane is so overused as the epitome of what is considered a great movie, we've fallen into that cycle to abusing its power.

I didn't like Citizen Kane the first time I saw it. Nor the second. Nor the third. Probably not the fourth time either. When you're in school for film, you are required to watch Citizen Kane and Blade Runner at least once a semester. I didn't start to appreciate the nuances of Kane until I stopped thinking about it as the best movie of all time. Once I pushed that thought out of my head, thanks to all of my professors for reiterating how "great" the movie was and making it a chore to all of us students, it became tolerable and soon it was growing on me. Now, by no means do I think it's the best movie ever. The story is still bland and could use another go around with Welles. But it is an impressive feat in terms of cinematography and sound design.

Anyway, back to the topic. The cliché of alluding to Citizen Kane is something that every media has done. Even books. And how you make a Citizen Kane of books is beyond me. Naturally, video games are going to follow this course of logic.

Here's my point. Do we need a Citizen Kane of video games? No. Do we need a Gone with the Wind of video games? Not necessarily. Would it be nice to have? Sure. Are we there yet? Not really. We're still in the early phases of games being accepted by the general public. Critical theory is still a wide open field and there hasn't been any definitive research to promote video game's as a respectable field of study. And by respectable I mean placing into the academic field as more then graphics design. In truth, I don't believe it will be just one game that breaks the classification of what is a video game. Rather, I think it'll be a group of games or a studio that helps push forward the gaming movement into the next chapter.

In truth, I wish that people would stop using Citizen Kane as the go-to for what should be considered great. A good history lesson and a quick observance of film theory would do our community well. We shouldn't have to compare a great video game in order to promote its quality. While I understand that it helps provide the audience with a reference point, it ends up delineating the value of the product. Let the work speak for itself.


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