Citizen Borges: For Roger Ebert

I’ve been saving this post for a rainy day, and that day happened with the death of Roger Ebert, the great Chicago critic whose favorite film was Citizen Kane. Back a couple of decades, watching and listening to Ebert and his sparring partner Gene Siskel challenge each other to work harder while arguing passionately for and against the latest cinema modeled what being a thinking adult was all about. Seeing smart people passionately agree, disagree, and give their reasons without resorting to hack political talking points is a pretty rare thing on television even today. That back-and-forth is exactly why teaching excites me. I tell my graduate students that they are at the stage where they are teaching each other. They are teaching me. Ebert and Siskel, in their medium and in their way, did the same. Ignore the thumbs (though Ebert never did) and read through his blog posts from the past several years to discover the joys of reading the words of a person dedicated to writing honestly. It is the hardest thing to do. We like our pet sentences and constructions, our elegant, dressed-up ideas. It hurts to let them go. It hurt Ebert to write maudlin prose or to watch maudlin cinema. He drained his work of all sentimentality but never its essential humanity, whether he was writing about a Hollywood blockbuster, politics, or his illness. Stories—fictional or otherwise—are about people. That’s why film was important to him. I’m no Ebert, but here are a few words concerning his favorite film, seen through the troubled eyes of sometime critic and fulltime literary master Jorge Luis Borges:

0670849472.1.zoomTo experience reading through the Selected Non-fictions of Jorge Luis Borges is to find clues to his inner self, presumably expressed through his artful (that is to say, deceitful in the best way) Ficciones, the short stories that introduced him to the world beyond Buenos Aires. Conrad, Melville, Joyce, yes—these and others may perhaps be considered “influences,” but not in any traditional sense. What Borges sees in the work of others, even those for whom he has only guarded enthusiasm but deep interest (H.G. Wells, for example) is the way they do or do not pattern their narratives. Those patterns, those systems, or perhaps we should say labyrinths, are for Borges the story. He dismisses psychological realism’s devaluing of plot. For Borges, the entire universe is a plot to be decoded. But what he likes about James Joyce is not the series of correspondences in Ulysses’s structure, but the notion that Joyce “is less a man of letters than a literature.” And that literature, with its range of voices and styles, is expressed in a single volume about a single day in Dublin. That day encompasses a world, a knowledge sufficient to understand it and to better grasp our own. When I got to Borges’ brief 1941 review of Citizen Kane (“An Overwhelming Film”), it struck me that perhaps he might say that Orson Welles was less a filmmaker than a cinema.

Labyrinths, systematic speculations on literature and the nature of knowledge, the concept of a universal library, the possibility that there is only one author, chance, the concept of circular time, histories of infinite regression, the notion that there is really no meaningful line between the fictional and nonfictional, that all words are borrowed, that indeed lives are composed of language—Borges investigated all this and more in brief book and film reviews, prefaces, newspaper columns, and other ephemeral writings. In his Universal History of Iniquity (naturally, a collection of fictional stories), he borrows entire sections from writers like Mark Twain seamlessly. No wonder the poststructuralist critics loved him decades down the road.

And no wonder Borges liked Citizen Kane long before many others caught on. He responds to Orson Welles’s puzzle of a film, “a kind of metaphysical detective story, its subject (both psychological and allegorical) . . . the investigation of a man’s inner self, through the works he has wrought, the words he has spoken, the many lives he has ruined.” Forget the “pointlessly banal” plot involving Kane’s omnivorous collecting (of art, of people, and so on). The real action for Borges is in the quest to learn just who Kane was. “In a story by Chesterton,” he writes, “the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film is precisely that labyrinth.”

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, 1941.

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, 1941.

It is a film burdened by its reputation as, according to Pauline Kael, The Greatest Film Ever Made, surely a good way to build up unrealistic expectations in new viewers. Kane ascended to the top spot in the once-a-decade Sight and Sound poll in 1962, the first poll taken after the film’s 1957 re-release, and it stayed there until Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo unseated it in 2012. The claims made for Citizen Kane’s technical innovation seem less credible the more one views German expressionism, French poetic realism, John Ford’s late thirties and early forties run, or indeed anything else Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland had done prior to this film (I particularly like his work on Ford’s Eugene O’Neill adaptation from 1940, The Long Voyage Home). I remember the film being pitched as “the greatest ever” before I saw it in my Film Literature class in college. Unsophisticated viewer that I was, it certainly seemed to be the greatest film I had ever seen, which wasn’t saying much. As time went on I realized that I actually responded better to other films in the class, in particular Carol Reed’s The Third Man, a film surely influenced by the work of its star player, Welles. But I would never want to be without Kane nearby.

I had a relatively clear run at Citizen Kane when I first viewed it in 1986, and today, with the internet and an expansive home video world, there is a broader and better informed film culture than anyone could have imagined back then. Even in Welles’s troubled canon, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, and, especially for me, Touch of Evil often speak less ponderously. What Borges saw in 1941 in Buenos Aires was a film that would “endure as certain Griffith or Pudovkin films have ‘endured’—films whose historical value is undeniable but which no one cares to see again.” And yet its approach to narrative clearly connected with Borges, who cited not only Conrad (a Welles favorite too, of course) but the William K. Howard-directed The Power and the Glory from 1933 as cousins in storytelling technique. I think Citizen Kane holds up to repeated viewings better than Borges anticipated. There is a dynamic difference between it, and, say, Gone with the Wind or Intolerance.

Kane succeeds better than those films because it mixes the outsized with the intimate in visually startling ways, and it lets no one off the hook. Kane’s puzzle is, indeed, not about a whispered word on a gloomy deathbed. It is in the capacity all of us have not merely for hoodwinking others, but for self-deception. Like Susan Kane’s endless puzzle, the pieces never seem to quite fit. Borges built a literature on the fantasy that the pieces could fit, that we just don’t have the right key or can’t see the invisible realm right in front of us where logic rules. Welles demurred, embracing artifice and leaving a trail of masterpieces and near-misses that rarely feel complete, having lost interest or been fired from almost all of them after his remarkable debut. What also unites Welles and Borges is a shared fascination and horror with fascism. But while Borges could write, as we does elsewhere in Selected Nonfictions, of the betrayal of German culture by Nazism, Welles tends to see fascism as endemic. His fascination with Shakespearean dictators and with the power of media to deceive is matched by the outsized characters–such as Kane–that Welles reserved for himself to play with a touch of sympathy for the devils.

Borges lost his sight over time, and likely did not see the Welles film that perhaps would have pleased him most: F for Fake. Here is Welles at his most mischievous, crafting a crypto-documentary on an art forger even as he cons his audience with magic tricks on and off-camera. For Welles, who in Kane had written a version of a projected (in two senses) autobiography on film in 1941, understood not merely the cinema, but life itself, as an elaborate exercise in artifice. Taking a cue from Marcus Aurelius in his essay “Circular Time,” Borges suggests that “the number of human perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and vicissitudes is limited, and that before dying we will exhaust them all.” I suggest that Welles (with Herman J. Mankiewicz) wrote them into a script filled with portents of his own ambition and disappointment, aged himself with makeup through the stages of man he acted before a camera he directed, and created a life in two hours. Welles was a cinema.

Essential Jorge Luis Borges:

Selected Non-Fictions, edited by Elliott Weinberger

Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley

Some Orson Welles favorites:

Citizen Kane (1941)

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Stranger (1945)

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Mr. Arkadin/Confidential Report (1955)

Touch of Evil (1958)

F for Fake (1973)

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2 thoughts on “Citizen Borges: For Roger Ebert

  1. Roger Ryan says:

    A very well-written appreciation of both Borges and Welles, Mr. Cawthra. However, it should be pointed out that it was not Joseph L. Mankiewicz who co-wrote the screenplay for KANE but his brother Herman J. Mankiewicz.

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