The late Pauline Kael’s controversial, extended New Yorker piece Raising Kane is best read from a critical distance: a willingness to skim past tangential paragraphs, ignore untruths around authorship and arguments that leap into a stretch at best. Kael didn’t write 140 pages on Citizen Kane as is presented in the promotional Sight & Sound paperback edition I read: she wrote a handful of pages (across many columns) in a renowned magazine printed in a scarcely perceptible font size. Kael is writing for a reader willing to forget sections as they flick through the pages of a much larger magazine; it feels as if Kael was being paid for every page and word turned in, with her goal being to achieve the maximum word count. There’s John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a monumental piece of New Yorker reportage (the August 31st 1946 edition of the magazine) that became a fundamental, standalone non-fiction book of its own; then you have Pauline Kael.
One of the most prolific and visible female film critics of the 20th century, Kael is undeniably important to film criticism. She had some great, interesting pieces, but she also had some ridiculous and laughable hot takes. Raising Kane has a number of engaging sections, examining the loaded pun symbolism of ‘Kane’ and the Biblical mark of Cain and integrating aspects from Welles’ biography working in radio, using extracts from newspaper reviews from the film’s premiere. Kael contextually foregrounds the film against German Expressionism, the emergence of talkies and newspaper pictures (The Front Page and His Girl Friday) and the comedies of the 1930s and 40s. In particular, she provides details of Herman Mankiewicz’s extended 350 page screenplay compared to the filmed production, and illuminates the William Randolph Hearst newspaper controversy that influenced Kane’s character and the film’s narrative – creating part of its endurance – but ruined its box office potential and left it with lawsuits. Most luridly and in search of gossip, Kael writes on Hearst’s own connections with the film industry.
Unfortunately, a more recent biography on Kane or Welles may be the stronger read. There’s value to be drawn, especially as Kael discusses her initial reaction to watching the film in 1941, aged 21, compared to her response in 1971, and her own experience meeting Hearst as a teenager, but she falls back on herself too easily in a way that doesn’t necessarily come across as readable. Her elevation of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz over Welles isn’t bad in principle, but it merely substitutes the idolisation of a singular creative source with another auteur. Although facilitating a change in the elements of biography she utilises, it struggles to radically rethink Welles as a personality. The elevation of Mankiewicz is unable to elevate the roles of composer Bernard Herrmann, cinematographer Gregg Toland or the actors, costume designers, producers and RKO executives that played equal roles alongside Welles in completing the project.