It was the summer of 1998. I was 11 years old, about to go into the 6th grade, and I fancied myself a “movie buff.”
I knew I was a “buff” because my idea of a perfect evening was having a slumber party in the basement, eating junk food and watching TWO or EVEN THREE Showtime video rentals in a row. No talking during the movie and NO SLEEP TIL REWIND.
My friend Jen felt she was a movie buff too.
So did my friend Emmie.
We embarked on the whole “slumber party movie watching” brigade a lot. It was sorta our thang.
(My best friend, John, was also a movie buff – but our movie watching habits is for a whole other epic blog post.)
Jen was my sly, whip smart friend, always happy to explain various things and ideas that usually went over our heads. She introduced us to the (very sad) concept of no Santa Claus and claimed she got her period before any of us did so, you know, she was pretty peak sophistication. Her folks were the strictest of all the ‘rents, which just meant that rated R rentals were the most tricky to get when we were using her mom’s card.
Emmie was my fandom obsessed, punk rock buddy whose bedroom consisted of floor to ceiling collages of whatever she was very, very into at the moment. (NSYNC, River Phoenix, in later years I think it was Bam Margera?) Her house was conveniently located behind Jen’s (backyards touching, so cool!) and I loved spending my summer days ping-ponging between the two homes, borrowing hoodies and perusing multiple snack pantries.
Note: Timeline-wise, I am actually unsure if Emmie was part of this particular story, (memories are sooooo weird sometimes with when people come in and out of your life) but regardless, I am going to include her in this tale because, well, it just feels correct and here’s why:
Emmie’s mom worked at the one movie theater we had in town, so on off slumber party nights you could find us scoring free tickets and seeing everything PG-13.
To this day, I vividly remember the United Artists Theater at the Twin Peaks Mall. The smell of cleaning product, stale popcorn, and barf. The sound of arcade games and air conditioning. The high ceilinged lobby that made every new release feel like films of the century – from The English Patient to The Waterboy.
Jen had the best basement for slumber party watches, well worth the behind-the-back sneaking of such risqué flicks like The Breakfast Club and Mallrats. It had a steep set of stairs, giving us ample time to pause if we heard an oncoming intruder ready to barge in at an important plot point. It also had a fold out couch, a dart board, a bathroom, and, most importantly, a door.
Doors equal freedom when you are an 11 year old movie watcher, if only so you could say “fuck” when you were excited at a twist or sneak sips of a mom’s forgotten Frangelico during party scenes.
Jen’s basement was heaven compared to my movie watching “basement,” if you could call it that. My staircase had a railing with large gaps that opened right into the upstairs portion of the house. Any parent at any time could poke their head through and yell: “Whatcha watching?” “How you doing gals?” “It’s getting late isn’t it?” “I think it’s time you turn this off now.” (Boo. Always boo. We had just gotten to the scene where Andy comes out in her ugly pink dress, DAD!) The summer of 1998 I had yet to get my tiny bedroom television which, when I finally got it in 2000, complete with a VCR, was a fucking GAME CHANGER.
Emmie’s basement sorta split the difference in movie watching privacy. It was quiet but her grandpa lived down there so unless we wanted to watch some really loud westerns (which we did sometimes!) usually her place was a no go.
That’s why on June 16th, 1998, we knew it was Jen’s basement where we would take on the ultimate film lovers binge.
That was the night of the AFI’s 100 Most Influential Movies, airing on CBS.
It ran for four hours and yes, Jen, Emmie and I watched the whole damn thing.
We reveled in this “classy” television special. We agreed with Richard Dreyfuss that American Graffiti was “timeless” and that Sally Field was “breathtaking” in Forrest Gump. As the hours passed and the pizza was devoured, the three of us started taking bets on what movies were in the top ten.
One significant factor contributed greatly to our predictions.
You see, just six months prior to this AFI special, the movie Titanic had come out.
Not only did I see Titanic 4 times in the theaters (thanks Emmie’s mom!), but for that brief period between 5th and 6th grade, Titanic had become my whole identity. (Emmie too – you should have seen her collages!) I had a poster taped on the top corner of my 5th grade desk (the one that’s the nose of the ship with Kate and Leo’s giant heads at the top – you know the one) if only to say “Yeah Mrs. Peck. Titanic equals ME!” I bought both the soundtrack and the Celine Dion album that had “My Heart Will Go On” on it, just to cover my bases if one got scratched. I had memorized talking points on why I had a crush on Jack and not Leonardo, plus a mature retort on how seeing Winslet’s boobs was actually “an honest and true moment,” and made the whole picture feel more “real.” (Man, was I raised in the male gaze or what, sweet baby jesus).
Titanic being a modern masterpiece was confirmed when it won Best Picture in March of 1998. (Those Oscars, by the way, are probably the most important Oscars in my lifetime… so far. It’s the same year Ben and Matt won for Good Will Hunting.)
At first, I wasn’t so naïve to think that Titanic would top of the ever-so-important AFI 100. Even though I hadn’t heard of AFI ever before in my life, I had a deep trust in lists and the perameters of list making. I was obedient kid, and if something made the top of list – then the ranking was fact and that was that.
So, logically speaking, I understood that Titanic was too new! The other movies on this list had been around for way longer and had way more time to fester in the collective film consciousness of movie elites. I knew Titanic wasn’t going to be the highest ranked, but I did assume it would be ranked. It was Titanic, after all. It had won Best Picture! And awards — like ranking lists — could never be wrong! Going off this, I assumed Titanic would at least crack the top 50.
But as we got through the 50’s, then 40’s, then 30’s…. Titanic still wasn’t listed. And it was fucking impossible for Jen, Emmie, and me to concede that “King Of The World” of movies would be completely excluded from such a fine and important list. So as it was missing in the ranks, all we could assume was that Titanic just hadn’t been listed yet. That its rank was still to come.
So, when the special finally got to the top 10 films of ALL TIME, that’s when we got. Very. Excited.
Because if Titanic was ranked one of the top 10 movies of all time, then that meant that Jen, Emmie, and I had excellent film taste, and we were just as good as any member of AFI.
To be fair, we had placed some pretty accurate bets on the list so far. We knew E.T. would land somewhere in the 20’s, and Star Wars would be in the teens. We figured Wizard Of Oz (seen it, loved it), Singing In The Rain (seen it, loved it), and The Godfather (no thanks, very scary) would be in the top ten. But with every movie announced not being James Cameron’s boat epic, we kept looking at each other, stupidly grinning.
Could it be?
Could Titanic be the greatest movie of all time?
The list arrived at number 2. By our calculation, it was between Casablanca and Titanic at this point.
In the number two spot, they announced Casablanca.
And we lost it. Titanic was number 1! Titanic was number 1!
But Titanic wasn’t number 1. In fact, Titanic didn’t even make the list.
Instead of Titanic, Richard Dreyfuss looked straight at the camera — nay, straight into our souls – and announced that the number 1 movie OF ALL TIME was:
I can hear Emmie’s scrunched up, confused, nasally voice now.
“What the fuck is Citizen Kane?”
Not only had we three 11-year-old “film snobs” not seen Citizen Kane, we had never even heard of it.
And that sorta felt like a slap in the face. How could we say we loved movies if we didn’t even know about the number 1 movie of all time? And how could our absolute favorite movie be off the list, with this never-before-discussed, almost mythical film in its place?
This had to be remedied right away. We all agreed that the next Saturday we would meet back in Jen’s basement. We were going to have a Citizen Kane slumber party.
Yep. The first and last time I saw Citizen Kane was when I was a 11 years old, in my best friend Jen’s basement, snuggled up in a Minnie Mouse sleeping bag and wearing Marvin the Martian pajamas.
My analysis? Do you really have to ask?
Um, you guys, CITIZEN KANE SUCKED.
I know, I know — 1. I just didn’t “get it.” Right? 2. It was “over my head?” 3. I didn’t understand “true film making.” 4. I should really “watch it again now that I’m older.”
I’ve heard it all before.
To that, I’d argue a couple things.
1. We got it right away.
After the first couple scenes, in between gobbles of popcorn, I vividly remember turning to Jen and being like “Rosebud. It’s his sled, right?” And she was like: “Right.” And then we kept watching, only to realize that THAT was apparently the big twist. (Oh sorry, did I spoil it for you? Trust me, I didn’t.)
We knew it was satire. We knew it was loosely based on the life William Randolph Hearst (a character we knew from Newsies, great movie). We knew Orson had good age makeup. We could see that the angles were cool. It’s amazing how all these things could be true and yet the film itself could still be very boring. But it was. It was so fucking boring. And then, in the final scene, it was back to Rosebud. His sled. “Duh, it was his sled!” we screamed. The end. End picture. End of THE GREATEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME.
2. It was not over my head.
For one, Jen was our “over my head” sage, remember? If something was missed, she always caught it and threw it back to us. Now, I’m not denying that “over my head” shenanigans have happened in my movie viewing lifetime, I just don’t think this movie was one of them. For instance, I saw Pulp Fiction for the first time when I was only 14 and, shocker, I also hated that movie, but as an adult I have come around to (sorta) loving it and (definitely) appreciating it. I am aware that aging assists in picking up on nuances and story, especially in movies. I’m sure if I saw Citizen Kane now I would understand it in a different way simply because I have lived longer and have grown and changed in all that. But by throwing down the claim that a kiddo just doesn’t “get” something, and so their opinion should be dismissed, is actually just claiming that this movie wasn’t made for “the kiddo.”
And that’s totally fine. There are movies out there that aren’t made for some people. In fact, there should be different movies made for different types of audiences.
So, then, who was Citizen Kane made for?
I’m just saying, it’s one thing to be known as a great movie, but if we are talking about THE GREATEST FILM OF ALL TIME, then I firmly believe part of the criteria should be looking at a movie that is made for more people than just old white men. The end.
3. I think 11 year old me did understand “true filmmaking.” (As much as anyone can understand it, that is.)
Look, yes, we may have been a little young to truly comprehend the great technical importance of Citizen Kane. I understand that the way in which the movie was made was “cutting edge” for 1941, and in its own very specific way, likely changed the course of how movies were made.
I get it. When Richard Dreyfuss talks, I listen.
But there was, and still is, something unbearably insulting about Citizen Kane being deemed the best of the best, especially to an 11 year old who just wanted to be part of something. In the end, AFI’s list felt like a personal offense to us young, female, movie lovers. It was as if this club — this film “community” that we so badly wanted to be a part of — was saying we weren’t good enough, that our movie opinions didn’t matter.
That loving movies could not be part of our identity.
And I’ll be honest, that hurt.
In a way, the AFI list and subsequent Citizen Kane viewing was a major loss of innocence in me trusting that everything important film people said was “fact.” That lists were concrete. That there was only one true way to be a movie person.
Come to think of it, it’s probably a reason I got into showbiz. If I wasn’t be in the club then, then I’m certainly in it now. (I get screeners and everything, mother fuckahhh.) Who knows? Maybe this AFI watch changed the course of history. Maybe, in a super weird little way, it helped me become the writer and performer I am today.
Because, darn it all, I’m still super hopeful I’ll make something that matters to a few like Citizen Kane matters to, I guess, Richard Dreyfuss?
I dunno. Regardless, it still feels very inside baseball to continuously rank Citizen Kane so high on movies lists, sans criticism. Even in the 2007 revision of AFI’s top 100 (where Titanic was finally added and ranked at 83) Citizen Kane held steady at the top spot. With today’s social media commentary. I’m not sure if they’ll ever do another special, but I wouldn’t put it past them.
Hey, if people can make fun of me for loving Titanic in 1998 (which they SHOULD), why can’t I dunk on people for loving Citizen Kane today? (Also, DOES anyone actually love Citizen Kane?)
Yes, I can admit that Leo and Kate’s love story has dated itself over the years. By today’s standards the movie oozes melodrama and sexism and floating door logic problems. I am not blindly standing by my pre-teen belief that Titanic is a masterpiece. It still holds a special place in my youthful, learning-how-to-be poetic, heart, but I am very okay with saying that there was a time when that movie meant a lot to me, but not so much now.
Maybe it’s time to say the same about Citizen Kane.
I know lists and awards are stupid unless your preferred choice wins (I know I KNOW), and it’s all arbitrary. I guess I just felt like as a kid I GOT movies. That 11 year old Jen (now a mother of four and an elementary school dean), Emmie (we lost touch but I know she is a mother and a fierce fan of Halloween), and I really did. And I stand by that. I stand by us.
Stand By Me – great movie. (Hey, Richard Dreyfuss full circle!)
4. Yeah, no. I have no intention of ever watching Citizen Kane again. How could I beat how I saw it the first time?
Titanic forever baby.
- One L
“NEAARRRRRR FARRRRRR WHEREVEEERRR YOU ARRRRRRE!” – Jen, Emmie, and I blasting the Titanic soundtrack after watching Citizen Kane.
One thought on “The Greatest Movie Ever Made”
Hi, Alison. I don’t know how else to try to contact you. I left a reply on a tweet from 2020, and somehow I don’t see you replying anytime soon to that lol. I am a teacher and Speech & Debate coach at a small school in SD. I have a student who really wants to perform the poem “The View from Halfway Down,” but poems have to be published for public consumption, or I have to figure out to whom and how to pay royalties. Is there anyway you can email me so we can discuss how this might all be accomplished? I (and my student) would really appreciate it. Thanks for your time. 🙂