When we discover Jorge Luis Borges, we usually discover him through his short stories — or at least through his own highly distinctive uses of the short story form. Those many of us who thereupon decide to read everything the man ever wrote sooner or later find that he ventured into other realms of short text as well. Borges spent time as a poet, an essayist, and even as something of a film critic, a period of his career that will delight the sizable cinephilic segment of his readership. “I’m almost a century late to this party,” writes one such fan, Brendan Kiley at The Stranger, “but I recently stumbled into the movie reviews of Jorge Luis Borges (in his Selected Non-Fictions) and they’re fantastic: gloomy, sometimes bitchy, hilarious.” He first highlights Borges’ 1941 assessment of Citizen Kane, which Interrelevant provides in its incisive, unsparing, referential, and very brief entirety:
AN OVERWHELMING FILM
Citizen Kane (called The Citizen in Argentina) has at least two plots. The first, pointlessly banal, attempts to milk applause from dimwits: a vain millionaire collects statues, gardens, palaces, swimming pools, diamonds, cars, libraries, man and women. Like an earlier collector (whose observations are usually ascribed to the Holy Ghost), he discovers that this cornucopia of miscellany is a vanity of vanities: all is vanity. At the point of death, he yearns for one single thing in the universe, the humble sled he played with as a child!
The second plot is far superior. It links the Koheleth to the memory of another nihilist, Franz Kafka. A kind of metaphysical detective story, its subject (both psychological and allegorical) is 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. The same technique was used by Joseph Conrad in Chance (1914) and in that beautiful film The Power and the Glory: a rhapsody of miscellaneous scenes without chronological order. Overwhelmingly, endlessly, Orson Welles shows fragments of the life of the man, Charles Foster Kane, and invites us to combine them and to reconstruct him.
Form of multiplicity and incongruity abound in the film: the first scenes record the treasures amassed by Kane; in one of the last, a poor woman, luxuriant and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a palace that is also a museum. At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by any secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances. (A possible corollary, foreseen by David Hume, Ernst Mach, and our own Macedonio Fernandez: no man knows who he is, no man is anyone.) In a story by Chesterton — “The Head of Caesar,” I think — the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film is precisely that labyrinth.
We all know that a party, a palace, a great undertaking, a lunch for writers and journalists, an atmosphere of cordial and spontaneous camaraderie, are essentially horrendous. Citizen Kane is the first film to show such things with an awareness of this truth.
The production is, in general, worthy of its vast subject. The cinematography has a striking depth, and there are shots whose farthest planes (like Pre-Raphaelite paintings) are as precise and detailed as the close-ups. I venture to guess, nonetheless, that Citizen Kane will endure as a certain Griffith or Pudovkin films have “endured”—films whose historical value is undeniable but which no one cares to see again. It is too gigantic, pedantic, tedious. It is not intelligent, though it is the work of genius—in the most nocturnal and Germanic sense of that bad word.
“A kind of metaphysical detective story,” “a labyrinth with no center,” “the work of a genius” — why, if I didn’t know better, I’d think Borges here describes his own work. Welles himself didn’t go ignorant of his film’s Borgesian nature, or at least of the tendency of others to point out its Borgesian nature, not always in a positive light. “Some people called it warmed-over Borges,” Welles recalled in a conversation 42 years later with the filmmaker Henry Jaglom. Nor did he forget Borges’ own critique: “He said that it was pedantic, which is a very strange thing to say about it, and that it was a labyrinth. And that the worst thing about a labyrinth is that there’s no way out. And this is a labyrinth of a movie with no way out. Borges is half-blind. Never forget that. But you know, I could take it that he and Sartre” — who thought the film’s image “too much in love with itself” — “simply hated Kane. In their minds, they were seeing— and attacking — something else. It’s them, not my work.” Defensive though this may sound, it identifies the impulse that had the author of Labyrinths seeing all those labyrinths in the movie: to quote Anaïs Nin, a writer contemporary though not often brought into the same context with Borges, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
You can also read Borges’ 1933 review of King Kong here.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.