Famous Firsts: Citizen Kane (1941)

Debut film of: Orson Welles, writer and director

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By Roderick Heath

Note: This essay was composed for academic purposes, in commentary on the proposition by Laura Mulvey that “Citizen Kane explicitly invites us to figure out its puzzle but it also constantly frustrates that desire.”

Citizen Kane begins at the end—the death of its eponymous character uttering a word that becomes the object of retrospective investigation. The attempts to understand Charles Foster Kane and his life will be fractured, and Thompson, the journalist attempting to parse the meaning of his dying word, “Rosebud,” never achieves his objective. His failure reflects his realisation of an idea the film has laid out in great detail—that such words as news, truth, biography, history, and remembering, are infinitely flexible, influenced by perspective, time, character, and purpose. Whilst the audience is finally presented with a solution to the puzzle, it returns the arc in a complete reversal to the opening, still “a situation of total ambiguity,” as one of Welles canniest critics, Joseph McBride, put it in 1972.

Susan Alexander Kane’s love of arranging jigsaw puzzles presents the central metaphor—the story resembles such a puzzle. Pieces are disarranged, and one must place them together to construct the full picture. And yet there is not a sense of intellectual and emotional triumph over the unknown and confused. This fragmentation of the traditional holism of narrative is mediated not merely through linear, but also stylistic, displacement. The film evokes familiar genres, but renders them incomplete, warping traditional shape, thereby serving to make us ponder the purposes genres are put to and the traditions they are supposed to service. “The endurance of relatively stable genres is sometimes assumed to by symptomatic of institutionalised inertia, aesthetic stasis and a more general lack of desire for change,” as Negus and Pickering summed it up neatly in their 2004 volume Creativity, Communication and Cultural Value. Perhaps nowhere was this suspicion held to be more accurate than of classic Hollywood.

It can be broadly observed that the detective genre, to which the Rosebud search could belong, or the heroic-journalist genre, in which Thompson, Kane, and Leland could all be traditional characters, generally posit the idea that the truth will out. The clue will be found, crime unearthed. As Julian Symons described it in his landmark 1972 study of the detective genre, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, the shape of social and moral order will be reinforced for the pleasure of those “who have a stake in the permanence of the existing social system.” But in Kane, such certainties are conscientiously erased. Generic quotes in Kane both interrogate, and also utilise, the ideas encoded in these genres.

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The film begins with the mood of a horror movie—Xanadu, a wonderland in the newsreel, but here a prematurely decaying castle fit for Dracula. Why the appropriation of gothic style? The gothic genre’s familiar dead castles and haunted mansions are traps for rancid memory, cultural detritus, and the devolution of the consciousness. We encounter all these things in this “monument to himself.” Xanadu and its trove of art and craft, its chasms of ego-cocooning space, are both godlike and oppressive. This is reminiscent of films with haunted house settings. Take the description in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of the Horror Movie of Kubrick’s The Shining, probably the greatest modern example of the genre but highly reliant on its classic tropes, with its “twinning of opposites” for a “tortured ego” in such a “space trap”—exactly the same atmosphere Welles conjures for Xanadu. Likewise, Susan’s wraithlike appearance at the end of her opera tour renders her looking much like a vampire’s victim. Again, Kane borrows a generic motif, but there is no monster here, only a dying old man haunted by memory, undermining the motif.

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Still, we never “meet” Charles Foster Kane. We encounter versions of him in biographies and anecdotes, observe his possessions, his dwelling place, signifying the absence of a being. In the newsreel, such men as Thatcher and the labour advocate describe him as both a communist and a fascist, presented as binary opposites in popular discourse. Kane is reinvented even in life according to the needs of others. His wealth, prestige, his sheer scale as an entity not only invite this, but seem to demand it; there is too much of Kane and his world to account in one version.

The dreamlike prologue is followed hard by its stylistic opposite, the News on the March newsreel, which serves vitally important functions. It lays out the agreed facts of Kane’s life, and the audience can access this information during the leaps in period and perspective that pepper the film. We know where each “piece” fits in. It also establishes a thematic schism. The stylisation of the prologue evokes the threat of an unspoken truth, which the newsreel editor, Ralston, senses. The gap between the expressionist dread of the prologue and News on the March seems the distance between artifice and documentation. But this distinction is already rendered hazy. News on the March is supposedly truth unadorned, but is characterised by melodramatic voiceovers, musical cues, and pat title cards. Aspects of Kane’s life are grouped together in the reel to create distinct dramatic acts, bestowing symmetry on Kane’s story, first evoking awe, mystery, exoticism (the tour of Xanadu), epic excitement (Kane’s rise, the expanse of his empire), then, decline and punishment for hubris (associating the collapse of his political career and marriage with his business decline, despite their unrelated causes). The film identifies the news as just another genre, with its own clichés, collusions, and reductions.

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Ralston insists that Thompson cross the distance between journalism and art, to find the key to Kane’s personality, which will give life to this story they wish to conjure. News on the March exemplifies a process that Kane himself set in motion—the dramatisation of news and the manipulation and selective reading of facts. Kane’s propensity for inventing truth, as in whipping up fervour for the Spanish-American war, eventually meets its match as Boss Gettys and the newspapers impugn his private life, a distortion that becomes accepted fact. Kane is totally beaten by his own invention. News as narrative, then, is inextricable with mythology, especially political mythology. Kane invents villains—trust magnates, the potential murderer of a missing girl, the Spanish—to embody certain concepts: the betrayal of the working man, the vulnerability of femininity and the home, the manifest destiny of the United States. This could be described as exactly what genre does—create arcs of cause and effect, and manifestations of ideas, which will then be triumphant or repressed, depending on their nature. Thompson sets about his boss’s glibly conceived mission to deduce the meaning of Rosebud and thus give the newsreel a dramatic fullness through psychological insight. Thompson’s search, however, like the newsreel, skims around the edges of Kane’s life, probing friends, business partners, and his ex-wife in pressing closer to a kind of truth, but then coming up against an invisible barrier—the lack of a heart to the mystery.

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The narrators of Kane may promise a sought-after veracity, but they, too, frame their accounts with slants of preconception. Each lends a kind of coherent shape and essential pitch to their experiences, whilst shutting out other interpretations. Susan, an innocent, perceives herself as the entrapped plaything of a dark prince, enclosed by seemingly arbitrary decisions of will. Hers is a gothic fairytale of girlhood. Leland, an intellectual and a drama critic to boot, assays his recollections as a cautionary tale, complete with observed themes and critical speeches (“That’s all he really wanted out of life, was love. That’s Charlie’s story, how he lost it.”) extrapolated from Kane’s character and experience. Bernstein, who is never associated with any woman except for the passing illusion of perfect beauty decades in the past, is a nostalgic, a hero-worshipper. Susan is a victim. Bernstein is an idealiser. Leland is, as McBride called him, a “romantic … (who) feels and remembers all of the emotional extremes which the other characters are prone to remember only selectively.” And yet Leland has own blind spots.

David Thomson contended in 1996 that “it was Welles’ way later in life to say that, early on with Kane, they had played with a Rashomon-like idea—that of different versions of one central fact, leaving us uncertain of what happened. But they let go gradually, and it was replaced with the overall perspective of all the reports being voices in Kane’s head.” Be this as it may, though the flashbacks might then be called “accurate,” nonetheless, they are still shaped by perspective, by the egos and prejudices offered by the narrators. These people, like the news, select the relevant facts from any experience. There is the consistent theme of the things we miss in concentrating on our interests, actions and objects that are misinterpreted or unnoticed. Rosebud is the singular example of it, yet it is a motif throughout the film.

Leland only remembers Susan’s debut in terms of what happened to him. The actual performance, for him, is a throwaway joke, a sideshow of Kane’s egotism. Susan recalls the awfulness of performing to people, including the prominently contemptuous Leland, who despised her. In his own account, Leland is a moral hero; in Susan’s, he’s a self-satisfied boor. Susan cannot know the import of the letter Leland sends to Kane, seeing it only as a message from a loathsome man. It has context and meaning for us, but not to Susan. Her estranged viewpoint renders the delivery of the torn check and the Declaration of Principles anything but the crushing moral gesture Leland intended.

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Likewise, Susan remembers the sad triumph of leaving Kane, where Raymond sees its aftermath. As with Leland’s letter, this detached sequence presents a fulfillment of other scenes, but removed from the direct flow of consequence. We intuit Kane’s destruction of Susan’s belongings as a condemnation of the futility of objects, and a desperate riposte for an answer to the accusation Susan had made: “You never give me anything I really care about.” His stumbling across the snow globe finally resolves the embarrassing spectacle of destruction because it reminds him of an object, a belonging, a time in life that had an actual, emotional value for him. This means nothing to Raymond, but everything to the protagonists.

The nature of the puzzle, then, changes for each person. Susan’s jigsaws present the journalists, with their love of simplification, and the audience, with our love of neat resolution, with a happy metaphor. Thompson comes to deny the importance of a missing piece, realising that only the whole of Kane’s life is its explanation, and only the man who lived it could articulate it. The film finally slips their perspective and offers an omniscient revelation, which, if David Thomson’s reading is correct, is Kane himself offering the revelation of Rosebud. In terms of technique, it’s a bald rejection of perspective, a final reflex towards the godlike narrators of classical fiction.

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Is Rosebud merely the longing for a lost Eden of childhood with its manifold promise? The sled is not an unheralded revelation. It’s part of a signal legend of Kane’s, as we know from when the Congressman taunts Thatcher in the newsreel about being hit with it. It is not merely a sentimental symbol for Kane—it’s the instrument with which he attempts to ward off the fate that ultimately entraps him. Money enables his genius, and yet also cocoons him from becoming a proper, self-actualising human; he theorises, “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” Considering how Kane seemed as hemmed in by circumstance as he was a definer of them, and the way he perceives himself as perpetually embattled—“That’s when you’ve got to fight ’em,” he advises Susan when she wants to surrender—it’s easy to see Rosebud not merely as a longing for lost youth but also for the spirit that comes in battling adversity. This spirit has entirely ebbed by the time he signs control of his companies back over to Thatcher’s bank, a scene of his utter defeat in his war with the monolithic world of money and purposeless profit Thatcher ushered him into so many years earlier. The fact that Rosebud still has multiple meanings as a symbol is once again a denial of simple resolution, part of what McBride called the “constant ironic undercutting of the audience’s search for a solution.”

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Such meditations invest the film’s “attack on the acquisitive society” (as Welles described it for Cahiers du Cinema in 1966) with force beyond simple political morality. It’s an enquiry into the degree to which any human is shaped by circumstance, and left unshaped, into free will itself. The discovery of Rosebud intensifies the patterns we have observed. We consider other missing pieces. What impact did the death of Kane’s son, along with Emily, in a car crash, have upon him? This presents a gaping hole in the narrative, a private matter only Kane could speak of.

The ability to tell and shape a story is finally associated with power over the perception and thinking of others. Kane’s and the newsreel company’s manipulations are unified with notions of political might, wealth, and influence. Equally, the fragmentation of story, the self-conscious assault on the totality of narrative and the recognition of perspective, is an intrinsically subversive act by virtue of denying power to the shapers, giving power instead to the receptive interpreter. If the completeness of generic narrative reinforces certain social and moral precepts, the rejection of such completeness, whilst still embracing the idea that the metaphors of genre have value, critiques the shape they bestow on reality.

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The revelation of Rosebud is, then, a final reclamation of Kane’s story for Kane himself, as well as a conduit for our sympathy, if not our understanding. Rosebud reminds us that for all the tales told about him, his innermost self was only communicated to others in enigmatic flashes. From Thatcher’s recollection of “I always gagged on that silver spoon,” to “Rosebud” itself, his mind was his last domain, unknown and unknowable to others. This is the true impact of the refrain of the “No Trespassing” sign; the mysteries of Xanadu and Rosebud have been supplanted by the impossibility of knowing a man’s inner life, a realm beyond the reach of the power of others, to steal from and reshape.

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  • Ferdy on Films spoke:
    8th/03/2010 to 5:18 am

    […] and sound. The technique is possibly also influenced by the long takes and hidden interviewer of Citizen Kane, a film Truffaut […]

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