Sunday, July 3, 2016

Citizen Kane

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

Of course there have been tons of essays written about this 1941 film many consider the greatest American movie ever made. But, that won’t stop me from adding one more. Many have commented how this Orson Welles masterpiece broke cinematic grounds with its non-linear narrative and deep focus camera work, the latter allowing the director to emphasize what was in a shot when everything viewed is in focus. But my focus will be on this question: Who really is Charles Foster Kane?
We get our impressions of the title character, played by Welles (who also co-scripted the Oscar-winning screenplay), from many people who were involved with him professionally, romantically, and personally. They offer their stories to a practically faceless reporter, Jerry Thompson (William Alland) who is investigating the meaning of Kane’s last word before his death, “Rosebud.” (There can be many interpretations about the anonymity of this reporter and others shot in near-darkness. Maybe they represent the curious indistinguishable masses overshadowed by the rich and famous). However, we never get inside the head of Kane, because the story opens with his death. So, the reporter, the audience’s surrogate, must find out about Kane’s personality through a journal and interviews. What we get is a Rashomon type of presentation (this film must have influenced Kurosawa).

The newsreel at the beginning of the film presents the facts about the man in the documentary short style of the time, as if these verifiable details can sum up Kane. We find out that he came from inherited wealth because his mother had land that turned out to be worth a fortune. He then became a powerful newspaper publisher whose foray into politics was cut short because of an illicit affair with a singer who became his second wife. But, this documented presentation admits it can’t understand its subject, showing that Kane was considered a fascist by some, a communist by others, and a man who once was seen with Hitler, and later condemned him. The rest of Welles’ film undermines the surface exposition of the newsreel by showing the difficult attempt to delve deeper into what was the essence of Kane. The manipulated shots, tricks that make Kane look bigger or smaller near a window or a fireplace, the stylized artistic style, contrasts with the straightforward presentation of the newsreel, thus, emphasizing the subjectivity of personal interpretation and the sometimes futility of finding out the truth.

The accounts Thompson elicits are flawed because they rely on human memory which is seen through the prism of personal experiences and attitudes. Some of the characters comment on the recall process itself. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), who was the general manager of Kane’s publishing empire, tells Thompson that memory is very selective. He gives the example of his seeing a girl with a white parasol way back in 1896 for only a second, and yet he thinks of her still. When Thompson asks Kane’s college friend, the now elderly Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton), about his recollections, the man says, “I can remember everything, That’s my curse, young man. It’s the greatest curse that’s ever been inflicted on the human race: memory.” Many would probably disagree, believing we should cherish memories. But, bad ones can torment, and good ones can haunt, reminding one of what has been lost. Thompson offers at the end of the film that “Rosebud” might refer to the memory of “something he lost.” Although the reporter never finds out, the audience learns that his theory is correct since the last word refers to the name on Kane’s sled from his childhood. The famous publisher found a snow globe among his second wife’s belongings which reminded him of his youth as he played in the white snow, symbolizing the purity of his then innocent world. The fortress he retreats to in old age is named Xanadu, derived from the William Taylor Coleridge poem, “Kubla Khan.” The film quotes the line from the poem, calling it a “pleasure dome,” which conjures the desire to return to the safety of the womb. Leland says that Kane in the end will need to retreat in dejection to his own island where he will rule over the monkeys. We saw in the first scene of the film that this prophesy has come to pass, where Xanadu looks desolate, with monkeys in the foreground. Kane tried to create his own world there, unsatisfied with the one outside.

From these witnesses, we get a patchwork of who Charles Kane was to those who associated with him. His early life was shattered by money. A tenant in his mother’s boarding house paid his debt by giving her some land. This property turned out to be the “Colorado Load,” worth millions. Kane’s mother thought she was looking out for her son’s future, and keeping him away from his father’s threatened “thrashings.” So, she made eastern trust financier Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris) his guardian. After he reaches the age of twenty-five, and takes control of his fortune, Kane becomes a trust-buster advocate, and attacks Thatcher, as punishment for taking him away from his family. (In the earlier scene where young Charles is signed away, he actually attacks Thatcher with the symbol of his unspoiled youth, his sleigh). There is an anti-rich strain in Kane. He says, “I always gagged on the silver spoon.” He also says, “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” When Thatcher asks him what he would like to have been, he answers, “Everything you hate.”  When he takes over the Inquirer newspaper, he is a champion for the downtrodden, exposing slumlords and swindlers. He appears to be biting the hand that feeds him. Kane admits to his double-nature when he says to Thatcher, “you don’t realize you’re talking to two people.” As a corporate investor he knows that his publisher persona is a “scoundrel,” and his newspaper “should be run out of town.” But, as the publisher, he has a “duty” to “see to it that decent, hard-working people in this community aren’t robbed blind by a pack of money-mad pirates just because they haven’t anybody to look after their interests.”

Kane’s wealth does warp him, and he purchases many objects, but he also feels he can buy people, also. He acquires all of the top journalists from the rival newspaper, the Chronicle. Since he has purchased the means of informing the people with his newspapers, he feels he owns their ideas; as he tells his first wife, what people will think “is what I tell them to think.” For instance, he gets them to believe that we should go to war with Spain. He feels he owns his second wife, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) after buying her music career, and he believes whatever success derives from it is a trophy he possesses. He felt that he could buy love, probably to replace the lost love of his family. But this void was like a black hole that just sucked affection from others, not allowing any of his own to escape. Leland says, “That’s all he ever wanted out of life, was love. That’s the tragedy of Charles Foster Kane. You see, he just didn’t have any to give.” Leland accuses his friend of being emotionally selfish when he tells him, “You just want to persuade people that you love ‘em so much that they ought to love you back. Only you want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules.”

In a way, Kane is like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby. Capitalism has betrayed both. They throw sumptuous parties, spend obscene amounts of money to seduce others. Both come from the west, and in the mythology of American literature, that part of the country stands for the New Eden, the unexplored garden, and both have travelled physically, and morally, to the east, the realm of material corruption. Maybe we should take Kane at his word when someone asks him who he is. He says, “I’m an American.” Just like Gatsby, maybe Kane is really America itself. America has an inferiority complex because of its short history in comparison to the rest of the world. Kane’s passion for buying ancient statues shows that envy, and the arrogance of American wealth, when he responds after being told there are still a lot of statues in Europe: “You can’t blame me. They’ve been making statues for some two thousand years, and I’ve only been collecting for five.” Both Kane and America have vast wealth, power, and influence. Sometimes both fight for the weak and impoverished, and sometimes they both act selfishly. Both want to be loved, and try to buy that love. Or maybe Kane symbolizes someone more universal, perhaps the similarly sounding biblical Cain, who wanted to be loved above all others, and when this selfishness was not rewarded, turned on his brother.

But, one-on-one interpretations are inadequate here. Bernstein said Thatcher did not understand Kane, in fact neither did he. Susan’s attempts to solve her jigsaw puzzles symbolize how difficult it is to totally understand who he was. The shot of Kane walking through the hall of mirrors where there is an infinite number of his reflected image points to the multifaceted components that make up such a complicated man. Thompson at the end dismisses the search to capsulize a man based on one word. Leland says Kane, “never gave anything away about himself. He just left a tip.” Perhaps all we really understand of another is just that part of the iceberg. And, with a movie like Citizen Kane, there is much that is going on below the surface.

Next week, a special post about movie cars and costumes.

1 comment:

  1. I read that Kane dying with Rosebud on his lips was a slap in the face to Hearst who called an intimate part of Marion Davies body "Rosebud"


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