Monday, April 28, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: Citizen Kane (1941)
Director: Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles
I don’t know that there’s much point in writing about Citizen Kane - everything there is to say about it has already been said numerous times and in every possible way. But maybe that’s exactly why Orson Welles’ masterpiece is still worth talking about. Some films become bogged down by the weight of analysis attached to them, but Citizen Kane rises above the scrutiny it’s undergone to remain purely and essentially a fantastic film entertainment.
The film begins with the death of Charles Foster Kane (Welles), whose final word is “Rosebud”… or is it? Kane is alone in the room when he dies, his nurse entering when she hears him drop his snowglobe, which shatters on the floor. Whether truly his final word or not, the quest to attach meaning to Rosebud, and thereby define Kane, drives the story. We see multiple visions of Kane, as told from the perspectives of different people who knew him. The image we’re ultimately left with is of a lonely man who saw himself as an entity around which other people simply orbited like satellites. “You want to be loved – that’s all you want! I’m Charles Foster Kane. Whatever you want – just name it and it’s yours! Only love me! Don’t expect me to love you,” his wife, Susan (Dorothy Comingore) laments. Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton) comes to a similar conclusion: “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.” Kane was big, built to be adored, and the people around him were designed to be accessories to his adoration, meant to put a face to it. But, of course, we the audience don’t get that idea from Kane himself, but the people who knew him, some of whom were spurned by him.
Technically and narratively this film is genius and would earn a spot on any “best list” on the strength of either aspect alone. There is the great sequence of Kane and his first wife at the breakfast table which grows longer and longer to symbolize the figurative distance that has grown between them. It is brief, but effective: an entire marriage summed up in a table. And there is the echoing cavern of Xanadu, filled to the brim with objects – so many that they must have been collected purely for the sake of having, rather than enjoying – but empty of life, emphasizing Kane’s isolation from the rest of humanity. There is the scene of Susan’s disastrous opera debut where the camera pans up from the stage to the stagehands far above, one of whom holds his nose to express his opinion. The list goes on and on.
From a narrative standpoint, the film has been much imitated. It tells the story of Charles Foster Kane in a fractured way, jumping to different points in time based on who is being interviewed. It is difficult to get an accurate sense of the chronology of events, which just emphasises the ultimate unknowability of Kane’s life and character. You just can’t pin him down. As Kane, Orson Welles is appropriately larger than life. As most people know, the character is based on publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst and there’s a certain degree of cheek to the way Welles carries himself on screen, as if eager to make trouble. It’s not just hard to imagine anyone else playing this role, it’s downright impossible. No one else could have pulled it off, no one else contained that kind of bravado that was specific to Welles. The rest of the cast is uniformly good, especially Cotton as Leland, who in one line about a girl he saw once from a distance (“I saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”) manages to reveal more about a character than is sometimes expressed in an entire screenplay.
The end of the film brings us back to the beginning, to Rosebud and the failure of Thompson (William Alland), the reporter, to ascribe meaning to it. But, ultimately, it isn’t really a failure because Thompson has come to recognize the futility of his quest: “Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything… I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. A missing piece.” No one thing was ever going to define Kane because, like all people, his life and his being had multiple meanings and can’t be easily explained or contained. And in the final moments, when the sled emblazoned with “Rosebud” is tossed in the incinerator, it isn’t the meaning that is being lost, but just another symbol. Knowing that Rosebud is the name of a sled doesn’t help you to better understand the entirety of Kane’s person, it just adds dimension to an already complex life.