On Citizen Kane; or, In Defense of Kane

I often wonder why Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” is so frequently cited to be among the greatest films ever created. The technical virtuosity and innovation with which it was created is undoubtedly remarkable and ground-breaking, but can technical prowess alone make a film great? Many television episodes and B-movies also have moments of technical brilliance due to, for instance, necessary creativity spurned by a lack of funds. This is not to compare “Kane” to a B-movie, or to insinuate that Welles had a lack of funding in making it, but to show that the technical aspects of a film cannot be the sole deciding factor of its greatness.

To the average person (that is, me), Kane was not an enjoyable watch on the first view. For such a hyped-up movie, what I saw was not entertainment in the sense that I was expecting. The acting seems occasionally overdone or flat, Welles being the primary exception. The aforementioned technical aspects stand out (especially when pointed out by an eager instructor), such as the use of the wide-angle lense in long shots and the beautifully complicated choreographed scenes. Otherwise, the plot seems uninteresting, unremarkable, dense, and none of the characters seem particularly likeable. The “greatest film of all time” should contain as great an emotional and psychological depth and complex plot as “The Godfather” or “Lawrence of Arabia”, I thought to myself. Citizen Kane is certainly not a film of the same category as those two great films.

However, after viewing it several times and giving it much thought, I do entirely agree with its placement among the greatest films of all time, and feel it matches them in caliber and scope. The primary reason that I am generally so surprised that it is so widely loved is one simple aspect: Citizen Kane is perhaps the most unforgivingly existential film to come out of the United States in the first half of the 20th century. There are those people, of course, who are like me and to whom this category appeals to when done right, but there are at least equal as many who turn their noses to existential films as they search for a cookie-cutter Hollywood film which will immediately touch their emotions through the usage of melodrama and well-placed music. One cannot help but be surprised, then, to see such a film as this so commonly viewed as a masterpiece.

What are the reasons for this consensus? This is a topic worth considering. Firstly, there is always the frowned upon phenomenon of pretentious film students who rave about Kane for the sake of appearing film-literate; though there are also the opposite party, with the same general moral code, who utterly reject it out of rebellion of its popular acceptance. These, I feel, do not make up the vast majority, though they certainly create a sizable amount. Then there are some who view it as a fantastic satire of such establishment heads as people like William Randolph Hearst represent, or as an inspiring piece of work done by such a young auteur. Truly, I could but venture to guess at the cause of the film’s reverence, but the most commonly mentioned reason seems to be the technical aspect – hence my quick ushering of dispelling that as its greatest aspect. No, I feel that the film’s primary theme, as I see it, is why it is a great film and work of art, and I must believe that there are many others who agree with me, even if they interpret its thematic purpose differently.

I feel that the primary flowing theme is as follows: One cannot ever truly know another person, or experience that person as that person experiences him/herself. Such a statement is abstract and philosophical, and thus far from the stringent mantra of early, though pre-Red Scare, code-era Hollywood.

[Spoilers ahead] This is done first through the tactic of making the protagonist not, in fact, Kane. Kane is the central character in the film, but the protagonist is the ambitious news reporter who is only interested in Kane through obligation, as he displays in his haphazard ways of collecting information, such as dealing with the manuscript caretakers; and is displayed in his hurried and impersonal ways of dealing with the other people important in Kane’s life. He is a hard-boiled, cold investigative journalist, and the primary story is his – the film is about him in his search to discover the meaning of Charles Foster Kane’s last words, “rosebud”.

“Rosebud” itself is interesting. In the film, “rosebud” is in many ways a MacGuffin, to use Hitchock’s term: it is a plot device used to drive the film and which seems to have more importance than it actually does. That isn’t to say that it isn’t important; “rosebud”, the sled, is a symbol of Kane’s lost childhood which he greatly mourned, something vital to our understanding of Kane’s psychological development into a megolamaniacal corporate ruler and politician. Rosebud is, however, built up throughout the movie with mystery and perhaps eroticism – when we wonder if perhaps it was a woman, or with the Freudian considerations of it being a nickname for his mother; and then finally we are deliberately released with the fact that it’s simply his sled. Moreover, and more importantly, “rosebud” is used by the news agencies in an attempt to sum up Kane’s life in a word. This is the driving force behind the protagonist’s attempt to discover the truth behind the word – so that the news agency may print an article about Kane defining him as “rosebud”, as though a human’s life, experiences, pleasures, pains… as if all can be so easily “defined”, or even summarized, up into mere bits of ink on a piece of paper.

And the film itself plays out in the impersonal style of a news article, without a shred of sentimentality. It starts with the “News On The Run” segment, depicting a brief synopsis of Kane’s life through a television news biography, showing his career’s highs and lows with appropriate music and narration. Then, as the protagonist interviews the people in Kane’s life, they each tell Kane’s story through their extremely biased and subjective experiences. This is where the bulk of the film plays out – every little bit of Kane we see is actually his story told by his friends, ex-friends, and wife, as interpreted through the listening protagonist. We never actually seen Kane’s story from his own perspective, and though occasionally the stories are sympathetic to him, we never are able to experience anything as he experienced it.

That is the essence of Citizen Kane, and is finally stated in the closing speech given by the reporter as they pack up the “ junk” in Xanadu. “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.” We can never explain someone’s life in a word; to go further, we can never explain someone’s life in a multiple of words or a story. We can only view other people and experience them through our unique and independent persons; we can never experience them or understand them as they understand themselves.

Such a concept in a film is remarkable in any age, but at the time it was tremendously bleak and risqué. It is no wonder that this film lost many of the Academy Awards to such a warm, sentimental film as “How Green Was My Valley”, the politics of William Randolph Hearst’s threats and the Academy’s distaste for Welles’ pomp aside. As a cultural piece, it was warmly received but did not strike nearly as emotional a chord as John Ford’s film.

Other than that it contains many great traits – a satire of the politics and yellow journalism of its age, a satire of Hearst himself, many insightful, autobiographical bits of Welles’ life, great dialogue (one of the lines is one of my favorites in any film, but that’s another essay), and absolutely immaculate technical aspects which are dwelled upon in great detail elsewhere. The primary theme that I mentioned, though, is the reason that I will always talk about the film with admiration and respect and will defend it to the death against detractors.

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