Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Citizen Kane: Who Is the Greatest?

A cynical, slightly silly old man sits in a nursing home, begging a reporter for a cigar. He is, as a long-time friend remarks, suffering from old age, “the only disease you don’t look forward to being cured of.” And in the middle of answering the reporter’s questions about events in the now distant past, this elderly veteran of New York’s 19th century newspaper wars says, almost offhand, “Of course, a lot of us check out without having any special conviction about death, but we do know what we believe in. We believe in something.”

The speaker is the ancient Jed Leland, and like many of his fellow characters in “Citizen Kane,” Leland’s observation says a lot without saying much of anything tangible. The underlying statement seems to be a recurring theme in the film – the passage of time, and the humility it forces on us all. But it also illustrates the multiple meanings that we as individuals perceive, ascribe and sometimes force onto our lives and the lives of others. What do we believe in, assuming we believe in anything at all? 

“Citizen Kane” routinely makes it onto lists of the greatest films ever made, and just as routinely sits at the top of most of them. Entertainment Weekly was the latest this month, calling Orson Welles’ immortal first movie the greatest motion picture ever. There are many reasons for this – its use of cinematography, its rich backstory and the identification we as film buffs feel in associating its title character with that of Welles, and his contemporary inspiration, William Randolph Hearst. But I don’t wish to write about “Citizen Kane” in those terms, since this has been done much more expertly and much more extensively by people who can devote insight into Gregg Toland’s images, or Bernard Herrmann’s score. Instead, I want to pay attention to the story, strangely enough perhaps the least appreciated of all of “Citizen Kane’s” many fascinating aspects. One might ask, even though there is no overtly religious content, if “Kane” is the greatest Christian movie ever made. As I’ve stated before, the absence of Christ from a work of art can also attest to His presence in the world. What does the fictional life of Charles Foster Kane say about Him? 

Kane (Welles) is a newspaper tycoon, a man who owns an empire of newsprint at the turn of the century in America, and parlays his personal fortune into fame and power. He is a uniquely American success story – his wealth built on a gold mine that providentially fell into his family’s lap. And so Kane rises from poverty to the pinnacle, nearly parlaying his yellow journalism into a political career. However, his affair with a singer (Dorothy Comingore) hastens his downfall, and his megalomania results in him leaving behind two wrecked marriages, his only heir dead, his life lasting long enough to see most of his wealth and power stripped away, until he is almost totally alone. His last, enigmatic word on his deathbed, “Rosebud,” sends a reporter, Thompson (Wiliam Alland) on a quest to unlock its meaning. Though he doesn’t learn what “Rosebud” was, we the audience do. But we are not fully sure what it really means. There is a sense when viewing “Citizen Kane” that while we may understand the story in part, like a single human life, there is something that we are missing which keeps drawing us back. We feel that just because a particular life, a particular story, has been recognized in part, that does not mean that it has been fully understood. The film is, as Jorge Luis Borges declared, “a metaphysical detective story.”

‘Who do men say that I am?’

We know that when Welles first began casting about for stories to film, one of his first ideas was adapting Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” but with a twist – the camera would be the narrator, and we would view everything from the perspective of Marlow, whose face we might never see. “Kane,” though, is this concept in reverse – we view the life of Kane but not over his shoulder. Instead, we view it through the lives of friends, business associates, and those who perhaps knew him best. The question of “Rosebud” gives us a mystery, and a window into the man. These “witnesses” to Kane’s rise and fall are his guardian Walter Thatcher (George Colouris), his business associate Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), his friend Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten), his second wife Susan Alexander, and his butler (Paul Stewart). But because Welles allows each different witness to tell the story in part, we see different facets of Kane. He’s the same man, of course, but we understand him in a more fully-formed way. 

Take Thatcher for example. When he first encounters Kane, his charge is a boy, unaware that his mother has signed him over to a bank, in effect. From their first meeting, Thatcher sees Kane as a bad seed, and he is made complicit in the boy’s flowering. As we continue with Thatcher’s story, we see the old banker as perhaps feeling misunderstood, or even cheated by how the boy turned out, yet Kane is unapologetic toward him. Because he is suddenly wrenched from them, Kane is forever left as a boy straining to regain his forgotten toys, left beneath the falling snow. He wants new buildings, new passions, new objects of love and new worshippers. Later on, when Thatcher confronts the young Kane in the newspaper office, we see Kane as a great figure – full of wit, and willing to pick a fight. He perhaps cares about people and his power enough to seem a responsible fellow, even as he picks a fight that he hopes will develop into a war for the sake of his circulation numbers. We see Thatcher shaking his head at a familiar argument he has probably had thousands of times with this willful little boy, now fully grown and playing havoc with the economy. 

That makes us feel for Kane only a few minutes later when we witness one of his humiliations. It is in 1929, when Kane is humbled by the Depression, that he declares, in front of his old guardian, that if he hadn’t been very rich he “might have been a really great man.” Thatcher seems surprised that Kane doesn’t believe he already is, and genuinely interested in knowing what Kane would rather have been. Kane’s answer, as might be expected, is in a way affectionately poisonous to his old guardian. That animus is all the two of them have ever known of each other. 

Thompson next goes to Bernstein, who is the most loyal to Kane of all the people the reporter interviews. For this reason, it is Bernstein’s sequence that allows us to see Kane at his most favorable. Bernstein is a money man, but he doesn’t see the mere accumulation of wealth as a great accomplishment. Bernstein obviously sees Kane as a remarkable man whom he had the pleasure of serving. Remember it is Bernstein who recounts the moment of Kane’s Declaration of Principles, his version of the Shema , his one commandment– I am the publisher, and you will be my people. There were things about him unpleasant, but he did great things. Bernstein seems to be the only character who feels comfortable enough with who he thinks Kane was. For him, the inexplicable was a part of Kane’s character. 

Leland’s entry into the story is necessary for two reasons – to give insight into Kane’s marriages, and insight into how Kane treated his friends. Leland is like Kane, in that he grew up in privilege, though his family lost everything. And Leland is in his youth an idealist, which is what draws him to his friend Charlie. Many years later in the nursing home, the old Leland is still bitter about Charlie’s failure to live up to his best hopes. That is why he begins the story of Kane’s fall.

But their relationship is a complicated one. For example, why does Kane finish Jed’s scathing review of Susan’s operatic performance? Because he still feels for his friend, and he wants to rekindle his friend’s hero worship. Writing such a review would be true to their younger selves. But if that’s the case, why does Kane then fire Jed even though it is he who finishes the review? Because he has to – his own employee can’t show up his wife. Kane tries to buy off Leland’s favor to no avail. Leland responds by sending him back the Declaration of Principles, as worthless as the torn-up check. What is the Declaration now? “An antique,” Kane declares, as he knows about himself what Jed later says, that he never had a conviction except himself. 

Susan’s story takes up half of Jed’s recollections, and her piece dominates the final part of the movie. Her story, consequently, is the most important in unlocking the mystery of who Kane is. Kane meets Susan on his way to a warehouse to see relics from his past – the antiques from his mother. He is alone on this personal “sentimental journey,” when he first encounters his future second wife. Who is Kane? Well, she doesn’t know who he is – this means she’s simple. He seems flabbergasted that she likes him, even though she doesn’t know who he is. (Is Kane talking about the private man, or the public one?) But it is telling that the first time we see the snow globe that inspired Kane’s final word, it is in Susan’s apartment on their first meeting. 

There have been intimations of a Freudian connection here, that Susan in some ways reminds Kane of his mother.  We know from Jed Leland that Kane knew immediately what kind of woman she was – a less educated, presumably more pliable mate. But he sees in her simplicity something he has been aching for, and he begins making her over into what he wants. This brings up an interesting question – does her innocence attract Kane and simultaneously make him want to transform her into something like himself? Why does she have to be an opera singer, and not just a singer? Because he’s Charles Foster Kane. How can his wife be anything other than just as grandiose as he? Her greatness reflects back on him. It is telling that later, when Kane frantically claps after her first performance, he stops just at the moment when the spotlight finds him. In the end, Susan too wants love on her own terms, just like him. That is what drives her away. 

‘Who is the real Charles Foster Kane?’

Using the storytelling devices of montages, flashbacks and a non-linear timeline, we assemble a rough sketch of who we think Charles Foster Kane was. But one of the reasons the film continues to work 70 years after its creation is that the film doesn’t really answer definitively that question. In fact, we aren’t even sure whether Kane is a good man who goes bad, or a bad man who only wanted to fool people into liking him. In the original trailer for the film, Welles tells the audience that he doesn’t know what to tell them about Kane. He is “a hero, and a scoundrel, a no-account and a swell guy, a great lover, a great American citizen, and a dirty dog. It depends on who’s talking about him.” He invites the audience to decide for themselves. 

Or does he? Welles’ use of light, camera angles, deep focus photography and long takes to depict action were identified by the critic AndrĂ© Bazin as the most accurate way of depicting life. But these devices are not neutral in telling the story. For example, when Welles puts his signature to the Declaration of Principles, his face is shadowed. This gives us the impression that his motives are not entirely pure. As stated before, when Kane claps, by himself, for Susan, the spotlight finds him – revealing him, so to speak, as more interested in his own glory. He will not be made a fool, he later insists, as though he now sees himself exactly as such. We never really see Thompson’s face, since he functions as the audience’s stand-in, but also because his life, for the purposes of this inquiry, isn’t important. Some faces, some lives, are without illumination. Some lives deserve explanation, and some do not. Some lives explain themselves, and some beg for obfuscation. By doing this, Welles tells the story, but he is also subtly indicating how we should feel about Kane, even if we perceive him intellectually as something else altogether. The complicated portrait that follows is more lifelike as a result.

“Love is not the subject of ‘Citizen Kane,’” Welles said, many years after the fact, a surprising statement for multiple viewers of the film. It seems to us that the film, if it’s about anything at all, is about the pursuit of love. It is possible Welles meant romantic love, which is certainly true. Kane doesn’t seem to burn with romantic passion for his women as much as he burns with an unfulfilled longing. Does he need his mommy? Kane does seem starved for mother love. His father felt he needed “a good thrashing,” but his mother curiously decides to show her devotion to him, to protect him, by sending him away. 

The word “Rosebud” sounds feminine, but it is later revealed to be the name of Kane’s childhood sled, left back in Colorado. So it is revealed as a childish thing, a sentimental thing, but that endears him to us, in that we realize how far away Kane possibly traveled from the thing he missed most – the person he could have become if he had never left the security of Mrs. Kane’s Boarding House. Welles said the “longing for the garden,” for the untroubled past, was a common trait of humanity and civilization. 

But that explanation of “Rosebud” doesn’t ultimately satisfy us, because “Rosebud” seems to be so much more than just the name of a sled, or a time of life. For example, what is “Rosebud” to Kane when he says it? Is it a memory, or a plea, or question, or a statement? What if Kane had said, for example, “Jesus,” on his deathbed. We might wonder at the context. Religious affirmation? Profanity? Request for salvation? But by saying “Rosebud,” he seems to be saying something more than just the name of a sled. Can “Rosebud” explain the beginning of the picture and the end, with Kane an almost godlike figure ruling over a rotting empire, deciding what is truth and what are lies, who is celebrated and who is ignored?  When he tells Bernstein (and Thatcher) that he might have been a really great man, he obviously isn’t talking about his wealth or power. He means greatness in a moral sense, and this has eluded him. 

‘He got everything he ever wanted’

Jesus’ own statement about greatness – “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” (Matthew 20:26) – indicates how things might have turned out for Kane. If he had meant his principles, if he had been the figure in his campaign speech, then maybe he would not be the hollowed, broken figure at the end of his life. We learn more from the man who breaks him, Boss Jim Gettys (Ray Collins). There is nothing personal about it; Gettys is merely interested in survival. He just wants to destroy Kane before Kane destroys him. You can see a creeping admiration for the publisher, even in his contempt, because he gives Kane an opportunity to save himself. But Kane choses “the love of the voters” rather than the security of his family, and he loses both. Gettys understands something else about Kane through his decision to press on– his arrogance, as personified by his affair with Susan. He knows that Kane will need “more than one lesson” to understand what he is throwing away. Kane appeared to be a servant, but he is revealed as something else – a man pursuing his own reflection in the crowds that cheer him on. He believes he can tell them what to think. 

Kane’s death at the beginning of the picture establishes a pattern – of limited time. Thompson has a deadline to make in discovering the meaning of “Rosebud.” He must talk to Kane’s associates, all of whom are old. (Except for Thatcher, who is dead, and his memories are found among his papers.) When Thompson sits with Leland, Leland tells him this young doctor of his wants to “keep him alive.” Leland frustrates this by wanting cigars. He is “cursed” with memory. He seems to regret Charlie dying alone, but it doesn’t keep him from rendering merciless, bitter verdicts on his friend’s life, because time has run out on them all. And there is perhaps the most poignant moment in the film, which has nothing to do with the larger story - the speech by Mr. Bernstein about memory:

“A fellow’d remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day back in 1896 I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it, there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress, she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only 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.” 

It’s interesting that Bernstein’s version of “Rosebud” is again a feminine image. But he is telling us about the problem of time, how it runs out, and how the human heart holds onto moments that are inexplicable even to itself. Happiness may only last a fleeting second, in a crowd, never to return. It is delicately feminine in its makeup, but mercilessly masculine in its advance. “Citizen Kane’s” use of time – jump cuts, montages, time lapses – all underline the brutality and the fragility of time. We only get a little while to do what we think is right, and not much more of an opportunity to make things right. 

At the picture’s end, one of the reporters standing among Kane’s artifacts wonders what all of it is worth. “Millions,” Thompson says, “if anybody wants it.” Left unspoken is that if no one wants it, it’s all worthless. It is almost impossible to watch the film without remembering other words of Jesus – “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26) This is the other unspoken theme of the film, the idea of value and meaning. What will we give up to get back our souls? 

We begin by searching for the meaning of “Rosebud,” but the real question being asked is what does Kane’s life mean, with all the striving, bellicosity, anguish, perfidy, humiliation and celebration? We sense the meaning is in the flames that consume his sled. Rosebud is junk to be discarded, as the butler nearby casually smokes a cigarette, unaware of its meaning. The music is like that of a horror picture. The moral is that the things most important to us may be worthless to the rest of the world, or in the greater scheme of life. The world often misses the point of our lives, as do we. The missing piece in all the jigsaw puzzles is ourselves, to invest them with meaning. But we ourselves search for meaning, because the picture the puzzle forms is still incomplete.  Thompson doesn’t find the missing piece, but neither did Kane. 

I remember the first time I saw “Citizen Kane.” Even already coming to the picture knowing that “Rosebud” was the name of his sled, I walked away from the screen with an incredibly hollow, nameless feeling, terrified of what my life might become if I was too careless. It is fitting that Kane’s cherished memento, stripped of value by his death, is consigned to flames. Kane has lost his life, forfeited his soul, and all that is left behind is a vast collection to be sold off or destroyed. Just a stack of jigsaw puzzles, and a parade of mirrors stretching out into infinity. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

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