Here’s a shameful confession: I am new to Citizen Kane. Here I am in my late 40s, I’ve spent a lifetime bathing in the cinema, and yet I have circumvented Orson Welles most famous artistic expression out of fear that I wasn’t going to understand what made it so great. Oh, I’ve seen it several times. It’s just that until recently, I haven’t been able to see the greatness that film scholars fawn over.
In the last couple of weeks, I have spent more time in the company of Citizen Kane then I probably ever have at any point in my life. As my two-year-old podcast neared its monumental 100th episode, my co-host Doug Heller and I decided to mark the occasion with what is considered to be the greatest film ever made. That meant that I was going to have to spend more time with the movie than I had ever had before. Admittedly, I was not looking forward to it.
Maybe I’m like most people. When something gets tagged as The Greatest Film Ever Made, I tend to back away. That’s a height that most films cannot reach. Is there a greatest film ever made? No, not really. The idea of The Greatest Film Ever Made is more of a marketing tagline, as with the work ‘masterpiece’ it has been diluted into a standard that most people associate with words like ‘pretentious’ or ‘priggish’.
Also I’m not an expert. I have felt that the great mysteries of Orson Welles magnum opus have been lost on me. Am I not smart enough to see greatness? Am I missing something? Is there an element that is lost on me? Running up to the film in researching it for the podcast, I was not confident that I could ever see the film’s greatness. I saw a great film that had a hole in the middle. Something about it left me cold.
I’ll admit, this is largely because I haven’t spent a lot of time in the company of Citizen Kane. I saw it back in the 80s when I was in high school and I can say that I didn’t understand it. I didn’t hate it, Heavens no, but there was something distant about it, something not quite satisfying. I don’t know, I can’t explain it. When it was over, I never felt that I had arrived at the end of the film but nothing I would call a conclusion.
It was only watching the film again recently that I came to realize that this is the whole point. It’s not telling you anything new to report that Citizen Kane is a box labeled with question marks and inside we only find more boxes with more question marks. For the average viewer, this is frustrating. For the stubborn viewer, this is an obsession. The mystery of Citizen Kane is the grand mystery of human identity. How well can anyone ever know another human being? What are the building blocks that form the person that someone will grow up to be? Can they really be understood by another person? Who are we at the end of life, and what is left behind that tells our survivors the story of the person that we are?
In contemplating the mystery of Citizen Kane over the last few days, I have come to a strange and rather bitter conclusion about the nature of life itself. We’re all going to die someday – hopefully later than sooner, and the time after our death will eventually fade the identity of the person that we were. In time, all the people that we knew in life will die too and so that identity will fade further and further until we are merely a name on a headstone. Depressing notion? Yes. But it’s not debatable. The story of Charles Foster Kane is a reminder that this is the fate of even the most famous man on the planet.
Orson Welles paints Kane through the seasons of his tenure on Earth told not by Kane himself but by those who apparently knew him best. The history of the man’s life is seen in square details at the film’s opening. Following his lonely and alarmingly cryptic final moment on Earth, the viewer is taken through a whirl-wind of information about the man’s life from his birth, through his troubling formative years, the idealism of his years as a young man, the corruption of his soul in later years and the tragic loneliness of his old age. The information given to us on the News on the March newsreel is the official record of Charles Foster Kane’s life but it never paints a complete picture. Who was the man? Again, who was the man? Did Rosebud mean anything to anyone but Kane himself? Can it tell you anything about him as a person?
The mystery of Kane is found in a narrative structure that, for the thoughtful viewer, is really kind of fun. The journalist Mr. Thompson digs deep for the mystery of Charles Foster Kane by searching for the meaning of his final word through interviews with those who knew him best . . . oh! knew him well.
The movie is told in seven layers that peel back the mystery of this man through several different points of view. First is the News on the March newsreel which gives us a picture of Kane’s life that will probably not be much deeper than what any biographer would ever write about him.
Second is Mr. Thatcher (George Coulouris), Kane’s legal guardian, whose memoirs recall the early years. Third is Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Kane’s avuncular business partner who recalls Kane’s rise and then Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton), Kane’s best friend, who recalls his downfall. Fourth is Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), Kane’s second wife, who recalls their personal life. Fifth is Raymond (Paul Stewart), Kane’s butler who recalls the deterioration of Charles and Susan’s marriage.
The final layer is Thompson himself. Standing in the vast castle that was once Kane’s Xanadu, he has a picture of a man but never found what he was looking for. For him, the results of his search are no different then the newsreel that set him on this quest to begin with. Plus, in a fun bit of visual trickery, he mourns his fruitless efforts by cascading a handful of puzzle pieces into a box.
Ironically, he unknowingly stands thirty-feet away from the answer to his question. Just over there, among the rows of boxes and personal effects lies Rosebud, a sled, an object of Kane’s childhood. But in a devious and cold-blooded twist, it tells us something and nothing at the same time. Thompson’s search for the word has an answer, but would tell him nothing.
As a viewer I find that I arrive at the answer to the question only a few steps further than Thompson. I bore witness to Kane’s last moments, and I know something that Kane took to the grave – the identity of Rosebud. But what is it? Why was this sled so important to him? Was it the last gift that he received from his mother? Was it, as many scholars conclude, the symbol of the loss of family values as he is taken away to be raised by an affectionless banker? All may be true but and untrue, depending on who you ask.
So here I am, having finally indulged in the great mystery of Citizen Kane wiser about the film but no wiser about the mysteries that it imparts. The effect that this viewing at on me was a much deeper contemplation about the mystery of human identity. When we shuffle off this mortal coil we will inevitably take a great many things with us. There are those who will have been witness to our journey on Earth and, like Kane, will have many different perspectives. But none will ever grab the Rosebud at the center of our being.