Take 1: Citizen Kane
The first time I watched Citizen Kane I was motivated purely by a sense of obligation. After years of hearing references to “Rosebud” and seeing the film top almost every list of the best movies ever made, I took the dive and watched the story of Charles Foster Kane for the first of many times. The layers of complexity that make the film so enduring for film lovers are the same qualities that make it intimidating to write and talk about. It’s difficult to extract the heart of Citizen Kane from its legacy, compounded by equal parts brilliance and decades of praise. In this way, I’m tasked with a mission similar to Jerry Thompson’s, the reporter who guides us through Kane’s life story, to add a new perspective to a subject that has been, “as loved and hated and as talked about as any man in our time.”
It’s easy to see the influence of Citizen Kane on the leading men who headline the most critically acclaimed contemporary entertainment. Charles Kane is as much a tragic hero as Don Draper and Tony Soprano, and the peaks and valleys of their narratives follow a similar pattern. All of these men had extraordinary lives in positions of clout, but they all battled to foster meaningful relationships with those closest to them. Kane was thrust into unexpected wealth and shortly after establishing a guiding set of moral principles, he abandons those ethics by choosing to embrace the allure of power and hubris. The tension between Kane’s vast capacity for greatness and his basic inability to give and receive love is the foundation of this film, and that battle is one we have seen, and will continue to see, waged on screen.
At first, Charlie Kane’s top priority is using his influence to protect powerless people while remaining disinterested in his own dissipating fortune. When that commitment to empower disenfranchised citizens collides with a failed political campaign, Kane’s true self interested motives are revealed. Jedediah Leland provides the most direct example of how Kane’s aspiration to be unilaterally adored by the masses interfered with his capacity for intimate love when he introduces the masterful breakfast montage — illustrating the dissolution of affection between Kane and his first wife, and how it correlates closely to a growth in Kane’s pride and conceit. At the end of the sequence, Leland states, “That’s all he ever wanted out of life was love. That’s Charlie’s story, how he lost it. You see, he just didn’t have any to give.” The fact that the death of Kane’s son is mentioned only in the opening newsreel and plays such an insignificant role in his own story only further validates Leland’s assessment of Kane’s fatal flaw.
I wonder how it must have felt for Orson Welles to craft the story of a man who peaked early and then went on to live a life characterized by regret and loss. Citizen Kane was Welles’s first feature film, and he was just 26 years old when the movie was released. Prior to breaking into cinema, Welles was already considered the wunderkind of theater and radio, and he incorporated those considerable talents into his screen work: acting and storytelling techniques gained from his experience in theater combined with capitalizing on advanced audio techniques acquired from a background in radio, and a prodigious understanding of cinematography and atmosphere on film. Welles was one of the earliest directors to use the camera as another tool that could be leveraged for his narrative purpose. For instance, the reporters who are producing the reel about Kane are always shown in shadow or from behind and hidden slightly from the audience, thus putting a greater emphasis on Kane, as they attempt to illustrate the life of a fellow journalist whose essence was always overshadowed by his public persona.
It’s fitting that the film opens and closes on the “No Trespassing” sign hanging upon the outer gates of Xanadu, just as Kane’s story is book-ended by Rosebud. It seems as if Kane’s mother had good intentions when she sent him to live the life of a New York trust fund kid in the custody of a banker, but that abandonment traumatized Kane so deeply no one could breach the walls he built around his character. While he personally longed for that lost innocence, his legacy remained a tale of how he died deep within the confines of the fortress he constructed to protect himself from the pain of lost love, surrounded by his statues — the collection of hardened and hollowed figures, lacking flesh and warmth, but also incapable of eliciting disappointment and demanding love from their owner.