Friday, February 10, 2012

Citizen Kane

And um, Hot!
Check out pretty much any top film list ever made and you'll see this one in the top five, every time. I remember discussing it with some of my mother's friends once, as they could not figure out what the fuss was all about and asked me what I thought. I defended it, and gave a sort of half-assed explanation of what "deep focus" meant and why it was important in the film, and that the film was about mystery and popularity, and loss, but I was probably 24 when I was recycling all this bullshit, and had no true idea of what I was really saying, much less what the film was really about. I think I know a little more now.

Citizen Kane, 1941. Directed by Orson Welles.
starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore

"Following the death of a publishing tycoon, news reporters scramble to discover the meaning of his final utterance." (IMDB).

Though heavy with flashbacks and told out-of-sequence, the narrative of this story is quite simple: a journalist seeks to uncover the meaning behind the word, "Rosebud," the last word spoken by Charles Foster Kane (Welles), a world-famous publishing icon. The man interviews Kane's colleagues, one ex-wife, and consults the diary of a former guardian but in the end, gains absolutely no insight into what the word meant to Kane and deems it a forever mystery, though the film's conclusion reveals to the audience that "Rosebud," was the word printed across Kane's childhood sled (which is tossed into a furnace and destroyed).

A heavenly revelation?
In many ways the story is relevant today; a study of a famous person's public self vs. their private one---or leaving aside fame, posing the question of just how well we think we know the people in our lives. Charles Foster Kane revealed very little of himself throughout his life, but the purpose of the film is to piece together the things he did reveal in order to answer the question no one else could. It's said many times (by those who knew him) that Kane wanted love, only did things on his own terms, and was shown to be a collector of things, be they statues, adorations, or people---and that it's not enough to know what a man did, but rather who he was.

The technical aspects of this film (lighting, deep focus, moving camera, composition of shots, montage sequences) aren't just fancy, artistic flair---they're instrumental in understanding Kane, they're clues! More even than deep focus (of which lighting obviously plays a key part), the lighting in this film reveals all its secrets. Who's in the dark? How is Kane lit, how much of his body is showing? What items are in the foreground, and why? Consider the sizes of things, the settings, the actors, what's grandiose, and what's larger than life? How much emotion is shown in Kane---how close does the camera get to his face, and when? While it's fun to nerd out on a lot of this stuff (and as I sort of discovered when I was trying to get other people as excited about this film as I was), lip service doesn't pay unless you've seen it, and even then, trying to use words to describe a lot of this is pointless----you really just have to see these images together in a whole to get not only their full effect but to appreciate their uniqueness and power.

There are two occasions where Kane lets his guard down, not directly, but to the two others being interviewed (Thatcher, Susan Alexander). The first is early in the film and Kane's young life, arguably the most crucial sequence, when Thatcher assumes guardianship and takes Kane from his parents, the second is after Susan leaves Xanadu and Kane not only destroys her room but begins to cry. Scattered among the film are bits of dialogue, mostly from either Bernstein, Leland, or Susan that suggest Kane wanted acceptance and love but was unable to reciprocate any himself.

"It wasn't money he wanted . . . "
"All he really wanted out of life was love. He loved Charlie Kane, of course, and his mother."
"You never give me anything that belongs to you, nothing that you care about."
"If hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man."

Most of the discussions on the theme of this film revolve around Kane's loss of childhood, signified by the sled, Rosebud. I don't think it's his lost childhood he's lamenting at all, but rather the loss of his mother, the abandonment he suffered at her hands, no matter how well-intentioned she may have been. Were it only his childhood he wanted to reclaim, he'd have been able to form true and loving relationships with the women in his life, and he probably would have been able to find real happiness, eventually. When his mother decides to send him away to lead a more dignified life with Thatcher as his guardian, she cuts herself out of his life and in effect, makes him into an orphan. "Why aren't you coming with us, Mom?" he questions, as his father, childish, and somewhat of a buffoon, blathers on in the background about big lights and money. He not only refuses to shake hands with his new benefactor but charges into him (using Rosebud as a battering ram). Later, we see young Charles less than enthusiastic about his Christmas present (from Thatcher), a replacement Rosebud, and eventually after deciding to go into publishing, spends much of his time smearing and making political trouble for the man who took him away from his beloved mother.

That he saved her things is also significant; he mentions them almost in passing the night he meets Susan, telling her, "I was on my way to the Western Manhattan Warehouse in search of my youth," where all his mother's things were in storage. At the film's conclusion, one of the assistants (just after another finds one of Susan's jigsaw puzzles) notices Mary Kane's stove, collected and stored alongside numerous other priceless statues. The snow globe of Susan's that he seems to treasure so much is a token to not only his childhood, yes, but of his childhood home, the safety of his mother, and the only love that he had ever known (for which he spent the remainder of his life pursuing a replacement).

"Mother is the word for God on the hearts and lips of all little children."
Et tu, Charlie?


Donald said...

Kane is one of the those movies that every body says is the best movie ever made, and yet... somehow... it actually is. This is one of those movies that every time I watch it I notice something different, and every time it makes me cry, often at different scenes. If William Shakespeare wrote a film, it would probably be similar to Citizen Kane.

Anna said...

I really love it. Obviously this got a little long-winded but I also really love the comedy in it, too. The breakfast sequences declining from super sappy adoration to the wife visibly reading the rival newspaper to spite him . . . . or earlier when he buys the team of writers from the chronicle and steps in front of the photo of them.

Justin Garrett Blum said...

I consider Citizen Kane to be, probably, the most flawlessly executed film ever made. I really love it and I went through a phase where I was watching it every few months. There's just so much to like about it, and what I think people these days maybe don't realize is how much about the way today's films are made is owed to Citizen Kane.