The lives of famous persons are each a kind of living document, but one seen through a glass darkly—in part, the smokescreen of fictions that they themselves have invented and promulgated. They are, if you will, the authors of their own documentaries. With their passing, another document encapsulating their lives comes into play: the newspaper obituary—a document limited to the major known (or accepted) facts about individuals. This skeletal biography was written by others in advance of their death; it was filed in anticipation of their death. There you have it: say, the life of a famous former newspaper magnate fittingly poised to be included in the very newspaper he once owned. Its accuracy or certainty is not entirely unimpeachable. Questions might remain: Did he really do that? Why, if he did, did he do that? Nevertheless, this document, a reduction of the “document” of the man’s life as he lived and half-created it, is poised to translate into yet another document, for this printed “life story” is apt to become, or contribute to, the man’s extended epitaph. Now consider this: the man himself inadvertently throws a monkey wrench into all this planning by others by uttering something on his deathbed that casts doubt on the adequacy of his planned obituary. Say it is a single word: “Rosebud.” He says this and expires. Nothing in what has already been written can account for what Rosebud is or was to this man, or what it represented to him. Yet whatever it is was obviously important to him; it expressed his dying, possibly summary, thought. The word then becomes a kind of challenge to newspaper detectives—reporters eager to investigate in order to unlock the secrets of the man’s life.
This is the premise of Citizen Kane, which the greatest American filmmaker of all time, Orson Welles, directed from a script by himself and Herman J. Mankiewicz, Joseph L.’s alcoholic older brother. It is a film that begins with a man’s death and proceeds, through investigative interviews by a dedicated reporter, to deconstruct the man’s life. At least the reporter tries to do this; at least the film goes through the motions of attempting to do this. If you (I believe, incorrectly) believe that the dying man held in his heart and mind a childhood sled at the point of his ultimate departure, you also (I believe, foolishly) believe that you, the viewer, succeed where the reporter himself fails. You may have then watched Citizen Kane without grasping it.
Welles starred in and directed his first film, “Hearts of Age,” in 1934, when he was 19. This film is included in at least two VHS anthologies of shorts; I know because I own copies of both. (I haven’t seen another short film, “Too Much Johnson,” which Welles co-directed.) Welles’s third film, Citizen Kane, was his first feature and his first studio film. For some reason, there exists the error in some minds that Citizen Kane was Welles’s first film—a misstatement of fact most often used to exalt Kane to a superhuman level along the lines of this rhetorical question: How could anyone’s first attempt at filmmaking be this amazingly brilliant? At least one reviewer, Pauline Kael, however, used the faulty premise, and more, in her self-serving attempt to besmirch Welles’s reputation by discounting the idea that the film was even primarily his. The film was Welles’s all right, but it didn’t come out of the maidenly blue. Welles’s experience as filmmaker preceded his experience as stage and radio director.
Of course, it’s pretty amazing that Citizen Kane was anybody’s third film, or twentieth, or fiftieth film.
Citizen Kane is a nearly intolerably moving piece of work. It’s a titanic, dark, dense canvas of American sociology, history and politics that sums up as waste the crammed life of a newspaper magnate (suggestive of William Randolph Hearst) who, disconnected from family and past, “buys things.” Lots of things: sculptures, paintings, animals, bric-a-brac. With its infinite reflexivity, the hall of mirrors in the elderly Kane’s vast and mostly empty mansion suggests his attempt to “extend” time and space, to defy mortality. This defiance, and the anxiety it implies, reveal the immense solitude that, since youth, following the withdrawal of familial care and love, Kane has been driven to fill with material things—“junk”—and with people whom he has also treated as though they were his possessions.
But life exhausts even these illusionary “extensions” of time and space; like the rest of us, Kane reaches a last deadline. It is here—at Kane’s end—that the film begins, piecing together Kane’s history as if it were a puzzle. Except for us, no one is present to hear “Rosebud,” Kane’s dying utterance, which becomes the springboard for enquiry. Those who cite this as a mistake, an oversight, miss the point, for this “inconsistency” signals the absurdity of any attempt to “solve” the mystery of a human life. What is “Rosebud”? At the last, one of the countless possessions of Kane’s that is routinely shoved into an insatiable furnace is the childhood sled bearing that name and image. Rather than the sled, though, “Rosebud” probably suggests the accumulation of thought, feeling and memory that Kane attached to this discarded object. Ultimately, perhaps, “Rosebud” signifies loss, the motive (Welles may believe) of all human life, which Kane’s egotism has monstrously enlarged into his own peculiar province, his Xanadu. Kane’s losses—count them: in boyhood, a mother’s care; all hope of political office; a business empire; two wives, and a son, his only child; life itself. Someone whom the reporter interviews notes that Kane was a man who lost almost everything.
Still, the word “Rosebud” explains nothing. At the end of the film “Rosebud” still is what it has always been—not the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle, but an elusive clue in a mystery too vast to admit solution. Thus the film is self-critical, its zigzagging time structure at every point undercutting the straight line of inquiry that the reporter’s investigation tries to impose. Welles’s film isn’t a search for the meaning of “Rosebud”; it’s about the search for the meaning of “Rosebud.”
Throughout, Welles’s filmmaking is marvelous. With its see-through eye cavity, Kane’s pet cockatoo—disingenuously, Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that this was a lab error—embodies the formal resourcefulness that is the film’s hallmark while also encapsulating a major theme: the confusion with illusion that defines (and undefines) reality. No other American film so dazzles as Citizen Kane does, as in the vast visual pun, at the close, of a man’s whole life going up in smoke, preceded by a sweeping crane shot surveying Kane’s accumulated stuff—an apotheosis of American culture’s material obsessiveness. Wedded to specifics of modern America, Citizen Kane nevertheless is like an ancient echo. Towering, it haunts and astounds.
Black-and-white cinematographer Gregg Toland is Welles’s chief collaborator here, Bernard Herrmann’s music is essential, and the acting by Welles as Kane and George Coulouris as his nemesis, Thatcher, the banker whose ward Kane the boy becomes, is superb. Alas, although adequate at earlier stages as Kane’s friend and Jiminy Cricket, Joseph Cotten fails to convince in old-man makeup. However, all three of the film’s actresses are wonderful: Ruth Warrick as his high-positioned wife, Dorothy Comingore as the mistress who becomes his second wife, and Agnes Moorehead as his determined, self-sacrificing mother.
Routinely, Citizen Kane tops polls of cinéastes listing the greatest films of all time. Is it, then, the best film ever made? In fact, it may not even be Welles’s best film. Welles himself thought that his 1962 French-Italian-West German film of Franz Kafka’s The Trial was his greatest work, and I agree. But one does change one’s mind as to these rankings. (At least I do. Currently my choice of the greatest film I have seen is Yasujiro Ozu’s 1951 Early Summer.) Regardless, Citizen Kane may be the most fascinating film ever made about the interplay between fiction and documentary, between “reality” and a more accurate reality, and the film’s numerous inserts of newspaper front pages, and its nearly opening film-within-the-film, a documentary about the fictitious Kane that resembles a March of Time piece, deliciously rips, and riffs, across a keyboard encompassing “fictional” and “documentary” notes of expression. The tones combine to sound discordantly and be complex—a kind of Rite of Winter rather than of Spring, as correlative to the windy, winding echo that haunts Charles Foster Kane’s empty yet suffocating domain. Citizen Kane is the King Lear of films—ancient; Renaissance; modern; postmodern.
Presciently, the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review both named it the best film of 1941, and Mankiewicz and Welles won Oscars for the script.
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