By Peggy Nelson
Citizen Kane – 1941 – dir. Orson Welles
“Rosebud:” possibly the most famous single word in cinema.
Orson Welles was only 25 when he made Citizen Kane (1941), consistently nominated as the greatest film ever made. Said to be based not-so-loosely on the lives of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and the comedienne Marion Davies, and often taken as a psychological study of Welles himself, Citizen Kane traces a classic American rags-to-riches trajectory, as it examines the true cost of getting everything you want.
Welles directed and starred in the film, and co-authored it with top screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. Visually, Citizen Kane is striking. It introduced American audiences to a number of cinematic ideas from European cinema, in particular the dark expressionism of Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau and Erich von Stroheim. Shooting at exaggerated diagonals, Welles’ camera spirals down on its subjects like insects, or peers up from the floor, making them loom larger than life. Montages dispose of years in a matter of minutes. Welles and his cinematographer experimented with various techniques for deep focus, in which objects both close and far away are sharp and clear, and innovated the J-cut, in which the audio for a scene begins before the visuals. Sound design was particularly important to Welles from his background in radio, and he often had characters speaking over each other; and being upstaged by other noises in the environment, and he would use sound to link together two unrelated scenes. This gave Citizen Kane a particularly modern, disjunctive, rushing quality, appropriate to the medium, the new century, and its subject. All of these techniques have since become so commonplace that they comprise the basic language of film, but it is useful to remember that there was a time when none of them existed, and they had each to be invented by individual artists.
Citizen Kane is a story of the 20th century, but it begins in the 19th, when a boy, a nobody from middle America, comes into an incredible fortune by a lucky accident. Instantly, he has a future, whereas before he just had a life. The best schools, international travel, high society: the world is Kane’s oyster. Or so it would seem. After bring kicked out of all the right places, and kicking around a bit (both traditional rights of passage for the upper classes), Kane decides to run a newspaper, because, as he informs his guardian, “it would be fun.” And run it he does. It is the turn of the century, the heyday of “yellow journalism,” when newspapers invented sensationalist headlines in an unsavory race to gain readership, economic power, and political clout. Kane makes things up, he stirs things up, he hires away all the reporters from a rival paper, and, in one telling scene, he claims to have started a war, in an obvious reference to Hearst’s newspapers and the Spanish-American War of 1898. Through it all, Kane is confident and charming, a man on the go, a man whose incomplete grasp of scruples is forgiven him because he is so clearly larger than life, a hero of the new industrial age, and a harbinger of the information age to come.
He marries the President’s niece and sets his sights on a political career. Despite his wealth he is a liberal, using his newspaper to champion the interests of the people versus the powers-that-be. But then, he stumbles. Kane’s charm is a cover for a terrified avoidance of intimacy. When he came into his fortune, he was very young, perhaps 7 or 8, and his mother signed him away to become a ward of the bank. That early injury never healed, and while it may not hold him back in his business, it very much interferes with his idea of a wife. Because he has married an idea (the President’s niece! high society!), and when it comes to actually relating, well, he spends a lot of time at the office. At one point his wife suggests that she might prefer a flesh-and-blood rival to the newspaper, and of course that is not long in coming. Word gets out, as it always does, on the eve of Kane’s election. However, Kane has just as many difficulties with his second wife, because she’s just as much an idea as the first. If his first wife was his idea of high society, the second is his idea of “the people,” and neither idea can withstand the harsh light of the day-to-day.
Despite his political rebuff, Kane’s business empire continues to grow, as does his extensive collection of art, housed in a weird architectural montage of a castle, another clear jab at Hearst. And yet, he becomes more and more isolated and impotent. Success, we are given to understand, may not be the measure of a man.
However, to say the film “follows” this story would not be completely accurate. Beginning with Kane’s death (as told by newsreel), and switching between multiple narrators and flashbacks, Citizen Kane anticipates Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) with its overlapping but conflicting pictures, incomplete memories, and contradictory statements. The story of a newspaperman is framed by the story of newspapermen, assigned to discover the real meaning of his life, as driven by his mysterious last word, “Rosebud.” Who, or what, was Rosebud? The reporters fan out across the country to interview and investigate everyone who knew Kane, but what they are really investigating is something else, something closer to home. How could someone who had it all, seem in the end to have nothing? What does that mean for the rest of us? The search for Rosebud is the search for the real meaning of the American Dream.
Paradoxically, Citizen Kane is also a love letter to the newspaper and simple storytelling by a master of nonlinear narrative. And there is a bittersweet irony to seeing such a celebration of the power of newspapers today, when journalism is undergoing a sea-change, when circulation is dropping, reporters are being laid off, and attention spans are dwindling so that even a newspaper article seems too long. Citizen Kane is not only an investigation into a man and a way of life, it stands as an eulogy to newspapers themselves, and a time when they engendered such great loyalty and scorn, such strong reactions, such characters, such power, and such hope.