Citizen Kane (1941)
Starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten and Dorothy Comingore
Written by Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles
Directed by Orson Welles
This has been a really hard review to write; I’ve had to think a LOT about Citizen Kane and why I thought about it the way I did. I completely understand why the American Film Institute has crowned it the greatest American film of all-time, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling curiously cold every time I think of it. Citizen Kane is, without a doubt, a technological masterpiece — but there’s an emotional distance that keeps me from truly engaging with it.
The film opens with the death of its protagonist, Charles Foster Kane. Alone in a tremendous mansion, he drops a snow globe and whispers the word “Rosebud” as it crashes to the ground. A newspaper reporter, curious about why the last word of such an important figure was so cryptic, tries to get to the bottom of the mystery. He interviews a number of friends, lovers and associates of Kane to get a feel of his life — and we learn about the man himself through the remembrances of the people he came into contact with.
So much of what we have come to take for granted in modern cinema — time-bending narratives, montages that cleanly track the change of characters over long periods of time, cinematographic composition — came from this movie. It’s mind-boggling to think how many staples of American cinema were conjured out of whole cloth here. Credit where it’s due: Citizen Kane created an immense chunk of film history when it arrived.
But maybe there’s something about its greatness that will always hold me at arm’s length from the work itself. Logically I know that what I’m seeing on the screen is genius, but it’s hard to be engaged by it. It feels like so much focus went into how the story was being told that the effect of the story suffers a bit for it.
I don’t doubt that Orson Welles, as co-writer and director, told the story exactly the way he wanted to tell it. In fact, his fight for creative control of his vision is legendary. Every shot was constructed in an exacting fashion, and he went to great lengths to make sure the story unfolded on the screen with the pace he wanted. You have to admire the certainty of his vision, and the uncompromising nature of its realization.
Charles Kane, however, is hardly a sympathetic figure. He starts out with the best of intentions, running for office and taking over a local newspaper under the ideals of populism, but his ambition and ego get the better of him in short order. It’s interesting that Kane’s dedication to his ideals wills him to great things, but his pride over his accomplishments warp those ideals to the point that they become far more self-serving. His ego is there from the beginning, where it comes off as high-spirited and charming, but even with the first bit of success you can see the road he’s headed down. And there’s not quite enough sympathy for him to wish something better for him. You see the dark side of his personality come out and instead of seeing him as a tragic hero, you think “Of course that was bound to happen. It really couldn’t have gone any differently.”
The central conceit — why did Kane say “Rosebud” with his dying words? — doesn’t quite provide me with enough motivation to care about the mystery being uncovered. Perhaps there’s a fundamental idea that I either don’t understand or don’t agree with, but the answer we’re given and its meaning fails to garner any sympathy or sense of tragedy from me, either. Kane lived the life that he chose to live, without sufficient self-awareness to know how he alienated everyone he had gotten close to. His circumstances were sad, sure — but you never get the sense that this weighed on him. When you come down to it, Kane is a man of naked, almost endless, ambition, and it doesn’t feel like there’s more to him.
And the movie lives and dies on this outsized figure. Perhaps upon repeated viewings I’ll see him as more of a complicated, sympathetic and tragic character, but this time around it simply feels like he has these ideals that are incompatible with the reality he’s in. His stubborn refusal to accept things as they are leads him to his professional success. But it’s also devastating for his interpersonal relationships; he treats people with the same inflexibility that he does the institutions he’s fighting against. His friends and lovers crumble the same way the powers that be do under his persistence, but the end effect is a lot less admirable.
Perhaps it’s the fact that he has this power — and it quickly corrupts him — that makes him less sympathetic than most. You never get a sense of the man behind the will, or at least attempts to humanize him don’t come across that well. From what I know of Welles himself, this makes sense. He, too, was a man of enormous ambition and drive.
And what that got him was an institution of a film that deserves its accolades and historical regard. Personally, though, there’s just not a lot here to embrace.