Blasts from the Past - Citizen Kane: The Greatest Film of All Time; or The Reason Why We Must Retire

Here's a tremendously ponderous take on Citizen Kane, a tremendously ponderous movie. I fought bravely against the constraints of the assignment, in which I had to assume that Citizen Kane was the greatest movie of all time. It's a good movie sure, but no one tells me what I like. So I delivered this paper, filled with the rebellious spirit of a young Charles Foster Kane and still managed to save face with my own obnoxious propriety.

When we think of the greatest of all artistic endeavors, we think of that which is sufficiently aged and magnificently outsized. Endeavors such as Michelangelo’s massive frescos in the Sistine Chapel or Shakespeare’s First Folio packed to the brim with every foundation of modern English literature; all dance in the imaginations of many generations come and gone, all repeated as the greatest of their kind in a steady drumbeat of concurrence. A droning mantra of categorization seeking to create a singular greatest object, seeking to define who reigns supreme in a pantheon of old grey ghosts. In film, Citizen Kane is solitary in repose, perched atop a high lonely throne. Everything about Citizen Kane screams itself hoarse to its greatness, from the magnitude of the character himself to the wunderkind filmmaker, Orson Welles, and his aspirations to redefine the Hollywood picture in his very first film. However, while both Welles and the protagonist of his film, Charles Foster Kane built monuments, Xanadu and Citizen Kane both, that would make even Ozymandias despair; ultimately, they cannot enjoy the immortality granted them. The great man is dead and the artist too, their greatness only preserving their ghosts in hazy reels of film. That is one of the true successes of Citizen Kane though, as a commentary on the hollow nature of greatness itself, the movie can be as pompous as it needs to be and it will still serve as a commentary on itself as well. Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time, but like what Charles Foster Kane discovered in his long tragic life, greatness is nothing that can be enjoyed without love; an essence that can’t be won through appreciation of greatness alone.

Citizen Kane is a dense piece of work that defies any one interpretation being laid over it. Citizen Kane can be seen as about any and everything from the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst that Kane is an analogue of, to abstract concepts as:

“money and power, aging and time, love and marriage, business and politics, and the futility of human aspirations […] Citizen Kane is a mighty exposition of American society and a devastating criticism of the American dream” (qtd. in Clipper 12).

But ultimately, what Citizen Kane is about is the illusion of control and how one cannot control another person to love them. Charles Foster Kane, who as a boy was sent away unwillingly by his mother, futilely striking at the stomach of his foster guardian, Mr. Thatcher, with his beloved sled Rosebud to stay by her side; seeks to retake control of the life he lost through the only means he has available, his vast wealth. However, the existence of this great weapon retards the emotional growth of the man who wields it. Having the warm human touch removed from his life and replaced with the cold feel of gold leaves Kane always struggling to replace the former with the latter. Kane first seeks love by attempting to give voice to the voiceless public at large, creating a media empire and aiming its blows straight at the exposed underbelly of his own wealth’s custodian, Mr. Thatcher. However, this is just Kane recreating the events of his childhood trauma again and again, striking against the devil who stole him away in the night. Kane’s dogged attempts to wound the impersonal Mr. Thatcher is foreshadowed by having Mr. Thatcher attempt to replace the discarded sled with a brand new one dubbed Crusader. Much like how Kane would later attempt to purchase the natural trappings of happiness rather than create them himself, Mr. Thatcher’s gift, “[would] be of little use and [would] provide scant pleasure to the boy, but [will] instill the crusader newsman concept Kane later adopts that will so irritate Thatcher” (Jackson & Jackson 300). While this is what sparks Kane’s earnestly whispered declaration of principles, it is also what will eventually undercut them. Kane claims to be a fighting and tireless champion of their rights, but for Kane “it is [only] important to him to appear to be a “champion” of the people’s right, but he doesn’t care which rights he champions” (Maxfield 198). His true interest only lies in printed pugilism forever striking away at his own demons.

Kane’s influence across the nation is illustrated visually as radio waves emanating from towers, proclaiming this reach. But much like the god king Xerxes sought to punish the Hellespont with chain and whip, Kane seeks to capture that elusive element of human nature, love, armed only with boast and coin, and inevitably, his efforts too are registered as mere ripples on an indifferent sea. As Kane’s purpose is replaced by pompous, his own personal volume increases. Indeed, Welles has subtly made it so “the more low key and quiet Kane is, the more honest his words; the louder he is, the less honest his directives,” most obviously with his final earnest dying words (Brophy). As Kane deviates further from his stated ideals his voice grows louder and his message less coherent, eventually culminating in a raucous political rally with an openly vacuous political message. The only thing that remains of his original ideals is his petulant rebellion, a booming echo of thunder providing only faint simulacrum of the lightning that spawned it, heard and interpreted as yet more distant and indistinct noise in the ears of its beholders.

As Kane seeks the public’s love and acceptance on this broad scale, Kane suffers from a lack of love in his private life having grown cold and distant from his wife, Emily. In a chance meeting, Kane comes across a naïve woman who has never heard of him, Susan, whose soothing song calms the scared beast within Kane. With Susan he rekindles this unfulfilled feeling of love, eventually to his political downfall when his tryst is discovered by his political rival Jim Gettys and he is blackmailed. When confronted, Kane refuses all offers to back down, petulantly calling Gettys’ bluff and submerging his entire family in scandal. In this scene, “Kane […] destroys his family not because he hates Emily, nor because he loves Susan, […] rather, he is simply asserting the worth of his own Self. ‘I’m Charles Foster Kane,’ he repeatedly yells” (Clipper 15). When events fall outside of his control, Kane refuses to accede to other’s will, charting the course which preserves as much control over himself as possible. In the ruins of his campaign, Kane toasts with his friend Leland to the love that has eluded his grasp, “a love on his own terms, the only terms that anybody ever knows.” Thus shows Kane’s fatal flaw, he seeks someone to love him for everything that he is, but he has no capability to love someone back. As Richard Armstrong points out regarding this individualistic vision of love,

“We all like to think that love for an individual is a relationship particular to that individual. Yet love, by its very nature, is a dynamic shared experience, defined by two people in a moment they both experience. There is no such thing as love on one's own terms” (Armstrong).

Unable to dictate these terms, either to his wife Emily, nor the voters of the state of New York, he jettisons them both and pours all of his focus on the last person within his sphere of influence, Susan.

In Susan, Kane attempts to recreate the gentle boudoir singing that so entranced him into that of a bombastic opera singer, to her great detriment. Susan flounders in this elevated role, lacking the talent Kane wishes everyone to see in her, but nonetheless Kane attempts to force into being through sheer will. Kane yet again is replicating the traumas of his childhood, however now he has cast himself into the role of the Mr. Thatcher, corrupting the pure innocent with unlimited, yet unwanted power. When Susan fails to hit a note during training, Kane steps in and by his sheer presence causes Susan to hit the note. This happens “because Kane is more terrifying than the inscribed text of the melody. He truly does have the power to pull Susan’s vocal chords—not for her betterment and development, but for his own prowess and exhibitionism” (Brophy). Indeed, the parallels between “young Charles Kane, whose young life was warped by his mother’s aesthetic vision of him, and of Susan Kane, whose personality was destroyed by the ambitions of her lover and husband [… signify] the monstrosity that Kane has become” (Clipper 17). When Susan debuts, she receives only tepid applause that Kane attempts stoke into a larger response through his enthusiastic clapping. This does not work and, “their clapping dwindles quickly, leaving Kane alone, desperately trying to simulate the noise of a whole auditorium. Their silence equals his drain of power and no matter how big he is, he cannot by himself be a voluminous mass—just as he will ultimately fail to control the masses” (Brophy). Kane pushes Susan forward despite her apparent inadequacy for the role she is being thrust into, manipulating headlines to push his invented narrative. Eventually, Susan buckles under the pressure of repeated failure and attempts suicide, finally forcing Kane to come to terms with his illusion of control over the world. In response, Kane retreats to a place where he has total dominion, his pharaonic retreat Xanadu, essentially “[rejecting] the natural life in favor of a kind of immurement, a living death” (Clipper 15).

It is here in Xanadu that Kane’s emotional evolution is completed, with no trace of the idealist left to see, just the secluded, petty tyrant. Such was “the corruption of Kane […] so gradual, so imperceptible (and handled with great delicacy by Welles) that close friends like Leland [were] unable to discern this development” (Clipper 14). As Kane aged he never actually matured, reliving his childhood trauma through all of his relationships, private and public. He sought to control the masses through his newspapers and later his ill-fated gubernatorial run, and lastly and most brazenly divorced from reality, by promoting the hapless amateur Susan Alexander as grand diva and granting her rave reviews in his press. Kane treated his empire like that of a child’s sandbox, shaping and dominating everything within his grasp, inventing castles in his mind where everyone else can only see crumbling sand. In this way “Kane maintains a childish ego, never maturing, manipulating everything […] as if they were his toys” (Jackson & Jackson 300). But with Kane revealed to be the sham that he is publicly, the emperor is forced to retreat to where no one will point out his drafty new clothes any longer. In this bubble, Kane is free to shape his own private world. Having failed to create art, Kane acquires it instead, in great untouched heaps. Indeed, “he collects thousands of worthless objects, many of which are never uncrated. These things – these artifacts that society deems valuable – are, in terms of his fulfillment, meaningless” (Jackson & Jackson 300). The whole of Xanadu is false. The way it is depicted by Welles only heightens it, when the wide shots of the lonely castle that bookend the movie, “are actually artificial and unrealistic, being not the photographs of real castles, but animations (possibly by the Disney studios). The artificiality of the scene is itself a comment on the artifice of Kane’s experiment” (Clipper 17). After a period of growing resentment and isolation, Susan tires of their grotesque approximation of a life and leaves Kane for good, causing Kane to fly into a destructive rage, smashing the dollhouse-like room he built for her.

His fury “obliterates […] the soundtrack, speaking the unspeakable, for Kane cannot admit defeat” (Brophy). It is “only when his physical energy wanes does silence sweep over his aural desecration, creating a hole in which we hear the enigmatic “Rosebud.” Spent, drained, silenced—here is the core tragic moment of Citizen Kane: the most personal comment he makes in his whole life falls on absent ears” (Brophy).

With no lives left to puppeteer, no individual left to give him love, Kane fades away clutching the snow globe salvaged from the wreckage of Susan’s room. The snow globe, the only reminder remaining left of his innocent childhood, the last time he knew love by anything other than his own terms.

Charles Foster Kane was a figure that stretched across a wide swath of time. He grew up celebrating the Union victory in the Civil War, launched his career fanning the flames of the Spanish-American War and laid his addled mind to rest in the buildup of World War II. Throughout it all, Kane failed to win that one thing that was stolen from him as a child, the love of another person. Though he tried to seize it on his own terms numerous times, he only grew more and more alienated from reality, his unlimited power securing him only material trappings. Kane is a tragic figure, an illustration that even if one is great, greatness alone brings no love.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Richard. "Some kind of a man: revisiting Citizen Kane." Australian Screen Education 33 (2003): 125+. Academic OneFile. Web. 9 May 2016.

Brophy, Philip. "Citizen Kane: the sound of the look of a 'visual masterpiece'." Music and the Moving Image 1.3 (2008). PowerSearch. Web. 3 May 2016.

Clipper, Lawrence J. "Art And Nature In Welles' Xanadu." Film Criticism 5.3 (1981): 12-20. Academic Search Premier. Web. 2 May 2016.

Jackson, Kathy Merlock, and Ray Merlock. "Leaving Rosebud, Leaving The Valley: Vestiges Of Childhood In Two Classic Films From 1941." Journal Of American Culture 29.3 (2006): 296-306. Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 May 2016.

Maxfield, James. "'A Man Like Ourselves': Citizen Kane As An Aristotelian Tragedy." Literature Film Quarterly 14.3 (1986): 195. Literary Reference Center. Web. 9 May 2016.

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