I found myself pondering an interesting question while watching this – what is Citizen Kane about?
I don’t mean the plot. That’s an easy answer – after the death of publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), reporters discover that his last word was the enigmatic utterance “Rosebud”, and set out on a quest to examine his life and discover what that might mean. ….Heck, everyone knows that. Plenty of people even know the answer to “What does ‘Rosebud’ mean” without having seen the film; it’s the ultimate in movie spoilers. I actually knew the answer ten years before ever seeing the film, for the most ridiculous of reasons – in a Peanuts strip, Lucy spoils the ending for Linus as he’s settling in to watch for the first time.
Maybe the film is “about” William Randolph Hearst. Welles clearly based the movie on Hearst’s life – Hearst was the head of a media empire founded on yellow journalism, he mocked up events to convince the U.S. government to declare war on Spain during the Gilded Age, he made an unsuccessful bid for a governorship, he was an early decrier of political corruption who became seduced by success, and he ultimately holed up in an elaborately ornate mansion decorated with art booty seized – er, purchased – from around the world, and retreated there with a mediocre actress he was wooing after unsuccessfully trying to promote her as a star. (Some claim that the inclusion of “rosebud” in the film was a uniquely pointed callout – rumors are that this was Hearst’s special nickname for a very intimate part of his paramour Marion Davies’ anatomy.)
But those are just the plot and the inspiration. Neither of those points address what the film is about, and I found myself returning to that question again and again.
Is it about how Kane’s formerly-simple life as a child was the last time he was truly happy, and how the more wealth and power he had and the richer he got, the unhappier he was? The events of the story suggest so, with Kane building more and bigger and flashier emblems of wealth and privilege and power around him, building out walls around him like a nautilus shell and ultimately pushing real things of value – spouses, lovers, children, friends – away until his death alone.
Is it about the worldly trappings preventing Kane from even getting to know himself and others in the first place? A couple of recurring motifs suggest this – a handwritten mission statement Kane drafts for his first paper is treated as a holy document at the beginning of the film, but diminishes in importance as Kane rises in fame, and by the end as he is rattling around alone in his mansion that paper is long gone.
Is it about the seduction of power warping Kane’s own image of himself? Welles uses a lot of camera angles that suggest this; the more the film goes on, the more Welles plays with shooting from low camera angles and using forced perspective, making Kane loom over us as his power ascends; then throwing him against oversized backgrounds towards the end to show how small he actually is.
Is it about how a person’s friends each only know their one small piece of the story of their life? The reporter visiting each of Kane’s associates in turn – and each relating just their one bit of Kane’s story at a time – fits this. There’s also a neat echo motif in the jigsaw puzzles Kane’s second wife Susan endlessly fiddles with out of boredom; the reporter even finds one such puzzle during his beat and compares “rosebud” to the one missing piece he despairs of ever finding.
…These theories are probably nothing new to film scholars. What is knew for me is that this is the first time I’m actually coming away from a film thinking about it on this level; I went into this as a rewatch, after having seen the film once before sheerly because of its notoriety. I’ve also looking at the film through the perspective of kitsch; how its techniques have been copied, how its lore has spread and become trivia fodder. I even visited Hearst Castle once and found myself having a full-on giggle fit in the gift shop when I saw that they sold a biography of Marion Davies with a foreword by Oscar Welles. By all rights I should have just skated over this as a giant game of spot-the-reference and been on my way.
But I didn’t. I got caught up in the question of what story Welles was trying to actually tell; and ultimately coming to the same conclusion our reporter does, which is that maybe there are some corners of every story that we may not ever know, and the questions themselves may be the point after all.