Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

AFI Post #2 becomes Filmsite Post #2: Citizen Kane

Posted by Gerald on January 11, 2011

I’m continuing the project I set myself, but I’m changing lists.  Rather than AFI Top 100 American films I’m going to use Filmsites 100 Greatest Films.  The Filmsite list overlaps the AFI list considerably, but there are some differences.  Filmsite looked as English-language rather than American films, so the list is more inclusive.  I also just like the selections better.  Of course, “Casablanca” was on Filmsite’s list as well, so I don’t need to start over.

The second list film I watched was “Citizen Kane,” a movie widely hailed on such lists, usually at the top.  It is also one of the most written-about films ever produced.  I can’t hope to add anything my personal observations to that mass of work.

The first thing that struck me on this viewing is what struck me the first time I watched the movie, and that is how entertaining it is.  I came to this film late, when I was well into my 20s.  I’d been hearing about it for years.  Because of all the critical praise, I approached watching the film almost as a cultural duty.  If I was going to keep yapping at people about films I had to go watch this movie.  It was being shown at the student center at the University of Iowa one evening, so I went.  I expected to admire the film for all the reasons I’d heard – the cinematography, the editing, the directing…  What I didn’t expect was that I would simply like it as a movie.  But I did.

The film moves between moments: sorrow, despair, joy tinged with sorrow, simple joy.  It is fun and moving to watch.  It has a simple story; a wealthy man dies and a newsman tries to discover the meaning of his final words – the infamous “Rosebud” – by interviewing the people closest to him.  What follows is a semi-linear series of narrated vignettes showing the most significant moments in this man’s life.  Everything in the film works on multiple levels and I think you can carry away from it as much as you choose. 

One thing that really struck me this time was the acting talent of Orson Welles.  Biopics that age the actor with make-up are commonplace, but Welles conveys that stages of Kane’s life so effectively, especially with his changing physicality, from the exuberant young man dancing at an office party to the stiff older man throwing a tantrum when his wife leaves him. 

It is also fascinating how much of an enigma Kane remains at the end of the film. After over ninety minutes of scenes showing us the moments that made this man who he was as a person (the story of his rise and fall in business is almost secondary), I’m still left with the feeling that I don’t really understand him – and that maybe we can’t ever fully understand anyone.

Two further observations:

First – watching this soon after the holidays I was struck by how similar this story is to A Christmas Carol – but without the redemption at the end.  Still, I suppose that is because both touch on the reality that we move through life from the hopefulness of youth toward the inevitability of death, and many become bitter and empty along the way.  Also, both stories feature the idea that wealth cannot give happiness; either in its unrelenting pursuit (Scrooge) or in its inheritance (Kane).

Second – it struck me that Kane is a symbol of America.  He is sent away by his mother “for his own good” and never recovers from that sense of isolation – which I think is echoed in America’s sense of itself, including a traditional resentment of the European culture we borrowed so much from.  While resenting the European powers, and insisting we were “exceptional” and different, we eventually came to resemble them on the world stage – much as Kane seeks to be everything his adoptive father hates, but becomes a tychoon and dies old, and alone like him.  America constantly seeks to re-make the world in its image as Kane sought to use his wealth to make the world what he wanted it to be.  America demands the world’s love, as did Kane, and both try to purchase it.  America grew rich and powerful, in part on its own efforts, but also on a foundation of land and labor stolen from others and huge investments from the Europe it saw as old and decadent.  Kane tries to do many admirable things, and sometimes succeeds, but the foundation of his wealth is the mine he inherited from the mother who abandoned him.  I know someone who argues that John Wayne in “The Searchers” represents America’s view of itself.  Maybe Kane is more a representation of America as viewed by others, as in the film we never see him except through the eyes of others.

I’ve already seen film #3 – “On the Waterfront”.  I’ll post about that one soon.

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