Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

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Mr Sausage
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Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#1 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Nov 25, 2019 5:57 pm

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#2 Post by domino harvey » Mon Nov 25, 2019 6:02 pm

I’m curious to hear from those who are really wild about this movie. I know it’s such a long standing “best” film that it may getting voted for by reflex at this point, but I’ve rarely encountered anyone who seemed all that passionate about it (and yet at least six of you placed it at number one, so obviously many of you are) even in comparison to the other Welles films of this decade (and for the record, I think it’s a great film, but not to the extent that I feel super compelled to ever vote for it over fifty-plus other great films from the 40s)

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#3 Post by FrauBlucher » Mon Nov 25, 2019 6:23 pm

I love this film and it is a great film but I just wonder if the myth of Citizen Kane is greater than the film itself

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#4 Post by Big Ben » Mon Nov 25, 2019 6:37 pm

Welles certainly didn't seem to think it was his best work and as I recall he publicly lamented that he was perceived as starting at the very top and working his way down with each subsequent project.
domino harvey wrote:
Mon Nov 25, 2019 6:02 pm
I’m curious to hear from those who are really wild about this movie. I know it’s such a long standing “best” film that it may getting voted for by reflex at this point, but I’ve rarely encountered anyone who seemed all that passionate about it (and yet at least six of you placed it at number one, so obviously many of you are) even in comparison to the other Welles films of this decade (and for the record, I think it’s a great film, but not to the extent that I feel super compelled to ever vote for it over fifty-plus other great films from the 40s)
My Video Production teacher in High School was crazy about Citizen Kane and we did an entire blow by blow of it in class for some time. Speaking personally I think it's a great indication of what Welles would give us later in films that I personally consider superior like Chimes at Midnight or Touch of Evil. I think Citizen Kane is one of those things that's easily identifiable as "good" because it has so much going for it rather than one particular aspect that anyone remembers and can single out.
FrauBlucher wrote:
Mon Nov 25, 2019 6:23 pm
I love this film and it is a great film but I just wonder if the myth of Citizen Kane is greater than the film itself
Part of me wonders if it's treated this way because it was simply elevated at the time by scandal alongside being a great film. Hearst trying to destroy Welles probably helped it, at least in the long run as it added to it's mystique. Nothing adds to a film's stature than a long standing mythos and well Welles had that up the wazoo.


Ray Carney doesn't like it though!

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#5 Post by domino harvey » Mon Nov 25, 2019 7:07 pm

It's funny, I'm not sure I'd trust the tastes of anyone who didn't like Citizen Kane, but I'd also prob say the same for those who consider it their favorite film!

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#6 Post by therewillbeblus » Mon Nov 25, 2019 8:26 pm

I used to adore the film, and still enjoy it, but in recent years as other films have come along to really flesh out fuller characters over the course of a life, I’ve become more disengaged from Kane’s characterization. I realize that this is kind of the point, but I used to have more respect and sympathy for him throughout the film, and so while the whole film together is brilliant there are some parts that don’t move me as much as they once did. Where the film continues to succeed is in its summative power of innocence lost, and reducing the moral decay that comes with becoming broken by life down to its skin and bones, like peeling back an onion until there’s only a universal layer of harmless humanity ripe with possibilities for experience, moral growth, and identity shaping. To see fate take Kane down one forced path without his agency doesn’t stir resentment but does place him on a trajectory where he must contend with unique variables that muscle his ego and put him in a position to focus on excellence, selfish forms of achievement, rather than social or selflessly romantic areas that a position with less stressors may have supported. At least one of his relationships is loving, but he can’t sustain it. One must be left wondering if this is due to aspects of his conditioned self or his innate self, a question for all of us regardless of position or socioeconomic status, but all that matters is that it started with a universal beginning in untainted youth, a nostalgia for that time of feeling before life took its course on grating our existential wounds and caused the implementation of defense mechanisms in a shell that eventually would be gnawed down to the bone too.

The film continues to work for me in the way it humbly doesn’t even try to invest us in the span of this character’s life, but instead show the key points- or so we think- of resilience, passion, and withering, without ever getting to know the man. Welles seems to understand that it would be inauthentic to try to get to know a life through the medium and so he comically contextualizes Kane through the subjective eyes of others. The focus then becomes almost solely behavioral observations and omitting the emotional subjective experiences of Kane is itself an unreliable method that voids any claims in the absence of a significant portion of a human being: ones true convictions and morals outside of a behaviorist lens. Still, sometimes the outside perspective paints a truer portrait that we’d like to think, and while there are certainly some events and interactions that may evoke a few moral judgments through action, the collective accounts build to the joke of giving up hope at true knowledge by the reporter, because how can anyone really know anyone else? But we all started from the same place, with the same simple pleasures, fears, longings, and will likely all end the same way, like Kane. I can identify with this nostalgia, the pain of wrestling with one’s life on life’s terms, and the harm to oneself and others that has been left in the dust of any life lived long enough to know a few people and do a few things. But mostly I love this way of looking at biopics and the idea of taking an objective summarization of a life as impossible, with the exception of the humanist lens that all people have dignity and worth. The sled is that sobering reminder of this uniting experience crashing through the joke of a fragmented narrative, and it hits closer to home because of this juxtaposition.

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#7 Post by domino harvey » Mon Nov 25, 2019 8:55 pm

I think that’s an interesting point about Kane being seen primarily from the outside and that still having a degree of truth. Shades of the truism “We judge ourselves on our intentions and others on their actions,” perhaps. No one character may know or understand the totality of Kane, but the potentially unwelcome truth is that so it goes for all of us and to all of us. As the audience member, we are privileged with the fullest portrait, but I’m not sure we know any more or less in a functional way about the man than those who had less info but knew enough. Which is why the revelation of “Rosebud” is a bit facile— yes, after all it turns out he longed for the youth long-passed and the opportunities not taken, but in the end all that counts is the man, not the boy, he was. CC my Godard quote about answers here too!

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#8 Post by Michael Kerpan » Mon Nov 25, 2019 9:58 pm

This was, perhaps, the first "great movie" (TM) I ever saw. I loved it then (despite being prepared to reject it BECAUSE of its advanced billing) and still love it (when I re-visit it -- maybe once a decade). It remains my favorite Welles movie overall, probably primarily due to the performances. (I no longer believe in "greatest films ever" -- just in "films I love a lot").

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#9 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Nov 25, 2019 10:28 pm

It's one of the many brilliances of Kane that it depicts human life without reducing it--even doing so by offering us a convenient reduction, one we find soon crumbles under scrutiny. Any single lense or framework used on Kane is inadequate to explain him; and yet taken all together, the multiple viewpoints the film offers don't prove any more adequate. Mostly they outline the complexity of the problem.

You grow to realize any account of Kane is an account of the teller's own life. The reflections on Kane are also self definitions, each person defining their life to the reporter through their take on Kane and what they understand to be his role in their life. For example, Jedediah's sense of his life having peaked early and fallen steadily ever since into disappointment is told through a narrative of The Fall of Kane, a bright, idealistic young man who disappointed and alienated his supporters by selling out his ideals and values...more or less. Kane evades even that narrative in the end, tho', Jedediah having to throw up his hands and admit defeat after recounting Kane's decision to finish the negative review. And Susan, ever the forward-moving girl with a survival instinct, tells hers as a seduction into and finally escape from control and stultification, where she finally learns to use her voice for her own purposes rather than someone else's. Her Kane is both charming seducer and rigid, looming jailer. In another movie, her walk down the hall away from Kane would be attended by soaring music and a crashing "The End" as she liberates herself. Far from Jedediah's bitterness, she's someone who rolls with the losses.

Even Kane's "Rosebud" is one more revealing but inadequate narrative of his life. He seems to be viewing his own life as a narrative of loss and emptiness that he sought but was never able to redress. Again, the brilliance in seeming to privilege Kane's story by making it the frame and the central mystery only for the answer to be equal parts illuminating and confounding--only one more story to add to the balance.

I don't know if it's one of my very favourite films, but, to throw in an unnecessary provocation: it's inestimably superior to How Green was My Valley. I'll take originality and invention, from form all the way to conceptual framework, over the traditional and the classical, no matter how well done they may be. It is astonishing for a film from this era to embrace ambiguity so thoroughly.

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#10 Post by therewillbeblus » Mon Nov 25, 2019 10:34 pm

domino harvey wrote:
Mon Nov 25, 2019 8:55 pm
As the audience member, we are privileged with the fullest portrait, but I’m not sure we know any more or less in a functional way about the man than those who had less info but knew enough. Which is why the revelation of “Rosebud” is a bit facile— yes, after all it turns out he longed for the youth long-passed and the opportunities not taken, but in the end all that counts is the man, not the boy, he was.
I think that's exactly right but I see that as a strength not a weakness. We don't know him at all, the composite we 'get' from the collective is itself a joke because it's not an accurate representation of who he is, just as we never really know what Rosebud actually means to him. The "revelation" of Rosebud is only facile if we choose to draw inference to the thoughts and feelings of Kane that we aren't afforded. We project our own nostalgia and longing for that innocence, the opportunity for a do-over, onto that symbol. It becomes a mirror for ourselves and then we choose a surface-level facile approach in its definition of simplifying while ignoring the complexities. All we really know is that Kane thought back to that moment of innocence, but the rest is a narrative we construct, just as we do with our own filtered nostalgia. It's specifically this incomprehensible significance placed on the object that makes the ending powerful, not the contrived simple reduction we place on it through fantastical estimation of a character's feelings and thoughts whom the entire narrative blocks us from truly knowing.

Edit: Sausage said it better, great post

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#11 Post by zedz » Mon Nov 25, 2019 10:49 pm

domino harvey wrote:
Mon Nov 25, 2019 8:55 pm
I think that’s an interesting point about Kane being seen primarily from the outside and that still having a degree of truth. Shades of the truism “We judge ourselves on our intentions and others on their actions,” perhaps. No one character may know or understand the totality of Kane, but the potentially unwelcome truth is that so it goes for all of us and to all of us. As the audience member, we are privileged with the fullest portrait, but I’m not sure we know any more or less in a functional way about the man than those who had less info but knew enough. Which is why the revelation of “Rosebud” is a bit facile— yes, after all it turns out he longed for the youth long-passed and the opportunities not taken, but in the end all that counts is the man, not the boy, he was. CC my Godard quote about answers here too!
I think the 'Rosebud' reveal is something Welles has both ways.* It's on one level too simplistic and pat (especially if you just read it as "innocence lost"), but it's actually woven through the screenplay in a very subtle way that insists we take it seriously. It - or the scene in which we first see it - is evoked in a number of the third person flashbacks by characters who know nothing about it (for example, when Kane meets Susan Alexander, he's on his way to see it). (I haven't watched the film for years, but as I recall, the last time I saw it I believe I noted that every single flashback - and even the newsreel - in some way refers to that scene, which can't be a coincidence.) And that initial 'Rosebud' scene is the primal scene of the character's development, as he (incorrectly) sees it as a rejection by his mother instead of what it really is (a sacrifice to save him from his father). The key flaw of the character is explained several times by different characters, in a wide enough variety of ways that Mankiewicz and Welles cover their tracks, but each partial explanation works together to form a prismatic whole: that original 'betrayal', in which he sees himself 'sold off' by his mother, renders him unable to relate to others in a non-transactional way. He can't not buy other people's affections, and he can't trust anybody else to like him, let alone love him, without some form of transactional value. Thus every human relationship is poisoned at its root by incipient mistrust.

I think it's a beautifully constructed and masterfully executed film, but it's never been a favourite of mine.

* And so that final scene is a conjuror's double-bluff reveal of the story's actual lynchpin, which Welles immediately tosses away, saying "only kidding."

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#12 Post by domino harvey » Mon Nov 25, 2019 11:27 pm

Mr Sausage wrote:
Mon Nov 25, 2019 10:28 pm

I don't know if it's one of my very favourite films, but, to throw in an unnecessary provocation: it's inestimably superior to How Green was My Valley. I'll take originality and invention, from form all the way to conceptual framework, over the traditional and the classical, no matter how well done they may be. It is astonishing for a film from this era to embrace ambiguity so thoroughly.
As much as this forum likes Ford, I imagine it's still not much of a provocation here! I was kind of stunned, though, when I read one of Bogdanovich's later film books and he argued that the superior film won Best Picture, especially considering his close friendship to Welles

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#13 Post by HinkyDinkyTruesmith » Mon Nov 25, 2019 11:57 pm

I prefer the Ford, think it greater, and consider Welles my favorite filmmaker. It seems the more you love Welles, the more you consider How Green Was My Valley superior to Citizen Kane.

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#14 Post by domino harvey » Tue Nov 26, 2019 12:00 am

I mean, I would have voted for Sgt York or Here Comes Mr Jordan over either, so it’s not even an issue for me!

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#15 Post by therewillbeblus » Tue Nov 26, 2019 12:15 am

HinkyDinkyTruesmith wrote:
Mon Nov 25, 2019 11:57 pm
It seems the more you love Welles, the more you consider How Green Was My Valley superior to Citizen Kane.
I thought I loved Welles but now I’m not so sure since I can’t relate to that opinion

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#16 Post by nitin » Tue Nov 26, 2019 2:49 am

Yeah same here.

Was also going to post something but zedz has said everything I wanted to re the Rosebud ending.

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#17 Post by Roger Ryan » Tue Nov 26, 2019 10:02 am

therewillbeblus wrote:
Mon Nov 25, 2019 10:34 pm
...We don't know him at all, the composite we 'get' from the collective is itself a joke because it's not an accurate representation of who he is, just as we never really know what Rosebud actually means to him.
This is why the penultimate shot in the film (a return to the opening shot of the "No Trespassing" sign) is more important than the "Rosebud" reveal. Thompson's quest is doomed from the start since it is a contrived angle to even try and fit a man's life into a newsreel let alone hang it on a single word. Note that Welles is setting up a juxtaposition between the old media (the newspaper) and the new media of the day (the newsreel). Despite the fact that Kane was a yellow journalist, his twice-daily publications had plenty of newsprint to cover the world in depth. In comparison, the newsreel can only present its content superficially (think of how Welles might have shown the life of Kane in a series of tweets today!). Rawlston's line "we've got to get something more into this newsreel..." should be heard as ironic since the very format is ill-suited for in-depth coverage. The information that Thompson is getting from Kane's surviving associates could never even be summarised in a newsreel which is what makes that single word so tantalizing to the new media providers: it's something simple to explain everything quickly. After the name of the sled is revealed to the audience, Welles reminds us with the "No Trespassing" sign that Kane is ultimately unknowable. I'm even of the belief that "Rosebud" is a mystery to Kane as well. The snowglobe triggers an association to the word for Kane, but it's likely he's forgotten that the word was emblazoned on his childhood sled; he himself is ruminating on the meaning during his last weeks on earth. Incidentally, the replacement sled that banker Thatcher gives the young Kane as a Christmas present is called "The Crusader".The name is only visible for a split second as the wrapping comes off, so this ironic turn remains nearly subliminal...at least until the viewer could freeze-frame the moment on home video.
Last edited by Roger Ryan on Tue Nov 26, 2019 1:27 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#18 Post by therewillbeblus » Tue Nov 26, 2019 10:59 am

Roger Ryan wrote:
Tue Nov 26, 2019 10:02 am
therewillbeblus wrote:
Mon Nov 25, 2019 10:34 pm
...We don't know him at all, the composite we 'get' from the collective is itself a joke because it's not an accurate representation of who he is, just as we never really know what Rosebud actually means to him.
This is why the penultimate shot in the film (a return to the opening shot of the "No Trespassing" sign) is more important than the "Rosebud" reveal. Thompson's quest is doomed from the start since it is a contrived angle to even try and fit a man's life into a newsreel let alone hang it on a single word. Note that Welles is setting up a juxtaposition between the old media (the newspaper) and the new media of the day (the newsreel). Despite the fact that Kane was a yellow journalist, his twice-daily publications had plenty of newsprint to cover the world in depth. In comparison, the newsreel can only present its content superficially (think of how Welles might have shown the life of Kane in a series of tweets today!). Rawlston's line "we've got to get something more into this newsreel..." should be heard as ironic since the very format is ill-suited for in-depth coverage. The information that Thompson is getting from Kane's surviving associates could never even be summarised in a newsreel which is what makes that single word so tantalizing to the new media providers: it's something simple to explain everything quickly. After the name of the sled is revealed to the audience, Welles reminds us with the "No Trespassing" sign that Kane is ultimately unknowable. I'm even of the belief that "Rosebud" is a mystery to Kane as well. The snowglobe triggers an association to the word for Kane, but it's likely he's forgotten that the word was emblazoned on his childhood sled; he himself is ruminating on the meaning during his last weeks on earth. Incidentally, the replacement sled that banker Thatcher gives the young Kane as a Christmas present is called "The Crusader" (the name is only visible for a split second as the wrapping comes off, so this ironic turn remains nearly subliminal...at least until the viewer could freeze-frame the moment on home video).
Thanks for this, Roger! The idea that this tangible object becomes ironic in its application to comfortable meaning is very much what I see as the joke, but the Rosebud ending of pathos is complicated by that reading that suggests Kane himself isn't even clear in the source of his existential longing - in addition to us as viewers, and the various side characters, unclear themselves. If Kane is actually unable to match the tangible object of the sled, or awareness into the specifics of his emotional release, for the word that escapes him, his understanding of this longing and pain continues to by enigmatic in meaning to him even on his deathbed, which is probably truer to life and all the more soul-shattering in its overwhelming obscurity.

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#19 Post by Drucker » Tue Nov 26, 2019 1:27 pm

I consider myself one of the forum's Welles' devotees, so I'll chime in and say that my two cents is the film absolutely lives up to the hype. I am very drawn to the way it was made, and think what comes out of it is so lively, much more so than anything else Welles made.

While people here familiar with Too Much Johnson and Hearts Of Age know that it's obviously not true that Welles first got into film with Kane, reading The Making Of Citizen Kane is exhilarating, and there's a real sense that the film's production felt like the group flying by the seat of their pants. I'm especially drawn to Carringer's reading that the film is the result of working with significant limits. Unlike with the poor cuts to Ambersons, all of the limitations imposed on Kane from budgetary and external pressures really do work out. Start shooting the newsreel scenes without announcing to the studio. Cut out the political espionage. Make-do without sets that were too expensive. It packs so much energy into two hours, and yet the results from a storytelling standpoint are what Roger notes above: we learn so much about a man's life, but we are left with all of this mystery at the end.

I find Welles to be a consistent filmmaker, and the pacing of many of his films follow a similar trajectory. They start with a bang, there is early energy, conflict emerges, and in the second to last section there is a substantial cool-down before the finale. This plays out really well in films like Macbeth and Chimes At Midnight. But it's a template he perfects with Kane, which brings me to my last point. Most of Welles' films don't reflect his true 'vision' for what they were to be, and so that has to be reckoned with when evaluating his work. But with Citizen Kane, it's exactly what it was supposed to be. We are not left with pieces of a greater whole, and there is no 'what if' with the film. Nearly 80 years later, it stands out from films of its time, has an immediate energy, is at times hilarious, and at other times quite sad, and still inspires quite a bit of discussion. Welles may think and feel that other films were greater and he had much more to contribute to the world of cinema than merely his first film, but Kane is a near-perfect work of art. And there is really nothing quite like it!

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#20 Post by FrauBlucher » Tue Nov 26, 2019 5:01 pm

Nice going Roger and Drucker. You guys wrote what I always think of Kane. Knowing everything about Kane but he still remains a mystery. Which btw, I feel that way about Welles himself, which may not be a fair or accurate point but his persona gives off that air of mystery to me. All the tangible objects in Kane are just a hint but give us nothing conclusive. Hearst/Kane was a master manipulator which Welles wants the audience to see first and foremost. The only thing Welles drives us directly to is Kane’s comeuppance, which really is a theme in Welles’ canon

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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#21 Post by Sloper » Sun Dec 08, 2019 4:46 pm

The above discussion definitely captures a lot of the things I love about this film. I agree that the ‘Rosebud’ reveal at the end works so well because it’s not a cheap twist: it is a dramatic reveal but it tells us something we’ve already been told multiple times, in every section of the narrative, so it doesn’t feel like a trick; and it’s profound and revealing without being reductive, because as others have said its precise meaning remains ambiguous.

You could even argue that Rosebud doesn’t represent innocence or betrayal. A rosebud is a symbol of potential: the boy Kane used the sled to attack Mr. Thatcher, and when he (presumably) cried about having left it behind at home, Thatcher replaced it with a sled called ‘The Crusader’. Kane’s life is thereafter blighted by a kind of oppositional defiant disorder. When the aged Thatcher asks the only slightly less aged Kane, ‘What would you like to have been?’, Kane says ‘Everything you hate.’ Leland refers to this as well when he says that Kane spent his life trying to ‘prove’ things, like undoing the quotation marks in the ‘singer’ headline (‘That’s when you’ve gotta fight ‘em’). See also Kane’s journalistic campaign against the traction trust and his political campaign against Jim Geddes – he’s always against something, never for anything. You can even see this play out in his first marriage: he marries the president’s niece, then rails at ‘Uncle John’ over the breakfast table; he marries Emily but then neglects her so much that she ends up hating his work, his paper, and his friends. Perhaps Kane dies lamenting the fact that he spent his whole life locked in different versions of his hate/hate relationship with Thatcher, engaged in a series of crusades that culminated in him building Xanadu and burying himself in it, one last belligerent, inarticulate rejection of the hostile world outside.

If you look at his second marriage in this light, it gives a clue to another layer of Rosebud. The snow globe makes its first (chronological) appearance on Susan’s dressing table, right in front of what looks to be a photograph of Susan as a young girl (about the same age Kane was when he lost his sled). Susan’s mirror is flanked by two pictures of herself as a child, and on a shelf above the mirror is a picture of her mother. Imagine Susan looking at herself in the mirror, flanked by her two childhood-selves and watched over by her stern mother, it’s a neat summation of the state of arrested development she’s in. When asked what she wants to do with her life, Susan claims she always wanted to be a singer, then corrects herself (‘That is, I didn’t, my mother did…’) and is cut short mid-correction by Kane, who latches onto the idea of making her a famous singer. A little later, she refers again to her mother’s stubbornness in getting her to pursue this career, and comments, ‘You know what mothers are like’, to which Kane replies, ‘Yes…’. He will do to her what her mother did, and what his mother did to him, by forcing her into a role she doesn’t want to occupy but which he deems to be in her best interests. ‘My reasons satisfy me, Susan. You seem unable to understand them. I will not tell them to you again.’ Compare the way he talks about ‘the people’ and how they need someone with means ‘to look after their interests’ – all of this echoes the way his mother suddenly found herself equipped with a kind of material omnipotence, and used the money to buy her son into a state of complete security, both from poverty and from abuse, but also from any chance of love or self-fulfilment.

I don’t think Kane mis-interprets what his mother does, I think he understands it all too well, to the point where he can’t relate to other people in any other way. ‘Rosebud’ stands for the defining tragedy of Kane’s life, not because it represents a loving maternal bond that was lost, but because it recalls the root of his attachment disorder – or whatever you want to call it – in a profoundly dysfunctional home, run by an uncaring and abusive father and an emotionally suffocated/suffocating mother. She could have been written and performed as weepy and clingy and overly affectionate, with a terrifying psychopath for a husband, but it’s not quite like that; what defines these parents is that they either have no love for their son (the father), or cannot express it (the mother). So in this reading, the deathbed lament is for the child that never quite received love, even in early childhood, and all the stuff with Thatcher etc. that followed the discovery of the goldmine was just ripples flowing from that original loveless home.

The other thing that really makes this film stand out for me – its structure – has only been briefly touched on above, so I’ll drone on for a while about that...

Even without getting into a deep conversation about the film’s themes, just from a storytelling perspective it is a masterclass in how to engage your audience and carry them from A to Z. It demands the active attention of the audience and doesn’t offer much of the thrills and romance that usually comprise what we think of as ‘entertainment’, but whenever I watch this film I’m always amazed at just how much fun it is, and how utterly compelling it is from start to finish. Because the film jumps around so much in the first hour or so, my brain becomes accustomed to seeing Kane’s life from a number of perspectives at once, and at a number of different chronological phases at once, so that at no point do I ever feel like I’m watching the ‘first act’ or the ‘third act’, and afterwards I can’t remember whether any given scene comes near the beginning or the end of the film; and yet, at the same time, I never feel frustrated or bored or disengaged, I just feel pleasantly immersed in the experience. Zodiac has a similar effect; like the characters in the film, you lose track of whose perspective you’re seeing things from or how far along in the narrative you are, and just become one with the all-consuming mystery being explored.

And (also like Zodiac), Citizen Kane manages this feat while still being consistently entertaining in a wide variety of ways, whether by making us laugh, making us cry, scaring us, or just dazzling us with a kaleidoscope of cinematic creativity. It’s amazing. For me, a lot of it comes down to the order in which things are presented to us, and I can sum this up best by looking at it in terms of ‘intimacy’. I think this is a film about wanting to connect with other people, and as someone who has always struggled to do this I find that it taps into just about the deepest aspect of the human condition; and what makes it so great is the way it expertly toys with the audience’s desire to connect with a fictional character, which is (I think) the main reason we consume any kind of fiction.

We begin by trespassing on the most intimate moment of all, the man’s death, and it’s presented like an enticing mystery full of great emotional significance, but we lack any form of context with which to make sense of it. Then we retreat to a position devoid of intimacy, an artificial and hyperbolic newsreel that tells us all the context – and none of it. Rawlston’s reaction sums this up: the newsreel shows us Kane’s life, but we want to go back to the opening scene and make sense of that emotional connection we started to form with the title character. The newsreel gives us the overview we will need in order to follow the complicated story that follows, while also being frustratingly withholding; the scene in the projection room reassures us that this frustration will be relieved by what follows.

The abortive visit to Susan Alexander is another tantalising hint at a level of intimacy we’re not quite ready for yet. Here is someone who loved Kane so much that his death has broken her, so much so that she can’t even talk about it. We know that there is some kind of emotional truth waiting to be discovered here, but for now we head over to the Thatcher library, to hear the testimony of a man who didn’t care about Kane at all, but who unwittingly makes us care about him. Thatcher presents an alternative, and more telling, account of the great man’s life, as that of a little boy torn from his mother, growing up to be a tireless crusader against injustice, and going to his death still ‘gagging on that silver spoon’ and standing up to the money-mad pirates. It’s an appealing narrative, albeit simplistic, and it serves the purpose of making us like and feel sorry for Kane.

Then comes Bernstein: he was closer to Kane and fonder of him, but this was primarily a professional rather than personal relationship. What we get here is an expansion on the second section of the Thatcher flashback, and it’s the most ‘fun’ bit of the whole film – you really get a vivid sense of these young, rebellious, principled men taking on the world and riding high on the success of the Inquirer, and it’s exactly the shot of feel-good adrenaline we, as an audience, need at this point. It’s also full of poignant hints at the downfall we know will happen later: like any good mystery story, the film makes us feel that we’re gaining a deeper and fuller understanding of what happened at the start (i.e. the end), and in this case that means seeing Kane’s glory days and appreciating how much he lost as he grew older, and how painful this must have been to reflect on in his final moments. Bernstein ends his story on a high, with Kane marrying Emily Norton and being cheered on by his employees at the Inquirer, but then he punctures the mood by commenting that ‘Emily Norton was no rosebud’, and he can’t bear to tell the rest of the story.

I love the switch to Leland’s perspective, and how it begins with him saying how nice Emily was; Emily’s withering comment about Bernstein in the breakfast montage gives us a clue as to the source of his animosity towards her. The film is full of wonderful touches like that, not all of which draw attention to themselves. Anyway, Leland’s narrative brings us much closer to Kane because he was the best friend, and Kane told him the details of his first marriage and his courtship of Susan. Now that we’ve seen the ‘Kane was a hero and married a president’s niece’ story, we can switch to the ‘Kane fucked up his career, friendships, and marriages’ story. The Bernstein/Leland transition is a perfectly judged movement from uppers to downers, where we’ve built up a sufficient amount of good will towards Kane and have had enough pleasure in his company to be able to deal with the bad stuff – and we also know enough about Kane and his life by this point to be able to interpret his self-destructive behaviour, while still retaining that sense of mystery and un-revealed secrets. We’re also getting the perspective of someone who was deeply hurt by Kane but still has a lot of affection for him, and both sides of that equation are about to be amplified in the next section…

Susan Alexander’s narrative gets me by the throat every single time. I can’t watch it or even remember it without tears coming to my eyes. There’s one moment in particular that exemplifies what is so superlatively great about this film: the opening night of Salammbo, as told from Leland’s and then Susan’s perspective. With Leland, we see the performance from a distance, and we’re dazzled by that famous upwards tracking shot that turns out to be a technically elaborate joke, the point of which is simple: Susan Alexander stinks. That’s pretty much all we know about her from Leland. Her meet-cute with Kane is presented through the lens of that snarky comment about her being a ‘cross-section of the American public’. Like the stage-hands, Jed looks down his nose at this giggly, bird-brained blonde who had never heard of Charles Foster Kane and mindlessly allowed herself to be crowbarred into a purpose-built opera house, and who was fawned over by Kane’s puppets at the Inquirer. Leland clearly sees the relationship with Susan as going hand-in-hand with Kane’s betrayal of his political principles; his focus is on blaming Charlie, and he barely recognises Susan as having any role or agency in the matter.

Then Susan tells us the same story from her point of view, and fills in what happened before the Salammbo debut. The music lesson scene takes that ‘pretty but hopelessly incompetent’ singer and shows us the real human being behind the caricature. She knows that she can’t hit those notes, and her despair and self-loathing at her own failure is all the more painful because she gets no sympathy from any direction: Signor Matiste yells at her, then under pressure from Kane he gives up and just sits there staring in disbelieving resentment at Kane. It’s a painfully funny moment when Kane says ‘I knew you’d see it my way’; Matiste has stopped even trying to teach Susan how to sing, and Kane seems to see this as a step in the right direction, as if it doesn’t matter whether she can actually sing or not so long as he’s paid the best singing teacher available to sit in the room with her for hours on end.

Now, when we see the debut performance for a second time, we’re right there with Susan on the stage, somehow overhearing the insults from the crowd. Having laughed at her in the previous section, we now see that she registered all of that scorn and ridicule, and suffered terribly under it, and really didn’t want to be in that position in the first place. When we now see Leland dicking around with his programme and rolling his eyes, he just seems sort of callous. Susan is not some over-reaching upstart who took advantage of a millionaire’s foolish generosity, she’s an abuse victim. This version of her stage performance ultimately boils down to a shot-reverse-shot sequence between her agonised wails and Kane’s unyielding glare, and it's hard to watch. After the equally painful confrontation in the hotel room, the opera montage (one of my favourite sequences) takes that abusive interplay and turns it into a nightmarish spiral of ever more intense extreme close-ups, ending in that pitiful sound of Susan’s weak voice trailing off (echoing the dying of the footlight) that tells us she has been pushed to the edge.

This is as deep as we go into Kane’s cruel side, and the film is making us hate him; so now it allows him to soften, he finally empathises with Susan, and he stops making her sing.

From this peak of emotional intensity, the film slows down and focuses on understanding rather than feeling. As the couple get older and the marriage becomes more and more stale, Susan has plenty of time to figure out what’s gone wrong. Whereas Emily became more and more distant from Kane as he devoted himself to his journalistic and political careers, Susan is locked in a claustrophobic intimacy with this man who has rejected the rest of the world. It therefore makes sense that she is given the clearest understanding of his nature and his ‘problem’, which she expresses succinctly during the picnic sequence. At the heart of all the complicated stuff we’ve been learning about Kane is the same problem his parents had: an inability to love except by force, through impositions, with the threat of banishment or (in this case) physical violence hanging over anyone who dares to point this out. There’s a significant echo between Kane hitting Susan and his father hitting him as a child: it underlines the fact that he’s inherited the dysfunctional aspects of both parents. And yes, the end of Susan’s story has a dramatic finality to it. Her full understanding of this man prompts her to leave him, and we’re relieved to see her escape.

We understand why Kane’s wife and friends abandon him, and why the only perspective left to hear from at the end is that of the heartless butler (‘sentimental fella, aren’t ya?’). But because we’ve seen Kane from a wider range of perspectives, and because Raymond’s point of view reminds us of Thatcher’s (the one that made us like Kane in the first place, all the more so because it was detached and uncaring), we’re not ready to leave him yet. That’s one of the incredible things fiction does: it makes us empathise with people beyond the limits of any real-life human relationship, beyond the point where we would have given up on a best friend or spouse, because it allows us to get even closer than them while still keeping us at a safe distance – unlike Raymond, we actually care about this person, but unlike Susan we can’t be hurt by him.

This means we go one layer beyond Susan’s insight. She says, ‘You never give me anything you really care about’, and he responds to her departure by destroying everything in her bedroom. It’s as if he’s furious with all these material objects for having failed to ‘buy’ Susan into loving him, and/or furious with himself for investing so much in all this meaningless trash. His rampage comes to an abrupt halt when he finds the snow globe. This wasn’t something he gave her, but something she had before he met her, maybe something she’d had since childhood, and evidently something she valued since she still has it after all these years and her meteoric rise in fortune. So Kane steals it. Susan wanted him to give her something ‘that really means something, that belongs to you’, and instead he takes something that presumably means something to her, and that also clearly means a lot to him.

It seems to me that Kane pockets the snow globe and keeps it close to him partly as an affirmation that, despite the failure of the marriage, he and Susan shared something deep and meaningful, namely a sense of loss stemming from childhood, and a troubled parental relationship. I like seeing it this way because it fits with a key point made in the above discussion: the deep, internal pain and longing represented by Rosebud is something that everyone can identify with, but it’s also the kind of pain that no one can really understand from the outside. This is the point of Bernstein’s story about the woman on the ferry – we can all identify, but only Bernstein knows the specific feeling associated with this woman – and Kane makes the point more explicitly when he raises his glass ‘To love, Jedediah, on my terms. Those are the only terms anyone ever knows: his own.’ But Kane’s final appropriation of the snow globe sums the idea up best, I think, because it’s an emotional connection formed at the moment of separation. In that sense it prepares us for the ending of the film, where we catch a fleeting glimpse of Rosebud before it goes up in smoke and we find ourselves back outside, staring at the ‘No Trespassing’ sign. You couldn’t ask for a more fitting or more powerful ending.

And this is really just scraping the surface. Almost everything in this film is exactly where it needs to be; it’s as if the film-makers miraculously found the ‘right’ way to put together a jigsaw puzzle.

This applies to the much talked-about technical brilliance of the film as well. I’ve never really cared all that much about whether the film is innovative or ground-breaking; and for what it’s worth, I think the celebrated ‘ultra-low-angle’ scene between Kane and Leland is one of the weakest. What I like about the technique in this film is its constant variety. The cinematography, the music, the editing, the set design, the acting styles, the special effects – there’s always something new and interesting for our senses to take in, and no two scenes feel similar.

This dovetails perfectly with the way the film engages us in its subject. We’re kept in a constant state of excited anticipation about what the image or the soundtrack will do next, and we’re constantly surprised, but nothing feels like a cheap gimmick: the form is always suited to the content. This (along with the perfectly structured narrative) is why we stay interested in Kane, why we keep wanting to see him from a new point of view, why the experience is so emotionally satisfying over the course of two hours, and why you feel so completely fulfilled at the end.

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Michael Kerpan
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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#22 Post by Michael Kerpan » Sun Dec 08, 2019 7:04 pm

Wonderful comment, Sloper!

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DeprongMori
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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#23 Post by DeprongMori » Mon Dec 09, 2019 1:48 am

Sloper, I truly appreciated your write-up. It illuminated so much that I had otherwise missed in the film (such as the snow globe belonged to Susan) that I feel like the next time I watch it, it will be with fresh eyes.

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Roger Ryan
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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#24 Post by Roger Ryan » Mon Dec 09, 2019 9:50 am

Sloper wrote:
Sun Dec 08, 2019 4:46 pm
...Bernstein ends his story on a high, with Kane marrying Emily Norton and being cheered on by his employees at the Inquirer, but then he punctures the mood by commenting that ‘Emily Norton was no rosebud’...Emily’s withering comment about Bernstein in the breakfast montage gives us a clue as to the source of his animosity towards her...
Yes, thank you "Sloper" for such a wonderfully insightful post. Although I've watched the film dozens of times, I never consciously connected Emily's vaguely anti-Semitic attitude toward Bernstein with his earlier dismissive comment. That Emily could have been like that girl with the parasol, potentially perfect by being kept at a distance, adds yet another melancholic layer to a story about the investigation of the human psyche.
Sloper wrote:
Sun Dec 08, 2019 4:46 pm
...A little later, she refers again to her mother’s stubbornness in getting her to pursue this career, and comments, ‘You know what mothers are like’, to which Kane replies, ‘Yes…’. He will do to her what her mother did, and what his mother did to him, by forcing her into a role she doesn’t want to occupy but which he deems to be in her best interests...
This is a good example of how Welles made significant improvements to the screenplay prior to filming. In Mankiewicz's draft, when Susan comments "you know what mothers are like", Kane replies with a hefty paragraph of dialogue discussing mothers and their influence on children's lives. Welles reduced all of this to the softly murmured "yes...". Apart from the substantial portions of the screenplay that Welles did write on his own, his script editing sharpened many of the scenes and allowed for a subtler treatment of the film's themes.

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colinr0380
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Re: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

#25 Post by colinr0380 » Mon Dec 09, 2019 12:06 pm

I thought that I would copy over an old post to this thread too. I also agree that Sloper's post here is fantastic and would add fuel to the idea that the film is a lot about multiple perspectives as a prism to view the world as about any objective 'actual truth' of an event, from the private to the public (or the private turned into public spectacle, or informing a public figure's actions), which makes it an amazingly piercing film about the newspaper business, or the limitations of journalism:

I wonder if Kane, as much as being a William Randolph Hurst figure also seems sort of in the Gatsby vein in the death scene with his final reaching out for the one thing he can never acquire, the chance to able to live his life over again after having failed to recreate his halcyon days over and over again in many different forms.

One of the reasons that the 'final revelation' does not really spoil Citizen Kane is that it is also used as an ironic counterpoint to the investigator's searches. As a member of the group says after the screening of the newsreel obituary at the beginning of the film: "It's a great story, all it needs is an end" - it is not important what that 'end' is to the investigators, just that it can bring Kane's story to a neat climax, an obviously manufactured one or not, and the film itself plays on this beautifully in using this element for its own climax.

I love the way that the investigator is sent out to look for a big story, finds all of the different perspectives on and gossip about the man's life - enough for a hundred articles from a hundred different angles, so much that he can pretty happily pass over the failure of never having uncovered the mystery of Kane's final words (for me the most shocking aspect of the climax is not the Rosebud revelation but the uncommented upon firery destruction of all of Kane's 'useless junk' in a casual holocaust of memorabillia (like the destruction of Susan's room earlier, as Sloper notes). The physical aspect of a man's life, no matter no grand and intended to last for the ages, all going up in smoke. Only intangible memories and arguments about the person's legacy remain). It also seems an ironic comment on the way that people will immediately gravitate towards the most commercial aspects of a story, which may not be the most psychologically revelatory ones, and the way that the most famous person in the world can still remain a mystery. Also that maintaining the mystery, rather than understanding and therefore exposing it, eventually becomes the best way that the media has found to keep Kane's legacy going.

Except for the audience, who are placed in the most privileged position throughout the film (but also the most impotent - almost ghosts themselves, understanding too late to have influence and watching powerless to use their newfound knowledge to change events. As Sloper also says, we care but we cannot be hurt. But we also have no agency unlike the actual characters being interviewed and adding in their two cents) in a way that is deeply tied in to all of the camera techniques that allow us to drift from listening in on the final words through to the inside of the furnace!

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