thoughts on citizen kane

July 27, 2006

This is not a review. I refuse to review Orson Welles’ 1941 film Citizen Kane, which the American Film Institute ranks first on its list of the top 100 American films. Perhaps in a few decades I will have acquired the necessary experience to attempt such a feat, but for now, it’s just too daunting. Many critics call it one of the best films ever made–or even the best–as evidenced in its 100% rating on RottenTomatoes. Now I know why.

The film marked Welles’ debut as a film-maker, and at the age of 25 he portrays the larger-than-life figure of the eponymous Charles Foster Kane, newspaper magnate and would-be politician, through several decades of his tortured existence. Through two wives, through depression, and finally through death. Plucked from obscurity and innocence at an early age, Kane was given the accoutrements of royalty; and so he became an emperor. His wealth, charm, and ambition brought him to the very threshold of greatness, but he remained dissatisfied. An indiscretion ruined his political career, and so he withdrew.

In his mountaintop fortress of Xanadu, Kane lived with his second wife and his absurdly large collection of statues. As he said, “I’m a collector, and it’s a habit.” Yet Xanadu was an island, separated from reality by more than the “No Trespassing” sign that hung under the large K at the perimeter gate. His wife soon tired of Kane’s coldness and his distance; she left him. Deprived of everything that mattered to him, Kane soon died, clutching a snow globe and whispering, with his last breath, the word “rosebud.”

The film follows a reporter as he attempts to unravel the mystery of this puzzling term. The search takes him around the country as he chats with surviving acquaintances–for Kane never had any true friends–showing us flashbacks of the events related above. From the very start, it is clear that Kane was not a happy man, but only in the last moments of the film do we understand what he was missing, what rosebud meant to him.

It’s devastating.

Shadows creep into every scene, echoing the murky morality that attended Kane’s every step along uncertain path that constituted his life. The harsh lighting cheapens the lavish clothing worn by the female characters, and as Kane’s wife sits alone in an immense chamber within Xanadu, a virtual prisoner to his whims, her glittering bracelets are as iridescent shackles, beautiful yet somehow impossibly cruel. At a political rally, the fervor of Kane’s idealism looms large; nowhere is his influence more keenly felt or grandly scorned. The tragedy of it all, of such a life as was lived by Charles Foster Kane, is nearly unbearable and certainly unforgettable.

This is Citizen Kane. This is cinema. And this is not a review.

–D. S. W.


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