Lost in the Movies: Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane

This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

I was ten when I watched Citizen Kane for the first time. It was a snowy evening, early December I think, and my friend had a videotape of a famous film I'd heard of but not yet seen. I knew its reputation but was not very attuned to or interested in deep focus, montage, or mise en scene. I experienced these elements, of course, but more or less subliminally, while my focus was on the story. Right away this forties film reminded me of It's a Wonderful Life, without the happy ending: Man's view, rather than God's, of an unhappy life set against the backdrop of 20th-century American history. I was drawn in by the mystery represented by Rosebud (whose revelation my friend's father spoiled at the last moment, wandering into the room as the camera scanned the endless round-up of Kane's belongings, and musing, rather unbelievably, "I can't believe Rosebud was his sled!"). The mystery, of course, cannot be solved by any one object nor, as it turns out, by any one person.

Citizen Kane has suffered, albeit in a more benign and limited form, much like its main character. The film has become so successful, so overbearing in its influence and acclaim that the object of all this attention can get lost in the haze of hype. That's why I'm glad I saw Kane when, and how, I did. To this day whenever the film is discussed, I always find myself steering the conversation towards the story. Unconsciously, I pull away from analyses of its legacy or impact, and especially from cataloging its various achievements and attributes, like those men roaming Kane's mansion at film's end, listing all the possessions one by one instead of stepping back to look at the big picture. One of the most compelling pieces I've read on this favorite film was written by a blogger who hated it; in his effort to explain and examine his distaste, he astutely and penetratingly analyzed the film bit by bit, but with an eye toward the whole effect.

While disagreeing with most of those conclusions, I appreciated the writer's engagement with the movie, the way he asked questions about how the parts related and what mental and emotional state they evoked. My youthful experience with Kane remains, in a way, my "Rosebud." Remembering how I fell under the spell of the story, same as I would for Wizard of Oz or Star Wars, I can hold onto that magical, lively, personal Kane I experienced so long ago. At the same time, having seen the film dozens of times, read reams of literature on the subject, experienced it in a movie theater, TV screen, and computer monitor, I'm aware of the film's complexity and appreciative of its diversity. What fascinates me most about Kane today is how it is at once singular and multitudinous: different film styles, different narrative approaches, different social and philosophical views - yet all these fish swimming in the same sea.

For this reason, a laundry list approach to Citizen Kane's techniques and innovations should be avoided. Better to see the movie as an anthology, because in any good anthology there will be links, overt and covert, between the different pieces. Introductions and segues will put the components into context, and an invisible hand will edit and organize the material to create an "e pluribus unum" on the printed page or, in this case, the silver screen. And so, in recognizing the film's complexity, I am returned to what fascinated me so much as a child: the story. When watching the movie a second, third, fourth time, I started noticing that each character seemed to know a different Charles Foster Kane. The screenplay (and later, I was to notice, the direction) reflects this in its construction, despite an essentially linear narrative. I've often wondered how the film would play if its superstructure - the reporter travelling from person to person and instigating flashbacks with his questions - was edited out.

I suspect we would still notice the subtle shifts in style and storytelling, because each flashback has a character of its own - in both senses of the word. As we progress through Kane's life, we also get closer and closer to the people who knew him best, yet paradoxically his character becomes more elusive. Is it merely because he's growing more complex with age, or because the closer one gets the quicker the masks fall away and the deep dark shadows emerge, concealing more than they reveal? The narrative structure is clever enough to suggest both possibilities. From here on, I will examine each piece of the puzzle in turn, discovering what they tell us not only about Charles Foster Kane, but also about those who surrounded him - how, often, the storytellers are their own subjects.

Walter P. Thatcher is a very dry, nineteenth century sort of fellow: a capitalist from an era when materialism meant hardheaded stuffiness, no pop cultural notions of fantasy and adventure. This is the naked power of the dollar before modern media and marketing figured out how to make it sexy. As such, he's a subject of mockery, from his ponderous statue to the way Bernard Herrmann's score alternately teases and outright undercuts the dead man's legacy. Like The Magnificent Ambersons, Citizen Kane's historical narrative features the energy of the twentieth century, represented by Kane himself, overcoming an earlier American epoch (and the twentieth century runs in this film's celluloid veins). So Thatcher's perspective - that Kane is merely a spoiled, ungrateful brat - doesn't stand much of a chance persuading us, a limitation exacerbated by the fact that his "flashbacks" are conveyed via formal memoirs rather than a direct account.

Nevertheless, the movie manages to convey Thatcher's consciousness through the sequence's clipped brevity, distance from Kane himself, and subtle aesthetic choices. It's a natural follow-up to the mysterious opening (in which we see Kane only in silhouette and monstrous close-up as he dies) and the ostentatious newsreel which gives us only the public figure. Now we are closer, but still outside; Thatcher's brusque insensitivity ensures that a wall exists between us and Kane, viewed in boyhood, youth, and even (briefly) a still contentious middle age. Furthermore, Kane himself is not the central subject of the memoirs and so we catch only glimpses of him - a boy seen through a window, a man read about in the newspaper, his moments onscreen reduced to charming cameos. When the child shoves his sled into the fur-coated chest of his banking benefactor, it's more a moment of comedy than tragedy.

However, Kane does allow us a peek at this confrontation's true meaning, by moodily burying the sled under a foot of snow while a lonesome train whistle sounds in the distance. Here, as elsewhere in the flashback, the film does not allow Thatcher's limited perspective to completely reign us in. Throughout the Thatcher chapter, there is a variance between the content of the narrator's reflections and the way the film itself encourages us to respond to his revelations: we sympathize with the boy, not the banker; we chuckle at Thatcher's indignant newspaper montage; and we understand fully when Kane tells the warped, frustrated old man (something he himself is becoming) that he wants to be "everything you hate." If this is not a Kane we can get to know very well, it's one we can understand; from start to finish, the style both reflects and subverts Thatcher's opinion of his wild ward.

The tonal relationship between Thatcher and his "flashbacks" is quite ambiguous, but there is no such ambiguity in Bernstein's recollections. Bernstein's Kane is more approachable, a seemingly uncomplicated if larger-than-life figure, out for fun and excitement. His warm-hearted visage beams down from Bernstein's mantle as a pointed contrast to the scowling Thatcher statue, and yet it is, after all, still just a picture. This Kane is personable, heroic in human terms, but remains rather elusive. It's clear Bernstein still looks up to his old boss, regarding him with the fondness of a loyal employee (he's always "Mr. Kane" rather than "Charles" or "Charlie") instead of the exasperated appreciation of a close friend.

Bernstein's flashback is the first we are allowed to luxuriate in, the first which establishes a solid tone and creates the experience of a mini-movie with its own distinct "genre" style. Just as Leland's flashbacks will foreshadow the satirical and cynical perspective of a hard-edged noir, while Susan's memories play as melodrama touched with traces of gothic horror, so Bernstein's recollections evoke a fast-paced newsroom comedy. This mood is embodied in the sequence where the carefree young trio stumbles into the staid "Inquirer" office and turns the place upside down, and this Kane is like a suaver version of the Marx Brothers, Zeppo with a sense of humor. Yet despite the spitfire energy of his antics, a kind of cornball sentimentality cloaks the screwball hijinks, evoking an old thirties movie with undergraduates mugging their way through dated and harmless larks. For all of their warmth, there is a stale and distasteful edge to Bernstein's gauzy hero worship.

Well, Bernstein is a romantic - his ferry anecdote, the most wonderful passage in the movie, certainly conveys that - but his wistful earthiness makes a poor match for Kane's megalomaniacal charisma. Does Bernstein ever really understand "Mr. Kane"? The film's approach to this chapter suggests otherwise. Whereas Susan and Kane, or Leland and Kane, are often the only figures in a frame, I don't think we ever once see Bernstein and Kane alone together - not even in a shot isolating them from other people in the room. The paper's general manager is always just tagging along and the scenes move too fast to let us peer for long at the central figure; no slow boil or long take mentality is at work, and so we're left with the impression of a whirling dervish. We end up wondering if the hotshot young publisher's beaming expression is anything more than a vulgar simplification of the truth, much like Leland's crass cartoons.

There's also the time period to consider. These years are the bustling but not yet bombastic 1890s, just after the close of the western frontier when a faster-paced urban society reflected pent-up American energy, but the great technological and social revolutions remained on the horizon. Perhaps Bernstein never left this period, mentally or emotionally; maybe his consciousness froze up back in 1896, when he saw the girl with the white parasol - an image of innocence amidst excitement, something he can always look back upon with bittersweet yearning while the new century hurtles toward its darkest moment. For the nostalgic Bernstein, perched up in his penthouse, a meaningless chairman of the board with memories cozier than his fireplace, old age may very well seem a disease "you don't look forward to being cured of" - but that's his truth, not a universal one.

A touching attachment to life and fond memory is certainly not one of Jed Leland's afflictions. Winking at the reporter, telling him that his doctor has a funny idea about wanting to keep him alive, we realize that the cigars he requests are not only guilty pleasures, but pleasing poison capsules intended to hasten his demise. We fade in and out of Leland's flashbacks via a bold visual device, as his head floats onscreen longer than the room around him; when returning to his nursing home, a diagonal shadow slices the screen and allows us to see the narrator's bitter memory in the top corner while his image returns beneath. This is no meaningless visual flourish, but rather a formal reflection of a fundamental truth: the leering, chuckling old man in the sun visor is twisted, angry, and bitter inside. That shadowy strip better indicates how he feels than the grinning, wrinkled figure wrapped in a bathrobe and sunglasses.

Likewise, Leland's view of Kane (or "Charlie" as he calls him, with more belittlement than affection) is the most jaundiced we've seen yet. It picks up exactly where Bernstein left off, as Kane gets married and the country joins the Spanish-American War, launching into the troubled and edgy twentieth century with a memorable bang. That dinner table montage is one of the film's most brilliant and justly celebrated moments. Not only a curt distillation of a marriage "just like any other" (only Leland could put it so cynically), it's also a microcosm of Leland's own relationship to Kane. Just as the newly-minted Mrs. Kane will push and be pushed away from her husband, so Leland will find himself more and more distanced from his old friend until one cold day Kane tells him, between the clicks and clanks of a typewriter, "You're fired." It sounds more like a declaration of divorce.

Indeed there are sly indications throughout that Leland's relationship to Kane contains the elements of a troubled romance. If one wanted to (and I don't, really), one could even make the case that Leland harbors a psychosexual attachment to Kane - he's never seen with a girlfriend or wife (and he doesn't get a compensatory "ferry" speech like Bernstein); he is very cruel and mocking towards Susan, object of Kane's passionate affections; and his shrill reactions to Kane's failings seem intensely personal for a mere friend. Hell, he's even connected to the first Kane bride via dance lessons; make of that what you will! On a more serious note, I think it's less a matter of sexuality than psychology - Leland sees in Kane a cracked looking-glass reflection, what he would like to be but can't.

One man comes from money and winds up penniless, while the other is born poor but adopted into a rich family; one sees the world so clearly he's paralyzed into inaction, while the other self-fulfillingly believes he can achieve anything; one pretends to know more than he does (thinking it would be fun to run a newspaper and run for governor), the other, defensively perhaps, pretends to know less ("What's it called? Shangri-la? El Dorado? Sloppy Joes?"). Thus when Kane fails, something Leland secretly both desires and fears, it's like a double failure for Leland. Their symbiotic relationship is finally severed when Kane finishes the drama critic's review for him, acknowledging how close they are and thus how they can no longer work together, speak to one another, or see each other ever again. Leland is a lover less jilted than jilting, and that theatrical review is like a pistol handed to a friend, hammer cocked, trigger half-squeezed. You can try and call it murder, but really it's straight suicide.

Leland's flashback may be the most misunderstood in the movie. This sequence cultivates an objective veneer, as if we are seeing the true Kane, stripped of his fake populism or phony charm - a Kane explicitly revealed by Leland himself in a rambling, drunken monologue. We're primed to accept this interpretation. The period covered is the most crucial in Kane's life, a true turning point, and the plot has progressed to the point where we are ready to settle in to the narrative instead of leaping around so much. This is the film's longest flashback, and one of the few that contains extended sequences in which the narrating character isn't even present. Yet this is an important clue: Leland is a judgmental know-it-all, whose undoubted ability to size up and see through individuals can lead him in to his own kind of hubris, the assumption of a kind of omniscience whereby his Charlie becomes the only Charlie.

No doubt Kane is pompous, narcissistic, self-righteous. But so is Leland! In fact, if we disregard his narration and focus only on the action onscreen, a very different Kane begins to emerge - a figure rather human, noble, and even self-aware rising from the muck of his best friend's bile. In this sense, the sequence may ultimately be the most objective, but only once we slice through the fog of Leland's own words. Take the first encounter with Susan (an event we don't see in her own flashback, dominated as it is by the monstrous overbearing Kane she remembers after their breakup). Kane is no leering dirty old man but rather a kind stranger lending a sympathetic ear, human and non-judgmental. True, he ignores what she's really saying about being a singer, but there's a warmth and poignancy in his desire to connect with an ordinary human being.

And while the "lovenest" scandal may display Kane's selfishness - he does not seem much concerned with the disgrace of his wife or mistress - it also demonstrates a certain nobility and dignity. He is willing to pay the price for his actions as a matter of principle, rather than hypocritically save face. Either way Gettys will win but at least this way Kane doesn't go down without a fight. Here more than anywhere else, Leland's self-righteousness seems displaced. Why is he so bitter and disappointed by the revelation of Kane's affair - why does he blame Kane rather than a corrupt political system or the hypocritical standards of the masses? Why does he take it so personally? Sure, there are moral objections to cheating on one's wife, but do you think for a moment Leland is the type to indulge in those? The hopeful yet resentful friend is lashing out at Kane for being human, but ultimately any expectations to the contrary were Leland's fault, not Kane's.

At any rate, Leland's already sour worldview now takes a complete nosedive. The rest of the flashback captures the narrator's rancid, claustrophobic, cynical view of life in low-angle compositions in which the ceilings close in on the characters. This impression is conveyed most acutely when Kane steps into the cramped quarters of Leland's Chicago office, where the journalist lies slumped against his typewriter in a boozy slumber. The walls are so white, and - looking up as we are - the way the lines of the ceiling and wall meet seems positive ghastly, like the corners of a spiderweb or a horizon line shorn of beauty and meaning. This is how Leland sees the world: empty, unpleasant, and cold. With such a perspective, it's no wonder he wants those cigars.

Appropriately enough for a latent self-loather, Leland does not get the last word. The final major flashback belongs to Susan Alexander and its tenor, visual and narrative, mirrors her own personality: not very deep intellectually, but sensitive and overwrought emotionally. The camera movements and cuts are less sophisticated and complex than those in earlier sequences (her first scene depicts a dismal rehearsal in one static shot); instead we see the Kane-Susan relationship via bombastic, overwhelming close-ups, highly pressurized lighting, and deep focus which never lets the young woman out of her domineering husband's sight. Aside from that last technique, the approach is not very subtle, but it is extremely effective and quite exhausting. Especially during Susan's operatic career, we are bombarded by a flurry of sound and image, climaxing with the reluctant diva's suicide attempt in a dark, quiet room. Somehow, this seems her only method of shutting out the sensory assault.

Soon after, we move to Xanadu where sterile, monumental tedium overtakes the monstrous overdrive of the previous passage. Let's not forget, however, who is guiding us to this view. Susan may find the vast estate barbaric and boring, but then she has never had the most active imagination. Not only her voice but her entire sensibility are inadequate to the demands of opera - whereas Kane perpetually projects life into expansive, gargantuan terms, Susan is simply incapable of taking it all in. In a way, her lack of pretension is a redeeming quality, because Kane's near-fascistic penchant for monumentality is hardly the height of good taste. Ultimately, neither Kane nor Susan have very subtle minds or sensibilities, yet they are unsubtle in very different and unsuited fashions.

The Kane we see through Susan's eyes is a towering, monstrous, impenetrable ogre. Though he has some wryly human moments (who hasn't felt a pang of recognition when, responding to his wife's shrill screeching, he mutters, "We are in a tent, Susan, I can hear you perfectly well"?) for the most part Kane is perceived as a domineering, overpowering father figure. The only real exception is the final moment when he pleads with Susan; there he briefly becomes a pathetic overgrown child (an impression that will linger into the next, and final, flashback). Despite the flashes of sympathy, such as Susan's mournful closing exchange with Thompson ("Still, one can't help feeling sorry for him." "Don't you think I do too?"), this is not a Kane we can understand or appreciate. He is perceived mostly as an overbearing "other", a perception the cinematography and cutting underscore. Susan's flashback may be the most aesthetically subjective sequence in the movie, and it begins the process of pulling us away from the Kane we have been growing closer to, until we're left with a mystery once again.

When Susan leaves Kane in her own flashback, she disappears into a blurry blackness. Retold by Kane's butler Raymond, the final interview, the scene is alive with ornate, ornamental, almost oriental touches, from the eyeless cockatoo (a mistake, supposedly, but what an image!) to the marble pillars overlooking a lush landscape to the room clustered with silently threatening objects (one of which, just out frame, slices into Kane's hand) to, of course, that infamous hall of mirrors. Here, for the first time since our gloomy prologue, we hear Kane mutter, "Rosebud." That single word seems to contain all the mysteries and enigmas of his byzantine personality, without releasing even a whiff of these secrets. Is this shimmering, fleeting mirage the "real" Kane?

The flashback is difficult to interpret, because we don't know much about Raymond - how does the style of this short sequence relate to his own personality? Clearly, despite his confident proclamations about "handling" his master (no man is a hero to his valet), Raymond remains awed and impressed by Kane. Either that, or he's just giving the reporter a flashy, romantic vision of the man, a bundle of fantastical images he thinks Thompson and his readers or viewers will desire. Yet this smoke-and-mirrors interpretation feels too reductive and cynical for such a powerful sequence; rather than just represent Raymond's genuine or contrived point of view, I think it probably oversteps the bounds of subjectivity - this isn't merely Raymond's perspective we're experiencing but something else too.

As such, the memorable scene reminds us that the flashbacks serve other structural, thematic, and narrative purposes besides indirectly illuminating the storytellers. With this in mind, we return to the beginning, and the question of how these disparate visions and modes join into a single entity.

Well, for one thing, each sequence subtly prepares the next and plays an important role in an overall pattern. We are witnessing a spiral structure which leads us back to the position we began in, but at a new elevation. There is thus a symmetrical parallel at work in the storytelling - just as Thatcher offers us a distanced take, looking down on a bratty child, so Raymond provides another removed view, in this case looking up at a mysterious old man. In between, closer to the middle but still separated from one another, we have Bernstein and Susan, close to Kane yet "wrong" in their perceptions of him - one is too positive, the other too negative, and both readings seem rather one-dimensional in analyzing a complex individual. And then a single piece strides the middle, both the most insightful and most misleading view, giving us a sense of Kane's flaws but also a peek at his virtues, and perhaps recognizing that the two are inextricably linked. Leland's flashback is the centerpiece to the whole intricate dialectic, as much a seesaw as a spiral.

The flashbacks are linked not only by their internal connections but by the outer connecting tissue, the "frame story" which has an anonymous reporter travelling person to person, trying to dig up the meaning of "Rosebud." The flashbacks and linking scenes are strung out between shadowy sequences poking fun at a faceless media, Kane's illegitimate children, who first unspool his life in an authoritative newsreel and then clamp around his cluttered mansion cracking wise about his demise. And the film itself is capped on either end by moments where we have no "narrator," the only time in the movie when we don't know whose vision we're experiencing. The opening and closing are memorably flamboyant: that gloomy approach to a half-finished Floridian castle, those glimpses of a man's mouth and a shattered snowglobe, and then in the end a survey of endless toys, trinkets, and statues (the only fixed, stable things in Kane's life), concluding with that old wooden sled as it's consumed by flames, revealing that melodramatic monogram.

Who guides us through these moments? Well, knowing what we know, and deducing the rest, I would suggest it's Kane himself. After all, these are among the moodiest, most enticing, romantic sequences in the film; despite Thompson's crackerjack curtness we seem to be viewing the world as a precocious child would, awed and inspired by its gloomy majesty. That, I suspect, is the way Kane sees it too (and perhaps explains my intuitive 10-year-old response to the film.) Think that rainswept, lightning-lit descent into Susan's proto-noir dive bar, or the pre-Marienbad canvas of Leland's limbolike nursing home, with static figures in wheelchairs planted like chess pieces around the room, or the cozy but not closed-in Bernstein penthouse full of warmth yet with a looming knowledge of the vast world outside that window (a knowledge Bernstein himself seems almost indifferent to). And of course, think those eternal dissolves closer and closer to Xanadu (no "Person from Porlock" to arrest our approach here) or that final push in to the fireplace as if Kane's ghost itself is reaching out to touch his Rosebud one last time.

In this sense, the "No Trespassing" sign seen at open and close are personal statements, albeit disingenuous ones, immediately followed by a desperate desire to invite us in after all. Like Scrooge supernaturally spying on those around him to get a clearer view of himself, it may be Kane's prerogative to find out what everyone else really thought about him. This adds a poignant irony to the narrative mystery, as if Kane himself was standing behind Thompson, ready to tap his shoulder with some of the old false bravado: "Listen here, young man, mind telling me what you've found out?" This rather whimsical theory is not quite so far-fetched when we remember that the same person not only cast himself as the title character in addition to co-writing and directing the film, but lived out his own version of the Kane myth, a story at once American and eternal, in which the promising youth slides into decline and disappointment. Maybe Kane tells us this story without really knowing it.

Of course, the parallels can be overstated; this was Orson Welles' first, not last, great movie and he would probably resent being written off as a glorious failure. Anyway, regardless of what the two men had in common, clearly the same sensibility is at work in both the characterization of the mercurial, magnificent Kane and the directorial vision of the film, with its baroque splendor and grand ambition. What is not Kane's, what belongs solely to Welles and his collaborators - but, we suspect, mostly to Welles - is the ability to inhabit not just this grand mode, but many, from the acrid alienation of Leland to the grotesque exaggeration of Susan to the sentimental slapstick speed of Bernstein. And not only to inhabit these modes, but to express them through a subtle variation of storytelling styles and aesthetic choices, all while unifying these divergent strands into a single, multifaceted expression.

This is a grand, all-encompassing work of art in the great Western tradition; conceptually, it may have more in common with paintings, literature, opera, and classical music, especially of the nineteenth century, than with most other movies (even the great ones), which tend to find a single path and stick to it. This desire for complexity and almost arrogant ambition may be more familiar in a European context; but there is definitely a strain of the pioneer spirit carrying this germ - just think of Melville and Moby Dick. Welles' vision has another American predecessor in the work of Thomas Cole, whose "Course of Empire" cycle I recently viewed in a Massachusetts museum. Cole was obsessed with visually conveying the progression of an idea (in this case the rise and fall of a mythical but representative civilization), making works that can be enjoyed both in isolation (each of the paintings is arresting and enjoyable) and in relation to one another (the same landscape continues from picture to picture, though the time of day changes and our position within the vista subtly shifts).

Such an approach is also taken in a book I found fascinating as a child, probably a few years before I saw Kane: called The Window, it uses a three-dimensional technique to show the biyearly evolution of a landscape as seen from a single window. The book is wordless, allowing the little details (like a growing crack in the ceiling, or the birthday cards showing the child's age, or the emergence of a city skyline along the once forested landscape) to show the passage of years. It contains the same tragic tone as Kane and Cole, witnessing the decline of a pristine wilderness into the clutter of civilization (as a child I received this message ambivalently, so appealing was it to trace the course of change, spotting human details in the distance). One thinks of The Magnificent Ambersons, and its melancholy invocation of "the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city."

Both The Window and "Course of Empire" flaunt a microcosmic capacity which Kane conceals in the folds of its expansiveness. There are also other Cole landscapes which reflect the Kane sensibility. One, named "The Architect's Dream," shows a solitary figure gazing out upon the imaginary distance, perceiving every kind of structure from a shadowed Gothic steeple to a Greek temple to a distant, looming pyramid, stretching out through both time and space. Likewise, Citizen Kane takes every approach and sensibility fostered in the movies for fifty years and combines them into one seamless work, making the architect's dream a cinematic reality. But probably the best Kane correspondence can be found with another Cole cycle, "The Voyage of Life."

In four paintings representing a boat's travels down a river into the open sea, Cole depicts the innocent sunshine of infancy, the idealistic optimism of youth, the raging torments of middle age, and finally the dark weariness of old age, redeemed only by the hastening approach of the angel of death. Here, as in Kane, we see the course of a life rendered in several distinct phases, with a different palette used for each to evoke a different sensibility and perspective. Like the "Course of Empire," Cole's vision is essentially tragic, but Welles goes even further, refusing any merciful angel at life's conclusion, locating his narrative in the real world rather than on an entirely allegorical plane, and most of all by positioning the source of the downfall not halfway through life's journey but at its very beginning - the rose nipped in the bud.

Perhaps the most poignant of the Cole paintings, and the most evocative not just of the Kane story but Kane the movie and the Welles mythology behind it, is the second chapter of "The Voyage of Life," called simply "Youth." The young man in the small boat does not look back at the angel of his infancy, who is waving goodbye like a parent sending a child off before he falls prey to the world. Instead, the youth's gaze is fixed on the horizon, and he is confidently stretching forward to grasp at that castle in the clouds. For there it stands, like a spectral Xanadu amidst the mountains and plains - a domed palace of dreams awaiting his arrival in the afternoon sky. Or so it seems.

Standing back from the painting we can observe that the river actually bends before it could ever touch this chimerical mirage. And around that corner lie the rapids of reality - a rude awakening awaits our beautiful dreamer. Here one thinks not only of Kane (who seems to have existed in all four stages of the voyage simultaneously, a disappointed depressive in his childhood, and a foolish dreamer well into advanced age), but of Welles, reaching for the kingdom with all the confidence and chutzpah of youth. Luckily for him, and for us, he was received at the gates and admitted inside, and even if the guards threw him out when they realized their mistake, that triumph could never be undone.

So as the movie was shut off and the snow fell outside, I must have been thinking about Citizen Kane. Not about its relationship to other works of art, which I had not yet read or seen, nor about how its complicated and often tragic path reflected the unpredictable courses life could take, something I'd yet to experience for myself. Rather, I probably thought about the events, the characters, the atmosphere - the whole movie. I knew that the film didn't need a happy ending, because it already had something else to inspire and excite us, to provide catharsis at tragedy's end: its own existence as a singular work of art, a triumphant achievement, a truly great story.

That's not something you forget, no matter how old you are.

This is a Top Post. To see other highlights of The Dancing Image, visit the other Top Posts.

Citizen Kane appears at 3:30 in "Storm Clouds Gather," a chapter in my video series "32 Days of Movies."

After the Weekend: City Lights

Yesterday: Casablanca


Stephen said...


I think the film itself has had a "No Trespassing" sign up which keeps people away from looking at the film like any other.

I haven't seen many reviews of it harking back to seeing it as a child. I can imagine it being particularly evocative and powerful at that age. It seemed to me to have a very adult feel but, thinking about it now, you would expect its bombast and visual wow to tickle children.

I really like the mix of analysis and those first impressions. This is a very good review. It's fresh and makes lots of interesting points. This is a review with things to say and not just to fill space. I especially enjoyed the comparisons to that picture book.

I may come back later with further (entirely non-antagonistic!) comments.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Stephen. I thought you'd enjoy that touch!

I definitely don't have trouble seeing how some people can feel alienated from the film; I've seen it so many times that it's harder for me to get into it now than it was (it sometimes feels like a Godfather/Star Wars film, i.e. one I've seen so many times that it loses some freshness for a while though I find that usually I find that these disenchantments pass with time). Last week, by sheer coincidence, there was a blogathon with people discussing the film and its legacy; it's very interesting to see the different perspectives on it. You will get a big kick out of the cartoon clips embedded in this one:


Stephen said...

Thanks for the link. It is interesting. The clips from The Critic and The Real Ghostbusters (I had no idea there was a cartoon) are very funny.

Joel Bocko said...

There was indeed a cartoon and I watched it religiously as a kid! In fact, I think I knew about it before the movie. A hilarious clip.

In other Welles-related news, I saw F for Fake for the first time last night. Lots of fun, and with a warmth that I could see winning you over after Kane. Have you seen it; if so, what did you think?

Joel Bocko said...

Sorry Stephen, I got your comment about enjoying F for Fake and including it on your top 100. It got rejected by accident. Oh well; not surprised you like it!

Sam Juliano said...

A classic is a classic is a classic and this post deserves a standing ovation! One of your all-time greats and in view of the subject quite fitting! Brilliant personal revelations wed to exceeding scholarly heft!

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks Sam. I enjoyed writing it - in same cases, taking on an iconic masterpiece feels like biting off more than I can chew; in this case it was a pleasure.

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