Orson Welles first gained national notoriety with his astounding radio broadcast on October 30, 1938. Radio was the big deal back then and Welles conceived a retelling, of sorts, of the H.G. Welles classic, ‘War of the Worlds’. In his adaptation for radio, Welles broke the sequence of events down into discrete parts – complete with sound effects and on-the-scene news reports of the invading aliens.
The result was cataclysmic panic as listeners tried to discern what was happening from the sonic clues being offered. And it set the wheels in motion for a new kind of theater.
In Citizen Kane, his first stab at directing a motion picture, Welles was similarly innovative. The plot proceeds as a retelling of a man’s life through the artifacts he left behind. It has that yearning after transience that adults often learn to suppress. “Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost,” says Thompson, the reporter assigned to the puzzle of Kane’s dying word. This reporter triggers every flashback, yet his face is never seen.
The surface of the movie is as much fun as any movie ever made. Its depths surpass comprehension. Citizen Kane is more than a great movie; it is a gathering of all the lessons of the emerging era of sound, just as “Birth of a Nation” assembled everything learned at the summit of the silent era.
The structure of Citizen Kane is circular and it adds more depth every time it passes over the life of its protagonist. The movie opens with newsreel obituary footage that briefs us on the life and times of Charles Foster Kane. This footage, with its portentous narration, is Welles’ bemused nod to the “March of Time” newsreels then being produced by another media mogul, Henry Luce. Thus we begin an interweaving series of vignettes, each offering a different take on this great man’s life. In a way, the structure is reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s haunting Rashomon, where one story is told from four different points of view.
Along with the personal story is the history of the period. Citizen Kane covers the rise of the penny press, the Hearst-supported Spanish-American War, the birth of radio, the power of political machines, the rise of fascism and the growth of celebrity journalism.
In the context of the film, we come to see that the sled is not the answer. Citizen Kane explains what Rosebud is, but not what Rosebud means. The narrative design of the film shows how our lives, after we are gone, survive only in the memories of others, and those memories butt up against the walls we erect and the roles we play.
There is a wonderful and telling image in Citizen Kane that might be easily missed. The tycoon has overextended himself and is losing control of his empire. After he signs the papers of his surrender, he turns and walks into the back of the shot. Deep focus allows Welles to play a trick of perspective. Behind Kane on the wall is a window that seems to be of average size. But as he walks towards it, we see it is further away and much higher than we thought. Eventually he stands beneath its lower sill, shrunken and diminished. Then, as he walks towards us, his stature grows again. A man always seems the same size to himself, because he does not stand where we stand to look at him.
Thompson, the reporter, never does find out what Kane meant by Rosebud. Giving up the quest, he is leaving Kane’s abandoned castle, Xanadu, when the camera pans over a scene of some workers burning some of Kane’s less valuable possessions. In the fire is the sled that Kane was riding the day his mother sent him away. Painted on the sled is the name Rosebud.
One can see many parallels between Citizen Kane and our own lives today. This nation that fostered checks and balances seems more polarized than at any time in our history. Kane has the plutocrat’s obsession with trying to control those around him in the way he controls his media empire, whose purpose in turn is to control the way people think. And this is the unspoken moral of Citizen Kane: a terrible tragedy of ownership and egotism – a narcissistic drowning made possible by sycophants and selfishness.