Professor K.C. Jensen
3 May 2016
Reaper of a Rosebud (Chapter 9: Economic Class Struggle)
Since time immemorial, Man has never been equal. Try as we may, there will always be those will stomp the rest of us with a currency-laden boot. One such boot belonged to the fictional Charles Foster Kane, and boy did he do some stomping! Citizen Kane tells the story of a boy plucked from a modest life with his parents, and then for the rest of his life became ever the more intertwined with the sin of avarice. So no, this film does not necessarily cover the story of the underdog, but rather the tyrant. The message to be conveyed depends on the viewer, as film itself is a subjective medium. This same message, however, can be interpreted from the same parts of the film: the constant use of symbols, as well as the dialogue–and to top it off–the structure of the film as a whole.
Before dissecting the message of Citizen Kane, it is important to understand the historical context in which this film was produced. America had just managed to recover from the great depression. As this was a social issue film, it was controversial by its very content and the general interpretations that may or may not have been construed (Benshoff, 2009). More than that though, it was no secret that the very plot was based on the life story of W.R. Hearst, a well-known newspaper despot at the time. Since Hearst was still alive at the time of Citizen Kane’s production, he did everything in his power to stop the film from being made (Twyman, 1999). His efforts were in vain–since the film was already finished–but the movie was a failure at the box office anyhow. It was too high-brow for the common man, and subsequently was withdrawn from circulation after only six weeks (Nigel, 1997).
Now on to the meat of these words: the symbols. The easy one to point out is Rosebud, Kane’s childhood sled, and is often said to represent childhood and innocence (Bradshaw, 2015). That’s not enough for some. This essayist argues that Rosebud is more than just juvenile goodness, but serves to convey the American soul unsoiled. Kane throughout the film sought to fill a hole in his heart, through writing fiction and passing it on as “news,” through his pursuit of affection, and, later, as an old man, buying anything he could (Welles, 1941). It is only near his death when he realizes the guiltlessness he’s lost, and he exemplifies that recognition with his last word, “Rosebud.”
Speaking of Kane, he himself is an emblem. He serves to epitomize America, Capitalism, and the inequality that is rampant throughout–and caused by–the prior two, respectively. As America left the Great Depression, there were many who questioned unchecked Capitalism. Orson Welles may have been one of them, as this film showed a man who, for all his ambition and economic prowess, died a broken man. Welles might as well have said, “This is where our economy will end up if we don’t draw a line somewhere.”
But representing America? This can be asserted by the statement made during the beginning newsreel: “I was, am, and always will be nothing but an American (Welles, 1941).” Being a social-issue film, this can be read between the lines as: “I am America; so watch how I act, what I do, and where I go.”
There surely were other symbols in this film, such as Mr. Thatcher representing “old money” or Xanadu signifying Kane’s prison, but it’s time to move on to the disparity illustrated between Kane and everyone else through use of dialogue. Kane (Early America) himself–however narcissistic–once declared to Mr. Thatcher, his former guardian:
“…[I]t is my duty …to see to it that decent, hard-working people of this city are not robbed blind by a group of money-mad pirates because, God help them, they have no one to look after their interests (Welles, 1941)….”
Lo and behold, as Kane was at the height of his power, “ruling” the working man he so readily employed, Jed Leland managed to remind him:
“…Remember the workingman? You used to defend him quite a good deal. Well, he’s turning into something called organized labor, and you [w]on’t like that at all. And listen, when your precious underprivileged really get together, that’s going to add up to something bigger than…your privilege (Welles, 1941) ….”
The irony is painfully clear, in that the common man Kane once sought to be a guardian of, became his largest bane–particularly when his media empire fell to its knees during the Great Depression. This is what broke him, because he’d looked at the “deprived” unethically before the Depression: Kane originally saw them as means to an end, rather than being ends unto themselves (Bramann, 2009).
With all this talk about the egocentric Kane’s talk (or dialogue), it’s time to look at the flick’s arrangement as a whole. More specifically, how the structure of the cinematography and the narrative form are used to depict the issues of the film. The narrative form is the simpler of the two, as the nonlinear narrative can only convey so much. The non-linearity in Citizen Kane said two things: First, a lot happened in short periods of Kane’s life; and secondly, Kane interacted with many, many people (or international events such as war, when referring to Kane’s symbolism).
The cinematography is what is more telling about this picture than the out-of-order tale. During each sequence, Kane is viewed with a different lighting and angle. In youth, there is a lot of light, but as the show goes on, the lighting subtly gets darker and darker, as if to say his soul is rotting. The exception to this is when Thatcher is signing off on Kane’s inheritance, where Kane gives a positive, encouraging monologue (Welles, 1941).
Where it gets a little hazy is when it comes to the angles in which each scene is shot: In youth, more often than not, Kane was viewed either level with the camera or was shot from below, to reflect him being equal or powerful, respectively. As Kane aged, however, he was shown from further and further away, as well as being shot from lower angles; The exception being the Opera scene where he is the last man clapping (Welles, 1941). What this indicates is that Kane was slowly rotting away mentally, especially when it came to Xanadu scenes (Bradshaw, 2015). He would’ve rotted away emotionally as well, were it not for the fact that all his life, he used money as substitute for emotional development (Bramann, 2009). It was only when his second wife left him that Kane began to realize what he truly should’ve sought after in life: humanity and equality.
There you have it: the subtle underlining of Citizen Kane–namely the motifs, dialogue and the movie’s structure. Is this to say that Citizen Kane is all about trying to make equality look like the best option, rather than being obscenely wealthy? Probably, but in a broader sense, Citizen Kane gives the impression that in the process of many Americans pursuing fortune, these very individuals forsake the masses and eventually lose the ability to display or practice compassion. So what is that sacrifice really for, then? Is it just to sate their avarice? I believe that life is more than money, power, inequality, you name it; all because of one simple truth: Greed only helps one being, while empathy helps many.
-Benshoff H., and Griffin, S. America on Film Ch. 9. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print
-Twyman D. and Whitney C. “Citizen Kane” Debbie Twyman and Craig Whitney (1999) Web; Retrieved from http://www.twyman-whitney.com/ 3 May 2016
-Bramann J.K. “Citizen Kane” Frostburg State University (2009) Web; Retrieved from http://faculty.frostburg.edu/ 3 May 2016
-Nigel, D. “The Big Picture” Socialist Review (1997) Web; Retrieved from http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/ 3 May 2016
-Bradshaw, P. “Citizen Kane and the Meaning of Rosebud” The Guardian (2015) Web; Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/ 3 May 2016
- I’ve managed to learn how to be a better film consumer in two ways: Identifying the basic plot archetypes seen in a lot of Hollywood movies (e.g. Horatio Alger myth). I’ve also learned to identify aspects of the film and what they mean (mise-en-scene, editing, etc.)
- This course has taught me to be less of a bigot by watching films that show such people. These folks are always depicted poorly, and it reinforces my somewhat dark philosophy of equality and misanthropy: All humans are equal, but human nature (and therefore humans) is (are) crappy in that we are self-interested far more than necessary to survive. That aside, there are always gems in the dirt; it doesn’t matter what color their skin, their class, or their ability, people are people.