Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane ★★★★★

Charles Foster Kane is a difficult role for any actor to play because, not only is the role, in a sense, larger than life (with regard to the man’s societal influence and cultural impact, but he’s also a character that is largely affected and shaped by said culture), which not only surrounds him within the film, but envelopes his portrayal — from the exterior of reality — throughout the process of production. Fortunately, director Orson Welles must have known that he’d be the perfect individual to play Kane, or had himself in mind when co-writing the screenplay, because what we as an audience are provided with is a performance so realized that it may very well be in another league than the vast majority of performances from other American directors playing the protagonist, or antihero, in their own films. Because the role is so impacted by the state of American culture at the time, one has to imagine that, if Citizen Kane was remade today and the role of Kane was cast to a contemporary actor, they would realize the role quite differently.

For instance, with the current political climate the result of the recent presidential election, an actor today may be consciously or unconsciously swayed by the the presence of Donald Trump in the media. I’m not necessarily one to think that there are numerous parallels between Trump and Kane, in terms of persona, but in 2016, now that Trump has been elected, if Citizen Kane was to be remade with a modern performer, I imagine that Trump’s cultural power and authority may, whether the actor knows it or not, dominate some aspects of their performance as a mogul with substantial mastery in terms of media manipulation.

In terms of analyzing character, however, Christopher Vogler put forward a theory that not only explores the mythical and/or historical craftsmanship of protagonists and antiheroes as a result, or response to, pre-existing media, but also supporting characters in film — side characters who aren't given as much screen time as, for instance, Kane. Vogler asserted that, “as soon as you enter the world of fairy tales and myths, you become aware of recurring character types and relationships: questing heroes, heralds who call them to adventure, wise old [mentors] who give them magical gifts, threshold guardians who seem to block their way, shapeshifting fellow travelers who confuse and dazzle them, shadowy villains who try to destroy them, tricksters who upset the status quo and provide comic relief.” These similarities, for lack of a better word, are what come to be known, to viewers, as archetypes.

In Citizen Kane, Charles is who we perceive to be the questing hero, always trying for more, always attempting to better the state of his political persona, to (misguidedly) please his wife and, even more so, himself, and to have fun running his newspaper while, under the surface, pushing forward in his environmentally influenced quest to earn as much money as possible in the process. Moreover, I wouldn’t say that his wives fall strictly into the category of shape-shifters but, if we were to place ourselves in Kane’s psyche, they very well may be, as women seem to be the most confounding and baffling force in Kane’s life, the only time when he’s forced to surrender his power and understand the fragility of another mind and soul. Emily, for example, confuses and dazzles Kane simply through being his first love and, when she grows tired of his lifestyle, he only grows more and more perplexed until a particular situation calls for him to choose another woman over her — and so he does. This woman is Susie, his second wife, who leaves him in an even greater nonplussed state that Emily, eventually walking away from their relationship after becoming exhausted of Kane and his Xanadu mansion, one of the primary contributing factors to Kane’s eventual death.

But Citizen Kane is, above all else, a humanist film and, while it maintains a strong level of macro-societal relevance, with regard to Kane’s impact on society as a whole, it concentrates even more strongly on Kane as a singular character and cultural personality. If Citizen Kane was purely a macro-level cultural study, Kane’s character wouldn’t be delved into as deeply as it is, and he would simply be a device to propel the plot forward and affect the country of America in a variety of ways. But Citizen Kane is possibly even more of a micro-level character study than a study of culture (though it is that as well), with Welles fully realizing, and focusing on, the life and experiences of Charles Foster Kane. For instance, we are not merely given a glimpse into Kane’s life but are, as viewers, provided the opportunity to track his life from childhood until death. We witness the moment that he is sold by his biological parents, to a bank; we witness the moments in which he begins to grow more accustomed to his new, monetarily-driven lifestyle; we witness his political gains and losses; we witness him falling in love, as well as being left by the woman, or women, that he adores.

As Nuttall says, “our curiosity is aroused not simply by the lack of detail but by their enigmatic nature, inconsistent behavior, and ambiguous motivations in the story.” And indeed, the character of Charles Foster Kane is as enigmatic as can be. Despite the attempts to dive into his character motivations and the method in which his persona was shaped, we still wonder about the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death, the influence of his childhood innocence upon his cultural notoriety, the state of his personality around the time of his death and, above all else, how the character of Kane may have potential turned out differently if not for him being auctioned off a child — in other words, if he had been given true liberty as an individual, rather than forced into a lifestyle outside of his youthful desires.

Kane’s relationship to the fictional world that he existed in is a fascinating one, because as explained in the film, about half of the American population admired him, whereas the other half would be far from calling themselves fans. He made an extraordinary amount of money and thus likely won over the admiration of the upper-middle class and upper class, but I imagine was either not cared for, or flat out disliked, by the majority of the lower class and those suspicious of his monetarily-influenced endeavors. He was abandoned by his parents at an early age and his guardianship was transferred over to Thatcher, illustrative of the bank he represents, so one could argue that Kane is essentially owned, or at least dominated/controlled, by a bank, by money, by capitalism. His most intimate relationships are with the women that he loves, or loved, each one of those collapsing under their (understandable) inability to tolerate his lifestyle for very long. And, lastly, his political relationships could be considered his other most persuasive relationships, with regard to his character — his consecutive losses, his failure to reach the levels of power that he desired, eventually resulting in him building a monstrosity of a residence and shutting himself and his wife away there during the latter period of his life.

But in terms of actually reading character, in a more straightforward sense, Kane is complex. He’s the sort of character constructed by enough ambiguity that we are never given a full sense of who he is as as a person, but the bits and pieces that we do get are enough to contribute to the shape of a mysterious cultural icon, and more than enough to form the essence of a personality. This, again, leads us all of the way back into his childhood during which we witness, firsthand, the act of his parents — primarily his mother — selling him to a bank for a paycheck, and possibly to pull him away from his abusive father. This act, alone, is enough background information for us to assume that Kane wasn’t brought into his lifestyle by choice. He isn’t inherently greedy or materialistic; he’s just doing the most that he can with what he’s been given. There’s a moment in the film where a secondary character speaks of Kane’s desire to be loved, that everything he’s ever done politically stems from a desire to be adored by the masses. I think that this speaks volumes toward his character. He was great at, but never singularly interested in making money. Above all else, he was interested in earning the adoration of the general populace, which is probably a result of being neglected, or turned away, by his biological parents as a child.

And lastly, this being a discussion of character, one must comment on Charles Foster Kane’s character arc, and the way in which Welles presents this arc (nonlinearly) throughout the course of the film. In terms of the actual character progression, the audience begins with witnessing Kane’s death and returns to this moment at the end of the film, with much information about Kane presented in between. This is technically the temporal space of Kane’s arc, but not exactly, because the alterations in time and time periods between the beginning and the ending span such a great number of years, and are so sporadic, that it’s better to focus on Kane’s arc as being between the scene of him as a child and the sequence near the end during which he utters “rosebud,” after all other information about him has been presented.

In essence, one of the primary notions to be taken away from Citizen Kane is that Charles Foster Kane never lost his innocence. He may have misplaced it for a while — many, many years, in fact — but it was all that he could think about in the moment(s) of his death. His arc moves from innocence, to an almost immediate loss of innocence, to attempts to win the love of America (and, in effect, happiness), to attempts to regain his innocence (and, in effect, happiness) through his relationships with women, to numerous losses with regard to his interpersonal and political relationships (resulting in hopelessness) prior to his death, during which all he had to refer back to was this innocence, which was the stripped away from him at such a young age. But the potential, common lifestyle that he wonders what it’d have been like to experience is exemplified and represented by Welles through the utterance of “rosebud,” an encapsulation of childhood, an encapsulation of the possibility of a wholly disparate life path.

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