Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers.

On the exterior, Charles Foster Kane may have seemed, to some, like a man in control of his own destiny, a man with an ever-growing fortune, loved by many of the people (though not all), spending his days supplying them with information in high demand merely because he found it amusing. Kane, however, didn’t have it as easy as one might think and, throughout the course of his life, was forced to pay much more attention to the demands placed at his feet than his own wishes or desires; he was never given the opportunity to do much for himself.

This all began when he was a small child. As touched upon in my previous two essays, Kane was sold away to a bank representative (Mr. Thatcher) during his youth, partially because his parents seemingly needed the money, partially because his mother may have taken issue with his father’s abusive tendencies, and partially because Kane was a gifted child who those in power viewed as being the perfect vessel for monetary success. He was removed from his rather ordinary youth and his guardianship was transferred over to those with great material successes. The first demand placed on him, and possibly the greatest or most influential demand that he ever had to deal with, was the demand to forget about his innocence. And sadly, there was nothing he could do about this as a child because, in most cases, children must abide by their parents’ wishes, even more so back in Kane’s time than today.

A second instance of demands being placed upon Kane might fall into a more general category, but I would argue that Kane’s lifestyle and the situations that his environment placed him in did not allow for much introspection; his path was perpetually carved out by a focus on the populace, rather than a focus on himself or his mental and emotional health. Essentially, he made the newspaper business his life and spent all of his time keeping the people satisfied (rather than himself). Maybe if he’d never began to make so much money, or the people surrounding him didn’t place so much emphasis on monetary success, he might’ve taken the time to reflect on himself, but that’s not exactly where the chips fell. Monetary success is a cyclical beast, and it demands more of itself upon itself, so his societal achievements ultimately became his personal downfall. It was never even much of a choice.

Lastly, I believe that Kane placed great demand on himself to keep his wives satisfied (more so his second wife, Susie, than his first) but this self-imposed demand backfired as Kane never learned how to love or keep a lover satisfied with his company. He only learned how to satisfy the masses. Throughout the course of his career, which was really his entire life, he was conditioned to understand admiration and appreciation through successful provision of information which, via the newspaper, could be considered a commodity. It always worked for him when it came to fulfilling the needs of the people, so naturally this was also how he attempted to meet the demands of his wives. In the case of Susie, he build her an enormity of an edifice, a mansion that was nothing short of spectacle, hoping that it would satisfy her desires. She, however, was never interested in material gratification, and all the mansion did was shut her away from the world, eventually driving her away from him. And one of the most tragic aspects is that Kane never even considered another option because it never would have crossed his mind — or at the very least, he never would have known how — to meet the needs of others through care and warmth rather than through indulgence.

One might argue, because so much emphasis is placed on monetary value and material goods in the story of Charles Foster Kane, that money or materials are of the highest value in Citizen Kane. The opposite is true, however, and though this is insisted upon throughout the course of the storyline, the point is never truly driven in until the film’s final moments. The conclusion, the notion that despite all of his commercial and cultural success, Kane was still focusing on the loss of his childhood, and his innocence, during the moments before his death, falls in place with the argument that money is worthless in the face of internal health. The last time in Kane’s life that he was actually given the option to think for himself and act on behalf of his own personal well being was likely during his childhood, so the tragedy of his death is heightened by the fact that his youth, the most natural (and possibly the ultimate) form of integrity and virtue, was stolen from him so early on in the trajectory of his own narrative.

I find it to be quite wonderful, albeit heartbreaking, how Welles’ himself (and his editor, Robert Wise, of course) structure the non-linearity of the narrative. The film plays out like a mystery lacking humanity, only to be subverted by a finale focusing only on the most human aspect of Kane’s character. The majority of the narrative takes place from the perspective of the press, those itching to discover the meaning of Kane’s final words, in order to get one conclusive scoop on the man, one last story to publish in relation to his name. It’s only fitting, then, that we are almost deceived by Welles through the action of placing us in the POV of the press for most of the story; we, too, hunger for the meaning behind Kane’s final words and, as the story moves forward, we begin to forget what sort of personal or experiential importance this word might’ve had to the man, and are more interested in the outcome of society as a whole discovering the meaning behind his final utterance. It’s even more fitting, then, that we’re abruptly ripped from the perspective of the press during the film’s final sequence and placed into an omniscient POV. The press never finds out the significance of the word “rosebud,” nor any of the characters, but the spectators are indeed provided with its meaning and it turns out to be symbolic of the film’s humanist endgame.

With regard to analepsis, the story is essentially structured by it or, in order words, the progression of the narrative is structured by the flashbacks which divide it up into a state of nonlinearity. Any time that the film flashes back to Kane’s life could be considered analepsis, being that the film begins with Kane’s death, and his death acts as the catalyst for the remainder of the narrative, the event which drives the past to fill the many gaps in his story. In addition, there are really just two forms of analepsis which drive the movement of the storyline, narrative analepsis and expositional analepsis, though these sometimes have a bit of overlap. Expositional analepsis could be found, for instance, in the film’s opening sequence; the opening sequence of the film is really just an elongated sequence providing the audience with as much information about the state of Kane’s success, and his position in society, as possible, thus even though this has an impact on the narrative, because it’s primary just the provision of information about the protagonist to the audience, I’d argue that it falls under the category of exposition.

Flashbacks to the encounter between him, his political opponent, and his two wives, however, I’d argue fall under the category of narrative analepsis, because though this moment is providing information about Kane’s character, it’s more so providing insight into the road which eventually led to his downfall, both personally and politically. In the end, expositional gaps are gaps in the narrative which provide spectators with a better understanding, in the case of Citizen Kane, of external factors such as Kane’s place in society, the monumental nature of his wealth, etc. whereas narrative analepsis is more representative again, at least in the case of the film, of more personal or internal events — events that pushed the narrative forward and eventually led to Kane’s undoing.

Exposition is delivered to the audience rather sporadically throughout the course of the film. We’re dropped into Welles’ provision of exposition (about Kane) as soon as we move past the opening scene of his demise and are flung into a world of headlines and disparate stories and perspectives on the man’s life and death. Because most of the story takes place in the past, we’re constantly learning new information about Kane’s life; in fact, the story is formed around the deliverance of information about Kane’s life, so the present really only exists as a point to spring back from and help the audience better understand the (prior) existence of the titular character. Indeed, all of the analepsis in Citizen Kane is provided in flashback form, and thus almost all of the crucial information that the audience receives about Kane, both internal and external, both character-driven and culturally-driven, is during these moments of reflection and illumination.

Genette once described cinematic duration as “the correspondence of story time to discourse time; the time occurring in the fictional world need not be equivalent to the length of the narrative text.” This is quite true in Citizen Kane, and I would argue most apparent in two particular sequences in the film: the opening sequence following Kane’s death, and the haunting sequence summarizing Kane’s marriage to his first wife, Emily. Both of these instances are instances of condensing temporality. The former is delivered almost in the form of a media synopsis; once Kane is dead, the film immediately switches to the perspective of the press and the drama of his death is removed by communicating it through a format that feels like the current equivalent of tabloids. His death, and naturally his life, is spoken about in the least solemn voice possibly, the voice of an unconcerned narrator, providing his fate with a quality of ultimate irony, that even his demise would be transformed into a story, an informational commodity, rather than an emotional event for the society that he futilely attempted to satisfy.

The latter example of condensing temporality, the degradation of his marriage to Emily, is made denser or more concentrated for a much disparate reason. We’re shown the regression of their marriage in snapshots, from the first day that they met, all the way through the (brief) narrative of their marriage until she’s fed up with his behavior and ready to leave him. By showing us only snippets of each time that their relationship grew more and more dysfunctional, we’re left seeing the marriage as having had the quickest degradation imaginable, as if the health of their relationship went to good to bad to even worse in mere moments. It’s one of the most cynical looks at the prospect of marriage I’ve ever seen or heard in a film but, also (unfortunately), one of the most memorable, and possible one of the most honest.

At the beginning of the film, we are shown Charles Foster Kane’s death completely out of context; we know nothing about him, his past, his cultural relevance, his societal power, his ability to manipulate, his inability to love, or the meaning behind his final utterance. We’re shown his death and we’re forced to ask: why should we care? Who is this man and why is his fate more significant than any other man’s? Then we’re dropped into his world, a world of stripped innocence, a world shaped by the demands of the masses, a world driven to its end by the sheer strength and hollow authority of monetary wealth and success. We’re given a brief glimpse into his childhood, we’re allowed to peer into his young adulthood, his adulthood, his old age, and eventually his demise.

All of these different eras are completely and utterly driven by his environmental influences, mostly mundane and nonspiritual, and then, in the end, we’re shown his death once more. We learn the importance of his final words and we come to understand that, whether Kane knew it or not, whether he ever attempted to communicate it, he was being held hostage by a culture which shaped him into something that he wasn’t, but pretended to be. And we feel sympathy for the man whose life narrative was driven by the consequences of currency, because even the man whose life was dominated by a pressure to succeed could only hunger for the freedom of youth during his final moments.

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