Citizen Kane: Fictional Biopic Masterpiece

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Citizen Kane is a movie that I’ve heard about for many years. It left an impact in the pop culture consciousness that resonated down the decades. Watching the film, I can see the influential nature of its story of great success accompanied by a tragic flaw leading to gradual ruin. One of the ways I measure the importance of an earlier work is how much it has been referenced or parodied in later works.

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The Film

The first shot of the film, a series of fences, can be seen as symbolizing the extreme privateness of Kane; the ominous gate representing the emotional gate that none ever breached, as we discover. The lighting was especially notable, as use of contrast. The shot of the table with Thatcher’s diary was especially beautiful. The film makes use of a “grainy film” effect during the newsreel at the beginning to show public events from Kane’s past. I found this technique very interesting, since I had long assumed it was used much later.

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The film starts at the end, deflating the drama of Kane’s death. Instead, Welles uses that as the jumping off point for the real dramatic story, the quest to understand the great man. The meeting of the journalists after the newsreel and the scene at the end when they meet again and declare defeat serve as bookends to the apparent story of the film. The other story being told is of the rise and fall of a media titan that mirrors William Randolph Hearst.

We see Kane having no interest in any of his holdings save the newspaper. His motivation for the newspaper over other things seems to be that as a newspaperman, he can communicate to the masses. In doing so, he finds he has the ability to capture the attention of people everywhere and mold public opinion. He also finds that he can use this influence to wreck his enemies. There is a relevant quote from the documentary where Hearst explained why he didn’t go into the movie business because in the newspapers you could really destroy someone. In view of this quote, it is ironic that Welles used the medium of film to attack Hearst.

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Kane, meanwhile, becomes the champion of the common man, exposing the seedy underbelly of business and politics. His turn as a politician is Trump’s personality and showmanship with Bernie Sanders’ platform. Later, when he loses the race, we gain some insight into why he does what he does. Jed confronts him about his approval seeking, or love seeking behavior. This desire for love and affection from everyone is the core of Charles Foster Kane and is part of the meaning of “Rosebud”. More about this later.

The story of Kane the newspaperman has the feel of a Behind The Music episode: an early rise to prominence, unprecedented success, call him a game changer, etc., then a tragic overreach that leads to his eventual downfall.

The film is also a detective story, as the story follows the reporter as he attempts to solve the mystery of Kane’s final words. The way the reporter’s scenes are shot brings the audience in, putting Thompson in the foreground off to the side and making the audience take the place of Thompson. The result is a more interactive experience.

As Thompson tries and fails to solve the mystery, the audience is treated to the answer Thompson was looking for all the time in that final shot with the sled burning in the incinerator.  It could be said, however, that the real answer was rather obvious when one considers Kane’s story. He is torn away from his parents as a boy, and thrust into his fortune. The psychological trauma of such an event cannot be overstated. By “Rosebud”, Kane of course is referring not just to the sled, but to the lost childhood that was taken from him. In the end, the man who could have anything he wanted only wanted the thing he once had and could not have.

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The Story Behind The Film

Seeing the documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane, casts the family separation aspect of Kane’s story in a new light; this is Welles the boy genius, thrust into fame at an early age and robbed of his childhood. I am reminded of Macaulay Culkin, Lindsey Lohan, Dana Plato, and a host of other people who achieved early stardom and fell to a degree due to the pressures of fame. 

More than anyone else, the story of Charles Foster Kane reminds me of Michael Jackson. The parallels are almost creepy. Youth stolen, massive fame and fortune, making headlines everywhere, eccentricities galore, a massive estate epitomizing excess, a fall from grace followed by a slow descent into obscurity and madness, an end shrouded in mystery. The mystery surrounding Jackson’s death, the suspicion of foul play, however unfounded it may have been, mirrors the mystery of Kane’s last words. In both cases, the truth may be forever lost to those seeking it. The Michael Jackson story, along with any extreme high achiever, teaches the lesson that such high achievement comes at a cost. Welles knew this lesson very well.

In the documentary, I noticed that Orson tended towards selfish, self destructive behavior. This both helped and hurt Welles the artist as it made him work incredibly hard and demand everything from his performers while also wreaking havoc on his personal life.

The real life story of Welles being hated by Hearst and Hollywood and his movie being disregarded because of what amount to personal reasons is a shame, but Welles is not entirely without blame. His seeming arrogance and his choice to go after Hearst in this film play a part. The vindication that came when the film that caused so much hate turned out to be a masterpiece was too little too late for Welles. By that time he’d already been in decline for over a decade. One wonders, if Citizen Kane received a more fair assessment upon its original release, would Orson Welles have been able to top it? Or would it be a sophomore slump? We will never know.

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