And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Kubla Khan
I rewatched “Citizen Kane” for a third (and soon after, a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth) time over the last three weeks, and it was for the first time that I watched it with, shall we say, expert eyes, paying attention to the things that tend to escape the casual observer on a first or even second viewing. The first time I watched because I was curious, the second — because I wanted to understand what is so great about this movie (but I was too ignorant at the time). And only now I watched it with real interest, as a piece of art.
This time I was completely knocked out by the stunning photography and camera work. Gregg Toland was a genius, to be sure (I have watched other movies he made). It was a friend of mine who told me what to pay attention to when watching “Citizen Kane,” i.e. meaning the camera work, at least in some shots. I need to ask her some more questions. And Orson did appreciate Mr. Toland’s work, and even put his name at the very end of the credits, giving him the place usually occupied by the director.
Now, what I think about the main character, which is by far the most interesting part of the movie. To a great measure, this is due to Orson’s skills as an actor. I appreciated them even the first time I watched. Orson was TREMENDOUSLY good in his film debut as a leading man. And although I have thought for a long time it was absolutely fair that Gary Cooper won an Oscar for “Sergeant York” (1941), and, thus, beat Orson who portrayed Charles Foster Kane and also was nominated, now I don’t know (though I still adore Gary Cooper). Now, to the character. I have always found it slightly annoying that movies (old movies, in particular) tend to explore the depth of a female soul, and movie after movie we see the torment and anguish of Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn. Yeah, they were great, to be sure, and I love them all, and I watch them with immense pleasure. But with an equal or, perhaps, even greater interest I like to watch the sufferings of characters portrayed by my favorite leading men. Yes, how about that? And these must not be the sufferings (or, in a more general way, development) of some squirming critter, or some contemptible worm, or some worthless good-for-nothing (like in many, TOO MANY old Russian novels which I hate), but of a man worthy by himself, i.e. a man who achieved something in life. Only a character like that interests me, only such a character deserves to be analyzed. Of course, we have “Vertigo” (1958), and, boy, am I grateful to Mr. Hitchcock for this wonderful picture!, and, thank heaven, we have “High Noon” (1952), and “Casablanca” (1943), and “Act of Violence” (1948), and “The Razor’s Edge” (1946), and “Gentlemen’s Agreement” (1947), and “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), and other Dana Andrews flicks, and many films noirs, and some other great films where we follow the workings of the male soul, but overall those are by far outnumbered by movies concentrating on women, or at least this is my impression. So, every film where we have an interesting (in the sense specified above) and complicated male protagonist is welcome. And definitely Charles Foster Kane is such a protagonist.
And if I <...> know all mysteries and all knowledge;
<...> but have not love, I am nothing.
And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor <...>
it profiteth me nothing
(1 Cor. 13: 2—3, American Standard Version).
Kane’s story reminds me of the life of another great man — William Beckford of Fonthill (1760—1844), “England’s wealthiest son” (as Lord Byron called him). Parallels are astounding:
= Kane was abandoned by his parents and raised by trustees; Beckford also had parents issues: his father died when the boy was 10, his mother was of a despotic disposition, and the boy-wonder was raised by tutors;
= both had immense wealth;
= Kane built an enormous Xanadu, imitating Kubla Khan; Beckford built an enormous Fonthill Abbey, imitating another Oriental potentate (and his own literary creation), Calif Vathek;
= both displayed propensity for solitude in their huge dwellings;
= both never finished anything (in Beckford’s case it means his early failure with publishing his literary works led to his unwillingness to pursue literary career any further); and
= both used money “to buy things... to buy things.”
Things for them meant everything, including love. Yes! Beckford, with his good looks, talents, wit, could have easily won as many hearts as he wanted. But he preferred to pay for affections. So, obviously, did Kane. That was their way of “ingratiating” (as Beckford would say) themselves with the world. They did not know any other means. How could they? Raised without parental love, where would they have learned to love? Nowhere. Did you love your Charlie, Ma Kane? No -- you gave him away. Pa Kane? No -- you agreed with giving him away. Mr. Thatcher? No, too busy being a banker. Emily? No, too busy keeping up appearances. Susan? No, too busy being a singer, then too busy solving jig-saw puzzles and pouting. Jed Leland? No, too busy being righteous. Mr. Bernstein? No, too busy enjoying what was to be had of life and saying “As you say, Mr. Kane”. And you people who did not have a single ounce of love for Mr. Kane, you accuse him of being self-centered, of loving himself, of wanting to be loved by all the world on his own terms?! Oh shut up, you selfish bastards! How else could he express his love, except by buying you things? Yes, that was his way, probably the only way he knew. Yes, both Beckford and Kane wanted everybody else to love them on their own terms. First, because those are the only terms there are (as Kane put it), and, second, because everything else in their lives was on their terms, why should love be any different?!
A Boxed World
We know from Jed Leland that Kane was not satisfied with the world, so he created his own (just like Beckford did). What kind of the world was that?
It appears this world was populated with boxes.
I thought at first: what a waste of money and screen time to show all those caged wild beasts and birds in such outrageous numbers, to show all those boxes and other things in the Kane storage at the end! Now I know better. Of course, it was done on purpose! Kane had to deal (and fight) with lots of boxes: he was put in quadrangles of colleges, he managed offices with cubicles, he kept his money in bank safes, he got on a soap box during his election campaign, he built a giant box-like opera house (a box with boxes, sure) for his second wife, he collected statues which came in crates and he often left them crated up (obviously he preferred them this way), he lived in a large and lavish box surrounded by a fence. In this latter case he was like a precious object and an animal at once. When he died he was moved into another box (coffin)...
Then, his world was also populated with mirrors and mirror images. We see in this movie many mirrors, and other surfaces which serve as mirrors: the glass ball (a nurse is reflected in it), windows (dancing Kane was reflected in one), tables (in Mr. Bernstein’s office); statues are also mirrors or at least mirror images. Now, mirrors are also boxes of sorts: when a person looks at themselves in a mirror they do not see the world around them, they see only themselves. The question arises: was Kane comfortable in this boxed and crated (I first misspelled this word and wrote “created”) world created by himself?
When we first meet him at the age of 25 he tells Mr. Thatcher that he is not one person but two. Yes, he was two persons (or, most probably, even more; remember his last shot when he is reflected in a thousand mirrors; by the way, I find his remark an interesting case among other twosomes in this movie: two wives, two close associates, even two sleds!), at least two persons, and very different persons, too: one was an influential public figure and publisher, the other a recluse, a hermit. The first he was trying to become all his life, the second he really was from the very beginning and became close to the end. Remember Mr. Thatcher asks him in 1929 what he would like to have become in life, and he answers, “Everything you hate.” Obviously, he had not yet become that then. If his life had been allowed to run its natural course, he might have become a writer, or a philosopher, or a visionary. Because that is what he really was. And nobody would have blamed him then for being so self-centered, because that would be in the nature of things, that is what is expected of a thinker. But he was made a public figure, a doer, I suppose much against his inner inclinations (I’d venture to say he did not differ very much from an object, a thing, after he was taken from that yard and that sleigh.). Maybe he was not a real misanthrope. He probably did not abhor or detest people, but certainly was very indifferent to them. He wrote in his Declaration of Principles: “...people...” but he did not care two pins about people, and put it in his statement just because it was expected of him, because he professed to be “one thing,” i.e. an American, and the Americans have this “We the People...” in the first sentence of their Constitution and this triple “of the people, by the people, for the people” in their Creed taken from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Remember, Jed Leland remarks sarcastically that Kane twice starts the two “people” clauses in his Declaration with the word “I”? And later says Kane wanted to give people their rights? But that is exactly what a visionary would most naturally do! He calls his “dream staff” his candy — yeah, and to him candy and object it was — something to be gotten and played about. He just probably thought it un-American for a major publisher and would-be politician not to refer to people now and then.
However, there is a most revealing phrase in the movie. “I know too many people,” he told Susan Alexander when he first met her, “I guess we are both lonely.” He was lonely in his crowded world, and, probably, a lot less lonely in that mammoth castle of his, when he finally was left almost alone. Finally, he was able to lead the sort of life he had probably always wanted: contemplative, not active, otium cum dignitate. He was, I think, quite comfortable among his boxes and statues, considering he started to collect them in his youth, and was just kidding himself thinking he really needed people (and their company and love, for that matter). I believe, it is a very telling scene that at the party celebrating their record circulation we see statues of both Leland and Bernstein (just behind the real ones). If all of the staff were represented by statues Kane would have been just as comfortable at that party as he was with the real invitees. Maybe, though, Jed Leland was an exception. I think Kane was really fond of him: he even invited him to Xanadu to share this sort of life with him, but Leland chose not to answer (silly bastard!).
And for this contemplative, introspective sort of life, Kane arranged perfect surroundings (it’s a pity you can’t ask Beckford, he would have told you how perfect it was): a colossal building full of giant halls, long corridors, countless objects of art, creatures of nature, mirrors — and solitude. Everything a person needs to meditate and to look at and into himself. “It’s their loss,” he told Susan Alexander, meaning the public, when he finally allowed her not to pursue her singing career any further. I think he could apply this phrase to himself when he ceased to be an influential public figure and publisher, and just lived in Xanadu refusing to meet anybody. Yes, he became, as Italians would say, a real, well, orso, i.e. an unsociable person (the first meaning of orso in Italian is “bear”). But it was his choice.
Was he a great man? He says, “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might’ve been a really great man.” I think he was a great man, because at a very advanced age he managed to return to his real self. This revelation about the need to make a U-turn came to him when Susan left him. He found the glass ball in her room and thought about “Rosebud” for the first time since an eternity before. If it had not been for Susan he might have done that earlier. He might have gone to the warehouse where the things left after his mother were stored (as he intended to do when he first met Susan) and might have found what he was looking for, a few years earlier. Nevertheless, he found it, and that was all he had ever really wanted or cared about. He returned to the white snow, which we see in the beginning of Kane’s life journey, and did not care about the black smoke after his life sleigh had reached the foot of the mountain.
The vanity of the critics
Very often, when we try to dissect the magic of art,
...all the charm
Is broken — all that phantom-world so fair,
Vanishes, and a thousand circlets spread,
And each mis-shape the other.
If Kane suspected he would be examined and categorized, and could have raised from the dead, he would have said to the reporters who flooded his solitary dwelling, “You have no business analyzing my life or trying to guess what I meant when I uttered ‘Rosebud,’ Mr. Thompson. I rose, bud. Rose to heaven. So stop the hustle and get out of here! My life is not to be sliced up and scrutinized piece by piece. It is a rosebud that never blossomed, leave it that way, it must not be taken apart. You may rummage through my knick-knacks and gimcracks, but don’t you believe you can understand what I was.”
We have been forewarned at the beginning, “No trespassing.” Everything we learn about Kane in the movie we learn from others. Should we believe them, considering none of them loved him? Shouldn’t we better allow the magic and mystery of a human life and its essence and meaning to remain undisclosed? That is if you sympathize with Charles Foster Kane, as I do.
The stream will soon renew its smoothness, soon
The visions will return! <...>
And soon the fragments dim of lovely forms
Come trembling back, unite, and now once more
The pool becomes a mirror.