[May 1st marks the 80th anniversary of Citizen Kane’s release. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some contexts for Kane and other classic films, and I’d love your thoughts on them all and other films you’d AmericanStudy!]
On two very American problems with one of our most important films.
Since its release in 1941, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane has consistently been defined as one of the most innovative and significant American films; in recent decades it has almost always occupied one of the top spots in film critics’ and scholars’ lists of the best American films (or even best films period) of all time. There’s no doubt that Welles’ film pioneered a number of film techniques that quite simply changed the game when it came to filmmaking, on technical as well as story-telling levels, and I both defer to and (based on my limited knowledge) agree with my more informed fellow FilmStudiers on those aspects of Kane. But at the same time, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) was also a pioneering and innovative film, and yet one that featured a deeply troubling set of themes and perspectives on which film scholars and historians can now agree. I’m not arguing that Kane is anywhere near as problematic as Birth (I know of few mainstream American films that are), but Welles’ film has at least a couple prominent—and telling—flaws nonetheless.
For one thing, Citizen Kane represents one of the most overt cultural depictions of the Great Man theory of history I’ve ever encountered. It’s true that Welles’ Charles Foster Kane, a media tycoon modeled in large part on William Randolph Hearst, is far from an idealized hero, but that’s not what the “Great” in the Great Man theory implies—indeed, the theory suggests that both the strengths and weaknesses of these singular and influential historical figures have been the dominant forces in our communal stories. They’re “Great” in the sense of size and significance, and Kane embodies those qualities: his life at every stage, from the most inspiring to the most corrupt, exercises an over-sized influence on his society and world. The problem with that narrative isn’t just that it reinforces the egotism and delusions of grandeur of men like Hearst (and contemporary ones like, y’know, the Donald), but also and most importantly that it portrays American history as a battleground between a few towering figures, rather than the far messier, more democratic, and most of all more accurate concept of encounters and conflicts and connections between cultures and communities. Men like Hearst were part of that history to be sure, but as participants within it, as we all are.
[SPOILER ALERT for Kane in this paragraph.] And then there’s that sled. I know that the film’s final revelation, that the great mystery of Kane’s dying word that drives the movie’s investigations into his life turns out to be just a nostalgic longing for a long-lost childhood toy, is likely meant to be ironic, and could be read as undercutting the narratives of Kane’s Greatness. But I have to admit that to my mind the Rosebud reveal undercuts the film itself at least as much. So someone on his death bed was thinking back to his life and longing for the simpler pleasures of childhood? A man who seemingly had everything was missing a symbol of what he had lost along the way? For one thing, Captain Obvious approves. And for another, the answer to Kane’s mystery humanizes the character in only the most superficial ways—again, it’s an obvious and certainly universal way to imagine self-reflection and –definition, but it elides a deeper examination of the historical and social forces that have truly defined Kane’s life and identity, and that a different mystery plot (such as that at the center of John Sayles’ far superior film Lone Star, for example) could open up for viewers. Great but frustratingly limited—that defines both Charles Foster Kane and Orson Welles’ film about him.
April Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on this or other classic films?