“Oh, it was the sled.”
“You didn’t know that?”
“I’ve never seen it!”
Gwen glared towards Dania, dimly lit in the glow of the screen. It had been a while since they’d seen a movie in the theater together––conversation flowed more naturally in front of Gwen’s laptop. But, with Citizen Kane screening in 70mm locally, the trio had received an invitation from an unexpected collaborator.
“The sled is the only thing everyone knows about this movie,” Gwen repeated. “It’s the biggest spoiled twist I can think of.”
“I mean, as twists go, it’s not bad,” suggested Eleanor. “It’s set up and paid off, and it’s so integrated into the rest of the story that I can’t see the film leaving it unresolved.”
She turned to her seatmate. “What do you think, Pauline?”
“It does ‘work’ for some people,” said Pauline Kael, former staff critic for The New Yorker. “They go for the idea that Rosebud represents lost maternal bliss and somehow symbolizes Kane’s loss of the power to love or be loved.”
“Or some simple metaphor like that,” Dania said. “It’s not entirely clear.”
Eleanor shrugged. “It could also just be a method by which we revisit the scenes in Kane’s life. Does it have to mean more than that? Thompson does say at the end that Rosebud is only a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle.”
“If the movie had been directed in a more matter-of-fact, naturalistic style, Thompson’s explanation would have seemed quite sensible,” offered Kael. “Instead, Welles’ heavily theatrical style overemphasized the psychological explanation to such a point that, when we finally glimpse the name on the sled, we in the audience are made to feel that we’re in on a big secret—a revelation that the world missed out on.”
“I suppose so,” Eleanor said. “I only wonder whether we’re given enough time with the young Kane to have put any stock in the sled. Unless the nostalgia is really for the entire time before Kane got taken away from home, and the sled is just a symbol of that…”
“I mean, what isn’t a symbol for something, in this movie?” asked Dania.
“It was a movie convention going back to silents that when you did a bio or a thesis picture, you started with the principal characters as children and showed them to be miniature versions of their later characters,” Kael explained. “Hideous character defects traceable to childhood traumas explained just about anything the authors disapproved of.”
“Conventional or not, it doesn’t exactly track,” Gwen scrutinized. “It’s an easy parallel to draw, a bit of morality underneath this rich, monstrous persona that the audience can latch onto. It’s a line thrown to the crowd, saying ‘he’s just like you, deep down!’”
Kael nodded, agreeing. “Citizen Kane has a primitive appeal that is implicit in the conception,” she continued. “It tells the audience that fate or destiny or God or childhood trauma has already taken revenge on the wicked—that if the rich man had a good time he has suffered remorse, or, better still, that he hasn’t really enjoyed himself at all. In popular art, riches and power destroy people, and so the secret of Kane is that he longs for the simple pleasures of his childhood before wealth tore him away from his mother—he longs for what is available to the mass audience.”
“Perhaps that’s what gives the film it’s strange appeal,” Gwen said. “For all the complexity in the technical categories––and Gregg Toland’s cinematography is absolutely breathtaking––the human conflict the film centers on is very simple: analyzing Kane’s reasons for wanting power, and how he uses people to get it.”
“Watching it again, I’m interested in its relationship to ‘the people,’” said Eleanor. “Kane is constantly referring to himself as a man of the people, but after the election Leland calls him out on it, saying ‘You talk about the people as though you own them.’ Kane is interested in helping people, but only when their desires line up with his own. Beyond that, everything else––friends, businesses, morals––it’s all disposable.”
“The extent to which ‘the people’ buy it, however, is illuminating,” Gwen said. “Nothing about Kane’s background suits a man-of-the-people political figure, but because he says the right things, people buy in.”
“Well, who says the film’s politics don’t hold up,” Dania smirked.
“The comic spirit of the thirties had been happily self-critical about America, the happiness born of the knowledge that in no other country were movies so free to be self-critical,” Kael pointed out. “Though it wasn’t until the sixties that the self-hatred became overt in American life and American movies, it started to show, I think, in the phony, excessive, duplicit use of patriotism by the rich, guilty liberals of Hollywood in the war years.”
She motioned, dismissively, to the still-bright screen above them. “And it’s their all-time favorite because they understand it—and correctly—as a leftist film. Its leftism is, however, the leftism of the twenties and early thirties, before the left became moralistic. It was the comedy of a country that didn’t yet hate itself.”
“The film is undeniably the product of an unconventionally collaborative process,” Eleanor added, “with RKO being so hands-off during filming. Welles essentially had all the resources he needed, without the limitations. Though there are moments when that auteurism comes back to bite him––another director might have gotten second takes of the meet-cute between Kane and Susan.”
“Welles had the freedom to try out new solutions to technical problems, and he made his theatrical technique work spectacularly,” Kael said. “It would have been impossible to tell the Kane story another way without spending a fortune on crowds and set construction. Welles’ method is a triumph of ingenuity in that the pinpoints of light in the darkness conceal the absence of detailed sets––a chair or two and a huge fireplace, and one thinks one is seeing a great room). We get a sense of crowds at the political rally without seeing them. It was Welles’ experience both in the theatre and in radio that enabled him to produce a huge historical film on a shoestring; he produced the illusion of a huge historical film.”
“The flashback structure is also theatrical in nature, delaying the appearance of Kane himself,” Gwen pointed out. “Acting is reacting, and we see nearly every major character reacting to Kane before we get the first scene with young Kane and Thatcher, almost a quarter of the way into the film.”
“Welles is a smart director, if an unambiguous one,” Gwen observed. “You never shake off the knowledge that it’s his hand moving all the pieces.”
“It would be high-toned to call his method of keeping the audience aware ‘Brechtian,’” Kael offered. “And it would be wrong. The mechanics of movies are rarely as entertaining as they are in Citizen Kane, as cleverly designed to be the kind of fun that keeps one alert and conscious of the enjoyment of the artifices themselves. The formal elements themselves produce elation; we are kept aware of how marvellously worked out the ideas are. Citizen Kane is a popular masterpiece—not in terms of actual popularity, but in terms of the way it gets its laughs and makes its points.”
“It’s closer to comedy and melodrama than most other films that garner the label of ‘masterpiece,’” observed Gwen. “There’s greatness buried in the film, but the premise could also have turned into leftist kitsch, if Welles hadn’t been so ebuillantly excited about the whole project.”
“It’s kitsch redeemed,” agreed Kael. “I would argue that this is what is remarkable about movies—that shallow conceptions in one area can be offset by elements playing against them or altering them. If a movie is good, there is a general tendency to believe that everything in it was conceived and worked out according to a beautiful master plan, or that it is the result of the creative imagination of the director. But in movies, things rarely happen that way—even more rarely than they do in opera or the theatre.”
“What redeems movies in general,” Kael continued, “what makes them so much easier to take than other arts, is that many talents in interaction in a work can produce something more enjoyable than one talent that is not of the highest. Because of the collaborative nature of most movies, masterpieces are rare, and even masterpieces may, like Kane, be full of flaws, but the interaction frequently results in special pleasures and surprises.”
“Do you agree that it’s a masterpiece?” asked Dania.
“It is difficult to explain what makes any great work great,” Kael admitted. “Maybe more so with Citizen Kane than with other great movies, because it isn’t a work of special depth. It is a shallow work, a shallow masterpiece. Those who try to account for its stature as a film by claiming it to be profound are simply dodging the problem—or maybe they don’t recognize that there is one. To use the conventional schoolbook explanations for greatness is to miss what makes it such an American triumph—that it manages to create something aesthetically exciting and durable out of the playfulness of American muckraking satire.”
“It’s one of the only ‘great’ movies I’ve been told I have to see, and which lived up to the reputation,” said Dania. “For all the talk of how innovative or groundbreaking the technical process was, the movie is entertaining. Smart and fast, and not so pleased with how good it is that it slows down.”
“Citizen Kane’s reputation certainly proceeds it, but for good reasons,” Gwen said. “Like Pauline was saying, the relative haphazardness of the production means that the final film is a touch unbalanced, but in a manner that cues you in to the excitement of the artists behind it. It’s a great film because of its imperfections.”
“I wonder if Hollywood would ever offer that much creative control to a director again,” Eleanor wondered. “Modern studios are so frightened of auteurs.”
“The movie industry is always frightened, and is always proudest of films that celebrate courage,” said Kael, with a wink.
Pauline Kael (1919-2001) was the staff film critic for The New Yorker for more than three decades. Her insightful and personal analysis of 20th century film continues to influence critics to this day. Her comments in this review have been adapted verbatim from her 1971 work “Raising Kane,” written as an introductory essay for the published screenplay of Citizen Kane.
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