In America in the Dark, David Thomson writes that Citizen Kane is “the key work of the first American director to identify comprehensive fraud as a topic central to his culture.” (my italics) The chapter on Orson Welles’ film occupies the central portion of this book, subtitled: The Impact of Hollywood Films on American Culture, making Kane the central Hollywood film making an impact. And, in the end, Thomson shows that the film deserves high praise for capturing the “romantic and idealistic passion for power, style, impact, meaning, and success, everything a true American might desire — like Charles Foster Kane or George Orson Welles.”
In the attendant article to this one, I mentioned Welles’ assertion that Howard Hughes was one of the original models for a film originally entitled “The American” that became Citizen Kane. Thomson shows that Welles himself was a likely inspiration for the title character, as much as Hughes might have been or William Randolph Hearst was. The failure or flaw in Kane also affected Welles. Put succinctly: a bright career ends in a myriad of ill-defined or ill-understood frustrations that color our judgment of the man (more a man of headlines than substance). The allusions to Welles’ life in Kane’s story show the internal dynamic from which the story arose (and the fact that Welles reveled in the idea of being associated with Kane).
Kane’s fraudulence was closely connected to his vitality and happiness. He loved running his newspapers (Welles loved the movie world) that, essentially, managed the news to fit what would excite the readers. His attention to the public grew more stolid when he entered political life (Welles alienated the powers-that-be, partly for his liberal politics). An outgrowth from his journalism, Kane’s politics were both progressive and domineering, as if each of his life’s tasks tripped a mechanism that mitigated against the full acceptance of his being — by himself or others. The destructive nature of his quest to manage the public — via the opera career of his second wife, Susan — calcified Kane’s character and worked to isolate him from all that made him alive (Welles’ own quest for independence all but assured that his movies would be either unfinished or poorly distributed).
The origin of Kane’s flaw is presented as the central mystery of the film. What was Rosebud? Did the sled give us the needed symbol (for his loveless childhood) to reveal the nature of Kane’s tragedy? Thomson undervalues Rosebud’s importance but for reasons that have nothing to do with child psychology. Indeed, his book contains an original interpretation of the movie that depends on a different reading of the first scene when Kane uttered “Rosebud” and died.1
Thomson claims that nobody could have heard Kane say anything, so low was his voice when he uttered the word, and the nurse was outside the room. On the basis of this observation, he rereads the entire movie as Kane’s last act, a final if not grandiose attempt to make people think what he wants them to think. Thomson’s earlier observation that Kane’s life was a fraud (cf. the article on F For Fake) complements his interpretation. A last-minute vision/version of the meaning of Kane’s life, the film becomes an extraordinary subjective experience.
Movies that have a dream framework or are last-minute dramas of imagined retribution — respectively, David Lynch‘s Eraserhead (1977) and John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) come to mind, if not Double Indemnity (1944) and D.O.A. (1949) — are fraught with interpretative ambiguities. For starters, the audience is acutely not cognizant that the film comes from the mind of one of the characters. And one could legitimately wonder why such a framework for Kane must be vague and obscure — and why hadn’t anyone before Thomson mentioned this? Well, maybe a few have, but the main reason many haven’t or weren’t inclined to interpret the opening scene this way has everything to do with the authority of the screen image and audience gullibility.
In fact, Welles’ first film project, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, was to be just such a subjective experience. As described in an excellent book about film noir, More Than Night by James Naremore, Welles did not want a camera representing all that was seen by the protagonist, as was done later in Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1947), but one that showed what the character thought and felt “capable of shifting its focalization within a single take, moving from literal point-of-view shots to poetic omniscience.” (238) Kane reaches for such omniscience through Citizen Kane.
Thomson’s reading doesn’t necessarily upset how the film has been viewed previously. Kane takes us along a narrative as he once did readers of the Enquirer. We absorb this narrative with ingenuousness and must confront another layer of film and, more so, Kane’s character (his “greatness” or just another reflection in his narcissistic life). Other aspects of the American style emerge: an insistence to control what others think about ourselves and a penchant to unravel all mysteries and problems (there must be an answer or reason for the way things are). The press pursues “Rosebud.” Kane envisions a press pursuing the meaning of “Rosebud.” The audience tried to figure out Kane through its own pursuit of “Rosebud.” The image of infinite mirror reflections (see the other article, which itself reflects this article’s reflection of Thomson’s book) seems appropriate to Kane’s character if not the character and style of contemporary life’s indefinite possibilities and indefinite meanings (postmodern erosion of beliefs).
If you aren’t convinced by this interpretation after reading America in the Dark, Thomson at least amply shows how important Citizen Kane is to America in the 20th century. Forget the polls of critics putting the movie as number one of all time; forget (not completely) how the movie impacted on the techniques of subsequent movies. At every turn, Thomson has reason to bring Citizen Kane and its themes into all the book’s chapters and use them to interpret the American people and our history.
For example, he devotes much of his last chapter to the film All the President’s Men, being especially critical of a double standard inherent in Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation of the Nixon White House after the Watergate burglary. Some of the duplicitous methods that the reporters used to get their information smacked of the very things that they would charge Nixon’s men of doing. In the hands of Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, or Fritz Lang, the film would have at least recognized the problematic possibilities of such an investigation.
But the flaw or problem with news reporters in all media seems only a variation of Charles Foster Kane’s. The flaw of wanting to know everything. Believing the ultimate answer is in your grasp. Knowledge will redeem human ignorance and prevent evil from triumphing.
The Washington Post as public protector (in Three Days of the Condor, 1975, the protector is the New York Times) harkens to Kane’s idea of his own paper protecting the public from the trusts and crooked politicians. This represents the classic Progressive prerogative regarding great institutions, including the government, attempting to correct the ills of society. Further, the people must shape up to the grand ideals, and the press will be used to do the shaping.
All the President’s Men (1976) glorifies the viewpoint that the news helps the community and individuals. The news protects democracy. The news media must be blind to the ways it hurts life. Democracy must be defended from evil politicians, bureaucrats, and multinational corporations. A free flowing stream of news will wash the scales from the public’s eyes. In a democracy we must live with the world of newspapers and television. We must tolerate all kinds of nonsense and outrages. The Constitution guarantees that the flow of images will not cease. Woodward, Bernstein, and all the other Citizen’s men will try to pick up the pieces of democracy after Watergate.
But what if the methods of the protectors differed little from those against whom they are protecting us? Must we accept the “necessities” that the media say are necessary? Who’ll protect us from our protectors? Or better: who will protect us when the values of the protectors are just as tainted and corrupted (but corrupted by another “agency” — cf. the other article).
Early in Citizen Kane, the young Kane admits his irreconcilable position as the head of a trust and the attacker of that trust. He has a limited sense of his impossible position. The undoing of the news media’s authority, it would seem, lies in its inability not only to work out this contradiction but to have any sense of its true inadequacies.
- The author Thompson’s quest willfully inverts the quest of the other Thomson, the journalist who interviews Susan Alexander, Jed Leland, and Mr. Bernstein looking for the meaning of “Rosebud.” [↩]