Friday, 5 February 2010
Charles Foster Kane is an infinity of mirrored images, a multiplicity of versions receding into nothing.
Only once, right back at the very beginning of the film, do we see him unfiltered by someone else's memory. Even then, on his deathbed, his image is distorted by vast and grotesque close ups. We never look upon Kane as a whole, unbroken portrait. The sign on the gate we float over warns "No Trespassing". No trespassing on him, it means to say and the film does indeed keep us at arm's length.
Can we get at the truth of the man? Can any person ever be fathomed and encapsulated by one symbol? This question is never allowed to flower, nor ever properly posed within the film. The more pertinent question is, given the flashback structure, whether these accounts are relayed as if the teller were there at the time or whether they are coloured by the sepia tint of hindsight? Who can tell? These witnesses are never interrogated. The reporters are always in the dark, literally as well as figuratively. As no-one could have heard Kane whisper "Rosebud" it is maybe we who are the ones driving the search to solve the mystery (note how the woman photographer at the end takes a snap of us as though we are part of the story). The implication of viewer as director/detective, though, is never given room to breathe.
The flash photo frame
The flashback structure of interlocking accounts could have proved a Pandora's box of overlapping and chaotic 'truths', confounding and enlightening, with space left over for our own interpretation. Sadly, each account fits snugly in the overall pattern, neatly butting up against each other. No different style is used for each section, no thought applied to exhibit the uniqueness of disparate authorships. The introductions to these dreams of the past are stilted and stunted much like the linking parts in a Simpsons clip show. The journalist equates his investigation to "playing with a jigsaw puzzle" and yet, even if it were a puzzle, it wouldn't add up to much. The play with structure is pitifully limited and does not achieve anything akin to the integral force of the flashbacks in Memento or Mulholland Drive.
The newsreel declaration "Few private lives have been more public" has two potential interpretations. One is that his private life is laid bare for all to see. Another, more apt, is that any private life and inner depths became entwined into the persona of Charles Foster Kane the global personality and vanish between the threads of his 'CK' monogram. Some call him "fascist", some "communist". Kane as a character is a chimera, a symbol of American success derailed, all over-weaning ambition and greed: "I am, have been and will be only one thing - an American".
What do we know of his morality, his beliefs? He signs his 'Declaration of Principles' with his face shrouded in darkness - in other words, effaced. There is no doubt that he will break these promises and leave us still in the dark over who he is. Slowly and surely, as he grows old and his hair recedes he comes to resemble a statue of himself in cold and lifeless marble.
Citizen Kane is the tale of a man's search for his identity, maybe lost, maybe never truly held or owned. Xanadu is unfinished. Kane is unfinished. Still, the mystery of who he is does not come across as mysterious and a viewer's first guess will almost certainly be right - the film is at heart dime a dozen Freudian whitewash or worse still a rehash of that ancient moral: What profiteth a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?
The story comes, or rather may come, to concern Kane's desperation to be heard. He never wanted to leave his home, no matter how impoverished it may have been. No one listened to his protestations. In the childhood scene he dances happily in the snow, spotted through the open window. The snow is the white of purity and innocence*. From then on, the moments of relative happiness - successful sales figures, the announcement of his first marriage to Emily - are enacted through open windows. When Kane dances again, though, he is reflected in a closed window, cloaked in black. His figure is still small and the freedom of old is now an illusion. He is trapped within the room and jerks around in the manner of a sad automaton. He has no control over himself.
He does, at first. Many are the occasions where he sits or stands as calmly as the Sun while nervous movement revolves around him. We are often in retreat in this film, tracking backwards as a character moves towards us. In the beginning of his life Kane is in retreat as his Mum walks towards us. Later, he bounds into the room after his holiday, forcing us and everyone else onto the back foot. He is in charge of everyone but not himself. With The Inquirer his megaphone to be heard again by the world. Kane grows too big, pressed down on by the ceilings. Bernstein has plenty of headroom yet Kane's side of the room is foreshortened:
Kane, frustratingly, remains two-dimensionally childish. He feels betrayed by everyone around him and roars his disapproval in maniacal tantrums: "They'll think what I tell them to think!". He is a ravenous monster ("are you still eating?" "I'm still hungry!"). His selfishness walks hand in hand with his pride, his hubristic zeal. Everything is about him. In one scene transition Kane's applause for Susan's singing melds with applause for Jedediah's praise of Kane. He wants power, approval and control to balance his childhood loss of power and love.
Yet Kane's monstrousness is overplayed. The grand speech in the gargantuan hall is too much, too extended, too embroiled in the iconography of a plastic dictator. His insertion into historical events (standing proudly alongside Hitler on a balcony) borders on comic-book pastiche.
The scale of his image, though, affords us a tantalising glimpse at parallels to King Kong where now it is Anne / Susan who is treated as the ape and put on display to appease Kane's beastly American ego (above).
There is a mournfulness to this idea of a man groping for a tantalising mirage of love. He rejects anyone who gets close and surrounds himself with replacements for the living and breathing people that he let slip from his grasp. I say 'idea' because we are not allowed to see behind the cardboard backdrops to the mechanics of these motivations. The signs and symbols are there but not what may project them.
The many doors that close in our faces close again in his. Jedediah, who was there at the birth of Kane's idealism, tries to get him to see sense: "You talk about the people as if you own them!" (Kane was taken as property by Mr.Thatcher - a cycle of abuse, no less). Confronting each other, their new-found opposition is as flagrant as yin and yang. Jedediah has a hat, Kane doesn't. Kane has a tie, Jedediah doesn't. Jedediah wears his coat, Kane does not. Peculiarly they complete each other:
One of the final shots is of his statues, his decorative pieces, the crates and pallets that he collected. The camera takes in the panoramic view, artefacts uncannily and deliberately arranged to resemble a cityscape. Kane wanted to own the world and ended up with empty and fractured bits and bobs. It is the film's one spectacular coup, a construction of genius, a symbolic chef d'oeuvre sans pareil:
He receives the 'Declaration' back from Jedediah and its stark lettering on old greying paper makes it his epitaph. There was a state funeral, the greatest of 1941 we are told, but his real funeral, his cremation, is in the fireplace at Xanadu and his ash billows out with the black smoke. He was rosebud. Perhaps.
The revelation of Rosebud as the name of a sled is not a material revelation. It does not alter anything in our perception. It reveals what rosebud is and nothing new about the man. A tawdry device. An awful amount of time is spent telling us nothing. He loses himself in fame and power, but what is himself? The whole mystery that sets the tale in motion is established too early, before we come to care about what it entails. Kane's traits of arrogance and bloody-mindedness are demonstrated again and again within a story old, hackneyed and deadeningly predictable. There is little or no light and shade cast onto this inevitable rise and fall.
I contend that we must care about the characters and be carried away by the story. The films of Jean-Luc Godard play with the medium as if to demolish it and raise it up again. Those are his terms. Citizen Kane, conversely, is bombastically narrative driven, barrelling along in the wake of Welles' presence. It demands to be taken as an enjoyable yarn on a purely story level and on those terms it fails. It's narrative must be served by its technique and instead it is let down by it.
Kane smacks of the work of a student of film not yet a film-maker. The compositions do not derive from the characters' internal world (like a snow globe smashing, spilling the internal out) but are imposed externally, untethered to what they mean to speak of. On first viewing I missed an entire scene's worth of dialogue, distracted by overblown expressionist design. Time and again the acute chiaroscuro, the giant sets, the muddying echoes fall into parody. The film essays foreboding grandeur but the text is simply drawn and its illustrations seem ridiculous in their imposition of hifalutin, steroidal 'meaning'.
The imposition of meaning is a thorn in Citizen Kane's paw. The visual illustration is more often than not pleonastic. Distressed by Susan's refusal to sing Kane stands over her threateningly. She looks scared and we understand that she is scared. Only Welles' strategies are anti-intellectual. He wants to make blatant the blatantly implicit. Therefore he has Kane slowly cast his shadow over her face. Can this be said to add anything? I believe it only takes us out of and turns us away from the film.
Frequently the story is obfuscated by a magician's puff of smoke. In the aftermath of Kane's election defeat the camera is placed at ground level, or just below. I was sat there thinking: "What am I doing on the floor?". The compositions are not assimilated and therefore they stand out. The picnic scene, when his marriage to Susan faces irrevocable breakdown, is played quite laughably to the strains of It Can't be Love. Back in their mausoleum home Susan and Charles sit miles away as they talk. Does one get the feeling, I ask, that they are drifting apart?!
Why must our hands be held like this? Welles substitutes the possibility of genuine emotion with a more hollow stylised representation of the same emotions. If emotions could be intellectualised there would be no need for art. He relies on something far less reliable than simple human empathy, which is directorial shorthand. By this I mean that he places too much faith in the idea that such and such a composition / angle / lighting will produce such and such a sensation in the audience. Citizen Kane's innovative images are too ambiguous and incongruous to be charged with carrying the bulk of the artistic load. Deep focus adds depth but not necessarily the kind that cannot be seen.
The attempts at humour - the opera coach, Jedediah's boredom at the performance - are broad and broadly misjudged. The acting lacks nuance and depth, Welles showing little behind the bravura and Dorothy Comingore unconvincing in her hysteria. The fact that I have often prevented myself from writing Kane for Welles and vice versa demonstrates that Welles' force of personality is all over the film, battling against audience engagement with the character stuck behind the teeth of a smirk.
Citizen Kane does not engage. All we may gain from it is academic ideas of feelings and not the feelings themselves, scooping tiny insects with our net on the surface of a thick and opaque swamp. I should want to know about Kane, I should feel for him. I should worry for his abused wife. I should be transported by the tale of a man at the coalface of history, sculpting both it and himself. A modern Midas indeed. Citizen Kane is an intricately carved and gilded shell with nothing within. It has no heart and I confess that I was bored. It has studied and pioneering technique but to what end? Without a purpose, an achieved aim, technique is nothing. Welles shows off in the same way Kane does when he poaches seasoned journalists from the Chronicle. It is not a great film and I couldn't, in all sincerity, call it a good film. It is a peacock display for the cameras by the cameras.
*The cold snow preserves too. It preserves his secrets until the flames melt it away to reveal the truth. Snow slowly turns to rain outside the windows of Chicago and he begins to lose what was buried there.
Posted by Stephen Russell-Gebbett at 17:14