Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Citizen Kane (1941)

     A year ago around this time, I sat down on my bed with my laptop with thoughts in my head about starting a blog, thinking what I could write about. The first thing that came to mind: movies. Furthermore, I wanted to write about Christian values that I’ve found in my favorite movies. I didn’t know if I could keep up such a thing. But it turns out I’ve been able to write about one movie each week for a year. I’m so grateful that God kept me motivated to do this, because it is honestly a lot of fun. So, to celebrate the one-year anniversary of “Reel Christianity”, I’ve decided to talk about one of the most important movies of all time, both to the world of cinema and to my own heart: “Citizen Kane”.

     “Citizen Kane”, as many of you may know, has been regarded by the American Film Institute, the Sight and Sound polls, and other organizations as one of the greatest films, if not the greatest film, ever made. It starred and was written, produced, and directed by Orson Welles, the twenty-five-year-old prodigy already having directed a historical Depression-era stage performance of “Julius Caesar” on Broadway and scaring millions of Americans to death with his realistic “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. “War of the Worlds” prompted RKO Radio Pictures to give Orson Welles a contract to make two movies over which he had total creative control. The first movie was “Citizen Kane”, an innovative film about the rise and fall of a newspaper tycoon named Charles Foster Kane, a figure based loosely on real-life newspaperman William Randolph Hearst. Hearst almost had the film destroyed, but “Citizen Kane” was released in May 1941 to mixed critical acclaim, weak box office success, and little award recognition. Seventy years later, it’s regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made.

     The film starts out with one of the most famous opening lines to a movie ever: as old Hearst—I mean, Kane (Welles) lies on his deathbed in his huge ranch called San Simeon—I mean, Xanadu, he holds a snow globe with a model cottage inside and whispers his last word: “Rosebud.” We then cut to a very sudden change of scenery: news reporters are watching a newsreel about to be released that is essentially Kane’s extended obituary: as a child, his poor family was discovered to own property containing the Colorado lode, which prompted his mother to send him off to school to live with banker Walter P. Thatcher (George Coulouris) in New York. Years later, Kane bought a newspaper that Thatcher happened to own, the New York Inquirer, and proceeded to use the paper to attack his guardian’s corrupt banking procedures.

     Years later, with Kane, critic Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), and Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane) at the helm, the Inquirer is the highest-selling paper in New York, and Kane marries Emily Monroe Norton, the U.S. President’s niece. They have a son, and Kane eventually goes into politics. The race for governor looks like a shoe-in for Kane until his opponent, Jim W. Gettys (Ray Collins), exposes Kane’s secret: he’s been seeing another woman, a local music-store clerk named Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). Kane’s chances of being elected are forever ruined, and Emily leaves Kane and takes their son. Two years later, Emily and the child are killed in a car accident.

     Soon, Kane and Susan are married, and in order to make his wife a star, Kane builds an opera house for her in Chicago in which she debuts in the opera “Salammbo” to poor reviews—including one from Leland in the Inquirer, which gets him fired. Soon, however, Susan ends her career, and she and Kane buy a huge amount of property in Florida that they call Xanadu. There, Susan eventually leaves Kane, and he is left there, alone with a collection of statues that he’s accumulated over the decades and a palace fit for a king. But in 1941, Kane passes away, with that one last word: “Rosebud”.

     The executive sees the newsreel and decides it needs more: he tells the reporter, a shadowy Jerry Thompson (William Alland), to find out what “Rosebud” means, and find whoever it takes to figure out who—or what—it is. So Thompson goes on the search for Rosebud. And in addition to relearning the information from the newsreel, his interviewees tell him much more. At the Thatcher Memorial Library, Thompson reads in Thatcher’s memoir about when he came to get Kane as a child and was attacked by the boy with his sled on that wintery day. Bernstein tells Thompson about the rising success of the Inquirer and suggests something to him:

BERNSTEIN: This “Rosebud” you’re trying to find out about… Maybe that was something he lost. Mr. Kane was a man who lost almost everything he had.

     Later, Thompson goes to see old Leland in a nursing home who tells him about Kane’s love life—first the decline of his marriage to Emily, then his meeting of Susan, then the decline of his political career, then the start of Susan’s singing career, then about the poor review he wrote about her that got Kane to fire him, his best friend. Thompson talks to Susan, now at a nightclub in Atlantic City, who told him about the pressure of her singing career and her subsequent suicide attempt, and moving in and out of Xanadu. Finally, Thompson talks to Raymond, Kane’s former butler at Xanadu, who saw Kane pick up the snow globe and say “Rosebud” both after Susan left him and right before he died. And what is “Rosebud”, we finally ask?

     Thompson never finds out. After all that searching, he cannot figure out what “Rosebud” is. We do find out, however, but if you want to know, go watch the movie. And don’t you dare look it up online, cheaters. Now, after all that description, and after all that investigation, you might be thinking: What do I take away from this? This is sort of pessimistic. Was this a waste of my time?

     I wondered for a while what to take away from “Citizen Kane” myself, until last May when I saw an interview that the American Film Institute produced with William Friedkin, the director of “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist”. He said that no other film illustrates better what Jesus said in Matthew 16:26 and Mark 8:36: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” That idea never clicked in me before. But when I heard it, I immediately looked at “Citizen Kane” in a different light.

     Charles Foster Kane becomes a powerful figure within years. Millions read his newspapers, thousands elect him (or about to elect him, rather) as governor of New York, and crowds visit his palace of Xanadu. Yet he is twice unhappily married, he loses control of the Inquirer at the start of the Great Depression, and he ends his life alone on a property half the size of Rhode Island. (Well, at least that’s how large Hearst’s property was.) Kane has gained the whole world, but has lost his soul because of his consuming desire for control. Thompson sums this up best in the film’s final monologue:

THOMPSON: Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t explain anything. I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle—a missing piece.

     Rosebud represents what Kane always wanted—love—that he lost sight of once he gained control of the world. I suppose power may do that to many of us. But I personally know that the jigsaw puzzle that my life is would be incomplete with a missing piece—and I know that piece is God. Someone bigger than I am. Someone I can go to for forgiveness and trust. Someone who can love me because He created me. My prayer for you and me in 2012 is that we will continue to put God first as the centerpiece of our lives. 

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