Citizen Kane, Narcissism, and Narrative Film Week 7 Narrative

In Citizen Kane, we get an interesting view into a fictional narcissist’s life. We get all of the pieces in the end, but we are thrust into a meandering jigsaw puzzle first. Charles Foster Kane surrounds himself with beautiful art, “a horde of mankind’s riches,” building a monument to himself in the form of the expressionistic nightmare of a castle Xanadu. He piles gifts, superficial generosity, money, empty promises on those around him, in the hopes he will buy their love, as Susan puts so well at the end of the movie before she leaves, revealing the folly of his actions and warped view of love and relationships. That scene in particular tears into his character wonderfully, finally spelling out the reason why Kane is so unrelatable. Kane can only ever mimic love, and only does so to get love back. He doesn’t have any humanity. His narcissism is so deep that even when his second wife leaves him, he can only relate through the lens of his pain, what she is doing to him. Even Xanadu sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, the castle of some crazy alien overlord, except our alien overlord is a bitter old man who dies whispering a word symbolic of his childhood, a time when he was happy, living a simple, rural life with his parents, and even then “Rosebud” refers to a thing.

The camera plays an important role narratively. We have the satirical newsreel footage in the beginning of the film, “documenting” the news of Kane’s death. The film revolves around a journalist trying to decipher Kane’s last words, so there’s an investigative news air to it. Ironically, Kane made his name around yellow journalism, and it’s yellow journalism that brings his name back down. So while we have this ironic, investigative, “neutral” standpoint, we also get extremely subjective flashbacks.

I want to talk about a few scenes in particular: the scene during the picnic, the scene where Susan leaves, and the scene where Rosebud burns.

Kane’s empire is dying at this point. Susan doesn’t want to sing anymore, she’s really feeling the isolation and power Kane is trying to exert over her. Camera angles set up the power dynamic clearly, in stark contrast to objective, non-narrative film like the news, or like documentaries.

All of the camera angles in the shot/reverse shot sequence establish Kane as looking down on Susan, and Susan looking up at Kane. We see both through the eyes of the other: extreme high angle for Susan, and low angle for Kane. And then we have that awful, maybe diegetic woman’s screams overlaying their fight. The agony of their relationship grinds through.

Here we establish Susan’s powerlessness against Kane.
Susan is well below us, the viewer, in this shot. Kane looks down on her.


In the next scene I want to talk about, they camera establishes them on much more equal footing. Perhaps the actor for Kane is just taller, or maybe there is still some power dynamic happening here, but when Susan finally exerts some agency she is in a much more powerful position.

Susan has agency in this shot. She’s on much more equal footing.
Here we establish Susan’s powerlessness against Kane.


Further emphasizing the subjectivity of the narrative, this scene is implied to be a flashback of an older Susan. She’s talking about what happened.

Finally, we get the scene where the meaning of “Rosebud” is revealed. The journalist gives up—Kane’s final words are never understood. To establish that no one is seeing Rosebud, we have and objective viewpoint again. The camera is free and floats around, omniscient again.

And finally, a lingering shot on the burning answer to the burning question. We, the audience, know what Rosebud means, and what it references to. They toss the answer away, just another piece to the mountain of stuff and riches Kane amassed.
Unless there’s a 7 foot tall guy that I happened to miss the reverse shot of, this is pretty omniscient wide angle.
The camera floats high above the crowd.

So, what do you think the meaning of no one understanding Rosebud is? I didn’t really catch the larger idea there.
Also, how does the sort of mimicry of humanity and love reflect on Hollywood and cinema at large?
How else does narrative/non-narrative film come into play in the larger meaning of Citizen Kane?

1 comment
  1. I think Rosebud might be more significant than just another object that Kane wishes to possess. Early in the movie in a meeting involving Thatcher, Bernstein and Kane. Kane mentions “If I hadn’t been rich I could have been a really great man”. I think Rosebud’s significance is that it represents a life un-burderned by riches and vanity. Perhaps Kane could have created a much happier life for himself had never been sold to the bank.

    I think in reference to the power play dynamic between Kane and Susan. The picnic scene is actually a parallel to a previous scene between Susan and Kane where she initially expresses her desire to stop singing (around 01:34:39). Same composition as the one in your post. Kane above Susan except here you see Susan fully cast by Kane’s ominous shadow. Here she is powerless, she succumbs to Kane’s will. In the scene referenced in your post even though Kane stands above Susan they are both cast in the same light. There’s no shadow over Susan, I don’t believe she is powerless in the scene. This actually marks the shift in the power dynamic, and when she finally decides it’s time to leave Kane. In many ways Kane is the one who is powerless in this shot, desperately clinging to the last person who can give him the love desperately wants.

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