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.
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.
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.
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?