Sitting with a friend in the bar at the Curzon Soho recently, after having watched a movie that we had both been underwhelmed by, I found myself bringing into the conversation another film, Citizen Kane, and the subject of a certain discomfort I have always had with this film. The argument went as follows: “While Welles evidently seems to feel that the story of Kane’s life is always from the point-of-view of one or other of the characters – never objective – whenever I finish watching the film I always feel as though I’ve been told a fairly substantial biographical narrative. And what’s more I can’t really remember and am not overly bothered which sections were told by whom and in what order… Because despite vague references to the storyteller within each of the flashbacks, the style of these flashbacks is nevertheless overwhelmingly omniscient.”
I wouldn’t of course retract the validity of either of the phenomenological cinematic experiences expressed above – nor necessarily the possibility that they may point towards weaknesses in the work. I can’t help but wonder, however, whether it was overly simplistic to imply that the central project of Welles’ film was to present an “anti-portrait”, a point blank refusal of objective identity, and with this a narrative about the complexity and mystery of the world.
Jorge Luis Borges took up this position on Citizen Kane in a review in 1941 arguing that at the end of the film, “we realize that the fragments are not governed by any secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances.” Further Borges saw Welles’ film as teaching us that, “no man knows who he is, no man is anyone.” And Borges’ review has been quoted a number of times. The first line in Laura Mulvey’s 1991 book Citizen Kane in the BFI Classics series quotes Borges’ claim that the film is “a labyrinth without a center.” (1.)
These are key elements of the film, I will argue, but they are not in themselves central. In this piece I will show that these elements of Citizen Kane are at times conceived as a “natural” locus around which it is inevitable that all other aspects of the film will be discussed. I suggest that this may have served to cloud matters. Through close textual analysis I present a very different way of reading the film, just as important, that may have been left unrecognised as a result of its being at odds with these consensus perspectives on the film.
It is widely known that Orson Welles and co-scriptwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz had some disputes over Citizen Kane’s script, originally written by Mankiewicz with the title “American” but considerably re-worked together. The famous example is of Welles stating that Mankiewicz insisted on showing what “Rosebud” actually was – namingly Kane’s sled – while Welles felt that this was shameful “dollar-book Freud” and would have preferred the word’s meaning to remain unknowable. Many at the time of the film’s release felt that Welles didn’t deserve his co-screenwriter credit and so certainly didn’t deserve to share the Oscar for the Best Original Screenplay. This position was consolidated years later in Pauline Kael’s thoroughly well-composed though somewhat excessive attack upon Welles in her 1971 article for The New Yorker, “Raising Kane.”
It seems to me that the general emphasis on the unknowability of Kane and the anti-objectivity of Citizen Kane may be in part the result of this. Welles’ argument that Mankiewicz made the film overly-rationalist with his Rosebud-MacGuffin may well have had some influence on critics who decided to come out in support of Welles as the film’s “true author” by building up the case for Citizen Kane as his labyrinth. Indeed Mulvey’s book explicitly criticises Kael’s article and specifically Kael’s claim that Mankiewicz deserves sole credit for the screenplay. And although Peter Conrad claims in his Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life (2003) that the film’s “labyrinth does have a centre” Conrad picks up Borges’ metaphor to argue that, “Citizen Kane is wrought with Daedalan cunning, made up of puzzles and riddles. Like a myth it conflates or superimposes different stories. Hearst’s story merges with that of Kubla Khan, from whom Kane borrows the name of his private kingdom; their story is also Welles’.” (152.)
To clarify here, I am not claiming that any of these critics are incorrect in perceiving Citizen Kane to be a mysterious and complex film. Rather I want to propose that this mystery is not the central point of the film. Just as “Rosebud” is not the answer to the puzzle, neither is an abstract, mysterious absence of meaning. Although the idea of telling the story of one person’s life through various different people’s point-of-view was original this is not in itself adequate evidence of the film’s greater complexity than the usual Hollywood fare. In fact this technique only serves to make more apparent than usual a typical Hollywood characteristic. I turn here to David Bordwell in The Classical Hollywood Cinema (1985):
Since classical narration communicates what it ‘knows’ by making characters haul the causal chain through the film, it might seem logical to assume that the classical film commonly restricts its knowledge to a single character’s point-of-view. Logical, but wrong. … The overwhelmingly common practice is to use the omnipresence of classical narration to move fluidly from one character to another. (31.)
This characteristic of the average Hollywood movie is all the same made more apparent than usual – and so partially ironised – in Citizen Kane’s direct presentation of its multiple storytellers to the audience through the trope of having journalists interview these characters.
Nevertheless, while there may be tiny hidden contradictions, these multiple narratives in Citizen Kane overall generally reaffirm one another. The notion that Kane cares only about himself, for example, is stated both by Jedediah Leland and Susan Alexander in each of their narratives. Likewise the jumps back and forth through different past time periods and repetitions of these time periods never, to my knowledge, highlight distinct contradictions.
More to the point, and to return to my original argument, even when we are purportedly watching one character’s flashback the visual language does not appear to do a great deal to assert throughout the flashback that this is the case. These scenes often use regular shot/reverse-shot patterns and other elements of the Hollywood continuity system (along with many very innovative visual techniques) that help to maintain Bordwell’s “omnipresence of classical narration.”
Initially I perceived this to be a failure of the film to live up to its apparently intended fractured narrative style, but closer analysis of some of these scenes has left me uncertain as to whether I was being too hasty and overly simplistic in this matter. Indeed the first flashback of the film is ambiguous even as to who rightly “owns” it. As Thompson reads from the now-dead Thatcher’s journal we see the scene of Thatcher taking the young Kane from his childhood home. This is certainly Thatcher’s story, but should we assume that the visuals are as much Thompson’s, since he is the one reading and so visualising the scene? Clearly we have here a metaphor for the relationship between writer and director, with the director applying the “vision.” (As well as Welles’ ultimate fantasy, that the writer could turn out the perfect script but be dead so not want to bother with taking any credit: no wonder Welles did so many adaptations!)
As this first flashback progresses there are various signs that suggest that the power in the scene is in the hands of neither Thatcher nor Thompson, but is rather being signed over to the young Kane himself as the owner of the scene (and not only an enormous wealth.) First example: a shot in which the camera appears to be showing Kane in the snow from the outside turns out to be shot from the inside as the camera tracks back to reveal Kane’s mother at the window.
The same track backwards shows Mrs Kane face on (a rare example of a plain face-on image in the film) and follows her fairly long walk through the front room into the kitchen. To me this image can be considered emblematic of Kane’s fantasy image of his mother: it presents both the household as warm in comparison with the snow outside and a vaguely fetishistic steady image of his mother. Kane’s mother is nevertheless visibly moving away from Kane himself, who we continue to see in the background of the shot, suggesting the irreplaceable loss that Kane will always feel. The young Kane being stuck outside this house is surely suggestive both of the older Kane likewise forever outside of his fantasy of his past (seen in the paperweight that he keeps) and of the falsity of this fantasy since even the young Kane was never actually in symbiosis with his mother and the family house.
Second example: this deep-focus image as Kane’s mother and Thatcher discuss Kane’s future places Kane dead in the centre in the background of the image.Third example: a careful composition shot near the end of the scene presents Thatcher telling Kane what a lucky boy he is to be adventuring to the city, while his parents watch on. Very quickly, however, the viewer’s attention is drawn away from Thatcher to young Kane’s intensely angry stare up at Thatcher.
Kane dominates the viewer’s attention just as he will throughout the story. As Kane attacks Thatcher with his sled it appears as if his destruction of this careful composition foreshadows Kane’s future destructive and even self-destructive fate. (Self-destructive since Kane parallels with Welles destroying his own composition here.)Fourth example: As Kane’s mother makes it clear that Kane’s father would like to beat him, Kane re-directs his angry glare towards his father. Everything anti-authoritarian to come from Kane seems to be implied here.
Far from the notion of Kane’s identity as mysteriously absent and primarily refracted through other people’s perspectives in this scene Kane has immense control, even over other people’s flashbacks, just as he takes so much control within the film’s plot. Paradoxically it may even be the case that the script’s technique of purporting to tell the story from multiple points-of-view actually pushes Welles’ film closer than the usual Hollywood movie towards that rarer form that Bordwell notes – of a film restricted primarily to one character’s perspective. Citizen Kane is a film at least as much about power, in terms of form as well as content, as it is about mystery and the absence of objective truth. Without wanting to overstate the case, with this reading a person could argue that the film’s centre sits squarely with Kane himself: as the locus around which power relations play out, not only in the film’s plot but also in its style. I am certain, however, that Citizen Kane is about many things beside this that I haven’t been able to touch on here. I also feel sure that this perspective would benefit from being considered alongside other perspectives on the film.