Saturday, November 28, 2009

Citizen Kane Part Two

As Morris Dickstein so brilliantly points out in a chapter about Citizen Kane from his new book about the culture of the 1930s - Dancing in the Dark - many of the explanations for what makes the character Charles Foster Kane tick can be found directly in the movie itself. Sometimes, it seems, the best criticism draws attention to all the evidence that is there in plain sight, directly before our eyes.

Kane was "a man who lost almost everything he had," Mr. Bernstein, his personal manager asserts. "All he really wanted out of life was love," his friend Jed Leland explains. "That's Charlie's story. How he lost it. You see, he just didn't have any to give." This sense of loss, of decline, the inevitability of being unable to hold on to what is good and true, this is an important part of the point of Citizen Kane. This is as well a story about the quest for power, and as such it is also a tale of the high price that is paid when the obsession for control and dominance obliterates everything else until it is finally too late.

But the explanations hardly stop there. The Rosebud thesis would have us believe that Kane's story is one of lost innocence, of being torn away from the security of family too soon. The inventory thesis contends that Kane sought satisfaction in the accumulation of things, though in the end these things, uncountable and hopelessly scattered, almost literally suffocated him. Still another account would have us believe that Kane's privilege, his unearned millions, prevented him from becoming the great man he was meant to be. When things are at their worst, he mutters to Bernstein and Thatcher, "If I hadn't been rich, I might have been a really great man." Thatcher pushes Kane to reveal what he would have done and stood for under different circumstances. And Kane snarls back, "Everything you hate," as if the very establishment figures who made Kane possible also prevented him from spearheading the reforms that would have toppled the greedy magnates once and for all.

In the end, Citizen Kane's greatest achievement as a work of popular art is that, as in life, there was no simple explanation for what made Kane tick. He was too complex and his story too multifaceted to point to any one explanation. The film then was a triumph, not of resolution, but of process, not of understanding, but of exposition that confused as much as it explained, obscured as much as it enlightened. What makes Citizen Kane so eminently rewatchable is that it remains a grand, relatively straightforward narrative of the rise and fall of a noteworthy public man, but all the usual clues for making sense of such plots are constantly being undercut and contradicted. Just when we think we know what is going on, we would do well to think again.

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