Just because you can talk about a film ad nauseum doesn’t make it vital or relevant or worthy of inclusion in your end-of-the-world-desert-island film survival kit. Stories of and by white men are a dime a dozen, yet the producing powers that be are insatiable for more more more of the same same same. But if a film about a powerful white man is to be canonized when the voices of women and people of color (i.e. most people) struggle to make themselves heard, it should be this film. Not only is the film exquisite on a technical level, Citizen Kane is the story of the curdling influence of excess and the cavernous emptiness at the center of power. Kane is an archetype of doom, and his story is a lesson we have failed to learn again and again.
It is perhaps hyperbolic to describe Citizen Kane as Shakespearean, though Orson Welles’ favorite writer certainly played an influential part in the shaping of the film. Though trumpeted as Welles’ first film, Citizen Kane was not Welles’ first choice; an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was to be Welles’ debut before wartime budgetary complications put the project on the shelf. Following this cancelled project was a thriller, The Smiler With the Knife, adapted from a novel by Nicholas Blake (one trivial aside: “Nicholas Blake” was the pen name of Cecil Day-Lewis, father of Daniel Day-Lewis), and set to star a pre-I Love Lucy Lucille Ball. Ball was vetoed by studio executives and Welles’ second choice, a German actress named Dita Parlo, was trapped in Europe by the war. It was November of 1939, and Welles’ infamously liberal contract with RKO stipulated completion of his first film by January 1 of 1940. He paired up with writer Herman Mankiewicz, who was nursing a severely self-destructive streak, but—according to Lebo’s book, Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey—“Welles was broad-minded about Mankiewicz’s conduct, because by January 1940, he was frantic.”
To make a long (and interesting, if you’ve got the time to dig in) story short, the basic outline that would become Citizen Kane came together very quickly, a chunky mixture of Welles interest in powerful figures and Mankiewicz’s insider access to the world of just such a figure, William Randolph Hearst (Welles would insist that Kane is a “Hearst type” rather than a direct analog). The themes of Citizen Kane were utterly Shakespearean in scope; power, influence, wealth, happiness, love, a towering figure with a resonant-if-slippery psychology wrestling with isolation. These figures and themes fascinated Welles from childhood; by 11, he was adapting and directing Shakespeare at the Todd School in Illinois. He would continue to examine them through his final fictional film, 1968’s The Immortal Story. Under pressure to deliver to anxious executives and an eager public, Welles dug into what he knew best.
Like any superlative masterpiece, Citizen Kane must confront the same problem as the plays of Shakespeare: What relevance does this story have to an audience in 2017? Picking Citizen Kane as the best film ever made (much like picking Shakespeare as the best writer who ever lived) is “the kind of pick that would tell you nothing about an average person,” Alison Willmore points out. Although Kane has been a mainstay of best-of lists for decades, it’s often discussed dismissively at best and derisively at worst. It may not unroll any eyes, but I’ve found it very refreshing to learn just how slapdash the production of Kane actually was; for example, early in the filming, Welles shut down production just after lunch to go home and be taught basic screen continuity by cinematographer Gregg Toland. An interviewer in 1960 said to Welles “what I’d like to know is where did you get the confidence from?”
“Ignorance,” replied Welles. “There’s no confidence equal it.”
There’s an old film adage that “if it can be written or thought, it can be filmed,” a maxim that Welles was living in 1940. “I thought you could do anything with a camera that the eye could do, or that the imagination could do… and in this case, I had a cameraman who didn’t care if he was criticized if he failed, and I didn’t know that there were things you couldn’t do. So anything I could think up in my dreams I attempted to photograph.”
“You got away with enormous technical advances,” continues the interviewer.
“Simply by not knowing that they were impossible,” says Welles. He smiles. “Or theoretically impossible.”
There aren’t filmmakers operating in this model anymore, or perhaps more accurately, there aren’t filmmakers allowed to operate in this model anymore. James Cameron comes close, but the depth of his technical research and innovation flips the script on Welles’ “learn it in three hours” approach. Cameron is an innovator while Welles is a virtuoso. And while some of Kane’s studio trickery (including makeup that made the 25-year-old Welles into a septuagenarian more convincingly than all the CGI in the world—looking at you, Prometheus) holds up, many more have entered filmic language so completely that their first usage now feels unimpressive. Under poor circumstances, a viewing of the film can feel like a trip through a dusty museum peopled by disinterested docents. Films that attempt to replicate a 1940s aesthetic (Soderbergh’s technically-accurate-but-tone-deaf The Good German, Hazanavicius’ charming-if-narratively-thin The Artist) can feel like exercises in style; everything old is not new again.
The works of Shakespeare were recently given a popular boost when the Public Theater in New York came under criticism for their production of Julius Caesar (coincidentally, the same play that Welles staged to great acclaim in 1937, eighty years earlier). The wave of myopic criticism of the Public’s production, which took aim at the current president (a theatrical tradition which has seen similar interpretations of Caesar for the past several sitting presidents), was met with less reactionary readings of the play, revealing a nuanced criticism of political violence from a playwright whose insight borders on prescience.
No one is remaking Citizen Kane though, however resonant the story of a power-hungry business tycoon taking stabs at the presidency might be in 2017. Trump may be a Kane “type,” but he’s no Charles Foster. In fact, knowing that he once called Citizen Kane his favorite film, all the while ignoring or misunderstanding its themes, central character, and overall message, the less said about the president, the better. Since Welles insists that Kane is based on no one person, we must take him at his word and avoid projecting this persona onto any other one person. But it rings true that there is a “Kane type;” a type with a gnawing hunger for love and acceptance inside them, which no amount of approval or acquisition can possibly satiate. Kane thought it “might be fun to run a newspaper” rather than an oil company or a real estate business because that’s where the influence lay. His first edition of the Inquirer put front and center “My Declaration of Principles.” The song written in his honor nearly pleads for familiarity (“He doesn’t like that ‘Mister,’ he likes ‘good ol’ Charlie Kane!’”). He runs for office under a populist banner, though his actual banner features his name and face exclusively. It is the story of a type and that type, more often than not, is fulfilled by a white man.
I have something of a complicated relationship with my own white maleness (and believe me, the idea of including Citizen Kane as an “important” or “necessary” film causes more than a few cringes), but this particular trajectory rings unfortunately true. In total fairness, I should say “not all rich white men,” but, like, enough rich white men fit this mold to make it discomfiting. You take a white male, give him some sadness in his young days, a good amount of money and watch him self-destruct. This is the natural conclusion in this constructed society. Men fail upwards, so of course he’s afforded the opportunity to run whatever business he chooses and of course he chooses one that allows him to align public opinion to his own often-on-a-whim opinion. I wouldn’t say that I identify with Kane (in fact, with no money but a happy childhood, you might say Kane wishes he identified with me), but I identify his story as a true one; a meteoric rise to prominence perpetrated on bare-knuckle power struggles—real and imagined—until there is no one left to fight but himself, followed by a downward spiral into loneliness and regret. This is what happens to aggressively successful white men.
This is not to weep and bemoan the condition of the successful white man but rather to have pity for those who fail to see that a lifestyle that prioritizes dominance over others will ever be anything but a terribly lonely one. Kane is the story of a man who—despite his largess—is terribly, terribly limited. His public persona is iconic and as such it is without subtlety, but the man behind the persona is nuanced, pitted by hubris and ambition and unmoored in the tide of his own personality. It sounds trite to summarize it as simply as “he had it all and lost it all,” and in fact that’s a very unsympathetic wrap-up. Watching Kane tear apart his bedroom after his wife leaves him is a wrenching experience, rife with misplaced rage. I feel both afraid of him and afraid for him. I mean, he got it wrong. All of it. Every part of life, he got wrong and I think it’s a kind of duty to feel sorry for someone like that. Elderly Kane is a lost cause; he’s driven his wife to a suicide attempt, his best friend left him years ago, his employees don’t respect him, and the thing that he yearns for, Rosebud, explains nothing. Rosebud is the missing piece of the puzzle, but even with a single missing piece, you can still see the entire picture. Knowing what the word means doesn’t change or illuminate his life in an especial way.
What Citizen Kane gives you is the opportunity to see the humanity behind the icon. If you can feel sympathy for the most powerful, undeserving of men, it sets something of a precedent in your heart; sort of a “think globally, act locally” kind of thing. I am 100 percent not saying that women and people of color (who, again, constitute most people) should be made to feel sympathy for rich white men, I’m saying that white men need to feel sympathy for angry, privileged, disconnected white men. Something is broken in them. We have been allowed to run rampant on our power for too long and we need to start self-regulating. The number of people just like me who have a hard pit of hatred in their hearts is staggering and we need to do something about it. This film should be a cautionary tale for white men. Look at what we are, look at what we do, look at who we hurt when we believe our own hype.
Think on one of the final images of Kane, eyes wet, back stiff, his hand clutched around a snow globe, walking the corridors of his empty, unfinished palace. He passes a set of adjacent mirrors. This is the real image of Kane, and the one that resonates through to a 2017 that believes wealth and power are the only things worth pursuing: an endless parade of identical angry white men.