Charles Foster Kane walks through the threshold of the room that was once occupied by his beautiful wife—a shrine to her celebrity, a celebrity that was as empty as it was critically panned—but now stands wrecked and uninhabited. Through his own machinations, he had made that woman who she was; not only was her fame a product of his intrusion, but so, also, was her marriage to him. For years they had sat on opposite sides of the vast hall, she with her jigsaw puzzles on the floor, he in his throne-like master chairs, looking at the gargantuan fireplace before him. Were there ever two more isolated activities than those? Now, that void had been finally realized, and she had left him—for once, a decision based on her own free will. His behavior had brought about her departure, and he recognized his role in it. But, he would not be undone. He had built that shrine, he would tear it down. And so he had. And now, behind him, the bedroom lays a shambles: statues, trophies, linens and furniture broken, torn and scattered throughout the room.
And, before him, stands that vast hall, the one that had stood between him and his now former wife for all those years. Gigantic walls and towering ceilings surround the wings, adorned with moldings and carvings that bring the only remaining color to Kane’s life. They seem surprisingly empty now. He steps into the hall, and into the throng of servants and waiters who look at him in worry having just seen his tirade in the chamber-shrine. The crowd forms a corridor, as it were, in that vast hall, and Kane slowly walks through it, gripping the snow-globe that belonged to him as a boy.
As he walks through that crowd, a soft violin plays, the type of score that often goes unnoticed. First and foremost, you hear the silence that is magnified by the sound of his footsteps echoing throughout the hall. He moves in the frame from right to left, from center to rear, the distance between him and the viewer slowly growing as he moves out of the frame. This is a classic movie trick. Movement to the right symbolizes forwardness and progression, movement to the left symbolizes a reverse, a digression into the past. Kane’s life, in essence, is flashing before him, as is made even more evident by the reflection that he casts in the huge mirror next to him. Despite all the people in that crowd, only he reflects in the mirror. He is alone. And despite all the space that surrounds him, his stare is in to empty space.
And then, the long take cuts and we see him as he now moves forward (to the right). The echoing footsteps continue and he walks past another mirror. Herein is one of the most famous reflections ever filmed. Though we, the audience, don’t see it, we know that there is a second mirror on the other side of the corridor, because Kane steps into a reflection of infinite Kanes, a line going on into eternity.
The symbol of the infinite mirrors—used often in the realms of both art and spirituality—is seen in particular poignancy in the temples of the Mormon Church, or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a sacred room called a sealing room, where husbands and wives are married for “time and for all eternity,” an altar of prayer sits between a pair of mirrors mounted on opposite walls. While not an official part of the ceremony, these mirrors play a significant role in the Mormon marriage, as the couple, now married, arise from the altar to see their reflection go into eternity.
Before them, their often-smiling faces go on forever, and, behind them, they see it go on with no beginning. This means more than just eternal companionship for those of the Mormon faith, it is a symbol of covenant shared by all the monotheistic religions. This covenant was made with Abraham, and would be active through all his posterity to the end of days. Through Abraham, God said, would all the nations be saved. The Muslim faith asserts right to this covenant through Ishmael, Abraham’s first born. The Jewish faith asserts the same claim through Isaac, Abraham’s second born and “chosen son”. Christianity, born of Judaism, asserts the latter as well, with many of its adherents believing that—through the redemptive power of Christ—one can be “adopted” into the Abrahamic line. For the Mormons, this is where that interlinking takes place, where the vast web of generations and races and sexes and nations are linked to Christ through the covenant of Abraham. Hence, their line goes on forever in both ways, backwards and forwards in an eternal line.
This representation of infinity is often seen in mathematical symbols as a sideways “8”, a twisted variation of the uroborus, or serpent eating its own tail. This symbol finds its origins in ancient Tibet and into India and represents “perfection, dualism, and unity between male and female.” Not unlike Yin and Yang in Chinese philosophy, this symbol of eternity is rooted in a perfect balance that is characterized by corresponding and interacting parts—eternity is a unified partnership. Therefore, religion moves towards eternity by seeking a partnership with God, what Paul called justification. Society moves towards eternity by seeking a perfect interaction between people in a community, what is often called “Utopia”. And people seek out a way to live forever by creating bonds with people around them, through love and companionship.
But, there is not another person standing next to Charles Foster Kane in that infinite line of mirrors. He is completely, utterly, alone. Never in the history of film has loneliness been shown so succinctly and so beautifully as in that hall of mirrors. Here stands a man whose very life was a dream that he could live forever, that he could find a way to reach eternity. At first, this man tried to do so by exerting great power over the people around him. Later, we see that he starts to realize the importance of relationships, and he tries with all that power that he has amassed over his life to make at least one lasting relationship with someone who loves him. In essence, he had tried to be the greatest of men by seeking their approval. A man like him could have everything he ever wanted, except that which he wanted more than anything else: the love of his fellow-man. He never knew what it took to make that happen, so it never did. His “eternity” therefore, was never reached.
Except for one moment. This is a wonderful scene that takes place much earlier in the film than the aforementioned incident with the mirrors. Kane’s marriage is falling apart, and we begin to wonder if he only married in the first place to feed his ambition. He is already the most powerful man in New York, but night and naïveté have their ways of making even the most powerful man “an ordinary fellow from another town”. So it was in this scene, when young Susan Alexander first meets Charles Foster Kane on the street in the rain. A car drives past, splashing mud up on Kane’s clothes. Susan laughs, Kane laughs in return, and she leads him to her apartment to dry off. This is one of the few moments of truly humble self-effacement that we ever see from Mr. Kane. In her apartment, the two make small talk as if they met at a community dance hall; she has no idea who Charles Foster Kane is, and he seems to find solace in that. We see, for the first time, a man who is less concerned with his name, his face, and his reputation, and more concerned about his origins, and the origins of the woman in front of him. For the first time, his quest to be admired hits the mark: he is not so concerned with admiration as he is with a shared status.
This long look into the mind and heart of Charles Foster Kane is the sort of look that I doubt William Randolph Hearst or MGM or other critics of Citizen Kane ever took at the heart of the movie. This examination of the character of Kane (Kane the man) was never considered by those industry elite who demanded the movie be burned or else suffer the wrath of the great Hearst.
You see, this movie is far too introspective to be about William Randolph Hearst. This movie is far too self-aware to be a political criticism. This movie is far too thoughtful to be merely satire. This movie is about Charles Foster Kane, a fictional character. Yet, it is about so much more than that.
This is where the comparison between William Randolph Hearst and Charles Foster Kane actually does the movie a disservice. I went into great detail about the parallels between both men and the value that recognizing those parallels has when watching the movie in my last essay. But too much emphasis on that can distract us from what is really great about the movie. One absolutely must recognize that this movie is the greatest ever made because it operates on so many levels: it acts as a political rebuke, sure, but it also acts as a brilliant comedy, a technical cinematic sensation, an acting tour-de-force, an historical film debut, a fugal tragedy, and a riveting character-study.
To only focus on one of these facets is okay, but to see them all in the prismatic grandeur that is Citizen Kane is to be taken in to a world that is greater than you or me or William Randolph Hearst or anything else ever committed to celluloid. So often when I talk to people, they ask me what my favorite movie is and I tell them that it’s Citizen Kane and then the conversation turns into a discussion of how, “yeah, I didn’t love it, but I understand why it’s so liked because the camera work is good;” or, if there’s a third party, like what happened to me earlier this summer, one will say that they’ve never seen it, but they’ve heard of it and then ask what makes it so great. To which the second party then says “Oh, it’s probably the best technical film ever made, with its shots and its lighting and stuff.” It seems like today’s generation, when they think of Kane, see it as “a technical cinematic sensation” and nothing more.
For the great Pauline Kael, it seems like the conversations were different. For her, she heard far too much of how Kane acted as “a riveting character-study” and not nearly enough about how the movie also acted as “a brilliant comedy.” She wrote:
“Apparently, the easiest thing for people to do when they recognize that something is a work of art is to trot out the proper schoolbook terms for works of art, and there are articles on Citizen Kane that call it a tragedy in fugal form and articles that explain that the hero of Citizen Kane is time—time being a proper sort of modern hero for an important picture. But to use the conventional schoolbook explanations for greatness, and pretend that it’s profound, is to miss what makes it such an American triumph—that it manages to create something aesthetically exciting and durable out of the playfulness of American muckraking satire. Kane is closer to comedy than to tragedy, though so overwrought in style as to be almost a Gothic comedy… Citizen Kane is a ‘popular’ masterpiece—not in terms of actual popularity but in terms of its conceptions and the way it gets its laughs and makes its points.”
Again, the viewer misses the point when viewing the film as solely a “riveting character-study” or “a fugal tragedy.” You must recognize it for what it is.
This blog has attempted to view Kane through all these lenses. My introductory page showed how all these lenses work together to create a viewing experience that gets better every time one is exposed to it. My second essay “The Story of Citizen Kane: The Mercury Theatre and Other Players” focused on the movie as “an historical film debut”. My third essay, “The Story of Citizen Kane: William Randolph Hearst and the Kane Controversy” focused on the the movie as “a political rebuke”. This fourth essay “Kane the Man”, has focused, and will continue to focus, on the movie as a “riveting character-study,” and “a fugal tragedy.” (With all due respect to Ms. Kael.) I will spend future essays discussing Kane as “a brilliant comedy,” an “acting tour-de-force” and “a technical cinematic sensation.”
With this in mind, the parallel between Hearst and Kane only acts to point us, the viewers, toward the political and satirical. There is far more to Kane than a comparison with William Randolph Hearst. Perhaps the man who played Kane knew the best: Orson Welles is quoted to have said, “William Randolph Hearst was born rich. He was the pampered son of an adoring mother. That is the decisive fact about him. Charles Foster Kane was born poor and was raised by a bank.”
In this regard, Charles Foster Kane has far more in common with another person, a man who, at the age of four experienced his parents separate, his father resort to alcoholism and his mother play piano in order to support him and his older brother, who would, shortly thereafter, be institutionalized because of learning disabilities. Within a matter of years, this man’s mother would die of hepatitis. His father would die six years later, when he was 15. Then, he was taken in as a ward for Dr. Maurice Bernstein, the namesake of which would be carried over into Citizen Kane with the character of Mr. Bernstein. This man was Orson Welles himself.
This striking similarity to Charles Foster Kane cannot be ignored, as the movie now becomes less a political piece and more an introspective work from a brave auteur. The connection Kane has with the actor who played him is incredibly multi-faceted. Various instances in the life of Welles, and various people of power he encountered growing up, can be found in Kane’s life story; in this regard, Hearst is not the sole character upon whose life Kane was based. In particular, there are two people of whom Welles knew a lot from his days as a young man in Chicago, Harold Fowler McCormick and Samuel Insull. The story of Susan Alexander—often considered to be directly inspired by William Randolph Hearst’s relationship with Marion Davies—has far more in common with McCormick’s affair with one Ganna Walska, a notably poor opera singer. There is also stunning similarity regarding that affair to the actions of Samuel Insull, who built the Chicago Civic Opera House for his wife, Gladys Wallis.
These were power-players, the tycoons of Welles’ youth. So, it is only fitting that Kane’s origin story—his youth—be similar to that of Orson Welles. Bernard Herrmann (the guy who wrote the music for the movie—read my second “Kane” essay) stated to David Raskin that “there was a lot of Welles himself in the flamboyant Mr. Kane.” Kane’s development into manhood ran striking parallels to the development of Welles himself, including his atmospheric rise at an early age due to loaded (even flamboyant) charisma, and a manipulation of fact.
In this regard, Welles’ creation of Charles Foster Kane is a close look at his own weaknesses. This is where we get into Citizen Kane as an auteur-picture. Welles’ contributions to the film accentuate his own self-awareness of his own amition, using the life of William Randolph Hearst as a framework only because Hearst was so well known as an ambitious man to whom everyone who watched would be able to connect. It could be seen, therefore, that Orson Welles’ film is a rebuke of self. A much better way to look at it, though, is as a commentary on self, a look into the nature of the artist.
I am reminded of François Truffaut’s quote: “I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between.” For Truffaut, his films were an extension of self, a lens through which he could find self-actualization. They had acted as an escape for him from a life that he saw as potentially doomed. Welles’ approach to the arts was not all that different. His love of theater, radio, and, eventually, film not only propelled him to greatness in entertainment, but also helped him escape a life that, in a very real way, could have been his doom. From such examples, it can be seen that the cinema does not act as a means whereby we can be entertained for two hours, only to get up and remain unchanged. Good film acts as any art: it allows us into the mind of its creator, and by experiencing this ultimate form of empathy, changes the way we look at life.
This is what Citizen Kane does: it shows us a little bit of Orson Welles’ mind. Where great directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Francis Ford Coppola would eventually make their ways to films which commented on their role as a film-maker (Vertigo and The Conversation are the films in question), Welles approached film in this way from the very start. His first picture was a true auteur film, self-effacing, self-aware, and self-exalting. For many people, he had other films that were “better”, The Magnificent Ambersons and Chimes at Midnight are the usual picks, but these lack that all-important aspect of individuality that makes Kane so great.
Orson Welles allows us to truly question Kane the man by questioning Kane the man himself. In watching his riveting performance of Charles Foster Kane, we are led to believe that Welles was perfectly aware that he was in grave danger of leading the same life that his alter-ego had led. And, with that incredibly personal approach, allows us to ask those same questions of ourselves.
In the end, Kane forgets his origins, and by so doing, pushes the rest of the world, and all its special people who could have loved him, away. Yet, all he ever wanted was to be loved. This is the most deeply-rooted emotion he has, and though it has been perverted by money and ambition, it never fully goes away. I think that Kane’s thirst to be loved starts in those opening segments in the snow, under the watchful eye of a stoic yet loving mother. Welles, like Kane, lost his mother too young. Perhaps what Welles and Mankiewicz and all the others were trying to say was that nothing can substitute for a real relationship, not a bank for a mom, not a protege for a wife, not an employee for a friend. All those things that Kane owned—the statues, the castles, the newspapers, and all—could easily be used to define his life and legacy. Yet, at movie’s close, it seems that Kane is to be defined by those things he gave up.
So, when you are watching Citizen Kane, for the first, second, third, or four hundredth time, ask yourself a couple questions. Is Kane a good guy, or a bad guy? How does he lose those connections with people that he so deeply desires? At what points in the movie are those connections severed? What relationship do you think meant the most to him? Which ones were the most detrimental?
Citizen Kane acts as one of the great character studies in the history of cinema. That is one of those things that makes it so great. It is a viewing experience that changes you. Instead of taking away two hours of your life, it almost seems to give you a few. So, while Charles Foster Kane may be a tragic hero, destined to lose the eternity that he could have had, the movie wherein he resides lives on forever, because it creates a bond with everyone of its viewers. I know that it has created such a bond with me; it has made me want to be a better person.