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May 12, 2010

I think we’re alone now

“Citizen Kane” is widely regarded as the greatest American movie ever made. Any legitimate survey will include it in the top five, at least. Still, like many people, when I saw “Citizen Kane” for the first time (as a teenager in the ‘80s), I didn’t get it.

A victim of one of the most notorious spoilers, I had heard, in advance, that “Rosebud” was the sled (Oops, I guess I should have said “Spoiler Alert!”), so the central mystery was diminished from the outset. But worse, like the investigative journalist (William Alland) who drives the picture, researching sources, interviewing people who knew Charles Foster Kane, I had bought into that central mystery — that the unknown meaning of Kane’s last word was the film’s lynchpin.

Ultimately, of course, the mystery is never solved within the world of the film. It is only the audience that is shown the simple meaning of the word, in the last moments of the final reel, as the item in question is tossed into a huge furnace and burns. (Oops, Spoiler Alert! I really need to start giving advance notice for those.)

But, really, discovering the meaning of “Rosebud” is just a monumental example of misdirection; the film’s phenomenal power, its basic value is laid out as plainly as if all the cards were dealt face up, from the opening shot. There is no mystery at all.

The out-of-sequence narrative presents a quintessential American tragedy, the story of a man who, for all outward appearances, was a great success, but who never got what he wanted or needed because he was sold a lie; as a young boy, he was promised he would be wealthy, the obvious goal of any good American citizen. In what may be the single (if misguided) act of love visited upon young Charlie Kane, his mother (Agnes Moorehead) sends him away to be raised by a bank manager, apparently saving him from his physically abusive father (Harry Shannon).

A child of financial privilege, Kane becomes an eccentric and engaging adult. As the publisher of a big city newspaper, he champions an interest in social justice, but it isn’t long before success begins to change him. He starts manipulating the news beyond ethical boundaries. He starts buying ancient works of art and commits to a politically expeditious marriage.

Curiously, on the day he chooses to visit the place where his recently deceased mother’s property has been moved for storage (wherein he would find his long-lost sled), he meets the willfully ignorant Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) and feels sympathy for her; instead of proceeding to the warehouse, he stays with her and helps take her mind off of a toothache, another interesting example of
misdirection. It is a brief moment of happiness that leads to the end of Kane’s political aspirations and his marriage. Thereafter, Kane marries Susan, but his emotional wellbeing has deteriorated beyond any chance of recovery, and she, too, leaves him. Thereafter, he dies … alone.

There is, of course, a second level of extraordinary value to be discovered behind the scenes, in the ways in which Welles was inspired by the life of William Randolph Hearst and his extra-marital relationship with silent film star Marion Davies and the battle that ensued between Hearst and RKO when the former discovered how his life story had been abused by the upstart filmmaker. “Kane” derailed Welles’ career.

But what should stun the modern viewer, one year shy of the film’s 70th anniversary, is the way “Kane” predicted an epidemic cultural disease that we are only now beginning to recognize. Like a cult of dedicated lemmings, we have embraced a Kane-like penchant for buying and keeping unnecessary stuff. This behavior is the subject of A&E’s “Hoarders,” a popular television series wherein we meet people afflicted with the disorder, a sublimation of an individual’s need for love. We have learned the condition often requires therapeutic treatment, but it seems the real issue is that humans need love, we need to show it, share it and accept it from others. Isn’t that the point of Welles’ movie?

By the way, the actual source of the word “Rosebud” is a lot more provocative than Welles’ film would have us believe, but that will have to be a story for another day.

For further study: Daniel Clowes, the graphic novelist responsible for “Ghost World,” has published a fascinating graphic novel about a disturbed American Everyman named “Wilson.” Check it out.