Citizen Kane, the Mirrored Man

February 27, 2008
By
The many facets of a man that create his image reveal an ultimate statement about his life. The American experience is composed of those pieces, pledging opportunities of constitutional freedom to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The film Citizen Kane by Orson Welles paints an image of a man who once had the best of it all: supportive family, financial stability, and self-triumph in business– yet he felt unfulfilled. For Charles Foster Kane, it seems that the pieces don’t complete an image and the American Dream glorifies his “empty achievements” without considering the negative aspects of keeping that appearance, the reality that cracks the image.

Kane is, at face value, the success story desired by every American because he grew up poor and was bestowed with an inheritance, the golden ticket to a better life. Kane even grabs the opportunity with noble intentions, an admirable perception of American values. By the age of 25, he develops revolutionary ideals of a young radical, and declares that he would “provide them [the people] with a fighting and tireless champion of their rights as citizens and as human beings” by creating his own newspaper. In the iconic and satirical “News on the March” reel, we discover that Kane’s small newspaper soon expands into an empire of various corporate franchises from steel mills and theatres to grocery stores. The irony of Kane’s public image in politics, business, and entertainment is that they all fail to be solely positive accomplishments, lacking consideration for the social orderings defined by economic, environmental, and political structures. Kane’s wealth becomes political influence when he travels abroad during war times and leads his newspaper to instigate the entrance of Spanish-American War. His newspaper’s aggressive yellow-journalism takes a publicity hit when the Great Depression forces some branches to close. In an interview, Kane claims that “I’m an American. I’ve always been an American” and then proceeds to make a campaign in a major election, promising to remove the corruption of the government. However, the campaign ends abruptly as citizens realize that Kane tried to hide scandal and facts with sensationalized media. He is the tycoon of material riches, owning expensive artifacts and mansions– the most extravagant one being Xanadu, hailed as the modern paradise rivaling Kublai Khan’s palace. Yet Xanadu remains an unfinished tribute to his second wife whom leaves him during construction.

The story of Xanadu is one of many attempts in which Kane uses money to build relationships with people and control his life. According to Leland, “…all he [Kane] wanted out of life was love. That’s Charlie’s story. How he lost it. You see, he just didn’t have any to give. He loved Charlie Kane, of course.” Kane’s craving for love and security originates from when his mother signed away his future with his inheritance. The eerie flashback snow scene depicts young Kane attacking Mr. Thatcher with his sleigh and abandoning it in the snow, unable to voice any objection to his mother’s wishes. Years later, Kane holds to memories of his mother and home through a snow globe that reappears in the emotional scenes of the film. It represents the love and acceptance that he could never reach in relationships with Emily or Susan. Dedicated to Susan, his mistress and second wife, Xanadu symbolizes their shared youth from that rainy night Kane met her in her apartment. Kane explains that he was heading to the warehouse to “…looking at some old things, in searching for my youth” but ends up connecting Susan to her own childhood. Both sitting down, unique camera angle captures their faces from a mirror reflecting her room and the startling snow globe from the opening death scene makes another appearance, next to a photo of young Susan. Despite their mutual attraction and eventual marriage, Xanadu ends up as a haven for Kane alone, where Kane dictates everything and never has to face failure.

As Kane’s marriages fall apart, Leland watches Kane change from the young radical into a depressed lonely man. He had originally feared that “there’s always a chance, of course, that they’ll change Mr. Kane” when the newspaper became successful and Kane would alter his convictions, but had believed in his stubborn positive outlook. When the election fails, Leland enters the campaign office drunk, and slurs that Kane has lost his original, noble ambitions in exchange for propaganda-laced policies in his newspaper and his election. Kane’s bitter attitude contrasts his once radically liberal views when he started the newspaper at the age of 25. The 25 year old Kane had previously written a “Declaration of Principles” that pledged his responsibility to provide the truth to the people, but it was one that Leland and Bernstein suspected couldn’t be kept. Leland sees Kane’s loss as a lesson for him in honesty- but he can’t bring himself to be so honest, so critical. His hesitation mirrors the women in Kane’s relationships that result in dissolution. With Emily, Kane married for love, but also considered the political advantages of marrying a relative of the president. With Susan, he sought for love, but forced her into a singing career. He emitted a youthful persona, but that held selfish desires. Both Susan and Emily had fallen for the Charles Kane that was confident and passionate, but he became engrossed in his own world.
The apartment scandal scene that ruins Kane’s election reveals the inner stubborn man, and how he denies any truth except his own. While meeting Jim Gettys, Kane is silent about his blackmail until Emily declares that “… it’s been decided for him. You have to think about the family.” Kane stomps down the stairs infuriated, yelling “You can’t do this to me! I am Charles Foster Kane! I’m not some crooked politician trying to hide…” despite the fact that he knows that he has lost. He has lost the respect of his so-called people, his family, and his cherished friend Leland. Kane’s outcry is mirrored again when Susan, his second wife, leaves him. Kane tears apart her room in a mad tantrum and walks past dozens of mirrors as he holds the snow globe in his hand. Unlike Leland, Kane ignores the fact that he has to accept failure along with achieving success.
The childish attitude of Kane leaves him lonely for his past, the innocence of his childhood before he was pulled into the business world. He emitted a youthful persona, but that held selfish desires. The work he put into his image and financial success is empty profit because he had no balance between giving and taking. The wealth he accumulated takes away something of equal value: love. Kane never learned that the American Dream was about compromise and personal sacrifices. We, as the audience, are guided through Citizen Kane in a cyclical storyboard that investigates Kane’s life and closes just as it began, with a harsh “No Trespassing” sign and the enigmatic sleigh “Rosebud”. As Thompson closes the gates to the deteriorating mansion, Kane’s sleigh burns away from existence.





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