Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source Warner Home Video DVD
“I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life,” Thompson tells his fellow reporters at the end of Citizen Kane. The camera then sweeps over a mass of crates, statues, lamps, bedposts, old photographs and curios until it finds the one word — “Rosebud” — whose supposed explanation opposes the prior statement.
Such is the inherently paradoxical nature of Orson Welles’ film: that its ending should be so equivocal, providing a satisfying resolution, while at the same time scoffing at such over-simplification. Welles himself subsequently renounced this device, dismissing it as “dollarbook Freud” and blaming it on Herman Mankiewicz, his co-screenwriter. At the end of Touch of Evil, Welles explicitly rejects the summative logic of “Rosebud” in Marlene Dietrich’s wistfully obtuse final lines: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?” The sinister secret at the heart of Mr. Arkadin turns out to be relatively banal, but the film derives most of its power from its disorienting photography. These films question the ability of any amount of words (let alone a single oblique reference to a sled) to explain a man’s life in any meaningful way. Welles’ great first film is essentially contradictory: it is at once thoroughly ambiguous and perfectly orchestrated; it dramatizes the haziness of perception and memory, while forcing the perspective of the audience to fit Welles’ singular vision; it is a star-vehicle with an ensemble cast; the work of countless different artists and craftsman, and the individual vision of an auteur.
The film is so thoroughly paradoxical that the “Rosebud” device both does and does not “explain a man’s life.” While “Rosebud” provides a rather satisfying conclusion and a convenient metaphor for Kane’s character, it still raises questions about the film and the viewer’s subscription to it.
Throughout much of the film, we have been eavesdropping on the reporter Thompson’s investigations and, for the most part, we have come to identify with him. The reporter is literally faceless, as Welles’ composition has carefully positioned him in the shadowy foreground. The lighting, the blocking and the anonymity of the character make Thompson a surrogate for the audience for much of the film. And indeed, his quest is the viewer’s as well: to seek out characters, to go behind closed doors and delve into diaries, and to get inside the mystery that is Charles Foster Kane. It is likely that the Thompson character is an evolution of Welles’ idea to film a version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with an entirely subjective camera, where the whole film would be shot from the narrator Marlow’ perspective (or “eye = I”, as the film’s explanatory prologue was to illustrate).
But it is important to note that the viewer is not Thompson. In the prologue, we traverse the gates of Xanadu to witness Kane’s death firsthand; in the epilogue, we leave the frustrated reporters to seek out the meaning of “Rosebud” on our own. Yet, even without these bookends, we know much more than Thompson because we see what happens. As a witness to the events that have occurred (or to an actual witness’ recollection or imagining of those events), we are privy to much more information than Thompson would ever know or even picture in his head. The physical and emotional nuances of the boarding house scene, for example, could never have been derived from the memoirs of the cold and single-minded Mr. Thatcher. Similarly, we are occasionally witnesses to events that would even have been unknown to the character who is recounting them to Thompson. Jed Leland recounts intimate scenes from Kane’s romantic life (notably the breakfast table scenes from Kane’s first marriage, and the events in Susan Alexander’s apartment) for which he would not have been present. The identity of the film’s viewer, then, is as much (or more) of a mystery as the identity of the title character. With persistent forward tracking movements, violating the gates and fences of Xanadu, probing into characters memories, and penetrating even into the remote past, Welles personifies his audience, allowing them an omniscient perspective over the characters and events, satisfying a voyeuristic desire to know and see all.
This sense of omniscience that Welles offers the viewer, this godlike perspective superior to any of the individual eyewitnesses, is achieved largely through Gregg Toland’s deep-focus photography, which allows for an unusually great depth of field, keeping subjects in the extreme foreground and background in focus simultaneously. Where the lenses were stretched beyond their limits, Toland and Welles even used optical printing to make composite shots, thus maintaining the “pan focus” aesthetic. At the time of the film’s release, Toland claimed that he used deep-focus for “attain[ing] approximate human-eye focus,” that is, presenting an image closer to reality as the human eye sees it. In this way, viewers have an omniscient perspective on all that appears in the frame, and their eyes may alight on any of the myriad details of set-design, acting, or blocking that are packed into the image onscreen. For example, the attentive viewer can spot the snowy glass ball in numerous shots in Susan Alexander’s apartment long before Kane, while destroying Susan’s suite at Xanadu, happens upon it. Our eyes are free to look around the frame at will, affording a more “natural” viewing experience.
Citizen Kane is, however, flagrantly stylized and hardly verisimilar. On the one hand, deep-focus is not at all an approximation of the capacity of the human eye. Our eyes focus selectively and have a generally narrow depth of field. But more importantly, our eyes may be free to look around the frame, but our attention is kept firmly under Welles’ control. He uses every trick at his disposal to manipulate what we see onscreen and how we see it: optical effects, animation, matte painting, sound, acting, composition, music, and so on. This is yet another paradoxical element to the film, that we are presented with a seemingly objective “reality” but are in fact fully at the whim of Welles’ tricks. In some ways, the viewers of the film are very much like Charles Foster Kane’s underprivileged “people”: Welles offers them a kind of democracy of vision (“a present of liberty, as a reward for services rendered,” as Jed Leland puts it) with himself in the role of benefactor and dictator. Kane, the yellow journalist, is deceptive in a similar way, promising the people of New York the truth, or his version of it. As he intimidates Signor Matisti, “I thought you’d see things my way.” Kane, like Welles, is a great manipulator of truth and perception.
Welles uses many devices to divert the attention of the audience toward specific things. The deep-focus photography afforded Welles framings somewhat similar to the proscenium arch of a theater, so his experience directing for the stage came in handy. Blocking and particularly lighting play an important role in his compositions and his manipulations of the viewer’s perspective. These tricks were nothing new, of course. D. W. Griffith often used action or lighting to direct the viewer’s attention toward specific parts of a wide composition. But Welles’ staging is very sophisticated, creating complicated set-pieces like the boarding house sequence, in which our attention is fully concentrated upon the face of Agnes Moorehead (as Kane’s mother) and the young Charlie Kane.
Also through acting Welles knows how to direct the viewer’s attention — particularly to himself. He consistently steals scenes, not only by giving himself star-entrances or by placing himself at the center of carefully devised blocking or composition, but also through more subtle acting techniques, diverting his eyes from the actor he is talking to or shouting down the other’s lines. (At the same time, however, Welles is also keen to spotlight his expert cast of players from Mercury Theater, many of whom make their first screen appearance in Kane.)
But the principle method of controlling the audience’s viewpoint is precisely that which offers them the illusion of omniscience: the deep-focus photography. Unlike the often stagy compositions of early silent film, Citizen Kane offers endless permutations of artful and symbolic framing, positioning Kane in positions of dominance over Susan Alexander, or dwarfed by the massive, reverberant halls of Xanadu. The camera interacts with the characters and sets, violating Kane’s inner sanctum, peering through the skylight of Susan’s nightclub in Jersey, spying over Thompson’s shoulder. The photography is by no means passively democratic; it frames, illustrates, insinuates, and pulls the viewer along with it.
At the end of the film, one of the reporters speculates, “I wonder. You put all this stuff together: palaces, paintings, toys, and everything. What would it spell?” What this reporter wants, as do Thompson, Rawlston and perhaps the viewer, is for these “pieces of the puzzle” to “spell” something, to form a word, to be reducible to language, and therefore definable. But words can be deceiving — certainly Kane’s newspapers can be, as was Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast. As Kane himself tells us in his first full line of dialogue in the film, one should not “believe everything you hear on the radio.”