The Power of Angles in Citizen Kane
The movie Citizen Kane depicts the life of the successful businessman Charles Foster Kane through a series of flashbacks derived from interviews of his acquaintances. Through these interviews, Thompson, a newspaper reporter, attempts to solve the mysterious meaning of Kane’s final word, “Rosebud,” and uncover a more private side of Kane. Moreover, during these interviews, the viewer better understands these relationships through sound, via the content of the interview, as well as through sight, via the varying perspectives and positions of the camera. These camera angles are especially impactful within scenes involving Kane and his wives, and are used to depict the more controlling and powerful person within the scene. The positioning of the camera gives the audience more insight into what situations cause Kane to be more dominating when in a relationship.
The strategic use of these angles works to emphasize the power dynamics between Kane and the women with whom he has relationships. During the film, there are several scenes between Kane and his second wife, Susan Alexander, in which the camera is positioned up towards Kane to signify his position of power over Susan. At one point, when Susan is in front of Kane and is having a hysterical fit over negative reviews written about her performances, the camera shifts positions three times. At first the camera is positioned so it is looking down on Susan while she has an outburst. From this downward-looking perspective, it is almost like Kane is a parent looking down upon a small child as she throws a temper tantrum in her shrill, childlike voice. The camera then moves so that we view the scene from Susan’s perspective as she complains and almost pleads to Kane for answers. As Susan whines about her negative reviews, the camera looks up towards Kane because he is believed to have the solution and the power to change the situation. Lastly, the camera zooms out to show Kane pacing around the room, standing as Susan sits on the floor, pouting. This image of both Kane and Susan reiterates their imbalanced power dynamic and emphasizes his superiority over her.
Kane is often placed at a high angle, in such a manner that the camera looks up towards him throughout the film. However, there are a few occasions when the camera looks straight onto him and others, implying a balance in power. When Kane and Susan first meet, they are sitting inside of Susan’s apartment making hand shadows upon the wall. While they are both partaking in this childish act, the camera is at eye level with both of them, which implies a balance of power within their relationship. At this point, Susan does not know the power behind Kane’s name, which helps to eliminate any hierarchies of power and control. Additionally, Kane, who lacked a childhood, is drawn to Susan’s childlike disposition and feels as though he can be the most infantile version of himself. This is one of the few scenes in which Kane’s playful side is shown and this exhibition of a gentler side of him also helps to lower him from his usual state to a position closer to Susan’s, which is again emphasized by the angling of the camera so that it is directed straight at both individuals.
Susan is not the only woman in Kane’s life who is able to interact with him eye-to-eye. Emily, Kane’s first wife, was also able to interact with Kane on equal footing. She is the President’s niece and a strong woman. There are several scenes in the film that depict Kane and Emily’s morning breakfast routine, where the camera is positioned at a neutral angle so it is looking directly at both of them, conveying their equal levels of power. As the scenes progress, tension grows between the two as they argue about Kane’s obsessive work tendencies and what he publishes in his paper. Unlike Susan, who is very childlike but ultimately unsuccessful in getting what she wants, Emily is much more cunning. Rather than resorting to juvenile acts like screaming as Susan does, Emily chooses to be significantly more diplomatic and direct about what she doesn’t like. Emily challenges Kane’s actions rather than passively sitting by and allowing him to dominate her. Although Emily is able to voice her opinion, her assertiveness is not enough to change Kane’s actions, preventing her from being able to exceed Kane’s level of power, which is further emphasized by the straight-on positioning of the camera. Sound and content within a scene convey several ideas about these interactions and relationships between Kane and his wives; however, the positioning of the camera also serves to emphasize the power dynamics within such relationships.
When the camera is looking down on a character, such a technique implies a lack of control and demonstrates Kane’s superiority over that individual. The reverse applies when the camera is looking up at Kane, signifying Kane’s power over a woman. The changing angles show that as powerful as Kane is, there are several moments in his life and relationships with women when he is not dominant or in control, but merely equal.
Lovers in Citizen Kane and The Lady from Shanghai: A Comparison
Orson Welles’ films Citizen Kane and The Lady from Shanghai each pivot on a central pair of lovers. Despite the differences of the movies, each set of main characters share a set of characteristics. Both pairs of lovers (Susan Alexander and Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, and Elsa Bannister and Michael O’Hara in The Lady from Shanghai) contain a powerful person and a less-powerful person; thus, the dynamics of power, desire, love, ambition, and evil form similar patterns in each couple. Though on the surface these people appear to be dissimilar, not only in sex but in position in life and temperament, the underlying motivations and the outcomes from those motivations are much alike. Orson Welles explores the idea of power and manipulation in sexual relationships in each film. Berg and Eskine, in their article on Kane, explain that “Thematically, Welles was always interested in power and love – and failure. Contrary to the conventions of the Hollywood success story with its happy ending…Welles was determined to make a ‘failure story.'” (Berg and Eskine, 54). This kind of failure of not only love, but of ambition, is a theme in both Kane and Lady. The excess of power on one side of a relationship ruins any chance of success, Welles seems to be saying. This exploration of power and love, and the consequences on relationships and ambition, direct the stories of both films. In both films, the more-powerful lover is the “point” in a love triangle. In Citizen Kane, Charles Kane is married, unhappily, to a politically and socially advantageous woman. Emily Kane, we are lead to believe, might not have been the true love of Charles, but rather a charming and pretty high-society political asset. The beginning scene of the breakfast-table sequence leads us to believe there may have been youthful affection between the couple, but that the relationship deteriorated into a marriage only of form. Charles stays married to Emily for the sake of his son and his political career. Not only would divorce from any woman ruin his political chances (in that respect Emily has “got something on” Charles), but Emily has powerful relations who could scuttle Charles’ career. The bond of marriage, for the high-powered character in Kane, is therefore power, not love. Similarly, in The Lady from Shanghai, the Bannister marriage is based on power and domination rather than love. Elsa is the character with power, having both money and the control of others through her deviousness; she does not love Arthur, her husband. As Michael asks her, “What has your husband got on you?” The question is never answered, but from the context of the film, it is obvious that either Bannister knows of her sordid past in the Far East, holds her gambling debts, or has some other way to keep her married to him. It is a more overt example of the kind of hostage-marriage that Charles has with Emily. Both Charles and Elsa are in marriages that they cannot break, which provides not only the tension necessary for an effective love triangle, but a plot point showing a further example of the helplessness of the less-powerful characters, Susan and Michael. Susan Alexander is the more extreme case of the powerless character. Young and naive, she happens upon Charles by accident. After the initial welcoming of him into her room in the boardinghouse, she does not pursue him, but rather allows Charles’ advances. When confronted with his status as not only a married man but also a political opportunist for whom she is a dangerous liability, she has a hysterical and self-protective reaction. It is clear that she does care for Charles; indeed, Kane was “drawn to her because, unaware of his fabulous wealth and power, she liked him for himself” (Berg and Eskine 53). She is completely unaware that she holds the power to break up not only a high-profile marriage, but also jeopardize a political and business career. Her power is entirely accidental, and not wielded directly by her, but rather by the people around her. Charles’ marriage is broken not by her, but by the sensationalist media and by the accidental death of Emily and Charles, Jr. Susan is awarded to Charles almost as a consolation prize, with the marriage of the two the only option, after Emily’s death, to attempt to repair Charles shattered public image. The relationship between them is never equal. Susan even says, on the first night of their meeting “I’m awful ignorant, but I guess you know that.” Thus, it is not only her relative innocence that renders her powerless, but her own admission of intellectual inferiority. The powerlessness and naÃ¯vetÃ© of Michael O’Hara is better disguised than Susan’s, partially because he is a male character. Naremore calls him a “naÃ¯ve vagabond” (126), but it appears from the first scenes that he has a masculine, even brutish kind of innocence. He rescues Elsa from several thugs with his fists; as Goldfish says of him in the Sailors’ Hall “Mike’s got a lot of blarney, but he knows how to hurt a man when he wants to.” It is a bit of a red herring thrown to the audience, which may be beginning to think that Michael will turn out to be a strong enough man to get himself out of the mess he has already warned us about. But there is a double message; like Susan Alexander, he admits to us in the beginning of the film, and several times thereafter, “I am a fool.” On the surface, Michael appears physically larger and more powerful than all of the other men (Grisby, the handicapped Arthur Bannister, Goldfish, Broome), and he certainly throws his weight around. But essentially he is an admired and petted child – one coveted for various reasons by the other characters but initiates or controls none of the action himself. For Elsa he is a sexual amusement and a tool in the complicated double-cross she has concocted to rid herself of both Grisby and Arthur. Arthur uses him as amusement for his wife (a substitute child, perhaps, or at least a man whom his wife admires that, through employment, he is able to control – and Arthur is therefore able to control his wife by extension) and also as part of his plan to entrap his wife and divorce-proof their marriage. Grisby uses Michael as part of the scheme with Elsa, and also, it appears, for his own deranged amusement. All of them use Michael as a legal scapegoat and as a foil for their various levels of distrust and dysfunction. It is as if they feed off his youth, strength, honesty, and innocence. In Citizen Kane, the manipulation and control of Susan’s life and career by Charles shows his high status. Charles takes her small singing ability and uses it as a new ambition for himself. “An outgrowth from his journalism, Kane’s politics were both progressive and domineering, as if each of his life’s tasks tripped a mechanism that mitigated against the full acceptance of his being – by himself or others. The destructive nature of his quest to manage the public – via the opera career of his second wife, Susan – calcified Kane’s character and worked to isolate him from all that made him alive” (Castle, . “We’re going to be a great opera star,” Charles says on the day of his and Susan’s wedding, rather than “she’s going to be a great opera star”. Susan’s talent is merely a commodity to be used by Charles.Charles’ control over Susan is more overt than Elsa’s control over Michael, but Elsa’s control is no less effective. Throughout the film, Michael does what Elsa wants, or what he thinks Elsa wants. He seems to lose any kind of control over himself, in action or in morality. He collapses psychologically “as his last illusions are stripped away”; not the man he thought he was, his moral center, weakened, cannot “maintain the authority or power it once had” (Castle, . He also is a slave to Elsa through his own desire. He would not have taken up the cruise though the Panama Canal if not for his desire for Elsa, and through this personal weakness she controls him in every other way. The only thing that would possibly have convinced him to follow Grisby’s fantastic scheme was the desire for money to provide for Elsa, rather than any greed for himself. Likewise, Susan’s inability to resist Charles’ manipulation, and her lack of confidence in her own worth and intelligence, makes Susan a pawn of Charles for a large part of the film. She never had ambitions to opera stardom, and even laughs at her mother for supposing that she should. She compromises morality the first time she meets Charles by asking an unknown man into her room. She does not seem to have any will of her own when it comes to Charles–until, of course, the end. Susan and Michael’s status as the outsider in Charles’ and Elsa’s worlds also strikes a similar note in the stories. Susan is a complete outsider to the high-society world of Charles, Emily, and Jed Leland. Not only is her social standing and education level different, but the very sound of her voice proclaims her foreignness. Susan speaks with what sounds like a cross between a Brooklyn accent and a south-side Chicago twang, in sharp contrast to the slightly Southern genteel voice of Jedidiah, Emily’s beautiful and entirely correct diction, and the measured, urbane tones of Charles. Similarly, Michael comes in as a complete outsider into the world of Arthur, Grisby, and Elsa. He is completely different socially, and, quite literally, is from a foreign country, his Irish brogue separating him from Elsa (who, inexplicably, was raised in China by Russian parents, and somehow acquired an American accent), Arthur and Grisby. Michael starts out as an outsider, and is brought in by the machinations of Arthur and Elsa, but he never becomes a part of the group. During the picnic scene, Grisby and Arthur and Elsa sit exchanging insults in their beach chairs, and when Michael is called to join them, he lectures them with his parable of the sharks. Michael, though employed by the Bannisters, makes it clear that he is not part of their group. He never sits down with them (with the exception of when he gets Arthur drunk in the sailor bar), or joins in their conversation other than being questioned by them. Even at the end of the film, while Michael watches Elsa die, “Michael is in the frame, but out of focus in the background, stressing his status as the outsider” (Berg and Erskine 206). Susan, similarly, in the scene in her boardinghouse when Gettys and Emily confront Charlie, is an outsider of the least important kind. During this scene, Gettys, Emily, and Charles talk to each other, but never address their remarks to Susan. Even when Susan shouts and runs right up to them, saying “But what about me?” her concerns never elicit a response. Generally Gettys, Charles, and Emily are shown in shadow in this room, while Susan remains in the light most of the time. It is as if she is the only person lit because she is not privy to the shadowy world of compromise and deals that Gettys and Charles and Emily inhabit. She understands little of the conversation, and her role in it the least of all. Later, at Xanadu, she is almost always shown alone. She sits for hours employed in the fruitlessly idle pursuit of jigsaw puzzles, and is never shown with her guests or even enjoying the comfort of one friend. In her scenes with Charles he either listens to her ranting, or gives her lectures or decisions as from on high. Susan may live in Xanadu and bear Charles’ name, but she never has become part of his world or even truly part of the house. And in the end, of course, she leaves that house, and leaves Charles alone in his own world. The seemingly magical aura given off by both Charles and Elsa is another proof of their high-powered status. Charles builds a castle “like the home of a sorcerer,” (Naremore 55), and has “fantastic wealth.” Charles Foster Kane is not treated like any other human being on his death, but has to be investigated by Thompson and the “News on the March” team. His enigmatic status makes him special and somehow other than human. He builds a home, Xanadu, patterned on a fantasy from a Coleridge poem. His stature, both physical and figurative, separates him from everyone else in the film. From the beginning, when he is made different from other boys by not only his wealth but by being sent away to be educated apart from his parents, he is somehow special and different from the rest of the world. Elsa, also, is portrayed as semi-magical: “In The Lady from Shanghai [Elsa] sings the siren song of gold, or compromise…and Welles’s romantic fool follows” (Haskell, 204). Not only the reference to her status as Circe, the mythical enchantress who turned men into swine, or at the very least a Siren, a nymph who lured men to their deaths, sets her apart as quasi-magical. When everyone else is sweating in the heat of the tropics, Elsa remains unfailingly cool and coiffed. While the rest of characters fret and rant and rave, Elsa always remains calm. When Elsa sings, Michael cannot help but be drawn up to her, as if in a trance. By contrast, Susan and Michael are both completely human and down to earth. If anything, they are artistic failures. Michael has pretensions of being a novelist, but supports himself by being a sailor. Susan, less ambitious and arguably even less talented, has a small talent for singing which she had no intention of using as a career. Again, these characters stress that they are “a fool” or “just a girl” or “a dope”, and are easily led and duped by the power characters – either for the high-powered character’s own unfulfilled ambitions or devious plot. Michael sweats right along with Arthur and Grisby, and Susan ends up a penniless alcoholic. Thus, human faults and foibles are amply represented in Susan and Michael. By analyzing the meeting scenes between Elsa and Michael, and Susan and Charles, this pattern of high power/low power is further revealed. Michael pursues Elsa, whom he admires while she is riding a carriage in the park, in a rather supplicating rather than dominating way. He tells her, after offering her a cigarette, “It’s me last one, don’t disappoint me.” Even though he “rescues” her from the muggers in the park, it is clear that she is in power all along. She has a gun in her purse, and, rather than using it on her attackers, leaves it in the purse for Michael to find. Though she strokes his male ego enough to make it appear that he is rescuing her in the sex-specific way that is required by romantic convention, there is little doubt that the person in power is Elsa. Furthermore, Michael does not know Elsa’s surname or her high status as Mrs. Bannister until after he has left her. He learns from the men in the garage that she is the wife of “the world’s greatest criminal lawyer.” A similar scenario takes place between Susan and Charles. Again, the couple meets in the street, but with another power-bending twist of having Susan laughing at the mud-spattered Charles. In a slightly suggestive moment, she offers him hot water and brings him to her room. The power, like with Michael in the meeting scene with Elsa, appears to be lying with Susan, but the situation is soon reversed. Charles is certainly not as devious as Elsa, but, just as Elsa took a chance meeting and turned it into an acquisition of a human being, Charles does the same. Charles takes a liking to Susan, and she to him, and (as stated above) like Michael of Elsa, Susan doesn’t yet know how powerful Charles actually is. It appears to be a meeting of equals, but as soon as the knowledge of the relationship between Susan and Charles becomes public, Charles utterly controls Susan’s life. She could have escaped from the sphere of Charles’ influence, as Michael could have, but both of Susan and Michael instead remain in the thrall of their high-power lovers. This leads, of course, to their near ruin. The parallel of attempted suicide by drugs is more than a coincidence for Michael and Susan. Michael grabs at Arthur’s pills in despair at the coming verdict against him, driven to it not only by the horrible mess he is in but also by Elsa’s tacit suggestion. Susan is driven to overdosing on sleeping powder because Charles will not stop driving her to become his “great opera star”. It is their embroilment in the high-power lovers’ plots that drive these low-power characters to the point of self destruction. It is significant, too, that the method of suicide is a passive rather than active one. These low-status characters do not attempt to shoot themselves, or throw themselves off a bridge – they take the “cowardly” method of poison, and, in fact, of soporifics to end their lives as painlessly as possible. In both cases they fail. The high-power characters in these films not only control the actions and emotions of their low-power lovers, but also appear to almost have the power of life and death over them. Cinematically, the power-up-power-down duality is shown quite obviously in both films. Upon Elsa and Michael’s first meeting, she is, though inches shorter than him, shown above him riding in the carriage. Charles’ obvious advantage of height and bulk over Susan provides a built-in visual cue to power, but lighting of Charles also shows his power. In the scenes after they are married, Charles (mostly shown above her, standing while she is seated on the floor, as in the hotel room or the picnic, or at a table in the jigsaw puzzle scene) is often shown in the dark, while Susan is harshly lit. The darkness shows Charles’s ability to hide his feelings, as Susan is never able to, and the power of being able to see Susan clearly while she cannot see him. In The Lady from Shanghai, whenever Elsa can be raised above Michael, she is, such as in the scene on the boat when she lies on top of the cabin, or when she is seated on the high rock on the shore while Michael watches from the boat. The final scenes of each character show that, while nominally free of their high-status lovers, the low-status characters are forever tied to their controlling partners. Michael leaves Elsa on the point of death, but walks down the pier ruminating that it may take until his old age to completely forget her. She has forever changed Michael, and he is inextricably linked to her. He does the final walking away, for he could have stayed and tried (probably in vain) to save her, but it is not the liberating kind of release. He will have to live the rest of his life with the knowledge of what he has not only done to her at the end of her life, but what he has done for her during his lifetime. He is less of a man for having known her. Susan, likewise, though she wielded some power by actually performing the abandonment of Charles, was destroyed by that very action. She does not survive and prosper after leaving the control of Charles. Even the money she had from him is “lost”, and she is reduced to circumstances considerably more grim than when she met Charles. After Charles, she has only alcohol and the remnants of a mediocre singing career. Neither Michael nor Susan gains anything from their association with their high-power lovers. They survive them–but, as shown in the lives of Michael and Susan, that seems hardly to be an advantage. Works CitedBerg, Chuck and Tom Erskine. The Encyclopedia of Orson Welles. New York: Checkmark Books, 2003.Callow, Simon. Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu. New York: Viking, 1996.Castle, Robert. “All the Citizen’s Men” and “F for Fake” Bright Lights Film Journal Issue 45 (2004): Accessed 1/31/07 < >. and
Rosebuds and Sinuous Rills: The Romantic Fragment of Orientalism in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and Citizen Kane by Orson Welles
The debate over the fragmentary nature of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” has continued from the time the poem was written in 1797 to the present day. Some critics believe “Kubla Khan” to be a complete work in its totality, while others argue that it is merely an unfinished fragment, a curiosity. The reductionist view of “Kubla Khan” as an incomplete novelty does Coleridge grave disservice. On the other hand, Coleridge’s own description of his poem as a fragment, as well as the chaotic disconnectedness of the poem itself, makes it difficult to call the work finished in any conventional sense. Instead, “Kubla Khan” may represent the author’s own understanding of the mysterious and fractional world of the Orient. The Romantics were deeply fascinated with the Orient, and always depicted it as a dense and elusive myth rather than an actual location. The Western Romantics depicted Orientals as primitive, morally undeveloped, and changeless, but they were intensely drawn to the Orient precisely because it provided an alternative to the West. In this ‘otherizing’ of the Orient, Romantics fashioned a view of Orientals that mirrored their own culture, rather than basing their perceptions on any legitimate truth about the Orient. The Orient became the paradoxically attractive symbol of the darker, more sinister elements of Western society-a conflated fragment based upon Western projection and desire. The Orientalism evident in “Kubla Khan” is still relevant today as a lens through which to view Modern texts such as the film “Citizen Kane.” Modern interpretations of Orientalism have been expanded to include not just the racialized and different Other, but aspects of the Self as well.The fragmentation of the Orient is twofold. First, filtered through the subjective lens of Orientalism, Occidental knowledge of the Orient will always be incomplete. And secondly, though the Orientalist attempts to write about the Orient, he deliberately and conscious separates himself from it as well, so that he is inherently separated from the object of his text. Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is a poetic incarnation if the Romantic Fragment, what E. S. Shaffer calls an “epic fragment.” In his poem, Coleridge includes a Preface titled “Of the Fragment of Kubla Khan.” The word “fragment” refers to the poem itself, which he considers a “psychological curiosity” rather than a finished work, but it also refers to Coleridge’s own inability to capture the entirety of the images which “rose up before him as things…without any consciousness of effort.” While asleep in an opium trance, Coleridge’s mind, as if possessed, composes for him “two or three hundred lines,” so that when he awakes, the poem exists already as a whole-“what had been originally, as it were, given to him.” His duty as a poet, therefore, is merely to recollect and record what was already a complete composition. However, the perfect vision which appears to the poet while he is unconscious mysteriously dissipates once he attempts to capture it, like the Fragment of which the Romantic Artist has a subconscious understanding but whose completion will invariably elude possibility. Just as the poet decrees and then creates the verses in his poem, so “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ a stately pleasure-dome decree.” Fred L. Milne states, “If indeed ‘Kubla Khan’ became…a poem about the creative process set in the general context of the mind and its activities, then where…is the creative power to be found? In the poem, that function is best fulfilled by Kubla Khan himself, for it is he alone who creates in the mind-landscape.” The Orientalist studies the Orient to distinguish himself from it, and his writings are the proof that he exists outside of his text. Coleridge enters the fantastical world of Xanadu but establishes within the poem’s first line that it is Kubla Khan the Muslim leader of the Mongol Empire, not Coleridge the Occidental poet. Coleridge is merely a visitor of a world already decreed for him; he consciously fragments himself from the subject of his work. The tone of the poem reflects its wonderstruck, disconcerted narrator, who finds himself in a bizarre and foreign land which fascinates him simply because he cannot fully comprehend it. The poem consists of images that emerge, and the reader is supposed to allow the imagery to speak for itself. Attempting to analyze or explain the outlandish and mystifying Oriental world would yield nothing in translation, for the rational Western observer cannot, by merit of his rationalism, understand the emotive, occultish, and spiritualist Orient. The “caverns measureless to man” reflect the immeasurability of the Xanadu’s chimerical scenery, and the poet’s continued use of contradictory language, like “sunny…caves of ice” and “I would build that dome in air,” calls to mind the difficulty that rational, deductive Western language encounters when endeavoring to describe the alien East. Occidental language must resort to using logically incomprehensible paradoxes to evoke the logically incomprehensible Orient. Kubla Kahn says he “would build that dome in air;” Coleridge the poet builds his own because he presupposes the symbolic meaning of the Asiatic images he represents. The England in which Coleridge lived had designated meanings for images like the Oriental harem, rife with women who play dulcimers, odalisques who wail for their demon lovers, and Abyssian virgins who sing of Paradise. The poem which arose under Coleridge’s eyelids in slumber was built in the air of his imagination. Despite its outlandish and extravagent images, the Western reader legitimizes this groundless work because he had already dismissed the Oriental as inherently different – and inferior to – the rational, virtuous European. Because the Oriental lived in a world completely of his own, and because such a world was by definition paradoxical to the principles of the West, Oriental images did not need to be understood or even tolerated by the West. Coleridge asks readers of “Kubla Khan” to act as spectators like himself rather than as participants. He invites readers into Xanadu by relying on the “air-built” clichÃ©s and conventions already a part of the Occidental vocabulary used to denote and signify the Orient. The use of paradoxical but corresponding opposites in his poetry is what Richard Harter Fogle calls the Romantic ‘picturesque,’ a combination of paradoxical images which resolve themselves through a process of signification that relies upon the mind of the reader-the interpreter of symbols. The paradoxical picturesque reappears in its modern form in Orson Welles’ seminal film Citizen Kane, which shows visual fragments of Charles Foster Kane’s life-from childhood until death-with the purpose of conveying a sense of his character to the audience. Of course, by the end of the film the moral of the story is that Kane’s life is still a mystery despite being played out in full on the silver screen, and that perhaps it is impossible for any person’s life to be fully explained. Thompson, the journalist who embarks on the quest to discover the meaning of “Rosebud,” concedes by the film’s end that he has failed to unlock the mystery. “Charles Foster Kane was a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get or something he lost, but it wouldn’t have explained anything. I don’t think any word explains a man’s life. No-I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle-a missing piece.” Charles Kane is the American Kubla Khan, a man with the power to control public opinion through his empire of newspapers, and just like the Khan in Coleridge’s poem, the Kane in Welles’ film is shrouded in mystery and contradiction. Kane is a bundle of binary oppositions: he is a capitalist tycoon who monopolizes the newspaper industry while fighting to bust the monopolies of big businesses, a steadfast champion of liberty and progressivism who feels it is his duty to control the masses through propagandist journalism, a man who did not know the meaning of love but above all wanted to be loved by others. The movie conveys Kane’s persona through the juxtaposition of opposing images, similar to the way Coleridge conveys Xanadu. The Romantic Fragment also appears in Citizen Kane, in both senses as it appears in “Kubla Khan.” First, the movie makes a point of showing the impossibility of ever truly knowing Charles Kane because his life is shown to us through the fragmented images of others’ recollections. He is brought back to life through the memories and accounts of his contemporaries, but their reports are deeply influenced by their personal experiences and the reliability of their narratives is questionable. Citizen Kane is also fragmented in the second sense, in its fragmentation and distinction between viewer and subject. Like the reader of “Kubla Khan,” the viewer of Citizen Kane is a spectator rather than a participant. Compounding this distinction is the fact that the character of Kane is meant to be distinguished by his difference from the viewer, rather than his similarity. Kane is an anomaly, a man who led an extraordinary life and who provided no explanation or justification for any of his actions. Viewers are not meant to relate to Kane; rather, they are supposed to relate to those characters in the movie who recall Kane with a sense of puzzled bewilderment. Like those characters, the viewer is meant to be left in the dark. Citizen Kane opens with the camera focusing in on dark, smoky, and shrouded shots of Xanadu, and the movie ends with the same sequence of shots in reverse, as the camera pans out away from Xanadu. The movie comes full circle, and the viewer ends up in – literally – the same place.It is not surprising that the same Oriental elements that evoked Kubla Khan in Coleridge’s poem resurface in different guises in Modern works such as Citizen Kane. Orientalism more accurately reflects the dominant culture’s own psychology than it does any actual Oriental cultural or geopolitical awareness. Orientalism is a fragmented concept, a conflated grouping of otherized traits into an “ism” with its locus in the East, a place that Ezra Pound called a vortex of epiphany and which T. S. Elliot associated with hope, peace, and sympathy. As long as it exists as a Romantic Fragment, a concept intended to assume the unknowability of all things, it will continue to be conventional ‘Orientalism’ as we know it. If the Orient remains a myth rather than a place, the West will continue to maintain a sense of false supremacy through the subjugating attitude fortified by a view of the Other as a mirror of the undesirable, dark, or taboo aspects of the Self. Orientalism is indeed an epic fragment-one that must be repaired, bridged, and closed before it can disappear.
The Underside of Ambition: Corruption and Ambiguity in ‘Citizen Kane’
It is the textual integrity of Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane (1941) which enables it to effectively demonstrate the need for healthy relationships and the dangers of the exclusive pursuit of power. The film’s non-linear structure which returns to the Gothic façade of Xanadu also conveys the ambiguity of Kane’s character and the human experience. Elements of German Expressionism then account for many of the film’s unorthodox techniques such as chiaroscuro lighting and distorted sets, which add richness in textual integrity and heightens the enigma of Kane.
Kane’s relentless pursuit of power and disregard for integrity can only yield him temporary glory, followed by endless regret. Kane’s eventual downfall exposes the intrinsic flaws of the idealistic American Dream, which promoted the false illusion that financial success generated emotional fulfilment. Kane’s youthful innocence is depicted in the childhood scene, where his indistinct shouting in the background of a deep focus shot emphasises his blissful detachment from the money-driven, adult world in the foreground. However, his unwilling departure with banker Thatcher immerses him in an unhealthy environment of “gold mines, oil wells, shipping and real estate”. Kane’s corruption emerges when signing the Declaration of Principles, where the chiaroscuro lighting covers him in darkness to convey a sense of moral ambiguity, thereby foreshadowing his compromise of honesty for publicity. His moral transformation leads me to agree with critic Pauline Kael (1971), who views Citizen Kane as “the story of how heroes become comedians and con artists”, representing how those respected in public often decay into figures of immoral behaviour. The shadowed confrontation between Kane and Gettys then reveals that the corrupting influence of power is not limited to Kane, and parodies a ‘backroom deal’ to critique the wider manipulation within politics and society. The mid-shot of his first-person confession “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a very great man”, reveals his genuine recognition of his immoral character and hence questions his adherence to selfish values. Wide angle shots of Xanadu’s interior then create optical illusions of Kane being dwarfed by seemingly normal-sized fireplaces and doorways, to suggest that his sudden impotence is a result of his own materialistic doing. Orson Welles traces Kane’s corruption in his quest for power to warn viewers against the dangers of relentless ambition.
Kane’s inability to form emotional connections stems from the trauma following his family’s rejection, but also from his self-centred ambitions. Growing consumerism in the 1930s prompted many American parents to send their children to the East Coast for greater opportunities and sacrifice familial bonds in the process. Kane’s family separation is compounded by the coldness of Thatcher, whose monotone voice across an abrupt time-lapse, “Merry Christmas…and a Happy New Year”, is stripped of any emotional significance to imply that Kane’s childhood has quickly dissolved into the spiritually empty environment. He consequently struggles to reciprocate feelings with first wife Emily, as seen in the breakfast montage. The scene features a succession of close-up shots cutting continuously between the two, which highlights their lack of unity and Kane’s indifference for emotional connections. Their growing estrangement is then confirmed as the camera dollies out to reveal the physical distance between them. In contrast, the close, even proxemics between Kane and Susan in her apartment suggests that Kane is still able to forge a connection with someone who is mutually “lonely”. Hence critical interpretations such as that of Robert Carringer (1976), “*Kane was incapable of loving, or even of dispensing simple humanity”, are incomplete, since Kane is still intrinsically able to love Susan despite his early loss of family. However, during Susan’s opera debut, a series of strings are then revealed through a rising shot to mimic a puppet show, a symbol of Kane’s growing perception of Susan as a mere project rather than a partner. Hence the breakdown of his relationship with Susan is more due to his self-centred character and lack of respect for her. Orson Welles tackles the everlasting themes of love and relationships which resonate within responders.
Ultimately, Kane’s true character is layered under a contradictory and fragmented interpretation of his actions and values, inhibiting a definitive understanding of him. Public figures in the early 1900s such as William Randolph Hearst similarly manipulated public perception and developed enigmatic personalities. The shot through the shattered glass globe at Kane’s deathbed provides a distorted view of the room, creating a symbol for his complex thought processes which can no longer be retrieved. It can only be inaccurately pieced together to form an ambiguous, ineffectual story, exemplified by the film’s non-linear structure of flashbacks, and also the newsreel sequence which labels Kane as both “a communist” and “an American”. Kane’s true identity is not only shrouded from the viewers, but also from the general public in the film. In a wide angle shot of his political campaign speech, the real Kane is juxtaposed against his vast propaganda portrait behind him, which represents the idealistic public image he hides beneath. The crowd is completely shadowed except for an emotionless Leland and Emily, evoking a contrast between Kane’s public and private reception to suggest that viewers are also shadowed from the truth.After Susan leaves him, the hall of mirrors which duplicate his image to infinity is symbolic of how all the conflicting aspects of Kane have moulded in the same distraught figure. Hence even Kane himself struggles to justify his past, futile ambitions, adding to the contradictions in his character. Critic Ronald Gottesman (1971) similarly provides a paradoxical but valid portrait of Kane as “selfish and selfless, an idealist, a scoundrel, a very big man and a very little one”. The cyclical structure ensures the film returns to the Gothic façade of Xanadu to remind the viewers that they have gained no significant insight into his real life. Welles deliberately distorts the truth of Kane and instead depicts a compelling persona which interests all viewers.
Citizen Kane has the unique ability to examine universal ideas power and relationships. Perhaps most remarkably, Welles’s film does so with only a limited representation of the central character. However it is this distortion of Kane’s personality which enables a worthwhile critical study, since it encourages all responders to personally question the fundamental values behind power and relationships.