Sunday, May 10, 2009

Citizen Kane -- understanding "Rosebud"

Director: Orson Welles, 1941.

Almost 70 years-old, Citizen Kane remains a classic, a masterpiece of cinema. This is surprising considering it was the directorial debut for Welles, who was only 24 years-old at the time and a Broadway producer and radio personality in New York. It was a box-office flop due to a massive anti-Kane newspaper compaign. Still, it garnered nine Academy Award nominations, winning one Best Original Screenplay (Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles). Later, in 2007 it was ranked as the #1 Greatest Movie of all Time by the American Film Institute. What is it about this old black and white film that draws so much attention and keeps people viewing it time and time again? Why is it considered such a marvelous movie?

Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), a multimillionaire newspaper tycoon and larger than life character, is lagrely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst. So clear was this that Hearst attempted to buy all the negatives to destroy them and prevent the film from being shown. The film caused a private battle between Hearst and his empire and Welles and RKO, the film company. Hearst is quoted as saying, "You can crush a man with journalism," and that is exactly what he tried to do to Welles.

As the film opens, Kane dies in his exotic and expansive Florida mansion, Xanadu. With his dying breath, he whispers the solitary word "Rosebud" and drops a snow globe to the floor. Newsreel footage reports his death and traces through his rise to power and influence. Some called him a communist, others a fascist, yet Citizen Kane remained a mystery to most.

Bookending Citizen Kane the opening and closing scenes are identical. Both show the sign on Xanadu's closed gates: "No Trespassing." This jarring image gives us a clue to interpreting the movie and the man. Kane emphasized his privacy. He did not want to let visitors into his castle, and he did not let people into his protective shell. He was an enigma. How sad for a person to feel the need for that level of personal seclusion. Kane dies virtually friendless and alone. His is an example of a life lived with too much privacy.

We need to live in relation to others. God made humanity to be in community. Such social living requires that we disclose something of who we are. Unlike Moses (Ex. 34:33), we have to lift our veil, to open our kimonos and let others in. Such vulnerability may be frightening, but it is the only way to initiate friendship and cultivate the relationships that will remain to our death beds.

As the reporters review the news footage of Kane's life, they realize these images show his deeds not his person or character. As one says, "It isn't enough to tell us what a man did. You've got tell us who he was." There is the human interest story we have come to expect in our TV viewing. To accomplish this they set about figuring out the mysterious Rosebud. What does this word mean? Is it a person? Is it a thing? Thus the premise of the movie is deciphering the code of rosebud.

Yet at the conclusion of the movie, after interviewing Kane's former friends and acquaintances, one reporters states, "I don't think any word can explain a man's life." The quest to answer the question of "rosebud" is left hanging. Can a single word define a person? Clearly not. Yet, sometimes we try to do this for God, who is infinitely greater than man. People define God as love. And it is true, God is love (1 Jn. 5:16). But He is not only love. He is so much more. We may simplistically describe one facet of God with one word, but He is the supremely multifaceted being. Even a systematic theology that focuses on various attributes of God, describing him as holy, sovereign, merciful, transcendent, immanent, cannot do justice to an indescribable person.

Though the reporters struggle with the mystery of rosebud, their investigations do uncover something of the person of Charles Kane, the twice-married governor-candidate. He was driven by an inner desire: "He was always trying to prove something." Taken as a kid from his mother's boarding home, he is raised under the guardianship of a cold-hearted banker. The lack of parents in his formative years caused a deep wound. Without their influence and in his guardian's unloving atmosphere, he probably received little acceptance and approval. When a child misses out on these, he will often resort to proving himself as an adult to gain acceptance from others. This seems to be Kane's story. As parents, this is a danger we must protect against. We must lovingly raise our children to be self-accepting.

Kane, on the other hand, was self-absorbed. He cared little for others. His power combined with his emotional immaturity to mold a personality that was inwardly focused. Those around him acted as sycophants or got fired. In fact, only his wives stood against him. In particular, his second wife Susan did what no one else would do . . . walk out on him. So shocked was Kane, that he blustered, "You mustn't go. You can't do this to me." You can sense his belief in his own importance, his imperial manner. This perspective is counter to a Christian approach to life. We are not innately or essentially superior to others. Where a follower of Jesus should be humble, realizing his dependence on God, Kane was proud and haughty.

Indeed, Kane's sense of self was elevated almost to the point of self-deity. This is clear in his conversations and his acquisitions. As God owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Ps. 50:10), so Kane owned the newspapers on a thousand streets. His riches and infamy made him the most-well known man in America. His former best-friend Jedidiah Leland commented on Kane, "He was disappointed with the world, so he built one of his own." His palace at Xanadu was rich beyond measure. Like God placing animals two-by-two on Noah's ark, Kane had animals brought in pairs to his private zoo at Xanadu. (This was just like Hearst, whose private zoo at his enormous San Simeon estate was the largest in the world.) And as God is sovereign over his creation (Dan. 4:25), Kane wanted total control: "There's only one person in the world who's going to decide what I'm going to do and that's me." Citizen Kane has become Sovereign Kane.

Further, as God is often described by love, Kane was defined by love. This basic need of humanity and basic essence of God was for Kane "all he ever wanted out of life, it was love. . . . That's the tragedy of Charles Foster Kane. You see, he just didn't have any to give. Oh, he loved Charlie Kane, of course, very dearly!" Kane himself knew this. When making a toast with Leland, Kane drank "to love on my own terms." Where God is defined by self-giving love, a love that gave his only Son in sacrifice for sinful humanity (Jn. 3:16), Kane is defined by self-love, a love that cannot give but only takes. True love is about giving. To find love one must be ready to give love. That is the paradox of love.

Kane even seems to realize his own depravity. Talking to his general manager he says, "You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man." His riches and power have corrupted what greatness and goodness he once had. They had inflated his ego and caused him to be great in the eyes of the world, but not in his own eyes or those of God. This raises the question, does being rich disqualify a person from being truly great? No, it is not neccessarily so. There have been, and will be, some truly great Christian philanthropists. However, it is hard for the rich to be truly great. In regards to salvation, Jesus said, "It is hard for a rich man to be saved. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle" (Matt. 19:24). Such is the allure and attraction of riches.

As Kane aged we see his youthful idealism dissolve into cynicism and self-obsession. We see his desire to serve the working people disintegrate into the desire to serve himself. But instead of happiness, his money brought him loneliness as he isolated himself from others. Even his friends were rebuffed and pushed away. He is a sad picture of the man who gained the world but lost his soul in the process (Matt. 16:26). What a tragic cost of wealth.

So what did Rosebud mean? Without giving away too much, rosebud represents all that Charles Foster Kane lost. His young life was cruelly taken, and the love that he left behind was replaced with loot. But, as the Beatles sang in the 1960's, "Money can't buy you love." You cannot purchase true love, and you cannot easily replace parental affirmation and acceptance. Kane spent his whole life trying to do these two things, unsuccessfully. In the end, his rosebud was his tragic realization of a life lost. Oh that we have no "rosebuds" like this in our lives!

So, is it a masterpiece? Well, this is not my favorite movie but it ranks up there in my top echelon of films. The use of nonlinear and overlapping flashbacks makes for an interesting story centered on a compelling character. Leaving the conclusion somewhat open allows the viewer to interact and interpret in different ways. Certainly, it is worth viewing even in the 21st century of fast and furious movies!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs


  1. Deep focus amongst the people and props. Character development. Innovative camera movements and techniques. A very tight story line with crisp dialog. Influencing directors for decades. The viewer does not dare remove their eyes for a moment. Shadows and light playing tricks and telling stories between themselves. Even Spielberg pays homage to "Kane" in the final scene of "Raiders". Needless to say, this is the finest of all films. Who dares to say otherwise? Hmmm? Adam B.

  2. i do, its long and boring~