Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Citizen Kane - The Elusive Rosebud

Can a single word ever explain a man's life? Perhaps but most likely not. And yet it can be a clue to an enigmatic life led. Heralded to be the best film ever made, by AFI, 'Citizen Kane' is a lesson in the fine amalgamation of the various tool of film making. Orson Welles, a successful radio and theatre actor and director, got complete artistic control by RKO Radio Pictures to make a feature and thus came about Citizen Kane in 1941, written, acted, produced and directed by him.

The movie opens at the deathbed of Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper tycoon in his palatial estate 'Xanadu', uttering arguably the most famous word in the history of cinema 'Rosebud'. A sensational obituary is then paid showing us who Kane was. An enterprising millionaire, he bought a dying daily 'New York Inquirer' at the age of 25 and went about establishing a media empire and more, becoming the world's richest man. His personal life held marriage to the president's niece, Emily Norton ( Ruth Warrick) and then after a divorce, a second to a singer Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). He pursued politics harboring great dreams only to have it all thwarted due to scandal in his personal life. The great depression brought about the  eventual downfall of his empire and his last days were spent as a recluse in his unfinished palace.

All these facts are laid bare within minutes into the movie. What we the audience set out on, is a journey to find the meaning of 'Rosebud', his last utterance. We follow a journalist as he attempts to uncover the mystery behind the word, interviewing all the people who were close to Kane at various stages of his life. We peek into a childhood snatched away too soon as he comes into big money and his mother has him sent away to a boarding school for tutoring, befitting a rich man. We see his rise as the ambitious  idealist, how heady power makes in way to his psyche and his subsequent downfall as a lonely old man the world has long ceased to pay heed to.

His love for two women, the first, Emily where coldness befalls their marriage. The scenes depicting their growing distance are brilliant. Over breakfast through the years, we can actually see a marriage disintegrate. Later the love he finds in Susan turns almost maniacal in which he takes it upon himself to turn her into an opera singer. The fact is naked to the world, to Susan and to Kane that she does not possess such talent. Yet, his pride and money prod on to get her platforms showcasing her non talent. Is it love or does he have to prove a point to the world. Did Kane ever really understand love. More importantly did he let anyone get that close to feel love. Or had a shield formed around him since childhood abandonment. He wants love on his own terms, says a former friend.

Citizen Kane is said to have been based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate. Indeed a great many parallels can be drawn of both their professional and personal lives. However, citizen Kane also paved the path of Orson Welles's own life to a great extent. The radical rise of Welles so early in his career and then a slow descent, the man that Welles was to become eventually, makes many see the similarities in retrospect.

Citizen Kane is remarkable in more ways than one. With a story always topical, the content is as fresh today as it was 70 years ago. The acting is top notch, the cast members all part of Welles theatrical group fresh to the big screen, including Welles himself in the title role, aging magnificently through a period of 40 odd years. What leaves a stunning impact is the technique of filming this movie, on a low budget. It broke new grounds in cinematography. Gregg Toland, the cinematographer and Welles used innovative methods such as deep focus, contrast between light and shadow, lots of silhouettes, low angle shots of Kane, showing the stature of the man. Clever setting of scenes and camera angles give the frames an opulence, the shot taking always relevant to the significance of the scene. Also impactful is the non linear narrative. As every character talks about their interaction with Kane, the movie runs in its own circle of time.

Watching the movie 70 years after its arrival, I am blown away by how near perfect a movie this is. As I saw the movie a second time on DVD, with the commentary of the great film critic Roger Ebert, I appreciated how critical this movie was for the future of modern day motion picture as we know it. Several scenes are etched in my memory forever. The scene where Susan gives her opera performance and the focus on Kane's face and the applause that follows, the immaculate filming of the scene where a mother signs away her son with him innocently playing in the snow visible clearly in the background thanks to deep focus lenses. The initial shot of the film where the focus goes in from the gates of Xanadu to its palace and inhabitant in almost a gothic shot, and then the closing shot which after showing us Rosebud takes us out of that palace and gates, same way as we entered it. On the gate is the sign 'No Trespassing', a giveaway of the man Kane was. The movie comes full circle.

What defined Charles Foster Kane? When does idealism and integrity give way to power and meglomanism? And at the end of it all, does any of it matter. Does Kane pine somewhere for that little boy who lost his innocence too early. The scene with him holding the snow globe after Susan leaves, with resignation and sad longing in his eyes, is evidence. Might a simple life have been better, or does it only seem better because he doesn't have it. Isn't what eludes us, hold us forever in its grasp? Isn't 'Rosebud' always the one thing we don't have, that we long for.

Available on DVD
Originally released in 1941

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