why film students babble on about Orson Welles

‘I still wonder why film students babble on about Orson Welles … Even the worst films of Russ Meyer are infinitely more interesting than Citizen Kane’ (Waters 2005:12)

I still believe we can learn a lot about the world as it appears to us today from an old movie from another time – Citizen Kane. The search for meaning is key in Kane, Welles tells us at the start there should be ‘no trespassing’ on the childhood drama that motivates Kane, yet the film of course does so trespass, tells us about Kane’s childhood, shows that not all can be explained by the sled.

Kane, and Welles himself probably, is fixated on childhood. So no doubt Freud should be called, but just in case he is busy we might look into that crystal ball, the snow dome, which Bazin describes: Kane ‘grasps this childish souvenir before dying, this toy that was spared during the destruction of he dolls room belonging to his wife Susan’ (Bazin 1972/191:65).


d – I’m not giving anything away here as from the start the journalists are seeking the meaning of this enigmatic last word. The journalists never find out what the audience get to know – the ‘truth’ remains undiscovered within the contrivance of the inner plot of the movie. We achieve, however, only what Kane achieves in the end in the contemplation of the snowdome – the grand overview of the complete collection with no central or final meaning. Within the contrivance of the investigative plot, the journalists amass much about Kane through interviews and records, but they do not discover Rosebud. Listing the trinkets collected by Kane or even narrating Kane’s life as a reverse sequence of scenes, would do little more than entertain. Without analysis we get little insight – iin the film the collection is on its way to destruction in the furnace. Kane dies lonely surrounded by the detritus of a decimated European culture, plundered as Europe was destroyed by self-hatred and fascism – Kane’s nostalgia a metaphor for isolationism.

Nostalgia – the sled, the snowdome, the trinket – the memory bubble the artificial world (Olaquagia). Trinketisation is one way to read Kane – the sled, marked by the haunting vibraphone music, is this inner plot of the movie an intended distraction, something to also throw the knowing viewers – as critics, after the event – off the scent? As, of course Kane himself, has missed the point. At the end the grand overview of the futility of the collection, the amazing final tracking shot into the fire in the failed fantasy jigsaw empire of xanadu, which leaves the media tycoon paralysed and immobile.

Rosebud, ultimately, is that insignificant icon of significance – the emblem of a lost past, the fantasy of another life. The immense power of Kane is shown as impotent because of this loss – indeed, ultimately ending up in a wheelchair, alone in his pleasure palace Xanadu – Kane confusedly mistakes loss of the past as the source of his errors.

There is much in the film worth noting, its innovations, authorship, controlling genius, lighting, shots, music, structure – the slow opening scene is interrupted by the crash of the racy newsreel, which some minutes later clutters to an end and is shown as the shadowy construction of journalists in a smoky room. Frames within frames. The film variously deals with New Deal cultural content, US hegemony ‘on the march’, the ‘battle between intervention and isolationism’ (Mulvey 1992:15). Isolation – the castle museum of European trinkets – in which Kane imprisons himself. Kane modelled on William Randolph Hearst, whose holiday playground in Guantanamo Bay is now a prison camp for Afghans and Saudis, funnily enough the lease for was due the same day grandaughter Patti got out of jail (Symbionese Liberation Army has faded into obscurity) and somehow the US failed to hand it back, Castro waits – it is a restricted area.

As is well known, Patti was kidnapped by, but later voluntarily participated in the activities of, the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was later to appear in John Waters’ films Serial Mom (1994), Cecil B, Demented (2000) and A Dirty Shame (2004).

Welles denied Hearst was the model for Kane, though curiously Hearst, who approvingly meets with Hitler in 1934 (as does Kane), owns newspapers and becomes a recluse (as does Kane), has a mistress (as does Kane) – and, though I will read no significance into this, Hearst’s secret name for his mistress Marion Davies’ genitalia was Rosebud (Leaning 1985:205). There is possibly reason to dispute this glorious piece of trivia: Pizzitola reports that Rosebud was the painter and family ‘friend’ Ocrin Peck’s nickname for Hearst’s mother (Pizzitola 2002:181).

There’s more to be said here… in the lecture…