My introduction to Citizen Kane was through church, oddly enough, nine or ten years ago. My dad, the minister, was trying and failing to Xerox that month’s newsletter, and when the machine jammed for the third time running, he growled “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.” Later, he preached about Charles Foster Kane in a sermon, and I felt sorry for the character.
Going into the movie expecting to feel pity for the protagonist probably colored my reaction to the rest of it. I liked the movie very much, as a tragedy. I liked Velvet Goldmine, the rock’n’roll remake of Orson Welles’ magnificent octopus. But a lot of my friends don’t like either of those movies– they can’t get past the protagonists’ flaws. And, admittedly, the flaws are many and great… the opening scene of Citizen Kane establishes that with the whisper of “rosebud” as Susan’s snow-globe crashes to the floor. But that scene establishes something else– Charles Foster Kane is a failure.
The rest of the movie brings that home. He failed as a child, though that may or may not have been his fault. His biological father was implied to be a drunken brute, and his adoptive father was made of ice. He was thrown out college repeatedly. He failed as a businessman and had to let the icy adoptive father bail him out. He failed as a politician, as a husband (twice) and as a father. In the end, all he had in his castle full of cold stone was a memory.
In a way, he is linked to Jack Torrence of The Shining. Jack is a failure– a failure as a teacher, a writer, a caretaker, a husband, a parent, and even as a maniac. Both Citizen Kane and The Shining are films one usually enjoys without liking (unless one’s name happens to be Kathy Sherwood), and perhaps that is as much linked to their subject matter. Howard Hawks said that he made movies on success because failure wasn’t interesting.
I beg to differ. It goes back to Anna Karenina “Happy families are all the same. The unhappy ones are all unhappy for a different reason.” The reasons for failure and unhappiness are like snowflakes, intricate, beautiful, diverse, and interesting. When a movie opens at the close, and we know it’s going to end badly, don’t we want to know how we got there? We all know Romeo and Juliet are going to die… but we watch them act out their drama anyway.
Because I know Charles Foster Kane dies alone in a musty castle, I want to see how he gets there. I find him much more interesting than, say, Iron Man. Think about it. Both Tony Stark and Charles Kane are terrible people. They’re both trust-fund babies who waste a lot of money, fail at running their corporations, need someone to bail them out, and alienate people around them through their jackassery. The difference between them is that Charles Foster Kane faces the consequences. He may not face them gracefully, but you have to admit he faced them. Someone always mops up Tony Stark. Sure, the movies try to develop his character, have him do rehab or something of that sort, but it never lasts.
Perhaps if Charles Foster Kane’s tragic (waste is tragic) life had been a radio serial, he would not have captivated me as he has. But the finiteness of Citizen Kane makes his story that much more intriguing, and doesn’t give one a sense that they’ve seen this all a hundred times before and will see it again next blockbuster season. “Always crashing in the same car,” as the song goes. Instead, we have one iconic image, sound, and message rolled up into one. Rosebud. Kane’s failure.