Through its portrayal of human experience, Welles’ Citizen Kane reinforces the significance of perseverance.
To what extent does your interpretation of Citizen Kane support this view?
In your response, make detailed reference to the film.
The perseverance of a definitive truth about the nature of human experience is inhibited by subjectivity and the intrinsic obscurity of man. Citizen Kane demonstrates this struggle for the perseverance of truth through the failure of subjective testimonies, such as those explored in Thompson’s interviews, to construct a reliable model of Kane’s identity.
An investigation of yellow journalism highlights the film’s overarching critique that the perseverance of truth is inhibited by society’s obsession with a culture of acquisition. The Rosebud mystery mystifies Kane’s life, inviting the audience to decipher their own perception of the human experience, but the film’s ambiguous conclusion emphasises that these subjective interpretations ultimately cannot qualify as universal truth. Therefore, Citizen Kane’s central message about the nature of human experience is encapsulated by an overarching notion that the perseverance of truth is inhibited by subjectivity of others and the complexity of individuals.
This contributes to the organic unity of the film, justifying its status as a canonical text.
Kane’s identity remains largely obscured by the testimonies explored throughout the film, reinforcing that the perseverance of truth is inhibited by subjective interpretations of the human experience. The film’s opening scene in the ominous setting of Xanadu foreshadows the uncertainty of Kane’s identity through magisterial grandeur enhanced by a literary allusion to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, coupled with low-key lighting that predicts the obscured representation of the towering, mythical figure of Kane.
This notion is furthered by the “No Trespassing” sign, which symbolises the lack of transparency of Kane’s life and subsequently of human experience, while also bookending the circular structure of the film to reiterate Kane’s fundamental abstruseness. An abrupt tonal shift between the film’s opening and the ‘News of the March’ obituary footage reinforces the irony of subjective interpretation, as it sensationalises Kane’s achievements, such as through biblical allusions comparing Xanadu to Noah’s Ark, but fails to capture the dismal nature of his demise. Furthermore, a wide spectrum of subjective interpretations of Kane is revealed through comments in the newsreel that label him as a “communist” or a “capitalist”. These contradictory characterisations illustrate the paradox of his public reputation, and further obscures the truth of his identity. Acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert’s remark that “the film’s construction shows how our lives, after we are gone, survive only in the memories of others, and those memories butt up against the walls we erect and the roles we play” indicates the limited reliability of subjective testimonies, such as those explored in Thompson’s interviews. As the main narrators for portraying Kane’s life, each interviewee’s depiction of Kane as “an ingrate, a benefactor, a betrayer, a tyrant, a madman”, as suggested by Sarah Myers McGinty, are impaired by their bias, alcoholism or senility, compromising the film’s narrative objectivity and failing to elucidate the truth of Kane’s identity. Specifically, in Thompson’s interview with Jedediah Leland, Leland’s tendency to follow narrative tangents implies the inaccuracies in his recollection, while the oversimplification in his dialogue “That’s all he ever wanted out of life was love. That’s Charlie’s story, how he lost it” contradicts the film’s overarching theme about the innate complexity of the individual. Therefore, the failure of subjective testimonies to reliably capture the complexity of Kane’s identity infers the unifying notion that the perseverance of truth is inhibited by subjectivity and the inherent obscurity of man.
Welles’ critique of yellow journalism furthers the argument that a definitive truth about the human experience is unable to persevere in a subjective world. Much of the film bears witness to the vacillating success of Kane’s career, and uses what Welles called “an attack on the acquisitive society” to examine the nature of the ‘American dream’ archetype. The ability to manipulate truth is equated with dictatorial power through the glorified depiction of The Inquirer as Kane’s “empire upon an empire”, coupled with consistent low angle shots to emphasise his dominance over societal consensus as a figure that “spoke for millions of Americans”. However, emphasising his critique of society’s obsession with power, Welles employs a dark/light motif that unifies a plethora of filmic techniques to symbolise how the nature of human experience is only partially elucidated by the endeavour for truth and power. This notion is reiterated through lighting and visual metaphor in the Declaration of Principles scene, whereby Kane’s face is veiled in shadow to highlight the irony of his ambition to ‘enlighten’ readers with the truth. This symbolism foreshadows Kane’s inability to fulfil his aim of allowing “no special interests to interfere with [the] truth”, demonstrating through yellow journalism that subjectivity inhibits the perseverance of truth. Welles also portrays the detrimental impact of society’s ‘acquisitive culture’ on the truth of human experience in Susan’s Opera scene, whereby dark lighting coupled with close-up, low-angle shots evokes the ominous ambiguity of Kane’s internal thought due to his emotionless external physicality and hubris. Hence, Welles’ critique of yellow journalism and society’s obsession with power furthers the film’s unifying theme that the perseverance of truth is impossible in a subjective and corrupted world.
Orson Welles encourages the audience to discover their own perceptions of the truth by mystifying Kane’s life, but maintains ambiguity to highlight that there are no definitive interpretations of human experience. The central mystery of the film revolves around the significance of ‘rosebud’, which compels the audience to seek the truth of Kane’s life through the vehicle of Thompson’s investigation. Within this, a directorial desire to encourage the audience’s own investigation for the truth is evoked by Thompson’s consistently obscured and minimalistic presence, supported by a lack of close-up shots and clear lighting, suggesting that he is a representative of the audience rather than a developed character. Ultimately, this positioning of the audience enhances the film’s unifying theme about the inherent obscurity of man and the inability to discover a definitive truth about the human experience through Thomson’s revelation “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life”, which precedes the audience’s belated, anti-climactic discovery of rosebud’s significance in an enigmatic close-up shot of Kane’s sled. Rather than the symbol of ‘rosebud’, Welles’ maxim about the complexity of man is best embodied by the globe motif, which unifies the film’s central depiction of the innately self-confined and equivocal nature of human experience. As Robert Carringer asserts that the globe stands for “the psychic wholeness of Kane, and the totality of Kane as a force”, while the pivotal shattering of this symbol represents, “the loss of ‘Kane-ness”, indicating how the truth of Kane’s life in its entirety is lost with his death. Similarly, the hallway of mirrors symbolism depicts the infinite versions or interpretations of Kane, but implicitly suggests that representation cannot correspond to truth through the ominous tone and Kane’s vacant facial expression, reinforcing the film’s sustained mystery about human experience. Hence, Welles’ positioning of the audience within the film’s investigation of Kane’s life reveals how attempts to acquire the truth of the human experience are often futile due to the complex and incomprehensible nature of man.
Hence, Citizen Kane evokes the significance of perseverance through an exploration of the subjective interpretations of human experience and the complexity of man. Within these areas of investigation, Welles’ overarching critique about the incapacity to preserve a universal truth about life is emphasised, realising the organic unity of the film through this central concern. Therefore, the film’s canonical status is justified by its portrayal of the inability to sustain a definitive truth about the human experience.