Last night, while I was not writing, I watched Citizen Kane for the second time in my life. The first time was one sickly afternoon when I was 21. It was the day of the first hangover I ever had, and even in the midst of such torture, I still found myself in awe of movie. I was so moved. Orson Welles’ rendition of a celluloid effigy of “William Randolph Hearst” and all the biting, tragic assimilation of said character moved me tremendously. For 26 years I wondered if my reaction to the 1941 black & white masterpiece was the hangover talking, the bile stewing in my guts, which made the movie appear so grandiose and striking. I wondered, and last night, I watched it again. The movie is 71 years old.
**Spoiler alert: Citizen Kane is a 71-year-old classic feature whose leitmotif has seeped into popular culture to such a degree that I feel like a fool issuing this warning, but I must.**
I discovered, 26 years later, that I still did in fact feel just as strongly about the movie. In fact, 26 years of maturity, much of it “seasoned,” further accentuated the tragedies of Charles Foster Kane. In fact, though the movie is ostensibly about Kane the tycoon, Kane the brutally ambitious man, and Kane the brutally longing, lonely man, I felt that Citizen Kane only had one character that was truly the singular motivation and driving force of the Kane story: Rosebud. Kane ascended from youthful innocence and simplicity, and was sent away by his Colorado family to live under Walter Thatcher, his new guardian, on the east coast to be educated at the finest schools. Kane’s explosive rise as a newspaper publisher and wealthy tycoon unravels throughout the movie as his marriages dissolve and his normal hold on reality and his life slowly dissolve just as steadily as his marriages did. And Colorado was a distant memory he never revisited.
The movie details Kane’s rise to riches and the very base dissatisfaction that attends his glamorous life. He attempts to overcome the dissatisfaction by stocking Xanadu, his Florida mansion, with artifacts and items gathered from around the globe that are brought like slaves to be stored and hidden in the deep bowels of his mansion’s dark rooms and halls and closets. If “Hoarders” was around in 1941, they most likely would have had enough material in Kane’s Xanadu alone to fill an entire season. In fact, Kane spends his enormous wealth stocking his life with meaningless items that are void of humanity. He is a man alone…with his money. He had so much ambition and drive. He worked hard to reach this pinnacle of accomplishment, but ultimately the emptiness could never be sated by possessions. Xanadu and its barren loneliness represents Kane’s empty soul. The movie is mainly recounted in witness flashbacks, and the observation consistently made by most people was that Kane only loved himself. And if his love was squandered on others, it was only with the expectation that it would be reflected back to him. Kane searched his entire, fruitful life for something elusive, something that would fill his mansion with life and exuberance, not with dusty, lifeless statues.
Ultimately, Kane’s mansion was only dank and empty. Much like his soul. The mansion, he could outfit with decorations; his soul, he decorated with other’s adulation. A lifetime spent searching for the item that might sate his spiritual hunger brought him fame and fortune, but it did not bring the answer, his yearning. A dramatic, tumultuous life ends when he takes his last breath on his deathbed and utters the last word of his life: Rosebud. He drops a snow globe he has grown fond of carrying around. It was a small snowy recreation of a snow-swept scene harking back to his Colorado youth. Citizen Kane, the narrative, was driven by the reporter, Jerry Thompson, who was attempting a a posthumous story that would neatly wrap up Kane’s life and answer the enigmatic last word which was repeated in newspapers across the land. Yet, all the people he spoke to could not tell him what Rosebud was. Conjecture was plentiful. Thompson leaves Xanadu, defeated. Xanadu was his last-ditch effort, a failure. He failed to unearth the meaning of Rosebud. In the final movie scene, workers helping to vacate Xanadu are hastily throwing many unwanted and discarded items into a furnace, and the camera pans in as a snow sled, which was just thrown in, begins its slow combustion. The camera zooms in and we see that the sled was named…Rosebud. Rosebud, the last memorial of Kane’s innocent youth, the last sliver of his innocence that remained after he left for the East Coast and a life of empty wealth. In an early scene of the movie, this is the sled he was playing with in the snow before his parents broke the news that they were sending him away.
The movie is about Rosebud. Is Rosebud the symbol of youth, of innocence? I’m not so sure. Those seem like obvious, trite answers that beg to be guessed, but Rosebud ultimately proved to be a mystery no one could know or uncover. Rosebud was life’s dark mystery that perpetuates and lives from generation on the lips of ancient men, a word, and idea, whose meaning is never known. The inner motives of men can never be discerned. Rosebud could never be discerned and the inconsequential manner in which we privately learned of Rosebud’s meaning leads the viewer to realize that such a matter can never be known. Rosebud is that dark token of posterity that drives man, either as a beacon or as a deterrent. Rosebud is the gloomy muse that calls us to our life.
Rosebud was not a sled. Rosebud was merely the face of Kane’s gloomy muse.