“I am an American.” For having been spoken by the world’s sixth richest man at a time when he was focused on his political image, that may be the truest line in Citizen Kane. For Charles Foster Kane is a caricature of the American male; caricature being the truth exaggerated.
The movie begins with members of the media seeking to find the meaning behind “Rosebud,” Kane’s final word. 77-year old spoiler alert: Rosebud was the name of Kane’s childhood sled. We see boy Charlie and his sled in one of the first scenes. It is the only time we see him gleefully happy, and possibly the final time in his life that he was entirely satisfied with himself. Nearby, a group of adults had gathered to stand around and talk, but Charlie knows that is just what adults do. Why don’t adults sled down hills? Why don’t adults play?
Adults have forgotten how to play, Charlie. They have suffered through the trauma of having their youth torn away. This shredding can come from the cruel words of stigma from another child. Or it can be the result of a group of adults who, after standing around talking, grab your sled and announce “we have made a Decision.” Adulthood, with its stresses and its hard facts pushes out the old memories. The childhood trauma of being torn and shred is among the first cargo jettisoned.
In The Decemberists song Infanta (2005) a parade of dignitaries and princes is described. There is folderol, there is chaparral, there is coronal and there is every other bit of the Fancy adults garment themselves with. At the end of the parade is the main course to be served up to society, the young infanta. The babe is weary of all these adult trappings; “the babe all in slumber dreams/of a place filled with quiet streams/and the lake where her cradle was pulled from the water.”
Charlie Kane’s lake was a mound of snow in Colorado. Like the infanta, dumb and cruel luck deposited a deposit of gold on his head. Gold, a metal worthless to a child, a squirrel, a tulip or a sled. Gold, the most treasured object of the groups of adults who stand about talking of Decisions. As he slid atop Rosebud to the bottom of that mound, Charles Foster Kane crashed into the expectations of adulthood. He was gone too soon.
It is gravity that provides us the thrill of riding on a sled. It is gravity that holds our feet to this earth. And it is patriarchal, capitalist, “traditional” expectation that holds our feet to the flame. The next Kane we see is a healthy, robust man in his 20s. Outwardly, the ideal vision of brash and bold youth. He sweeps into his newspaper office believing himself to be the spear-tip of the mandate of a new age. He writes a declaration of principles in John Hancock font size. And indeed that declaration was meant for all the kings to see. Yet his proactive appearance hides a reactive nature. When the bankerman who raised him after Kane was plucked from the snow asks “what would you have liked to have been?,” speaking from the anger that must have been born on that train ride from Colorado to New York City, Kane replies “everything you hate.”
Perhaps some man, somewhere, can carry both ambition and contentment. Indeed perhaps some man, somewhere from sea to shining sea, can be ambitious, see that ambition faceplant on the pavement, sit up criss-cross-applesauce and say “I am more than fine just where I am.” I have not met that man, I am not that man, and if you’ve followed this essay so far you know Citizen Kane is not that man.
With his public image secure, and an imminent election as governor days away, Charles decides to open the past’s crypt. In a warehouse on the other side of town are all the belongings from his childhood cabin, shipped in in wooden crates like priceless statues. Had he made it to that warehouse that day, surely he would have encountered Rosebud. Perhaps there, running his hands over rusted iron rails and chipping red paint he would have had an epiphany. He may have remembered the boy he once was, the one denied a chance to transition to adulthood. Possibly Kane may have vowed to use his forthcoming power to ensure that children everywhere were allowed to pursue their own dreams, and heed not the dictates of politicians, ad men, and financial advisers. Instead he meets his second wife.
I mean no misogyny by that last statement. Susan Alexander Kane is innocent of all crimes. Innocence, to Kane’s self-absorbed line of thought, is Susan’s primary quality. On that chance meeting in the street he is attracted to her firstly because she has never heard of him. He is relieved of the pressure to be The Man Who Acts; the pressure to be the one all faces turn to. Nostalgic for his never lived life, Susan’s youth becomes the drafting table on which he designs the life he would have lived. With Susan’s throwaway comment that she wanted to be an opera singer, but that her mother said getting a job might be better, Kane is filled with misplaced indignation. In body he is in her apartment, listening to her play the piano and sing, but in mind he has flown to Colorado.
Beyond those first few seconds on the street, Charles is never fully present with Susan. In 'liberating' her from the demands of dream-crushing adulthood, Kane imitates the mother, the father, and the banker that earlier determined his life. He builds a grand opera house for her to sing in, and the world’s stateliest birdcage to contain her. He is as deaf to her desires as he is tone deaf to her voice. For it was not motherly abandonment that ripped Susan from her dream, it was prudent motherly advice. Susan was as good at singing as boy Charlie was at sledding.
Kane never had that warehouse epiphany. His efforts to guide and control Susan’s musical career are a bastardization of the dreams of our childhood. One need only to watch a child alone at play to see this. A child’s life is marked by exploration and curiosity. Kids will try out and abandon this project or that. They will quite literally throw everything against the wall to see what sticks. But a child’s underdeveloped muscles are no match for the force of adulthood. We are all ripped from our playgrounds at one point or another. Rebecca Solnit tells of one family’s excursion to the Grand Canyon. At every scenic vista the family piles out. The adults look across at vast breadth, in awe of how the Colorado River has conquered the terrain. The children, by contrast, look at the “bones, pine cones, sparkly sandstone” at their feet. They are content on the ground, and will remain so until our voices telling them to look up and look out become loud enough.
Mastery and Control. The largest natural features, the tallest buildings, and the biggest personalities. This is what appears on our postage stamps. In Dubai, where little human culture existed prior to this century, Mastery and Control is that hollow grandiosity that the billionaires have imported. Our inner child may want to play, but our outer adult will accept only victory. Success, adoration, and the conquering of goals allows us to momentarily scream “I am something!” back at a universe that consistently reminds us in monotone that we are nothing.
After so many years of being his project, Susan Alexander walks out on Kane. There is a moment, as she is packing her luggage, when it appears that Kane has finally seen that she is an independent human being. Having her voice recognized being all Susan really wanted, she hesitates. Epiphany was close again, but it did not come that second for Kane. His “you can’t do this to me” is enough to solidify her decision. They were the exact words he would have said to his mother and father all those years back, had he known what was to become of his life. Seeing the back of her, he destroys her bedroom in adultish rage. Manly anger brings down the shelves, smashes the hand-crafted Persian vases, upends the finest oak side-tables. But upon finding a simple snow globe, Kane is slugged in the gut. It is in that moment, with the distraction of Susan Alexander now past, that Kane metaphorically finds his way to the warehouse. Too old now to do a thing about it, Charlie Kane approaches the borderlands between the lives we construct and the truth we miss.
As bell hooks writes: “The patriarchal manhood that was supposed to satisfy does not. And by the time this awareness emerges, most patriarchal men are isolated and alienated; they cannot go back and reclaim a past happiness or joy, nor can they go forward. To go forward they would need to repudiate the patriarchal thinking that their identity is based on.”
Charles Foster Kane does not live to repudiate anything. The idea that we men are merely reacting to forces around us is unfathomable to a culture that so prizes action. In the end Kane has only regret. He does not order his papers to publish from the Deathbed of the Editor a letter to the boys and men, and girls, women, and citizens of the world informing them that we have been doing it all wrong. He has run out of time to flesh out the thought that begins with “Rosebud.” And the media men that opened the movie, the men so much responsible for the stories we tell ourselves and one another, shrug their shoulders and declare “I guess we’ll never know.”
hooks, b. (2004). The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. New York: Washington Square Press
Solnit, R. (2005). A Field Guide to Getting Lost. New York: Viking