Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some of the culture’s more inaccessible or intimidating artifacts.
Cultural Vegetable of the Week: Citizen Kane
Vegetable Equivalent: The vegetable you loved as a child but through a cruel twist of digestive fate can now no longer consume
Nutritional Value: America encapsulated in one gloriously conflicted tycoon; the responsibility of interpretation
Recommended Serving Size: The entire film, viewed in one sitting and without commercial interruption
Citizen Kane is a litmus test.
Watch Kane to figure out what you think about film. Do you believe that cinema is an essentially artistic medium? Here is the best film of all time (as voted by scores of high and lowbrow critics). Do you believe that cinema is essentially entertainment and that film critics are selling the public a bill of goods? Here is what film snobs say is the best film ever made. Confirm your suspicions that they don’t know what they’re talking about.
One basic criticism of the film is that it offers more style than substance, which is to say that the film stylistically mirrors the traits of its protagonist. Charles Foster Kane is heavy on talk and light on kept promises. To critics, the film uses cinematic tricks to cover over its weak plot.
But let’s be generous. Let’s say the film has anticipated our critique by making its own artistic and stylistic features into the equivalent of Kane’s personal and political rhetoric.
The film famously had the working title, The American, and in the film’s early tour-de-force “News on the March,” Kane tells a reporter that he’s always been an American. So, let’s work with the assumption that the film says something essential about being an American.
On the one hand, Kane is a trust fund millionaire afflicted with liberal guilt on account of his own wealth. He didn’t really earn his money. He never actually makes investments. He isn’t interested in money qua money. He imagines that he must have committed some sin to have received the cash he’s gotten, and he tries to find different ways of paying that debt off. On the other hand, he’s a conservative wolf who dresses himself in the sheep’s clothing of reform in order to feast on the populace lambs. He targets his own enemies, not those of the people. If his targets happen to afflict the public, so much the better, but his pursuits are never altruistic.
We see this tension played out today in competing visions of America. Is this a great land that has simply never fulfilled its promises of freedom and equality? Or is it a den of thieves that has always used the rhetoric of freedom as a cover for political oppression and personal greed?
Kane’s guardian Thatcher labels him a communist. Another critic labels him a fascist. The latter is closer to the truth, which says something interesting about America.
Remember that fascism is national socialism that retains private property. And there is no bigger champion of private property than Kane. The opening shot of the film is a “No Trespassing” sign. Kane’s fortune comes from a deed foreclosure, where property is used to pay off debt to Kane’s mother. But Kane keeps talking about the “working man” and the slums, offering socialist programs for the underprivileged.
So America is a mass of contradictions. Big deal. Where’s the symbolic profundity in that?
It’s in the film’s numerous assurances that this all simultaneously means everything or nothing.
Look how the film turns the reporter sent to investigate Kane into a cipher hidden in the shadows and pushed into the corners of the frame. If I’m honest, I’m not Kane. I’m the reporter. Kane’s waste of his prodigious talent and resources does not indict me. The reporter’s rote questions and empty research do. I am the faceless wage slave performing someone else’s grunt work. I’m writing text for a magazine that specializes in photos. I can’t find the one thing I’ve been assigned to find. I leave the room right before the answer is revealed.
I need somebody to tell me the answers.
The tragedy is not that “Rosebud,” and by extension Kane’s life, is meaningless. It’s that the word is too loaded with significance, too meaningful, so that when I misinterpret it or refuse to interpret it, I am lost.