by Alvin G. Burstein
In a search for an end of the year movie to review, the spate of Christmas releases didn’t appeal to me. Citizen Kane popped into my mind because of its frequent citation as the all-time greatest movie by both the American Film Institute and its British counterpart. It was seen as a virtuoso effort by the twenty-five year-old boy wonder, Orson Welles. He not only coauthored the screen play with Herman Mankiewicz but also produced, directed and starred in the movie. A virtuoso effort indeed.
A 1941 RKO release, it had impressed me when I’d seen it as a youngster. I was curious about how it would strike me eighty years later. It would be an understatement to say it wore well.
More, it turned out to be almost eerily a propos of current events. The emotional charge of the final reveal retains its intensity, the content of which, despite the film’s age and its having been remembered by me, would be a spoiler to describe.
The film recounts the life of Charles Foster Kane. It opens by closing in on the elaborately baroque grounds of the Kane estate. The protagonist is on his death bed. As he draws his last breath, he utters a name, “Rose Bud”, and a snow globe drops out of his hand to roll across the floor. So the story begins with its ending and continues with a series of flash backs.
The device is a search for Rose Bud, embodied in an investigative reporter’s search for Rose Bud’s identity. The grounds for the search is Kane’s celebrity as a wealthy newspaper mogul and politician. As the reporter interviews figures from Kane’s past and reads their diaries, those varied memories are dramatized, and Kane is explored
from multiple points of view: those of his parents, his guardians, his mistress and wives, his servants, his longtime associates and his rivals. These multiple points of view provide a textured account, enriched by its contradictory elements, but with a central element: Kane’s insatiable thirst for affirmation.
Kane’s thirst cannot be slaked and blinds him to the needs of others. He is the apotheosis of a narcissist for whom others are valued only for their adulation. From the point of view of self psychology Kane’s crippling is rooted in very early experiences of parental deprivation, failures to provide the child with adequate gratification of the need to be deeply valued. We watch Kane as a child being sent away by his rustic parents to “enjoy” the benefits of accidental wealth—a benefit that, deep within his defective self, is experienced as an unconscious but overwhelming rejection.
Unable genuinely to care about anyone else, Kane ends his life again abandoned, in a castle surrounded by the accouterments of wealth—a deeply tragic figure.
Kane’s narcissism provides an obvious parallel to that of our country’s current President. Whether Trump’s end will resemble Kane’s remains to be seen.