With great difficulty I resisted the temptation for so many years; perhaps for fear that anything praised to such an extent was bound to disappoint. Then, while browsing the current BBC headlines I came across it: “Only Oscar for Citizen Kane on the auction block”. Needless to say, curiosity not only killed the cat but also got me to my local Blockbuster in search of what the American Film Institute considers the “Number One Film of All Time”.
Citizen Kane, played by none other than Orson Wells himself, is the story of one man’s rise to the top, his subsequent corruption, and final self-destruction .
Released in 1941 by RKO pictures, the drama/mystery was not only a pioneer in the technical aspects of movie making but also challenged corporate America, exploring the relationship between power and the media. Displeased at the similarities between Charles Foster Kane and himself, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst did everything in his power to ensure the failure of the movie. What the American Film Institute now praises as the best film of all time was a box-office flop in 1941, partly due to an absence of media coverage and the influence Hearst exerted in Hollywood.
A mere paragraph in this review is insufficient to explore the relationship Orson Wells develops between art and life.
Does art imitate life? The film touches upon themes such as concentration of media ownership, the sensationalizing of news and corruption in politics. Or does life imitate art? Orson Wells’ own life followed the same tragic pattern as that of Kane, as though predicted by the film. He was a child prodigy who after completing Citizen Kane was never able to surmount the demons that tormented him. He died alone and mournful. As recounted in the documentary “The Battle Over Citizen Kane”, the movie’s editor Robert Wise said Orson was unknowingly doing a biographical work. Wells himself is famously known to have said he started at the top then worked his way down.
The film first confronts the viewer with a no trespassing sign but then allows entry into the strange and isolated world of Xanadu, the colossal Floridian palace Kane built as a monument to himself. A window allows us passage into the dying mans world as he utters the clue that will haunt us for the rest of the film, “rosebud”. As a reporter searches for this missing link he thinks will solve the puzzle of Charlie’s life, we are presented with a series of flashbacks recounting the millionaire’s life. In the end only the audience discovers the truth about “rosebud” but is then left to ponder its significance. To me it represents the one thing that eluded Kane throughout his life: love.
In the end, I cannot say that Citizen Kane was the best movie I have ever seen. But who am I to argue? What I can say is that the movie is aesthetically incredible and does lead one to question if one word can sum up a man’s life. Most importantly for me, it confirms what my mother and the Beatles have been telling me all these years: “Money can’t buy me love”.