Tuesday 22 January 2013

Citizen Kane: What Makes Life Worth Living?

By John D. O’Brien, S.J.


This winter I have the privilege of teaching a subject I quite enjoy: the history of cinema. There are several reasons why I find this enjoyable.

First, great films are like great books. They are carriers of great ideas, have technical and historical interest, and can expand spiritual horizons. In a sense, films are “proto-evangelical”, a good way of examining the human condition through an artistic form that can prepare the way for the message and person of Christ. Movies stimulate discussion of human themes: of right and wrong, of good and evil, of beauty and decay, and ultimately, of salvation or destruction. In short, a film is an incredibly complex multisensory medium, and makes for a fascinating immersion.

This week, my class looked at the films of Orson Welles, the young auteur, who first became famous for his shockingly realistic radio play, a dramatization of H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds (online here in its entirety):

During the famous 1938 broadcast, citizens began to flee the cities, thinking a Martian invasion was actually taking place. Welles later gave a kind of apologia.

The boy wonder then went to Hollywood, where he always remained an outsider, but managed to create a number of fascinating films, of which Citizen Kane (1941) remains his magnum opus.

There is something about Citizen Kane that holds us spellbound even more than seventy years later. It is a triumph of story-telling. It was also a pioneer in its camerawork, visual composition, and narrative structure. The life of Kane, who was not-too-loosely based on media tycoon William Randoph Hearst, is told from five different points of view. Each perspective has a different interpretation of Kane’s life. This device was not about showing a relativity about the truth of a person, but is rather a series of angles, with each narrator presenting a unique interpretive lens (like the four Gospels). The investigation centers on the significance of Kane’s last words, the enigmatic whisper “Rosebud”, as if it were the hermeneutic key to the man. The investigators interview many people, but never discover the answer to the riddle, although by a trick of narrative construction, the audience finds out in the last scene.

Throughout the film, we get to know Kane. He is the protagonist of the American dream, of the rise from poverty to worldly success, and then loss and isolation. The epic quality of the story rides upon the themes of wealth, power and love, and whether having the first two makes having the third difficult or impossible. It’s a valid question. Aristotle named wealth and honours as illusory goals in the pursuit of happiness. Jesus gave the startling statement that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (whether he meant the Jerusalem portico or an actual sewing needle is irrelevant – the disciples gasped at the statement).

Kane’s problem, however, was not just his wealth. We know that it is possible for people of means to be genuinely generous, humble and loving. The problem is the association of wealth to power. Kane is not necessarily a bad man. He breaks no laws, and he is not violent with the people in his life. But his rapid ascent depends on the complete control of his newspaper and radio empire. It becomes his idol, and in his obsessive pursuit of success, his first marriage breaks down. Later, when he runs for governor’s office, he learns that despite his insistence on thoroughly being “an American”, and investing his vast fortune in the race, he cannot buy the trust of the people. After these "failures", he then turns to making a success out of his second wife, a mediocre opera singer. If the masses will not love him, at least them will love his "creation." This too conducted along the logic of power, and ends in tragic failure. Love cannot be bought or sold.

When Kane dies at the beginning/end of the film, he is totally alone – except for the nurse and paid employees who run Xanadu, his cavernous castle-like mansion on a hill-top in Florida, surrounded by the odd treasures his wealth has bought him. He dies solitary and unloved, a victim of his own pretentions and his inability to surrender to the many opportunities for genuine love that he was given. “Rosebud” gives us the clue to what his soul was always yearning for, but what his ambition and pride refused to permit.

During the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, there is a particular meditation in which the retreatant is asked to consider the moment of one’s death, and reflect upon the kind of life one would wish to have lived. Citizen Kane is just such a reflection, although mercifully of fictitious man. Yet his character is illuminating, and can help us ask the big questions: What makes life worth living? What is the true definition of the good life? What kind of life will I have lived?

Citizen Kane was not a box office success. In part this was because Hearst instructed his media empire not to advertize it, and bullied the cinemas who planned to show it. It’s also generally believed that the mood of the time – America was on the verge of entering the Second World War – was not in favour of this un-Hollywood-like and somewhat grim morality tale. It was only in the 1960s that the film was recognized for being the masterpiece of technique and tale that it is generally regarded as today. If we watch Citizen Kane (or even Welles’s followup, 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons), we might ask ourselves what kind of life we are living. What do we worship and where do we put our love? It is worth considering.


  1. Well, I wish that I could take that course from you, John. As it is, I'm making notes from your syllabus. Nice to see Terrence Malick highlighted near the end; I dearly love both of his films that you've chosen.

  2. You're too kind, Craig. But it is a fun course to teach. Malick has a new film: "To the Wonder" coming out this spring. There's a priest character by Javier Bardem... we'll see how things go!

  3. Yes, I missed seeing To the Wonder when it showed at the Toronto Film Fest last fall. I think it is slated for wide (or "wide") release in April. I am looking forward to it. His last three films have all bowled me over.