Citizen Kane can be painful to watch at times. As the idealism of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) erodes beneath the bonds of habit and a lifetime of selfishness, I can’t help but mourn the unrealized potential that lies in so many of us who have been given so much. As the film’s famous final shot reveals the identity of Rosebud, I’m always reminded of an admonition in Ecclesiastes: “All human work is for the mouth, but the soul is not satisfied.”
Welles’s masterpiece isn’t a particularly Christian film, but it illustrates the God-shaped emptiness at the core of those who look for meaning and fulfillment in money, sex, success, and power, only to find the pursuit of those things as meaningless as chasing after the wind.
Greatest of All Time?
It feels strange to write a defense of Kane because for most of my life it’s been esteemed and voluminously praised. Though there’s ultimately no consensus on the “greatest movie of all time,” Welles’ masterpiece is the closest we’ve come to agreement. And yet, much was made of the fact that Vertigo supplanted it in Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll of critics.
No critic ever made his or her reputation by falling in line with the crowd, so it’s natural that there should be some fluctuation in the hierarchy of masterpieces. Perhaps the problem is that Kane had been esteemed for so long that people began to take its greatness as gospel, a truth to be repeated without ever being scrutinized or defended. Pronouncing a film or any work of art as great is easy; explaining why requires a lot more work.
Technically and Culturally Influential
Kane was technically and thematically innovative. That innovation led to imitation—so much so that the modern viewer is sometimes fooled by how contemporary it looks and feels. As Louis Giannetti states in Understanding Movies, “Photographically, Kane ushered in a revolution, implicitly challenging the classical ideal of a transparent style that doesn’t call attention to itself.” Its non-chronological structure, use of emotive camera angles, and (especially) deep focus weren’t exactly unprecedented, but they were certainly unmatched. Welles and cinematographer Greg Toland created the visual language we learn and speak today.
Since the average American, by some estimates, watches approximately 35 hours of television/visual media each week, it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that Kane is one of the most influential 20th-century works of art.
Welles’s film was also politically and socially influential. Indeed, his entire career challenged a studio system that appeared to have the exclusive ability to make and distribute a mainstream movie. It’s difficult to imagine an “indie” film movement—or even the development of auteur theory—without figures like Welles who led people to think of movies as contemporary art from creative geniuses rather than manufactured products from faceless studios.
Cultural impact is always hard to measure, since American culture is as vast and diverse as its geographical boundaries. The 1995 documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane won the Oscar that Welles infamously didn’t. (The statue for best picture in 1941 went to John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley.) Battle parallels the lives of Welles and media mogul William Randolph Hearst, the thinly veiled inspiration for Charles Foster Kane. Hearst once famously told illustrator Frederick Remington, who’d been sent to Cuba to bear witness to an insurrection: “You furnish the pictures. I'll furnish the war.” Historical ancdotes like that explain why Kane drew attention to the dangers of having too much information in the hands of too few.
Today, we’re inundated with films and shows ripped from the headlines (Truth, The People vs. O.J. Simpson [review]). The internet in general and social media in particular have only deepened and complicated the arguments about who does and who should control the flow of information. Documentaries like Nobody Speak: The Trials of the Free Press underscore the efforts of the rich and powerful to control the media. Meanwhile, we struggle to draw a line between public and private, wondering what we have a right to know about the lives of those who make decisions that affect us.
Lesson for Christians
Christians should never dismiss the importance of craftsmanship or social influence when evaluating art, but we should also recognize that these things alone are rarely enough to make a film truly timeless. Jesus’s use of parables illustrates that the best narratives embody truth, helping us to understand and improve our lives rather than simply diverting or entertaining us. These truths can be painful. Like many film and literary masterpieces of the 20th century—The Godfather and The Great Gatsby come to mind—Citizen Kane reveals the hollowness at the heart of an American dream that’s too often reduced to a desire for economic prosperity and global power. Money doesn’t buy happiness. The one who dies with the most toys . . . still dies.
Many Christians would prefer their art be hopeful, aspirational, or encouraging. That’s understandable. But when we forget and neglect the cries of despair from a fallen world and insist that art should always and only celebrate the beautiful, we stop hearing the world telling us what it needs to be saved from and how its efforts to save itself are failing.
In his commentary on Ecclesiastes, Jacques Ellul quotes the French author George Bernanons, saying, “In order to be prepared to hope in what does not deceive, we must first lose hope in everything that deceives.” Citizen Kane is the story of a man who got everything he ever wanted in life yet struggled at the moment of his death to remember the last moment he was truly happy. If that man’s death engenders empathy as well as revulsion, perhaps it’s because we, too, struggle to let go of our pursuit of happiness through wealth, power, and privilege—even though we know their effect is fleeting and the life of fulfillment they promise is illusory.