August 1, 2015

Citizen Kane and journalism

Citizen Kane was an entirely predictable and completely necessary choice in a list of 10 greatfilms about journalism that I posted a little while ago, but the short summary was a little shallow: Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane as an ink-stained monster from the golden age of newspapers, waging wars, settling grudges and scoring political points through his mastheads, much like an early 20th century Rupert Murdoch. Of course, the film is entertaining on the shameless lies, agendas and inventions of yellow journalism and “dirty politics” (as in the front page pictured above, in which a rival paper finds a way to attack Kane’s political campaign, and famous lines like “You write the prose poems, I’ll provide the war”, straight out of the Hearst back catalogue), but there is much more to its struggle with journalism. I watched it a couple of times this week, after not seeing it for more than 15 years, once with Peter Bogdanovich’s commentary and once without, and became more aware of the obvious: it’s framed as journalism about journalism. The almost faceless reporter Thompson is sent to find the missing detail in a newsreel obituary: what did “rosebud”, Kane’s last word, mean? The film is unusually literary, for its time and for now, and the bulk of it is presented as his interviews with people who knew Kane, unspooling as long flashbacks; we only see Kane “objectively” in the opening moments, before the newsreel comes on.   
Of course, Thompson never finds out what rosebud means, but we do. There is a secret complicity between film-makers and audience, who are in possession of information that is not shared with any living character on screen. It’s easy to forget that no one within the film’s present ever knows why rosebud is significant. In that sense, the journalist has failed – his investigation has turned up nothing and it is likely that no one will ever be any the wiser about what made Kane tick. But does that matter? Welles went on to dismiss the idea of rosebud as cheap Freudianism and Bogdanovich explains that Welles introduced the dialogue preceding the revelation, about no word ever being able to explain one man, for that very reason (similarly, at the end of
Touch of Evil: “He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?”). Welles seems to have believed there was no great secret, there was no one great truth to be found out about anybody – the film opens and closes with “no trespassing” signs – but audiences have disagreed and the idea that one word, deeply connected to childhood memory and loss, can unlock everything has become almost metaphysical. People want to believe in the explanation and see it as tragic that the evidence is destroyed.