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Citizen Kane Rosebud Analysis Essay

Rosebud in Citizen Kane Essay

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Rosebud in Citizen Kane

Rosebud is sled, Kane's sled when he was a boy. Rosebud is the foundation of the film of citizen Kane. Rosebud is also Kane's last words. He was a very important man, known globally. Rosebud is the word everyone wants to understand the meaning of, so there is a hunt to find the meaning of the word. This sets the story for the film. Rosebud is a symbol of Kane, in that Rosebud represents his loss of the ability to love and how to love. The film Citizen Kane has a lot of direction meaning that every shot means something in its own way, there is a hidden message in every movement of the camera. There was a close up on the "NO TRESPASSING" sign emphasising the fact that the…show more content…

The camera shoots the shot through the paper weight as the nurse comes in.

These direction techniques create a lot of tension because up to the point where the word Rosebud comes out of Kane's mouth there is a lot of tension and suspense because we are wondering who is behind the castle, and the camera doesn't give anything away. And to create further tension and a man says Rosebud and we have no clues. In the second sequence we find out more about Kane himself, exactly how important he was. In the second sequence we find out Kane is globally well known as newspapers all over the world wrote his death as front page news. We also find that he was in politics, the media and into forestry and doubled ownership. Kan's image is his biggest selling point. In this sequence we find out that Rosebud was Kane's last words, and that someone's last word could say a lot about the person.

Rosebud sets up the narrative motivation in that the audience and Mr Thompson want to know what the meaning behind Rosebud is, what was on Kane's mind at his last breath. There is a brief mention of sled to give the audience another subtle clue. Rosebud sets up the structure in that Thompson, the man in charge of Kane's life story is now on the search of the meaning of Rosebud. I think Thompson is kept hidden in the dark because he's not an important; he's

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This is a recycled undergraduate essay, originally written in October 2002; I’ve left it on the page as I think it holds up relatively well as a survey of some of the main writing on Citizen Kane, and it used to get a lot of hits when it was posted on my old page.

Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) is probably the most celebrated film that has ever been made: it is unnecessary to recite the list of top tens that it has dominated to make this point. It is a cliché that Citizen Kane is “the greatest movie that ever has been or will be made.”(1) In this role it acts in the kind of calibrating role that Shakespeare’s plays do in literature: when arguments about canon formation threaten to descend into squabbles about the subjectivity of greatness, Citizen Kane serves a useful function as a marker of almost universally accepted merit. A cursory glance at the literature on the film highlights the fact that it has attracted the attention of many of the most prominent writers on film, across the spectrum from both popular critics to academics. The list includes Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, David Thomson, Peter Bogdanovich, Andre Bazin, Andrew Sarris, David Bordwell, Noel Carroll, Laura Mulvey, and many others.(2)This veritable rogue’s gallery of big names attests to the insatiable urge amongst critics and theorists across the cultural spectrum to add their own take on Kane. Given that most of these writers ascribe to the essential view of Kane is a masterpiece, they add an impressive strength to its cultural status. Yet upon closer examination the inevitable diversity of opinions amongst these writers makes it harder to describe the “Kane as masterpiece” positioon as unified. The writing on Citizen Kane starts to resemble the film’s eyewitness descriptions of Kane himself: the more contradictory explanations of the movie are offered, the harder it is to reconcile a clear view of what the film’s virtues really are. Often, a particular account of the film is also accompanied by an implicit (or even explicit) assertion that it is the writer’s own view that really describes the film’s central great qualities. Such an invocation of a critical “Rosebud” – the observation or critical approach that really serves to throw the jumbled mass of Citizen Kane into focus – is to be expected. One such critical “Rosebud” is Noel Carroll’s essay on the film, which speaks of two contradictory meanings in the film and suggests a way of reconciling them. In this essay, I will use Carroll’s article as a starting point for a survey of popular writers on Kane (Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, and David Thomson) and more academic approaches (Carroll, David Bordwell, and Laura Mulvey), noting in particular their divergent approaches to the key question: what is Citizen Kane really saying?

The urge to claim the definitive interpretation of a film or an academic argument is nothing new to Noel Carroll. In his essays, one is often struck by the tendency to take on an existing argument in film theory, briefly summarise the arguments so far, and then dispense his own take on the problem to settle the argument.(3)This extends to broad scale campaigns, with attacks on whole bodies of theory that amount to wholesale assaults on the discipline.(4)The audacity, bordering on arrogance, of making such claims is countered in his best writing by an emphasis on logical (as opposed to metaphorical) models of film and a determined focus on empiricism. His essay “Interpreting Citizen Kane” follows a pattern typical of his essays in this regard.(5) He identifies two principal strands to the interpretations of the movie thus far, what he calls the “Rosebud” and “enigma” interpretations:

The enigma interpretation says that Citizen Kane illustrates the point that the nature of a person is ultimately a mystery; a person is all things to all persons, and, correspondingly, a multiplicity of selves. The Rosebud interpretation says that Kane’s personality is finally explicable by some such notions as those of “lost childhood” or “lost innocence.”(6)

Ever the empiricist, Carroll notes that evidence for both views can be found in dialogue, narrative, and stylistic devices. The enigma interpretation is supported by the litany of oppositions recited in the newsreel sequence; Kane’s self-description to Thatcher of himself as two people with contradictory motives; the multiple reflected images of Kane as he leaves his wife’s room; and particularly the final declaration by Thompson that “Rosebud” is a piece of a puzzle and cannot explain a man’s life. Yet, Carroll also notes that the Rosebud interpretation is equally grounded in the film. Kane’s inability to form healthy reciprocal love relations is given a plausible psychological explanation in the early trauma of the separation from his mother, and the views of Leland and Susan on his character are essentially consistent. The “Rosebud” device is carefully set up so that the props of the sled and the glass dome are linked with the notions of separation and loss. Kane’s anxiety about loss gives a motive to the apparently random acquisition of objects that is established in the newsreel sequence and elsewhere.

The idea of two possible interpretations of a film co-existing in close conjunction is familiar from Carroll’s earlier writing. In his much-cited article “The Future of Allusion: Hollywood in the Seventies and Beyond,” Carroll had posited that much Hollywood cinema in the seventies had adopted a two-tiered structure.(7) That is, by drawing on previous films, it simultaneously worked at a simplistic genre level but also incorporated references or meanings that would appeal to the more sophisticated, cine-literate audiences. This simple but helpful idea (echoed buy other writers)(8) might seem readily adaptable to Citizen Kane: the “Rosebud” idea, criticised by many – including Welles – as a gimmick, would represent the simple interpretation. The more sophisticated interpretation, then, would be the enigma interpretation. However, this simple two-tiered structure is not an easy fit for Citizen Kane. There’s nothing hidden or ironic about the enigma interpretation: Thompson states it explicitly at the close of the movie. What is difficult about the film is that it immediately follows with a restatement of the Rosebud interpretation through the appearance of the sled. Thus the film seems to give each interpretation equal “first tier” status. Furthermore, the two interpretations are inconsistent: if “Rosebud” is a key to understanding Kane’s life after all, then the enigma interpretation is invalid. Carroll explains the simultaneity of the two meanings in this case as a deliberate strategy to highlight the conflict and to put each forward in competition:

There is no need, however, to think that the interpretation of the film must be an interpretation of Kane’s life. The film, that is, may contain interpretations of Kane’s life without it being necessary to identify the film with either of these interpretations. Instead, the film may be about setting the life interpretations it contains in opposition That is, Citizen Kane is structured in such a way as to afford the opportunity for the general audience to interrogate prevailing cultural views of the nature of human life by setting them forth in competition.(9)

Carroll does not here reconcile his reading of Citizen Kane with his two-tiered approach, but this can easily be done by suggesting that the film has not one but two “simple” meanings (the enigma and Rosebud interpretations), and that the deeper level of meaning is found by noting this and considering the possibility that the central point of the film is the making of the choice between the two meanings.

This ingenious reading of the film dispenses with apparent weaknesses of the film – apparent internal inconsistency in meanings, and an overly glib central device – by suggesting they are actually a deliberate ploy. This alone makes it tempting to accept Carroll’s view. Yet is this interpretation really what Welles and Herman Mankiewicz had in mind when writing the screenplay? In his critiques of psychoanalytic (and other) film theory, Carroll is quick to attack theorists for fanciful scenarios without adequate basis evidence of how films are actually received.(10) Is he himself guilty of reading too much into Citizen Kane here? The first approach to answering this question might be to look at evidence of Welles’ and Mankiewicz’s intentions. In discussion with Peter Bogdanovich, Welles himself seems to agree with the popular assessment of the “Rosebud” device as hokey:

Welles: “Rosebud” was Mank’s, and the many-sided gimmick was mine. Rosebud remained, because it was the only way we could find to get off, as they used to say in vaudeville. It manages to work, but I’m still not too keen about it, and I don’t think that he was, either. The whole schtick is the sort of thing that can finally date, in some funny way.

Bogdanovich: Toward the close, you have the reporter say that it doesn’t matter what it means –

Welles: We did everything we could to take the mickey out of it.

Bogdanovich: The reporter says at the end. “Charles Foster Kane was a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get or something he lost, but it wouldn’t have explained anything”

Welles: I guess you might call that a disclaimer – a bit corny, too. More than a bit. And it’s mine, I’m afraid.(11)

Here Welles seems to accord with Carroll’s view that the simple reading of the “Rosebud” device renders the film “pretty dumb” (Carroll’s phrase).(12)There is no suggestion that Welles and Mankiewicz intentionally set out to make a film about interrogating competing cultural views on the nature of human life. Of course, filmmaker intentionally should not be seen as decisive when it comes to a reading of a film: symptomatic readings that discern unintentioned meanings in the text are commonplace. Here, Welles’ interview supports an interesting reading that suggests the competition between the two readings Carroll identified actually represents a tension between the screenwriters: the Rosebud interpretation derives from Mankiewicz, while the enigma interpretation (the “many-sided gimmick”) belonged to Welles. The dual ending, in which Thompson espouses the enigma interpretation before Rosebud is used as a final “exclamation point,” would therefore be an attempt to reconcile, or sum up, the two competing views present at script level. In this sense, Carroll would be spot on: the film would be, even if unconsciously, “about” the competition between two worldviews.

However, any attempt to interpret Citizen Kane by relying on interviews with Welles is complicated by his highly polished, somewhat disingenuous interview style. A number of possible interpretations could be placed upon the interview above: for example, Welles’ routine attribution of the “Rosebud” device to Mankiewicz has been interpreted as a method for downplaying Mankiewicz’s role in the crafting of the film.(13) Seen this way, it could be argued that Welles’ intention as one author of the text was that the real meaning would be the enigma interpretation, but that the simple “gimmick” of the Rosebud device was introduced by his co-screenwriter. Whether through a simple conflict of intent, or through recognition that it was valuable at a “first tier” level – a way to get off stage, as Welles puts it – it remained a dominant element in the script. Continuing this hypothesis, Welles then reacted to the criticism of this aspect of the script by off-loading blame to his co-screenwriter. In apparent balance, Welles also disparages what he identifies as his own contribution: the disclaimer by the reporter, which effectively sums up the “enigma” position. This can be interpreted in two ways, however. Welles might be saying that the enigma position is just as corny as the Rosebud view, but the comment also implies that the disclaimer is a futile attempt to repair the damage done by Mankiewicz. Whatever the conclusion, this discussion highlights the dangers of considering an authorial perspective as decisive. Not only is there debate about who is the author of the film, but the author’s recollection may be faulty, offhanded, or subject to ulterior motives. In this case, Bogdanovich’s role as an interviewer also needs to be taken into account. As a critic with auteurist leanings, a filmmaker himself, and an avowed Welles fan, his participation in the interview could plausibly be said to influence Welles’ responses. Indeed, the interview could just as validly be evidence in a symptomatic reading of Bogdanovich’s films. The pair discuss Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968), for example,(14) and The Cat’s Meow (2002), is Bogdanovich’s own take on several players in the Citizen Kane controversy (William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, and Louella Parsons). Indeed, insofar as The Cat’s Meow is something of a vindication of Davies’ talent and character, the genesis of that project could be traced to Welles’ admission in this interview that the equation of Susan Alexander with Davies was somewhat unfair.(15) Examination of Welles’ comments on the dual interpretations, then, yields interesting but undecisive perspectives. It is worth, then, turning to the other chief method for assessing Carroll’s viewpoint: whether or not this structure is discerned by those viewing the film. With the possibility that Carroll’s two-tiered structure might also be evident in Kane, I shall look at both popular and academic writings on Kane to see whether there are notable differences in perspective.

Roger Ebert is perhaps the best known film critic in the United States (courtesy of his role as a television critic), and with his audio commentary on the film included on the DVD version of the film sold in that country, his views on Citizen Kane are arguably the most widely distributed in the broad film-going community.(16) Justifiably, given the movie is such a masterpiece of technique, the commentary is heavy on analysis of the visual style and the effects trickery used in the film. Ebert’s close analysis of the visuals of the film serves as an admirable introduction of such analysis to the general audience who are not used to reading films this way, and expands on his earlier essay, “A Viewer’s Guide to Citizen Kane.”(17)The headings in that essay give a feel for the material covered by Ebert in both sources:

  • “Rosebud”
  • Deep Focus
  • Optical Illusions
  • Visible Ceilings
  • Matte Drawings
  • Invisible Wipes
  • Invisible Furniture Moving
  • The Neatest Flash-Forward in Kane
  • From Model to Reality
  • Crowd Scenes
  • Slight Factual Discrepancies
  • The Luce Connection
  • An Extra with a Future
  • The Most Thankless Job on the Movie
  • The Brothel Scene
  • The Eyeless Cockatoo
  • The Most Evocative Shot in the Movie
  • The Best Speech in Kane
  • Genuine Modesty
  • False Modesty

This punchy survey of behind the scenes gossip, bloopers, things to watch for, and technical information serves as his entry into Citizen Kane. That is Ebert’s first tier of appreciation: only occasionally does he venture into a discussion of the themes of the movie. When he does so, the reasons for his focus on the surface effects is clear: that is the level on which he sees the movie as a masterpiece. He quotes Pauline Kael’s assessment of the film as a “shallow masterpiece” with approval, and on the critical question of “Rosebud” cites her again:

“Rosebud” – Pauline Kael said it was a gimmick, and basically it is. It explains everything, but really it explains nothing. And yet it’s one of the most famous words in motion picture history.(18)

An almost identically worded assessment appears in his essay from ten years earlier, and in both the commentary and the essay he immediately moves onto the tidbit of gossip that “‘rosebud’ was the old man’s pet name for the most intimate part of her anatomy.”(19) While to a certain extent his commentary itself is explaining everything and nothing here, his description of the final revelation of the sled as “the secret which really explains nothing at all”(20) would seem to place him firmly on the side of the enigma interpretation. Yet his lack of interest in the topic (except as a pointer to titillating anecdotes) suggests he is amongst those who see little of interest in the thematic arguments about the film. For Ebert the conflict between the Rosebud and enigma interpretations is inconsequential because what the film is about is not a central question.

It is apt that Pauline Kael is the only critic Ebert cites with regularity: since the 1960s she had been the United States pre-eminent critic, with a smaller audience than Ebert but greater respectability. More importantly, her 1971 extended article “Raising Kane” (published first in the New Yorker and then in The Citizen Kane Book)(21) is the most controversial input by a critic to the analysis of the film. Her argument, simplistically put, was that Welles’ contribution to the script was minimal (“Orson Welles wasn’t around when Citizen Kane was written”),(22) which therefore gave a great deal more of the credit for the film to Herman Mankiewicz. The furore that this assertion caused is not necessary to recite here. However, Kael’s views on the film are of interest not only as the longest piece on the film by a mainstream critic (the essay is some 50,000 words long) but also as an insight to the ways in which the interpretation of the film is affected by a critique that downplays the director. As David Thomson notes, “the real Kael of 1971 knew that writers do not make movies – she knew it, for instance, when she saw McCabe and Mrs Miller.”(23) However, Kael was writing at the height of her backlash against Sarris-style auteurism, and by attributing most of the credit for the screenplay to Mankiewicz, she loses the luxury of attributing the conflict between the Rosebud and enigma interpretations to a conflict between Mankiewicz and Wells. Yet by making the screenplay central to her viewing of the film, she also makes it harder to evade the issue by concentrating on other aspects of the production, as Ebert does. She finally tackles the issue head on about two-thirds through the essay:

Welles is right, of course, about Rosebud – it is dollar-book Freud. The one significant change from Hearst’s life – Kane’s separation from his parents – seems to be used to explain Kane, though there is an explicit disavowal of any such intention toward the end. Nevertheless, the structure of the picture – searching for the solution to a mystery – and the exaggerated style make it appear that Rosebud is the key to Kane‘s life, and the public responds to what is presented dramatically, not to the reservations of the moviemakers. Though Rosebud was in the long first draft, it didn’t carry the same weight there, because the newspaper business itself undermined Kane’s idealism As the newspaper business and the political maneuvering were pared away, the personal material took on the weight and shape of the solution to the mystery. Even so, if the movie had been directed in a more matter-of-fact, naturalistic style, Thompson’s explanation that Rosebud was just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle would have seemed quite sensible. Instead, Welles’ heavily theatrical style overemphasized the psychological explanation to such a point that when we finally glimpse the name on the sled we in the audience are made to feel that we’re in on a big secret – a revelation that the world missed out on.(24)

Here Kael, in the opening sentences, identifies exactly the tension noted by Carroll. However, she uses a double strategy to explain the conflict. Firstly, she states that the Rosebud device was not as central in the original script. It became more central, she claims, as the newspaper material was excised: it is this material, of course, that was most personal to ex-newspaperman Mankiewicz. Secondly, the Rosebud device is further positioned as Welles’ responsibility by attributing its centrality to the style in which he filmed the screenplay.(25) By recasting the conflict between interpretations of the film as the tension between concept and execution, she manages to claim the primacy of authorship back for Mankiewicz while offloading ownership of “Rosebud” to Welles. While she implicitly prefers the enigma interpretation, she suggests that amongst the majority of the filmgoers, it is ultimately the Rosebud reading that is accepted by most viewers.

Before looking at more academic analyses of the film, it is worth contrasting Kael’s view with that of Welles biographer (and critic) David Thomson. Unsurprisingly, and like many others, he disputes Kael’s denigration of Welles, noting that both men had played important roles in shaping the script. In response to Kael’s “shallow masterpiece” claim (which had dominated Ebert’s whole conception of the film), he notes:

…that misses entirely the somber (though not unamused) nut of nihilism in the film, of that self-centeredness which vanishes like a large, iridescent bubble. Kael has never felt the innerness of Kane, the place where Welles and Kane become the same creature, or its hapless yearning.(26)

The identification between Welles and Kane is crucial, for Thomson, in giving the film the depth that Ebert and Kael feel it lacks. Many writers (including Ebert and Kael) have noted the extent to which the biographical details of Kane draw as much from Welles as Hearst. The destruction of Susan’s room, for example, is commonly traced back to a tantrum thrown by Wells, and the similarity in temperament (and, ultimately, life story) between Welles and Kane is difficult to ignore. Yet it would be an injustice to Thomson’s subtle and nuanced reading of the film to suggest that he sees the deeper meaning of the film simply at the level of allusion to Welles’ biography. The key to Thomson’s approach in the extract above is not so much the notion that Welles and Kane are the same creature, but instead the phrase “hapless yearning.” For Thomson, the conjunction between Kane and Welles is not interesting as an in-joke, but rather for its role in contributing an emotional depth to the film.

To a certain extent, this strengthens the Rosebud interpretation. While it might not work as an intellectual conceit, for Thomson it has legitimacy on an emotional level. Welles’ identification with the role leads to a perceptiveness and genuineness about the central character that lends a substance to his visual games. While this is a crude statement of a theme that generally remains implicit in Thomson’s discussion, this approach is clear in his consideration of the scene in which Kane’s mother signs her son’s future away to the bank. Noting the deep ambiguity in the scene (the mother apparently grieving for the son, yet packing his trunk a week in advance as if eager, for instance), he reads the contradictions in emotional rather than intellectual terms, leading to his own theory on “Rosebud” that is worth quoting at length:

The episode from the prairie is what Thompson reads in Thatcher’s journal, but nothing about the brusque, unfeeling banker finds him capable of such subtle perception. No, there is only one way to read and measure the scene – and that is through Kane’s troubled feelings: what did my mother do, and why? Of course, this cabin Colorado is the original of the house in the snow ball, the last thing Kane holds. As a rule, his dying word, “Rosebud,” is interpreted as an answer – albeit a rather glib one – to the mystery Thompson is trying to settle. But if one attends closely to the Colorado scene, “Rosebud” hardly supplies an answer; it refers much more to a question that haunted Kane and hung over his relationships with his mother and every other bond in his life. Far from being a play upon lost innocence and parents, “Rosebud” refers to the possibility that there never was real love, that solitude is the only reliable condition and that love – that big thing – is no more or less than what Kane toasts as he parts from his best friend, Jed Leland: “A toast, Jebediah, to love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows, his own.” It is at moments like this that even William Randolph Hearst might have watched the film with compassion. Kane is not a barb that might have wounded Hearst; it is a cold, candid self-assessment by a solipsist. Perhaps Mankiewicz conceived and wrote the lines. But Welles delivered them as if they were his own death sentence.(27)

Seeing Rosebud as a question that haunts Kane does not make it any less glib, but the evocation of the pain that Kane (and Welles) feels in pondering the question is unusual in a film usually discussed in cold and analytical fashion. It should be noted that Thomson extends his “Rosebud-as-question” position into an explanation of the structure of the movie by suggesting that, after dying with this question on his mind, the remainder of the movie can be read as Kane’s dying reverie as he searches for (but fails to find) an answer.

An interesting comparison can be drawn between Thomson’s a analysis of this separation and the more academic and explicitly psychoanalytic interpretation offered by Laura Mulvey. For Mulvey, too, the scene is key to explaining Kane’s character (unsurprisingly given the primacy that the film’s structure and symbolism gives it). For Mulvey, though, the separation from the mother is read as in psychoanalytic terms, which she suggests is the only way to resolve the scene’s ambiguity: it “only makes sense from a psychoanalytic point of view.”(28) In this reading, Kane’s separation from his mother prevents him accepting the surrogate father who will introduce him to society:

The child is suspended between two stages, on the threshold between a pre-Oedipal love for his mother and rivalry with his father and a post-Oedipal world in which he should take his place within society Kane never crosses the threshold between the pre-Oedipal and the post-Oedipal, remaining frozen, as it were, at the point of separation from his mother and, from then on, directing his Oedipal aggression at his surrogate father.(29)

There is nothing very challenging about the essentials of this interpretation, and it is not fundamentally inconsistent with any of the interpretations of the film surveyed thus far. What distinguishes it from the popular critical perspectives is the appeal to psychoanalysis, which the other writers avoided despite all the talk of Freud. If “Rosebud” is truly “dollar-book Freud,” then Mulvey provides a version of the interpretation that has a little more respectability. As Carroll notes, if a critic “favors the Rosebud interpretation [they are] likely to accompany it with a defense of the intellectual credentials of this way of explaining Kane’s behaviour.”(30)Carroll cites James Naremore (who suggests the adult Kane returns to a pre-genital from of sexuality) performing this task, but Mulvey’s analysis is also a good example. Here the depth (the second tier) is added to the Rosebud interpretation through an appeal to theory.

Mulvey’s work also, however, highlights just how thin and arbitrary the distinction between popular and academic views is. Mulvey’s interpretation is included in her volume for the BFI series of books on classic films: while broadly academic and theoretical in content, these volumes appear in non-specialist bookstores and are clearly designed to appeal to a broad audience. This marks a more general crossover of film theory into the mainstream (in which writers like Kael and Ebert provide an important preparatory role). Yet it seems the spectrum of writing is particularly mixed on Citizen Kane. The close analysis provided by Ebert is unprecedented in his other writing, for example, and Kael’s essay sparked a debate – about Kane in particular and auteurism in general – that spilt across institutional divides. Meanwhile, psychoanalytic analyses such as Mulvey’s are ever more widely accepted as these concepts gain popular familiarity (a familiarity to which Hollywood films such as CitizenKane no doubt contributed). Thus David Bordwell’s formalist analysis of the film (originally published in Film Comment) does not read as substantially advanced from other interpretations circulating more widely.(31)While careful to avoid a merely “technical” appreciation such as Ebert’s (“to locate Kane‘s essential originality in its gimmicks cheapens it”)(32) his analysis of the way that the films’ style communicates the themes of the movie highlights many points that are common to other close readings of the film. His comments on Kane’s “love problem,” for example, highlights the way in which his unhealthy obsession with Susan’s singing is linked through dialogue and the appearance of the snowstorm paperweight wit his feelings for his mother, a point made in many readings of the film.(33) As important as this aspect is in his reading of the film, Bordwell is also resistant of the simplicity of the explanation offered here: “the appearance of the sled presents another perspective on Kane’s life, but it doesn’t “explain” him.”(34) Interestingly, in his 1975 addendum to the essay, he suggests the essay relies to heavily on unstated assumptions and does not outline its theoretical framework with sufficient clarity or rigour.(35) While this point is valid (while full of perceptive comments, the overall argument of the essay is difficult to distill), the addendum might also seem to be motivated by a sense of the extent to which such a reading resembles those in wider forums. In other words, Bordwell’s suggestion that the film could be more fruitfully addressed through appeal to Russian formalism, French structuralism, or post-structuralism seeks to re-invest the reading of the film with the legitimacy of new and more substantial theory.(36)

Despite the convergence of criticism and theory in the writings on Kane, what this survey of writers on Citzen Kane shows is a diversity of views. While there is a tendency to note an apparent superficiality in the message of the film, a number of different strategies are offered to reconcile this with the film’s status as a masterpiece and add depth – or, inverting the metaphor, a second tier – to readings of the film. The film may be accepted as shallow and reveled in on that level. It may be deepened through the poignancy of the links with Welles’ own biography. It may be given intellectual credibility through appeal to theory. Or, as Carroll does, it might be suggested that the conflict between two obvious interpretations of the movie might indeed be the whole point, and that the film seeks to examine contradictory views of dealing with life itself. Yet if Carroll’s second tier of meaning is one that is not perceived in the popular reception of the film, despite the widespread attempts to find a second tier (any second tier), is the elegance of the theory enough to sustain it? For all its virtues in explaining the film, Carroll’s interpretation isn’t supported by the avowed intention of Welles, or the most common interpretations of leading film critics and theorists.

But I like it anyway.


1. Thomson (1996), 125.

2. Ebert (1991 & 2001), Kael (1996), Thomson (1996), Bogdanovich & Welles (1996), Bogdanovich (2002), Bazin (1972), Sarris (1956), Bordwell (1976), Carroll (1996b), & Mulvey (1992).

3. See for example the collection of essays in Carroll (1996).

4. Carroll (1988) and the anthology Bordwell & Carroll, (eds., 1996).

5. Carroll (1996b).

6. Carroll (1996b), 254.

7. Carroll (1981), “The Future of Allusion: Hollywood in the Seventies and Beyond,” October, 34, Summer, 1981.

8. See for example Robert Ray’s reference to “naïve” and “ironic” audiences in Ray (1985), chapter 10.

9. Carroll, (1996b), 261.

10 See for example his scathing comments about Jean-Louis Baudry’s theory of the apparatus in Mystifying Movies. Carroll (1988); reproduced in Mast, Cohen & Braudy (1992), 708-724.

11. Bogdanovich & Welles (1996), 533.

12. Carroll (1996b), 256.

13. Kael (1994), 287.

14. Bogdanovich & Welles (1996), 565.

15. Bogdanovich & Welles (1996), 529. The subject matter for The Cat’s Meow was also alluded to in an early version of the Citizen Kane screenplay: “In the first draft, Raymond literally knew where the bodies were buried: Mankiewicz had dished up a nasty version of the scandal sometimes referred to as the Strange Death of Thomas Ince.” Kael (1994), 298.

16. Ebert (2001).

17. Ebert (1991), 732-733.

18. Ebert (2001), 2 minutes.

19. Ebert (1991), 732.

20. Ebert (2001), 1 hour 56 minutes.

21. Also subsequently reproduced in her anthology For Keeps (1994), from which I have sourced the essay.

22. Kael (1994), 262.

23. Thomson (1996), 397.

24. Kael (1994), 299-301.

25. It must be noted that Kael is also strongly complimentary of Welles as a stylist: she evocatively describes the fun and vigour of Welles’ style, and it is these portions of her critique that seem to have most influenced Ebert.

26. Thomson (1996), 398.

27. Thomson (1996), 185-186.

28. Mulvey (1992), 50.

29. Mulvey (1992), 53.

30. Carroll (1996b), 256.

31. Bordwell (1976). Of course, Bordwell’s essay (originally published in 1971) predates other works I have cited, such as Ebert’s and Thomson’s. I have no doubt that academic interpretations of the film have “trickled down,” as it were, into more popular work. My point is not related to where these ideas originate, so much as the fact that they now circulate equally in different spheres.

32. Bordwell (176), 273.

33. Bordwell, (1976), 280.

34. Bordwell, (1976), 280.

35. Bordwell (1976), 288-290.

36. Bordwell (1976), 289. As Bordwell rattles off this list of theories, one almost hears the desperate addition: “Russian formalism, French structuralism, post-structuralism anything!”


  • Bazin, A. (1972), Orson Welles: A Critical View, Harper & Rowe, New York.
  • Bogdanovich and Welles, (1996, orig. 1992) “From This is Orson Welles,” in Gottesman, R. (ed., 1996), Perspectives on Citizen Kane, G.K Hall & Company, New York, pp. 527-568.
  • Bordwell, D. (1976), “Citizen Kane,” in Nichols (ed., 1976), Movies and Methods: Volume 1, University of California, Berkely.
  • Bordwell, D. & Carroll, N., eds., (1996), Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.
  • Carroll, N., (1988), Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory, Columbia University Press, NewYork.
  • Carrol, N, (1996a), Theorizing the Moving Image, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Carroll , N. (1996b, orig. 1988), “Interpreting Citizen Kane,” in Gottesman, R. (ed., 1996), Perspectives on Citizen Kane, G.K Hall & Company, New York, pp. 254-67.
  • Ebert, R. (1991), Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion, 1992 Edition, Andrews & McMeel, Kansas City.
  • Kael, P., (1996, orig. 1971), “Raising Kane,” For Keeps, William Abrahams / Dutton / Penguin, New York, pp. 235-325. (Originally printed in The New Yorker, February 20 and 27, 1971).
  • Mast, Cohen & Braudy, (eds., 1992), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 4th Edition, Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford.
  • Mulvey, L. (1992), Citizen Kane, BFI Publishing.
  • Ray, R. (1985), A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980, Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  • Sarris, A. (1956), Film Culture, no. 2, 1956.
  • Thomson, D., (1996), Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, Abacus, London.

Audio Commentaries

  • Ebert, R. (2001), Audio commentary on US DVD release of Citizen Kane, 2-disk edition, Warner Home Video.
  • Bogdanovich, P. (2001), Audio commentary on US DVD release of Citizen Kane, 2-disk edition, Warner Home Video.


  • Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
  • The Cat’s Meow (2002, Peter Bogdanovich)
  • Targets (1968, Peter Bogdanovich)

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