Film

'Citizen Kane' Is a Labyrinth Without a Centre

Carl Wilson
Orson Welles as in Charles Foster Kane Citizen Kane (1941)

The labyrinth structure of the film calls for the audience to be shown a solution, the potential 'centre' of the film.

Chambers Concise Dictionary defines a "labyrinth" as "a maze or any tangle of intricate ways and connections." This brings to mind the literal and metaphorical applications of this definition when applied Citizen Kane (1941). There are numerous ways of describing Citizen Kane as some form of labyrinth. What lies at the centre of this "tangle" is an intangible element that purposefully refuses to define itself.

"The point of the picture," Welles has commented, "is not so much the solution of the problem as its presentation." The "problem" is the shadow plot of the film, the search for "Rosebud" within the frightening centreless labyrinth of the film’s structure. Although "Rosebud" has been derided by Welles as "rather dollar-book Freud", it's this narrative thread that the audience, the reporter, and Kane himself follow in order to determine the meaning of Citizen Kane’s life. The three opening sections of the film (Death of Kane, News on the March, and the projection room) all commence interest in the enigmatic search, yet simultaneously undermine the search object.

The death scene is melodramatic, so that when the giant lips within the gothic castle speak, "Rosebud" takes on an almost surreal, mystic connotation matched by the skewed perspective of the broken snow globe. As a parody of the phrase, 'The March of Time', the ‘News on the March’ sequence reminds the audience that the "reel" is entirely subjective (a pun on the whole concept of the film). In the attempt to order a life that, ironically, had no structure, "Rosebud" becomes undermined.

Furthermore, this clash of public documentary style with the private life shown in the opening scene produces a model of tension that will become the film’s central theme. The following scene, shot in the projection room, then proceeds to attribute far greater importance to the last words, than all the pomp in the newsreel, suggesting that "Rosebud" may be the key to Kane’s life. A suspicious solution to the labyrinth is teased before the audience.

"Rosebud" is, of course, the sled that young Kane plays with in the Colorado scene. Yet, this alone does not proffer any explanation of what the memory implied for the dead man. Indeed, it poses more questions; the film could be about lost innocence and parental loss, or about the lack of authentic love, the seeds of a man who can only ever "toast" love on his terms.

Furthermore, the clues to "Rosebud" never appear when any of Kane’s intimate friends narrate; they appear in the death scene at the beginning, the memoirs of his guardian, and in the final flashback of Raymond, the butler. All three scenes treat Kane as a remote "other", commenting critically on Kane’s actions rather than his character. This may be the reason why only the viewer is allowed to know what happens to the sled, because in the end it does not matter.

The reporter only realises at the end that he does not "think any word can explain a man’s life. No. I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle, a missing piece." The labyrinth structure of the film calls for the audience to be shown a solution, the potential "centre" of the film. The exaggerated style of this scene (the overhead camera searchingly tracking forward to rest on the fire) suggests that the answer has been found at the centre of the literal labyrinth of boxes and crates. Yet, the centre has not been found, the conventional Aristotelian anagnorisis is ultimately another dead end as the sled burns, confirming that it was not the physicality of the sled that was important, rather its metaphysical signification that had been sought by Kane.

Perhaps old Kane meant to say "Rose-bed" as an ironic comment on how unexpectedly hard life was, for a man who should have had life easy.

Were "Rosebud" of any use in negating the film’s labyrinth, then it must be considered within a structural framework of duality. The sled that Thatcher brings, Naremore has shown , bears the name: "Crusader". Like the two sleds, "Rosebud" representing innocence and love, "Crusader" representing conflict and championing "good" causes, Kane can be shown to have "changed sleds" as he had his personality at the moment he leaves home with Thatcher.

Furthermore, Kane has two friends, and two wives, each one arguably a polar opposite of the other, and his parents represent a further dichotomy of feelings. The mother seems cold but essentially caring, and the father appears to care but is actually more concerned with beating his son. Kane decides that "There’s only one person who’s going to decide what I’m going do, and that’s me." However, this aphorism is little use in deciphering Kane’s personality.

On the one side, Kane was attracted to the wealth and glamour of politics and the president’s niece, and on the other, he reckons that if he had no money he "might have been a really great man". As Leland observes, "he was disappointed in the world, so he built one of his own". Kane created a labyrinth of myth about him; then realising that his "sort of sentimental journey"... "in search of [his] youth" becomes impossible, with his motherly love substitute Susan leaving, he destroys himself. This leaves other people trying to discover what was originally at the centre beyond the "NO TRESPASSING" sign that Kane had erected to protect his vulnerability.

In a speech included in the final version of the script but absent from the film, Thompson replies to a reporter who asks him what he has discovered: "Well – it’s become a very clear picture. He was the most honest man who ever lived, with a streak of crookedness a yard wide. He was a liberal and a reactionary’. The audience’s search for a solution is undercut by this ironic speech, but it is best left out of the film because it defined too many parts of the labyrinth that the audience had to work out for themselves.

An important symbol within the film is the "K". It is on the gate of Xanadu at the beginning of the film and a K can be seen carved in ice at the Inquirer party. It is also on a metal pin badge, and it adorns campaign rosettes (a potential link to "Rosebud" through imagery). By the end of the flashback sequences, when Kane stands before the mirror, his ego fractured to infinity, Kane has recognised the reality of what he had become and what he had lost.

All that is left is the decayed symbol of ideological aspiration, the K on the gate as the camera retreats at the end. Citizen Kane enjoys throwing images and ideas at the audience only to suggest that in "solving" the film they could signify anything. The film becomes a comment on the Expressionist labyrinth of symbolism that the film enters, which can never be properly interpreted but only haphazardly guessed at.

The centre of the film seems to purposefully elude whoever seeks it by overwhelming the viewer with numerous different possibilities.

The story of a man’s life ironically starts with his death. Chronology means little in Citizen Kane because the present tenses of the flashbacks have happened in the past tense of the reporter’s "story". The viewer is presented with a cyclical narrational labyrinth, which in the centre seems to lie the dramatic life of Charles Foster Kane. Kane represents many things to different people and the narration has been styled so that the people in Kane’s life give different accounts of the same man doing the same thing as the stories overlap. For example, Susan’s debut in ‘Salammbô’ is seen three times altogether in different perspectives by different people.

To Thatcher, Kane is a part of "power plays". Kane is taken away from his parents and retaliates with the way he runs his paper.

Thatcher then takes Kane’s paper away from him in a parallel that echoes Kane’s family trauma. This link between business and the family becomes repeated later with Susan and the opera. Bernstein, like a child, idolises Kane and he recalls in his flashback about all the career triumphs and beginnings of Kane’s political ambition. Bernstein is sycophantically loyal whilst the next narrator, Leland, Kane’s college friend, is far more cynical and romantic. He tracks the love life of Kane, as he marries Emily, then Kane’s involvement with Susan, the ‘cross-section of the American public’ as it is brought into the open by political rival, Gettys.

It is the simultaneous culmination of his personal life and his political career that has intertwined throughout Citizen Kane. The narration of Susan partially agrees with Leland as he launches her on a career that she did not want; nevertheless, Leland’s narrative says that Susan, in her first meeting with Kane, stated that she longed to be a singer.

Clearly, there are discrepancies not only between the perspectives but also between the facts, which adds to the multiple paths that the viewers understanding may take. Russian Formalists would say that the fabula works like a labyrinth around the syuzhet. Reality, which is often considered as objective, becomes subjective and the truth of reality in this story is questioned. The multitude of flashbacks only suggests what may lie at the centre of Kane’s self-built labyrinth, and for each person this varies. Consequently, this then leaves the audience questioning whether anything may actually lie in the heart of the maze.

It is the voyeuristic nature of film that ensures people will always try to get to its "centre". Citizen Kane’s exposition features a forward tracking camera that "peeps" into Kane’s final resting place, drawn like a moth to the light. A further instance is when Kane first meets Susan and enters her apartment; the door is shut and the camera moves down the hallway almost afraid of what it may be missing. The camera becomes the "Inquirer", which like Kane’s paper, is limited in its view. Sometimes, the camera angle itself can try to aid the audience in its understanding.

When Kane is a child the viewpoint is tilted down, like the perspective of an adult, but as Kane gets older and his dominance and solitude greater, then the camera tilts up to look at him. When Kane is in Xanadu and begins to lose his power, the high angles are again emphasised, belittling him in his vast castle. Ultimately though, the audience may feel that it is not being guided sufficiently throughout the film and may become frustrated by not being omniscient but having to rely purely on suggestions by the camera.

Welles said that "for the first time in the history of the world, a creative artist is now given the opportunity to address sixty million people. The trouble is, it is not simply an opportunity, but an obligation-he must address them."

One reason why Citizen Kane could be considered a labyrinth is that Welles addressed the audience in a style that they did not understand. Potentially, in the centre would lie an understanding of the film’s style. Agreeing with John Houseman, Welles’ "particular talent lies not so much in his creative imagination… as in his proven ability to stretch the familiar elements of theatrical effect far beyond their normal point of tension." The audience is participant to a Brechtian "alienation-effect" where they are constantly reminded that they are watching a film.

In drawing together the two main strands of cinematic tradition, Citizen Kane fluctuates between subjective vision and objective realism. For example, there is the scene where the camera shows a close up of a log house in a snow scene, the camera then pulls back to show it is actually a snow globe. The image connects with the Colorado scene to come, which further makes the film "reality" subjective.

When there is no fixed point of reality, the audience has no reference point by which to guide themselves throughout the film. They can be directed by the audio "lightning mixes" which connect two shots such as the ones just mentioned, to create a feeling of continuity, but in actuality, it creates a greater ambiguity between their relationships than in saying anything concrete.

The only two leitmotifs that pervade the film are the "power" motif in brass and the "Rosebud" motif on the vibraphone. Another definition of "labyrinth" is: "the cavities of the internal ear" so it becomes fitting that in the final sequence of Citizen Kane, the thematically opposing scores come together; this makes the context more ambiguous and the labyrinth more complicated.

Bazin, in his seminal essay The Evolution of Film Language, believed that between 1920 and 1940, there had been two styles of film directors, "those who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality." Through manipulation of the "plastic" aspects of the medium (lighting, back projection, etc), the reality of the film could be "diluted".

The "image" that would be created, through juxtaposition of these elements, was not true to the reality of the elements, instead the director only succeeds in creating a labyrinth of images. David Bordwell, like Bazin, believed that: "the spatial and temporal unity of the deep-focus, the simultaneous dialogue, the reflections and chiaroscuro… all increase the objectively realistic effect."

Because deep-focus photography reduced the need for excessive cutting within a scene (à la Eisenstein), it was perceived as adding to the realism. Additionally, Welles attempted to add to deep-focus theory in an interview with Peter Boganovitch when he said, "Well, in life you see everything at the same time, so why not in the movies?"

Whilst it is true that deep-focus photography can preserve the "continuum" of reality and that the depth on screen can give the illusion of "real" space, like a visual labyrinth, these theories are faulted. Human vision does not approximate depth photography because it can not focus on both the extreme foreground and background simultaneously; it is selective unlike the camera shot that has been perceived as real because it is nonselective.

Furthermore, Welles used "plastic" techniques liberally, such as the overlaying of images in a frame using complex optical printing to give a representation of reality. If the audience is unaware of these interacting elements and takes all the information presented literally, then they are going to be confused by the film. Kane is so obviously stylised, sometimes with half of the screen blocked out for dramatic non-naturalistic effect, that to set "realism" against "aestheticism" in Citizen Kane is outrageous. Rather, the film is a realist work created by an aesthetic that incorporates a reality.

If Citizen Kane is a metaphorical labyrinth, then many critics have got lost trying to understand the directions.

Kane was photographed predominately with a 25mm lens. This means that figures are subject to a slight fish-eye lens effect, as in the extreme foreground are either elongated or slightly inflated. According to C. M. Pennington-Richards: "If you want to dramatize anything, you force the perspective, and using wide angle lenses is in fact forcing it."

When Susan attempts suicide, the angle appears dramatically distorted with an almost Expressionistic German style. Welles also seems to borrow a gothic style from the Expressionist theatre, as the atmosphere is dark and broody with a clear grasp of chiaroscuro, and large cavernous rooms in Xanadu create a visual labyrinth.

If we examine this optic labyrinth, the Colorado scene for example, it is obvious that a highly symbolic composition exists between the components. The wide-angle lens is used to show three planes of interest. In the foreground sits Mrs Kane and the banker dealing with the child’s future.

In the middle distance paces Mr Kane, agitated at the whole affair, and in the background, framed by the window, is young Kane shouting "The Union forever!" The heightened drama of this scene is dictated by the three elements working clinically with each other within the frame to give the impression of a labyrinth of natural action. Therefore, the mise-en-scène is not the ambiguity of determining the "real action" from the "pretext action"; it is the realisation that the mise-en-scène is multitudinous and always the subjective result of partial bias from the director. This bias forms the labyrinth of signification that constitutes the film’s various meanings.

Like Susan trapped at Xanadu, trying to piece together an impossibly large jigsaw, the audience too is trapped within an equally impossible structure, left with a fragmented jigsaw to try to piece together. Furthermore, analogous to the continuity flaw in which the jigsaw seems to become less complete at a later point in the film, the audience may also find that in attempting to complete the metaphorical jigsaw/ labyrinth their efforts are purposefully undermined or overwhelmed by the film. The film refuses to give a concrete definition of what lies in its "centre" because that would compromise the ethos behind Citizen Kane.

Further Reading

Catherine Schwarz (Chief Editor), Chambers: Concise Dictionary, W&R Chambers Ltd, Edinburgh, 1999.

Christopher Williams (Editor), Realism & The Cinema, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1980.

James Naremore, The Magic World of Orson Welles, Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1978.

John Cutts, Great Films of the Century: Citizen Kane, Films and Filming, July 1963.

Joseph McBride, Cinema One: 19, Orson Welles, Secker & Warburg Ltd in association with the BFI,

London, 1972.

Pauline Kael, The Citizen Kane Book: Raising Kane, Secker & Warburg Ltd, London, 1971.

Peter Cowie, The Cinema Of Orson Welles: The Study of a Colossus, Da Capo Press, New York, 1973.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image