In Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), a fledging film director – played by Truffaut and doubtless modeled on himself – toils hard at his craft in creating celluloid fictions, surrounded by an ensemble of actors and technicians whose private off-screen humorous melodramas are wrapped around and through his directorial decisions. In this film about films, it’s the enigma of the filmmaker that entrances. We are privy to the director’s dreams, and he has a recurring one at night, transporting us to a childhood reflection. He skittishly approaches a cinema. Outside the theater is a collection of mini-poster placards for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, showcasing several still images from the 1941 film. With a cane, the boy illicitly reaches through the locked gate and pulls the placard board towards him. He collects the posters and arranges them in a neat pile, then runs away with his stolen loot.
Cinema is synonymous with voyeurism, and we’re thrilled to be seeing something that’s been heretofore hidden. Citizen Kane is about the unknowable self, beginning with a No Trespassing sign on a fence, as Kane’s ominous Xanadu rests in the background. Kane too cannot be understood, as characters try to find the secret knowledge, the Holy Grail, of “Rosebud”’s reference. Truffaut understands that fence, and like Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland in Kane, his dream alter-ego crosses the forbidden threshold and takes those specters home with him, absorbing them into his memory. But the precise definition of Rosebud, or the director’s own enigma in Day for Night, is still undefined. Sure, it’s a sled – but that’s too concrete. His youth? His mother? But that too is short of the finality to the mystery. Rosebud is in every film, in every person, and in every arbitrary object, a door before the final tabernacle, the holy of holies. You can dream about it, you can poeticize it in images, but you cannot contain or possess it. Sometimes a sled is just a sled, like a cigar is just a cigar and an elevator just an elevator. And it is just a sled. That is its foot in reality. But the other foot is in an ocean of infinity. Pauline Kael was only half correct when she said that Rosebud was a gimmick.
It’s about a link. It’s about memory, and more than a private memory, a collective memory that is also related to the medium itself. 70 years on, we know that there is no way to shake Citizen Kane from the filmic psyche, unless we choose to become utter amnesiacs in the immediate distractions afforded us by present gadgets. Rosebuds are usurped by our chosen Avatars, our new and wholly invented selves coated in plastic gloss.
But Kane is hard to kill. William Randolph Hearst couldn’t do it, Louis B. Mayer couldn’t, nor any of the other power players of the early 1940s who were frightened by Orson Welles’ imminent threat to order. Easily enough they did away with Welles the man. But his film only got stronger. It married form and content, creative Eastern montage and Western melodrama, the Old World and its child comprised of immigrants, America, a nation always in flight just as it seeks to conquer in self interest. It is a film conscious of its power as a film, the construction of images, and how the audience reacts to the moving pictures. It is a memory about memories, and as with our pasts, maybe we can repress Citizen Kane, distracting ourselves with immediate trifles. But like Kane’s Rosebud, or our private dreams, the past always finds us. At the end of Kane’s life, there’s an eerie feeling of a return to our – as in humanity’s – beginning, with the haunting image of caged monkeys lingering in front of Xanadu’s constructed jungle. Kane’s distant window is like his dwindling consciousness, confronting his mortality along with a strange primeval inception of awareness. The pterodactyl-like birds in his Everglade jungle indicate that we may have gone back to the beginning of the world with Kane, whose name is instantly associative with another isolated beast behind a tropical gate, Kong. In Kane, we trace back to our origins. That is what the canon compels us to contemplate, and Citizen Kane is the hypothetical Cinematic Canon’s center.
The Canon. Where past genius endlessly encounters present aspiration, and minds are always in anxious conflict with each other in a bout to achieve immortality. Harold Bloom’s famous argument for the canon is decried by some as the conservative hot-air snobbery in reaction to progressive awareness in the arts, but though Bloom’s self-satisfied matter-of-factism sometimes gets carried away in its taunted animosity to what he dubs “The School of Resentment,” and seems much too close to the pompous literature professor stereotype, with Tom Wolfe and Roger Shattuck in a stuffy and square corner harboring its own bitterness, I am in agreement with his thesis of the canon, which has been the theme of his prestigious career. The “Agon,” or the “Map of Misreading,” where authors creatively (mis)interpret their touchstones to find their own immortality and Self, retains the memory of human experience in all its complex variations. As we’re given a limited amount of time on planet earth, what do we spend our time reading? The canon serves as the poetic link to the past, or our ultimate inwardness and cognition. Bloom writes, “Cognition cannot proceed without memory, and the canon is the true art of memory.” More than the cultured norms of dead white males, its function is human awareness and identification.
There are too many books to read, and also too many movies. The recent advent of adult cable television is replacing mature mainstream filmmaking. The consequence of Netflix, which should be a wonderful access link to cinematic memory, is people overstuffing their queues with several seasons worth of television. The other popular option, the Redbox, almost exclusively keeps home video viewers trapped within the last year’s releases. Whatever the short-comings of the video store – Hollywood Video, Blockbuster, Video Update – it was still a library, a catalog of the past. Ironically, as digital technology has allowed older films to be at long last restored and accessible on disc, I fear that watching them will become more of an exclusive specialty market. The random moviegoer, the “groundlings,” stung by unexpected curiosity, will peruse elsewhere. Or cease to peruse entirely.
It’s absurd for me to formulate a canon for cinema. Literature has had millennia, and Harold Bloom seems to have read everything. The movies have barely had a century, and day after day I’m vaporized with the realization of how much I have yet to see and how little I know. How does a person read or see the canonical works, appreciate them, and still have time to pay the rent, exercise, take girls out, and have those necessary dead-times of zoning out, watching BASEketball or my other easier enjoyments, as Bloom calls them? The canon makes me realize how my time is fleeting.
In Film Comment, Paul Schrader drafted out a rough film canon, taking Bloom’s cue, though it remains a very rough draft. Maybe the acceleration of technology since the Industrial Age justifies doing with film what literary critics have done with books. And as with literature, there’s a fear that film’s entered a dark age. The internet – and blogging (identified by Elliot Gould in the new Steven Soderbergh film Contagion as “not writing” but “graffiti with punctuation” – a statement I may resemble sometimes, admittedly) – has made everyone a critic. There are lists, lists, lists. Top ten, worst ten, most, least, etc.
One problem is that the immediacy of Geek Culture is stealing away the weight of a film canon’s history. Everyone has seen Star Wars – and they should – but fewer and fewer have seen The Godfather films. The Geeks have the biggest hold on the blogosphere, and are vital to determining the way the wind is blowing, addressing what’s “awesome” and what “sucks.” And yet in making their evaluations, from what I’ve seen and heard anyway, immediate gratification is the chief qualifier. There is little regard for the French New Wave, Kino Eye, the tradition of smuggling, or general intertextuality. Film school and criticism is less important than the latest revelations at ComicCon.
I’ve made this complaint before, and it’s impossible to win anyone over. Bloom admits, “To argue on [aesthetic’s] behalf is always a blunder.” Bloom’s equivalent in film is Roger Ebert, whom I consider my own Dr. Johnson. Ebert has received harsh words for his persistent detestation of 3D and videogames (even though he enthusiastically received Avatar). He badgered a lot of his readers when he slapped his proverbial forehead after a poll on his blog showed that significantly more people would rather there be videogames than Mark Twain. The gamers are not unlike the post-modernists that pester Bloom. Who’s to say, fatty, what’s art and what’s not? Huh? You’ve been acculturated to believe that Bonnie and Clyde is “art,” while videogames aren’t? Pah! Old man.
Ebert’s motives are the same as Bloom’s, because he’s interested in preserving history, which is the aim of the great directors, who are also canonical in their thinking. Indeed, they preserve it more than the critics. The critics didn’t resurrect Peeping Tom nearly as much as the filmmakers. The infamous Heaven’s Gate, unfairly marred by critical graffiti and so blighting the Age of the Director, may deservedly undergo a similar resurrection. Recent popular examples include Christopher Nolan and David Fincher, who stand out in the money-driven blandness of Hollywood, which is always at odds with idiosyncrasy. Nolan’s Inception was an inner projection of his own agon, as we can see his camera in dialogue – Bloom's notion of creative misinterpretation – with Hitchcock, Welles, Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, Terrence Malick, George Lucas, Fritz Lang, and James Bond. Inception is its own present creation just as it is a descent into Nolan’s past as a film lover, and so conscious of a history preceding its birth. Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button uses state-of-the-art digital effects and cinematography, but calls attention to the history of the pre-digital, as flashbacks are rendered as scratched celluloid or, in the case of an old man who’s an unfortunate lightning magnet, something that Thomas Edison may have shot. It’s not accidental that both examples, Nolan and Fincher, are interested in the theme of memory, and they are reflective on their professions as they are about their characters. Benjamin Button grows younger into the 20th century, but at the advent of the digital, he begins losing his memory, and we are meant to take his humanistic addresses through postcards ironically, an element overlooked by critics. If we are to make films in the brave new world, Fincher is saying, we must be conscious of where we came from.
Bloom says, “There can be no strong canonical writing without the process of literary influence.” The artist is approaching a Historical Rhetoric. The great canonical writers know how to borrow, and this has been Martin Scorsese’s consistent trait in Hollywood, the most overt example being the concluding image of GoodFellas, where Joe Pesci’s wise guy shoots at the camera, an image that connects Scorsese’s film to one of the first film narratives, The Great Train Robbery. The implication: violence and cinema have always advanced together.
Robert Kolker writes of Scorsese in his seminal A Cinema of Loneliness, “These intrusions and allusions, like a poet’s allusions to other poems within his or her work, or a jazz musician’s quotations from other melodies within the piece he is playing, serve a double or triple function. They constitute a celebration of the medium, an indication of a cinematic community; they enrich the work by opening it out, making it responsive to other works and making others responsive to it; and they point to the nature of the film’s own existence. The viewer is urged to observe the film’s relation not to ‘reality’ but to the reality of films and their influence on each other.”
From Who’s That Knocking at My Door? to Shutter Island, Scorsese’s work is filled with allusions to the past as a means to enrich the present experience. For example, an unexamined reading of The Departed might lead one to dismiss it as a mob retread with tired tribal conflicts. But the director clearly has precedents in mind, like the expected (Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City, another film about a cop going undercover), but also Blade Runner. Reading Blade Runner into The Departed answers its technological aura and sci-fi weirdness, giving it a whole other dimension. A triangulation begins, as the viewer brings the older text to the newer one, and the triangulation opens up, as one then brings other texts to the picture (such as Hawks' Scarface, Carol Reed's The Third Man, Welles' The Trial, Michael Mann's Heat, and Scorsese's own GoodFellas, against which The Departed is arguably a reaction). Shutter Island stitches together the whole of gothic and psychological horror’s cinema history: Caligari, Pabst, Frankenstein, King Kong, Val Lewton, Hitchcock, Polanski, Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Kubrick’s The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, The Silence of the Lambs, Cronenberg, and Lynch are all on Scorsese’s mind, but the end result is his invention, sprung in part by his reflection on a history. Scorsese goes inward, and in showing the cinema’s inwardness, he grasps our inwardness. The “shutter” of the title is a pun, and we all have individual mental camera shutters that capture and manipulate reality, shot from the mind’s eye. For an audience to uncritically accept what we see is, Scorsese tells us, our own public madness. The movie theater is an asylum of sorts.
The representative celebrity for film preservation and restoration, Scorsese has always been alert to the idea of a film canon, or how cinema is a great tree with many branches reaching through time, connecting and commenting through the leaves. This could tie to his religious disposition, as Scorsese is no stranger to linking the profane and immediate to the sacred. He looks for analogy and connection, seeking sympathy the way Christ recognized and pitied all humanity. Canons come naturally for Scorsese, as after all, the word’s original context had a biblical one.
I’m hardly qualified to detail a “cinema” canon, and I’ve said before how any top-ten list says more about the critic writing than the cited films. Even for Bloom – maybe especially for Bloom – the canon of genius can’t be quantified. The works in question are seeking immortality, but so is Bloom’s aesthetic opinion, just as an insignificant person’s opinion like mine is seeking immortality, as is the case for all critics, canceling themselves out. Whatever “trends” the longest and with the most exposure (and whoever knows the “best” people to rouse awareness to that exposure) determines immediate candidacy for the canon. It’s easier in having the relief of Foucault and Barthes’ Death of the Author, where neither the reader nor artist possesses a self, and social energies are more determinate factors than the agon.
What Shakespeare is for Bloom, the center of the literary canon, Welles’ Citizen Kane is for cinema. Of course, there was influential greatness before it. Griffith, Chaplin, Dreyer, Murnau, Lang, von Stroheim, Lubitsch, etc, preceded Welles, just as the Bible, Gilgamesh, Sophocles, Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, and Dante preceded Shakespeare. But as the literature following Shakespeare is never free of him, so it is with Kane and movies. He’s not the naval, but he is the signal to maturity, when film became conscious of itself, as literature – and the human personality – became conscious with Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s characters listened to themselves speak, and so do we listen to and observe our own selves in Hamlet, Rosalind, Lear, Edmund, Othello, Iago, Juliet, Macbeth etc. Hamlet is not powerful because of its revenge plot, but because of what it says about us as audiences watching a play, with performances in other performances: we take the theater home with us. It is more avant-garde than Brecht. Likewise, Kane, appropriate considering its focus is a media baron who controls information, is about itself. Scorsese notes, “Welles was like a young magician enchanted by his own magic… [The] most revolutionary aspect of Citizen Kane was its self consciousness. The style drew attention to itself. This contradicted the idea of the invisible camera, and seamless cuts. Welles used every narrative and filmic device: deep focus, high and low angles, wide-angle lenses. ‘I want to use the motion picture camera as an instrument of poetry.’ And somehow Welles’ passion for the medium became the great excitement of the work itself.”
Citizen Kane is visual poetry that also undermines the construction of a story, and like Hamlet, whose first lines – “Who’s there?” – correlate to the fundamental theme of the play, where human beings lack a knowable essence and are mysterious even to themselves, Orson Welles’ picture is about the enigma of a human being. There are stories in stories like Hamlet has plays in plays, the News on the March sequence being the most famous instance of a film within a film. Kane opened up the whole medium. It was appropriated by the Italian neorealists, the French new wave, by Hollywood film noir, and finally by the Movie Brats of the 1960s. Akira Kurosawa’s Rashoman (1950) and Ikiru (1952), one of my favorite pictures, are creatively inspired by it. Like Citizen Kane, Ikiru is the story about a man’s mystery, as the people who knew the soft-spoken bureaucrat Watanabe argue about his motivations after he has died of cancer. But Kurosawa also further complements Welles by taking the snow-globe imagery, transplanting it to Watanabe’s lonely swing-set epilogue, as the magic luminosity of cinematic expressionism is a soulful elevation over bureaucratic and docudrama grit. Cinema is capable of containing multitudes, both as a medium and as a single film. Nature has an ever-evolving tree, as does language (literature), and so too does cinema. The most stirring attribute of Malick’s The Tree of Life was not how it proposed to dig into the Great Questions of existence, but how its bridging of the immanent and banal to those lofty concepts was analogous to the cinematic viewer having a rhetoric with the images unspooling through the screen, which for Malick is a window of unlikely identification. Cinema is Malick’s agent of “weaving all things together,” like his Pocahontas does to Nature.
Orson Welles, a stranger to movies when he got his unprecedented RKO contract in 1939, recognized the potentialities. He came to movies not as a worker, but as an artist with palpable enthusiasm, a child with his new toy, or as he called it, a fine train set and magic kit. Maybe only a Shakespearian, with his famed productions of an all-black Macbeth and the Nazi-alluding Julius Caesar, would have the ambition to make a film that works on so many calibers: biopic, cultural commentary, technological pre-McLuhan insight, kaleidoscopic form, unreliable narrators, theatrical staging, innovative cutting, stunning deep focus and optical printing, even an animated background. Welles required each technician bring rigorous invention to their respective functions, as Citizen Kane is very much a special effects film. Welles even shared his own title card as director with Gregg Toland, the cinematographer who wanted to work with Welles because he was not burdened with the strictures of rules. In 1936, Toland almost quit his first assignment with William Wyler, because of the director’s disinterest in giving Toland direction. He assumed Toland, as photographer, would make whatever appropriate choice for the scenes, but what Gregg Toland wanted was for his director to challenge him by giving him a proposition for what he wanted, and then the cinematographer would be forced to work out a solution. It was an immediate example of an agon, proving that a movie-set, for some, was indeed about artistry more than it was about business. In Welles, Toland found a dream collaborator. The director had a formidable recent history of setting up insurmountable challenges, and then succeeding and elevating his notoriety, whether it was the Harlem Haiti-set voodoo production of Macbeth with unemployed African American actors, most of whom had never spoken Shakespeare, or his politically charged and fraught Caesar, or most famously, his War of the Worlds radio broadcast. All this before the age of 24.
This also vaguely makes Welles more similar to Shakespeare, because of the unlikeliness of his genius, as if it was born in a vacuum, something that contradicts the incumbency of how we perceive the formation of genius. He came out of nowhere, his wand of creativity flung out and conducting brilliance with shrewd autocratic despotism. Welles had complete creative control on Citizen Kane, and though his subsequent films are nowadays respected and even seen as flawed classics (The Trial, Touch of Evil, and the long unavailable Chimes at Midnight being examples), we wonder “What if?” What if he retained that hold on power in the future? What if Kane had been successful, and he had been allowed to protect his cut of The Magnificent Ambersons (which is, in its studio manipulated form, still great; but the Welles original cut is lost)? What if he could make Chimes at Midnight with no hassle? Or the unfinished Don Quixote? Would we look at Citizen Kane the same way we look at Richard III in comparing it with Shakespeare’s later and more mature tragedies, like Hamlet and Lear?
The equivalency can’t be a perfect one, but it still interests me. Everyone goes back to Kane. It hovers over the shoulder of every filmmaker. You can try to forget it, but whatever your own professed influences, Kane is ineluctable. Like Shakespeare, it’s cosmopolitan, and its precociousness of style is liberating for filmmakers as it is dwarfing. Its well-known story, based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, follows an idealistic media tycoon whose solipsistic insulation is built into a lonely gothic castle, or "his own absolute monarchy,” as his former childhood friend Jebediah Leland (Joseph Cotton) calls it. Citizen Kane is the American story of prosperity, but its roots reach back farther to classic literature, its opening news reel invoking Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. This particular character of Kane extends beyond Hearst – and even Welles, who loosely resembles his creation – and into the cosmological frontier of Yahweh from the Old Testament, and one of Yahweh’s literary progeny, Lear: the great vindictive king (or god) who jealously wants to be loved, and cuts himself off from those closest to him with tragic and dangerous neuroticism. Yahweh doesn’t permit Moses to enter the Promised Land; Lear rejects Cordelia and Kent; Kane proudly walks away from his wife, his best friend Jebediah, and his idealistic Declaration of Principles.
The Great American Story syncs with the jealous king and his isolationism, rising to prominence while forgetting his roots and kin. America is the perfect stage for this, being an immigrants’ country, its own New Eden and Promised Land where prosperity is a refuge from memory. That’s integral to Gatsby’s tragedy in Fitzgerald, whose work has many similarities to Citizen Kane. Rosebud is that marker of a lost and rejected paradise, which can never be recovered but reduces the most bitter and immodest dignitary to childlike vulnerability. I'm overwhelmed by Citizen Kane when the old Kane, rejected by his second wife Susan Alexander – who for him is loosely tied to “a cross section of the American public” – begins to smash and destroy her room in a red rage of infantile mania. But he’s frozen when he sees a snow globe, which belonged to her but somehow has deep meaning for him: in his mind, he disappears into the boarding house of his mother, his memory recall overcoming his jealousy’s demands. His tears fall and he utters to himself his gnosis: “Rosebud.”
Kane’s isolationism is maybe akin to America’s isolationism before its entrance into World War II (Welles was virulently anti-Hitler), and its ideals which were becoming increasingly smug, something that would have annoyed the left-leaning Welles (whose circumstances in the 1930s drama world were dramatized by Tim Robbins in his film of The Cradle Will Rock). Welles was also a supporter of Roosevelt, and saw a great antagonist in the wealthy Hearst, who hated the president’s income tax reforms. For Welles, it wasn’t just America’s geopolitical isolation, but the gap he saw in wealthy elites from the suffering masses. As a showman, Welles struggled to bring Shakespeare back to the “groundlings,” funded in large part by the WPA’s arts fund. Prosperity hoards and jealously monopolizes money and love.
Kane’s children (as opposed to Kane’s children, which is every filmmaker) are variations on this “American” in flight from a past for which he’s paradoxically searching for. It is Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in The Godfather trilogy, who has his ideals of staying far apart from his father’s illegality, but grows to become the monster he sought to avoid, rejecting and killing his brother and refusing to acknowledge the needs of his adopted brother and his wife. Noah Cross (John Huston) in Chinatown is an incestuous villain who wants complete control of his second daughter/granddaughter, and will kill to get her, monopolizing land and power as Los Angeles thirsts in a drought. Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, whose story begins with the same forbidding fence overlooking a house (the White House, in this case), says he wants to change the world, but really desires to consolidate the love of the people, his “silent majority,” which he lacked as a child (Henry Kissinger says of him, “Could you imagine who this man could have been if he had been loved?”) Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Aviator makes bigger movies and faster airplanes than anybody, but he can’t have a relationship. He is swallowed by the dark of his fateful reclusivity. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in There Will Be Blood doesn’t trust anyone with his “plain view” of human nature, but once he has his power, he jealously wants to hold the ideal of his mind’s portrait in place, and when his adopted and deaf son starts his own business, Daniel sees it as treason and rejects him. Even more recently, Kane’s progeny includes Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in The Social Network, who rises to greatness and cuts himself off from his real friends, while gazing with catatonic longing at the Facebook avatar of the woman who rejected him, clicking “refresh” in hopes of being her online buddy. And then there is Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) in The Tree of Life, modeled on the Yahweh of Job who hasn’t yet reflected on himself, regretting his past and demanding his children kiss him; he has control, but fails to see “the Glory.”
All of these characters end up, if not alone, then in the dark. Canonically, their lineage traces to the same root, the directors consciously riffing on the artists creating before them (for example, Daniel Plainview’s speech patterns and movements are reminiscent of John Huston in Chinatown). Their center is Kane, and beyond that, the literary memory of Lear and Yahweh. Instead of using their wealth or property to open themselves up to others, these men close up. This is the bitter truth of the elevated John Galt character, so influential right now to the American libertarian Right, which has its own religion of prosperity: it hates “elites” but also loves wealth. There is also a curious synchronicity in how these characters, if not poor when they were children, seem to all bear resentment for those who were born into a position of wealth, just as Yahweh holds resentment for other (and more ancient) gods: Kane hates the older, wealthier establishment, personified in his guardian, Mr. Thatcher; Michael Corleone, a slum infant before his father becomes the mafia don of his neighborhood, wipes out the old guard (the Five Families) when he takes power, and detests the respected politicians and churchmen who are “part of the same hypocrisy” as the mafia; the off-screen antagonists to Stone’s Nixon are the born-wealthy Kennedys and cocktail party elite liberals; in Wall Street, Stone’s Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) harbors similar hatred for the old rich establishment, whereas he worked from obscurity to his power; Howard Hughes is differentiated from the “clench-jawed,” aristocratic Hepburns, and he expresses that they can say how much they don’t value money because they’ve “always had it.” Daniel Plainview, from mysterious and meek beginnings in Fond du Lac and having achieved his pipeline victory, loudly and proudly boasts his victory to the other oil tycoons and businessmen; it’s implied that Mark Zuckberberg holds stinging animosity for the Winklevoss twins, who come from a long line of “Harvard men”; and though Mr. O’Brien isn’t “rich,” he runs his house like a despotic Hobbesian Leviathan, railing against those who are more wealthy than he is (“The wrong people go hungry, the wrong people get loved”).
These characters, threatened by their solipsism, resonate maybe because their struggle is an all-too-human one, a primary conflict of ego relating to other beings (which a religion of prosperity would seek to repress). Their tragic selfishness and infantile need to be loved or validated opens the path to another conflict, for the audience, their contemporaries, and themselves, to recover the fleeting and secret Self, obscured by objects and the control of space. It’s the duality of controlling the universe (the people will think what I tell them to think) and cosmic harmony, unselfish love, reconciliation, forgiveness. They all become committed to the public image of the Self, while their private self focuses on “buying things,” amassing materials, their own little private castles, at the end of which is nothingness, a theme that Sofia Coppola, herself the child of privilege, I think captured to marvelous effect in her little-liked gem, Somewhere, about a pampered Hollywood actor (Stephen Dorff). His consumptions, coupled with the unexpected feeling he has for his daughter (Elle Fanning), lead him to admit, “I’m nothing.” There are allusions to vampirism in Somewhere, and Sofia’s father, Francis, has his own lonesome vampire say the same thing in Dracula, and the director comments in his journal that Dracula’s renunciation of the Creation – or the “creative spirit” – is tantamount to being walking dead. This type of character is not limited to men, a formidable example being Cate Blanchett’s rendering of Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth, as her final visage could be interpreted as a woman’s successful affirmation of power, but I think truly is meant to be contrasted, in its white pallor and spiritual sterility, to the colorful young woman we first met. Power equals opulent emptiness.
This tragic archetype makes us aware of the impossibility to control time. Their wealth is a means to absorbing the future, perfecting their self-image in a monument of permanence. It ties them together with another canonical hero, Goethe’s Faust, who is given youth and genius, but spends his final moments completing a space of real estate. There is anxiety involving time, and having enough of it to do what one wants to accomplish, lording over one’s space the same way a child holds sway over his toys (and people, for these characters, amount to little more than toys). “What more can you buy?” Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) asks Noah Cross in Chinatown. “The future, Mr. Gittes! The future!” It’s a vague answer for an old man to give, but it has significant reverberations, existentially – particularly because Noah Cross is an old man, and Cross’s name is a direct allusion to a biblical character who built himself a whole world while everyone and everything else perished in a flood. Time is an issue addressed repeatedly in The Godfather trilogy, beginning with the aging Don Vito’s lament to his son, “There wasn’t enough time, Michael,” while Michael can never let go and continues to attempt controlling it. The “way of the future” swallows Howard Hughes whole in The Aviator, as in the darkness of his obsessive-compulsive madness, he spies his own lost youth beyond the mirror, the moment his caring mother damned him to separateness – Q-U-A-R-A-N-T-I-N-E – in exchange for the traits that would afford him greatness. Welles’ Kane was a reflection of Hearst-like moguls and barons during the New Deal and before World War II; Coppola’s Michael Corleone a reflection of Nixon; Scorsese’s Howard Hughes, much like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Daniel Plainview and David Fincher’s Mark Zuckerberg, are living symbols for Information Age technological ingenuity following a similar path to dark-age isolationism and self-absorption. Their selfishness duels with memory, and the Way of the Future becomes a Faustian pact.
Precisely because we live in an age of rampant digital information technology, Citizen Kane remains significant, along with the notion of preserving and expanding upon a film canon, that hopefully will continue to grow while being mindful of its roots. Citizen Kane shows how a world can never understand a human being, though the words and definitions never stop being flung by the press, particularly now in a 24-hour news cycle environment, where the flux of news matters much more the depth of it: we have more words, but less understanding. The deep inwardness conveyed in the canon’s “difficult enjoyments” is absent.
But Kane’s discovery of the snow globe, and the tears that follow, much like Watanabe’s private humanistic endeavors in Ikiru, reveal how a person may at least remember his or her own deep self, grasping how essence is illusory and changes, but nevertheless one has undergone an analog and causal “sentimental journey,” as Kane refers to it at one point, long before he’s come back to the tabernacle and grail, his soul’s gnosis. Charles Foster Kane is recognized as a tragic figure, but from another angle – and Citizen Kane teaches us that there is an infinity of angles, as in the Hall of Mirrors the mystery of the self indeed leads to infinity – he has triumphed. He remembers Rosebud, and the hidden center of his beingness, like the contents of a humble prayer, is with him at his death. He grasps his gnosis, his Rosebud, and it has opened itself up to him, like the globe’s snow exposed over Welles’ framing of Kane's last moments. He dwells within that snow globe, and is released in death. Not everyone has such perspective, even in their humble last hours. The artist, as always, is forgiving enough in his God-given religiosity bestowed upon him by the Gnostic mystery of his canons, to grant even the most shallow and selfish of us some respite and illumination. William Randolph Hearst could only wish others would be so generous to his posthumous memory.
The first encounter I had with Citizen Kane -- a Saturday morning cartoon based on Ghostbusters.