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If you could have found out what that Rosebud meant, I bet that would’ve explained everything.

No, I don’t. Not much anyway. 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. I don’t think any word explains a man’s life. No --- I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle -- a missing piece.

Rosebud is a dying man’s last word, and for approximately one hundred and fifteen minutes we witness the search for its meaning and the meaning of Charles Foster Kane’s life. From the accounts of a number of people we learn a lot about Charlie Kane, but as we near the end of the movie we, like the reporter Thompson, feel that Rosebud will remain a mystery, a piece of a puzzle that probably doesn’t explain much of anything, anyhow. In the final scene, the camera sweeps over a vast floor piled with crated artworks and objects acquired by Kane. The collection is greater than a pharaoh’s treasure. Mixed in with the priceless is worthless stuff which is being thrown into a blazing furnace. As the camera moves closer to the open furnace, an object is tossed in. We see what it is.  As the camera moves even closer we discover that the object is Rosebud, and the meaning of Kane’s dying word becomes clear.

Most of you who are reading this have seen Citizen Kane, and know what Rosebud is. (If you haven’t seen the movie I’m not going to spoil the experience by revealing the mystery). Seeing Rosebud being consumed by fire, we understand what happened to Charlie Kane, even if we cannot put that understanding into words.

It’s probably accurate to say that each person’s first viewing is an unique experience and almost always remembered. This is a film that causes a variety of reactions.  A number of years ago, before there were video players, I had a 16mm projector and showed Citizen Kane to my wife and kids and another couple who had come over with their children. Everyone enjoyed the experience except my friends’ nine year old son. The film terrified him and that night he had nightmares, dreaming that he had been taken away from his parents. Needless to say he understood the meaning of Rosebud on a level much deeper than most of us.

In psychological terms, Citizen Kane is about abandonment and a man’s life of futile striving to recover from that abandonment. What I and most psychologists know is that a person cannot resolve such a deep, painful issue by looking outward to other people and things to heal something that was broken long ago inside. And this is what Kane did all his life.

If Citizen Kane is the story---a tragedy---of a man who is abandoned (as Hamlet is the tale of a man who could not make up his mind), is there anything else important that can be culled about humanity, flawed or remarkable, as revealed by Kane? Absolutely! Rosebud bares something very profound about Charlie Kane, but the meaning of Rosebud is not the whole story. The reporter Thompson is correct in his comment that one word does not explain a person’s life (although what we realize about Rosebud is at the core of Kane’s life). We see also an angry, rebellious man, an idealist who, like so many promoting a great ideal, does not see that he is also a hypocrite. He is also a man to whom people are objects that have a function and can be discarded or neglected when either they no longer serve a purpose or have become a problem. The rather passive Mr Berstein is his business manager who takes care of all the messy matters Kane doesn’t want to face. The first Mrs Kane provides social status and a name. The hated Mr Thatcher gives him wealth and represents something about Kane himself that he does not like to accept: his materialism. Leland, his fellow college hell-raiser, is his entertainer, but like many court jesters of literature, Jedediah Leland is also Kane’s conscience (which can be ignored or, if that cannot be done, resented as when Charlie finishes Leland’s negative review of Susan’s opera debut).

Susan, the second Mrs Kane, the no talent singer, starts out as a distraction and later becomes a hollow reflection of Kane himself. In the beginning of their relationship she is an amusement and becomes, like his Xanadu, something that Kane can shape and form into his own image. What he brings out of Susan is shallow and impaired. One can wonder how she would have developed if she had been allowed to be herself and follow her own star. Like so many who attempt to impose on others their vision of who the others should be, Kane suffocates the special qualities Susie has in his drive to make her into something she is not. In a sense he makes a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. In a way he does to Susan what Thatcher did to him, ignoring the wonderful qualities while encouraging something that is not there. Susan is not a singer, and Charlie is not a businessman.

If Susan is pathetic, Xanadu is scary and imposing. Charlie Kane’s great estate and castle represent the culmination of a life time of ambitious pursuits. What a weight Xanadu symbolizes. With all its appointments and staff, the most striking features are its shadows and emptiness. Kane and Susan share this vast hollow world as if time had slowed down to a tedius crawl. Life is missing. Kane has erected an edifice from his great wealth in which to hide. He achieves what people with no wealth achieve by becoming recluses locked in their houses, apartments or trailers.

With all his flaws and negative qualities there is something genuine and likable about Charlie Kane. Notice that many people refer to Kane and his second wife by their first names. Everyone else is usually addressed more formally as Mr or Mrs. There is something rather child-like about both Charlie and Susan. In a way Charlie’s growth was stunted when on that snowy day, Charlie’s mother signed her son over to Thatcher and sent the boy away.

Citizen Kane
is a film that does not suffer from repeated viewing, and I encourage you to see it again. This time consider the observations that I have made here. Is there anything about Kane that feels familiar either because you can see some of these qualities in yourself or in another?

Rated PG by M.P.A.A.

Available from Criterion
The booklet Understanding Victimization can be an aid for those who struggle burdensome issues as Charlie Kane did. You might also find the booklet helpful to read after seeing Citizen Kane. For only $3.00 plus shipping and handling you can have this booklet mailed to you within two days! Check out this booklet NOW!
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Last modified: 18 March, 2009