Empty Welles

A review of “Citizen Kane” by James Harleman

Starring Orson Welles,
Directed by Orson Welles
2 hrs. 23 min.

The film begins at the end. then proceeds to explore the life of a man in a series of vignettes, through the eyes of those who knew him. while this may not sound like a groundbreaking idea today, “Citizen Kane” was the first film to use non-linear storytelling like this. With its revolutionary writing and innovative use of lighting, contrast, and camera angles, many still consider it to be the best film every made, the measuring rod by which all other films are sized up and critiqued. It made sense, then, for Mars Hill’s Film and Theology class to engage the picture to see not only why it has held such lasting impact on the film world, but also to examine its message about man’s striving and achievement.

This fictional story of “Charles Foster Kane”-a thinly-veiled biography of media mogul William Randolph Hearst-opens with the man’s last word: “Rosebud”, as he shuffles off this mortal coil at his luxurious, palatial home, a veritable kingdom of priceless treasures and a testament to greed and capitalism; the man had built an empire, and yet dies alone and unhappy. A reporter attempts to discover the significance of Kane’s last, tragic whisper. This leads him to confidential writings, old friends, and ex-wives, as he tries to get the scoop on who-or what-the mysterious “Rosebud” might be.

As Kane’s life unfolds, we see a boy taken from his parents, the mother stoic and resolute and the father ineffectual, though possibly an abusive drunk; he is raised by a guardian and inherits great wealth. Desiring to prove his own merit, he takes a small newspaper and builds it into an empire, creating a declaration of principles that makes him loved by many and hated by many more. He fights for the lower class, the working man, and becomes so obsessed with making everyone love him-with buying or earning their affection-that his own methods become compromised, his hypocrisy revealed, his wife disgusted, the public turning on him. Kane has never understood true love (the type of love that can only be seen in Christ, a covenantal love) and seeks tirelessly to earn, buy, or force others to love him. His affection and good works, despite all appearances or intentions, is compromised by his pursuit of self-love, his desire to be loved by all, to be the center of the universe, to maintain his self-image and make it the object of everyone’s attention. He achieves much, accrues much, and yet-as with all men-he loses it all. Consider this quote from scripture:

Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well– the delights of the heart of man. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me. I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 1:2-9, 2:4-1

Charles Foster Kane’s legacy-separate from any relation to God, or true love-is recognized as a hollow pursuit, an emptiness leading to misery and isolation that brings no true joy. Without spoiling the revelation, “Rosebud” is revealed to be merely a symbol of lost innocence, a trivial memento from the moments before he was awakened to the realities of a fallen world and an existence fraught with sin, a world in which the conscience is pricked with moral principles and yet the mind and body are incapable of living up to them. a land in which meaningless pursuits promise fulfillment, but wither one’s resolve and dedication until one becomes a hopeless addict to them. Kane dies a slave in his own kingdom, having built himself a storehouse that is nothing more than his own prison. And, as scripture so eloquently illustrates in Ecclesiastes, Kane’s worldly achievements are scattered:

I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. – Ecclesiastes 2:18-21

Even more tragic is watching other directors herald “Citizen Kane” when it is obvious-from their pursuits-that they no more understand it than Welles did. Director Orson Welles, like his fictional character Kane, and the very real William Randolph Hearst (and actually Ted Turner, media mogul and atheist whose company now owns distribution rights to the film) accrued much, garnering world attention and acclaim. but ultimately became dissatisfied with work, and environment. and from all accounts died unhappy, isolated, and disgruntled. (Among the similar parties mentioned, Ted Turner isn’t dead yet. but wait and see.)

The cinematic beauty of this black and white classic is undeniable. it’s use of angles to convey mood, personality, and power evoke stunning images indelibly implanted on the psyche. No Christian can deny the obvious imprint of the Creator at work in the form and method of this artful film. even though the creator He used most likely didn’t comprehend the true depths being plumbed. Welles portrays Kane at every age of life (with the help of astounding aging makeup and prosthetics which still look utterly convincing) in such a convincing manner that it is mind-boggling to discover he was only in his mid-twenties. Christian filmmakers in our age should learn from Orson Welles. his masterful writing, talent, and dedication to his craft are something we should all strive for.

Even if Orson Welles never came to know the Lord, (something I won’t know for certain, until I stand before God someday) he still managed to depict the emptiness of life without Christ better than most evangelicals in our day, and-by showing the absence of God-he demonstrates our desperate need for Him.

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