Movies for the Resistance: Citizen Kane

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, George Coulouris and Ruth Warrick
Directed by: Orson Welles
Running time: 119 minutes
Rating: NR
Year of release: 1941

 

Donald Trump suffers from malignant narcissism, a fact that anyone who ever survived a narcissist can tell you (and probably did – loudly and repeatedly – since the moment he descended from that escalator to talk about those horrible Mexican rapists). Understanding how and why narcissists behave the way they do has become more than a means of therapy or healing: it’s now quite literally a matter of national security. And while a number of movies deal (directly or otherwise) with the behavior of narcissists, none stand so high as… well, as the greatest movie ever made.

Citizen Kane helped define the language of film, and the totality of its achievement provides no end of fascinating topics to discuss at length. (Deep focus! Non-linear narrative! A merciless takedown of William Randolph Hearst!) But well before Narcissistic Personality Disorder became an established term, Orson Welles’ masterpiece provided an apt summation not only of what narcissism is, but the kind of damage it can inflict.

Welles embodied a number of narcissistic traits himself, as did Hearst, who served as the unwilling subject of Citizen Kane’s vitriol. The title character – a newspaper tycoon turned populist politician whose life crashed and burned beneath self-inflicted wounds – becomes the catalyst for both men’s darkest instincts. The film retains a fair amount of sympathy for its protagonist, but neither does it shy away from what a powerful man can do when nothing matters beyond his pride.

Welles’ performance often gets left behind amid discussion of his direction and screenwriting, but it’s no less remarkable than his other work on the film, in part because of how subtle Kane’s monstrosity can be. It starts with a denied childhood, when his distant mother (Agnes Moorehead) ships him away from his abusive father (Harry Shannon) to be raised by a banker. Kane essentially stops maturing at that point, and remains a boy almost until the moment of his death.

When he comes of age, he uses his vast fortune in an attempt to reshape the world to his liking, lashing out against perceived checks on his power and altering his own identity to match his needs. “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper,” he cables to his former guardian Mr. Thatcher (George Coulouris) in a gesture of puckish rebellion, and turns the purchased paper into a bastion of yellow journalism to perpetrate that rebellion.

In the process, he fashions himself as a “man of the people” (sound familiar?) and tireless defender of the public interest… all in the name of hurting the mean man who didn’t love him. He demonstrates false modesty by announcing his first marriage just like any other couple and adopts “Charlie” as a nickname: a just-plain-folks gesture undone by the brothel full of hookers singing to him about it. He even acknowledges the hollowness of it while simultaneously trumpeting his ability to “be” whatever he says he is at any given time. (“You don’t realize you’re talking to two people,” he snickers to Thatcher, convinced that he’s put one over on the man.)

Nevertheless, he uses his false self to pursue nebulous government reforms, wielding balderdash and innuendo as his primary weapons and puffing himself up at the expense of anything else (sound familiar?). He ultimately launches a campaign for governor in which he threatens to prosecute his rival once elected (sound familiar?), and refuses to even when news of marital infidelity destroys his chances. His paper even shrieks about fraud at the polls when he loses (sound… yeah, we’ll just take it as a given from here on out).

His campaign, like his newspaper endeavor, acts as a means of getting back at those in his way. His opponent “Boss” Gettys (Ray Collins) essentially becomes Thatcher by other means: someone with the ability to tell him “no” and make it stick. Only when Gettys exercises that power do we see the “real” Kane: a man who exists only to feed the black hole at his core, who can tolerate no slight or failure, and who lashes out in blind rage when reality finally pierces his elaborate bubble.

Kane dooms himself by refusing to grow from the experience, but more heartbreakingly, it damages those around him. That plays out most horrifically with Kane’s second wife, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), a fair-to-middling singer whom Kane pushes well past her modest talents in an attempt to make her a world-class opera star. She wants nothing to do with it, but submits to his will… and suffers catastrophic emotional trauma as a result. She becomes the battlefield in his war with the truth. Her happiness means nothing to him, nor her obvious discomfort at obeying his wishes. “You know what the headline was the day before the election,” his friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton) confers to an interviewer. “‘Candidate Kane found in love nest with quote, singer, unquote.’ He was gonna take the quotes off the ‘singer.’” That is the extent of Kane’s concern for her: that, and the need for her to love him unconditionally that ultimately sends her packing.

Welles’ filmmaking acumen finds one of countless brilliant moments at the apex of Susan’s “career,” as she steps forth into a cavernous opera house and tries vainly to fill the emptiness with her voice. The pathos drips from every shot, visible most notably in Kane’s fearsome set jaw and his defiant applause intended to deny what everyone in earshot clearly knows. He applauds because he cannot accept defeat, or embarrassment or humiliation. He applauds because his soul cannot acknowledge his human frailties… frailties his wife pays a devastating price for. That empty clapping shows us the real man behind the façade: a man who doesn’t give two shits for anyone but himself.

It leaves him alone in the end, rattling in a rotting mansion full of priceless knickknacks and no warmth, yearning for a childhood he never really experienced and powerless to regain a squandered life of professed greatness. “You talk about the people as though you owned them,” Leland snarls at him amid the ashes of his political campaign. “As if you could make them a present of liberty.” The truth of that equation never sinks in. Indeed, he’d rather destroy himself and everyone around him than grow up.

Thankfully, Kane never held the reins of actual power. His infidelity saw to that. Trump, on the other hand, got a free pass, and all of us have had to live with the results. But he arrived in the White House through the same means Kane practiced, and the paradox that destroyed Kane will eventually claim him too. You can’t “make America great” solely to prove your own greatness. You can’t create brilliance by insisting that you’re brilliant. “You’re the greatest fool I’ve ever known,” Gettys tells Kane on the eve of his defeat. “If it was anybody else, I’d say what’s going to happen to you would be a lesson to you. Only you’re going to need more than one lesson… and you’ll get more than one lesson.”

Truer words were never spoken. The only question is how much the rest of us will endure before they finally take.