Citizen Kane, 1941
Directed by: Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead
Rank, American Film Institute: No. 1
Thanks to Lucy Van Pelt, I wasn’t too surprised to actually see the object of Charles Foster Kane’s lifelong affection. I learned what “Rosebud” was about 30 years before I ever saw Citizen Kane—but honestly, I was OK with that. Rosebud wasn’t some Sixth Sense switcheroo that messes up the entire movie. In a way, it was obvious from the beginning—not what Rosebud was, but what it stood for: Kane had everything, and yet there was an emptiness there that only Rosebud—whatever or whoever that was—could fill. Or, at least, that’s what Mr. Kane thought.
Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane has been called the greatest American movie ever for a good long while now, even though it didn’t get a whole lotta love when it was first released. Newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst thought the movie was about him (which it was), made sure that none of his papers wrote about it and got Hollywood so worked up over it that Citizen Kane was booed every single time it was mentioned at the Academy Awards ceremonies. Orson Welles must’ve felt like a Red Sox fan in Yankees Stadium. A few decades later, Welles was selling cheapo wine and appearing in The Muppet Movie.
None of that could, in the end, tarnish Citizen Kane’s lasting brilliance. And when it comes to talking about its spiritual heft, it’s almost too easy.
See, Kane had it all: More money than any man could possibly spend, more power than any man could comfortably wield. But the movie returns again and again to how sad Kane was. He’s a tragic figure more than a villain or hero, a guy who tried to use all of his wealth and power to fill an aching hole deep inside him—a pit that he couldn’t fill, no matter how much money he shoveled into it.
It’s a pretty quick step from there to get to what the mathematician/philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote:
“There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.”
And if that wasn’t enough, you could dive right into the Bible itself and find the verse that Citizen Kane might as well have been based on:
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 had surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless; a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.
I’ve already written a little on the Pew study, about how 20 percent of Americans now claim no religious affiliation. The reasons why these “nones” aren’t connecting with faith or religion are myriad, I’m sure, but I wonder if some of them have the same root as what afflicted Kane.
We Americans live in an outrageously affluent country. Wonders of technology are at our fingertips all the time, and most Americans are pretty well off, when you compare our lot with the rest of the world. And that puts religion—particularly Christianity, I think—at a bit of a disadvantage. I believe that our faith is a faith primarily of desperation. I don’t mean to downplay the advantages of faith and religion, but most of us don’t come to Christ as much through a pragmatic, plus-and-minus discernment exercise as if we were researching toasters on Consumer Reports. We grasp at it when there’s nothing left to reach, when all our resources are gone. When the vacuum in our hearts grows too big, too obvious, we ask for God to fill it.
But we’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring that vacuum, really. There’s a lot out there to distract us. I don’t think it’s an accident that the richest countries in the world tend to be the most secular. Granted, we’re not as rich or as powerful as Kane was, of course, but there’s a lot of stuff out there to keep us busy, to steer us away from thinking too hard about the Rosebuds in our lives—what we really yearn for, what we really need.
Honestly, I don’t think using Rosebud one last time would’ve helped Kane that much more than all his newspapers or marble statues did. Symbolism aside, the fact that a sled would’ve made him feel better at the end of his days suggests that Kane, even as he was on the right track, kinda missed the point. Perhaps he wasn’t looking for something he lost as much as he was searching for something he never really had: Love, unconditional.