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Joseph Kugelmass
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Friday, February 20, 2009

I’m Simply Wild About That Sled

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 02/20/09 at 06:55 PM

(Cross-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes.)

So you know how Citizen Kane, over time, with the exception of that White Stripes song that quotes it, has slowly boiled down to the fact that “Rosebud” is the name of his sled?

Well, a friend referenced that fact today, and it struck me that the greatest spoiler in history is a lot darker than I had previously thought. I’d always intepreted the film pretty straightforwardly: Kane’s life of power drives him to madness and sorrow, and in his secret heart, he longs for the innocence of his childhood, an innocence symbolized by the sled.

But that doesn’t keep the revelation from being somewhat anti-climactic; whether or not you know in advance what’s coming, you do spend three hours getting there. It’s much ado about a sled. That, it seems to me, is precisely the point. The thing that is supposed to represent pastoral innocence is a thing, a fetishized object, not different in kind from all the objects that litter Kane’s private castle. In other words, the mystery of the sled, like the embellished memory of it that Kane constructs from within Xanadu, is there to convince you that Kane has undergone a fall, that his life is fundamentally tragic because of it, and therefore that it has the grandeur of tragedy. But in fact the bathos of the revelation confronts us with the triviality of his life, and with the fact that the sled is little more than wallpaper covering a gaping hole. He did not fall—Kane rose, as history records. The horror of his life was that there was actually no riddle to it at all, and into those flames, along with the riddle, goes any meaning, any permanence a life might contain.


Comments

Joseph,

Gossip Gore Vidal said that “Rosebud” was Hearst’s name for Marion Davies’s clitoris. If that’s true, then the war between Hearst and Welles was probably amped up a notch.  In an article by David Thomson in Slate “A “Rosebud” by any other name” (July 28, 2000) he points out that “There was no proof, of course—though, suddenly, the big close-up of Kane’s mouth, beneath the crest of mustache, saying, or sighing, “Rosebud,” did take on new meanings for cunning linguists. And those of us who have always valued the wicked, schoolboy tease in Welles thought it was possible.”

I think the sled represents the pastoral, as you mention, a fetishized object from a time of innocence. But I think as last words, they are redeeming to the character.

Consider the final words (in the film) of Daniel Plainview in the equally great “There Will Be Blood”, which is this century’s Kane story.  Plainview simply states “I’m finished”. There is no room for a Rosebud in “There Will Be Blood.” Plainview is practically joyless in the film, and says “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed.” The “Competition” for oil is like a disease to Plainview while Kane’s is not interested in his fortune and is willing to lose money on his newspaper. Kane seems to have fun along the way in his life. Plainview drips with contempt with the mention of the word “people” while Kane sees himself as an idealistic crusader for the people even if it is driven by his own ego. 

Kane’s statley pleasure dome is eclipsed by a sled and a snowglobe and I think that the mystery does not go up in flames.  Welles lets us know what Rosebud represents to Kane as he dies and it allows the viewer thinks of their own Rosebuds.

By Christopher Hellstrom on 02/21/09 at 12:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In Book IV of The Odyssey, Telemakhos visits Menelaos in Sparta.  He whispers to his companion, Nestor’s son, that the spendor of Menelaos’s megaron must be like that of Zeus’s palace on Olympos.  Menelaos overhears the comment and replies that all of the precious things he possesses merely remind him of their cost: the loss of his brother, the loss of men at Troy, and most of all, the loss of Odysseus.  He claims that he’d rather be one third as rich and have all of his lost companions alive and safe.

It’s a more touching, humanizing gesture than anything in Welles, but I surmise that that is what Welles is getting at with the sled.  It is a symbol of all that Kane has lost in achieving all that he has achieved.  I’m not sure I buy the “one more fetishized object” reading, for objects are so much a part of the language of film.  The sled itself, once we see it again, feels anti-climactic only because the visual object cannot capture the loss embodied by it.  For me, that speaks to the superiority of literature in representing loss and absence, and to the superiority of Homer in speaking about anything, for Homer knew already what Welles’ movie searches for: stories are always more important than the physical deed or object they represent, and stories are always about what has passed and what is gone.

By on 02/21/09 at 02:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I should think the great tragedy of Citizen Kane is that filmmakers and critics carry on about the way it was shot and staged, everyone else carries on about the final line, and no one actually talks about the life of Charles Foster Kane.

By waxbanks on 02/21/09 at 10:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I saw the film as an undergraduate and thought whatever I was supposed to think. Some time later I saw it when it had been spiffed up and re-released to theaters. That time I thought it was technically brilliant but otherwise empty. Now, is that emptiness to be attributed to Welles or is it something he’s attributing to Kane?

By Bill Benzon on 02/21/09 at 10:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s not just a fetished object; it’s the fetishized object, the one that stood in for Foster Kane’s abandoning mother and father. Separated—sold, from the child’s point of view—from his parents for mutual material advantage, Kane’s emotional neediness (explicitly commented on by the film’s other characters) transferred to acquisition—an unsatisfying substitute, which is why this ur-fetish was hidden away in storage for so many decades. God forbid Kane should have it in public where mere human beings might tarnish it by their curiosity.

Yeah, the sled was a quickly improvised script gimmick, but it fills (so to speak) the role of objet petit a a hell of a lot closer than any of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins.

Bill, that shared emptiness is, I think, what let Welles interpret Kane. Not my favorite Welles movie, I gotta say, but it sure is neatly put together.

By Ray Davis on 02/21/09 at 11:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

(Associating object petit a with Marion Davies’s clitoris is left as an exercise for the reader.)

By Ray Davis on 02/21/09 at 11:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Christopher,

In essence, I interpret Citizen Kane the same way I would if Plainview had said, at the end of the story, “bring me the shoe of my deaf child. Oh, deaf child’s shoe! I always loved you, deaf child, though I had difficulty showing my emotions.” It would feel fake, tacky, sentimental—which, in Citizen Kane, strikes me as intentional. We are redeemed by thinking about our own madeleines; thinking about our own Rosebuds puts us face to face with the ghastliness of the sentimental (including its subterranean links with sex).

***

Bill,

I think the emptiness is intentional; that is, it’s Kane’s.

***

Luther,

Rather than ranking literature and film, perhaps one could argue that film is a perfect medium for showing false presence, which is how I would describe Kane wishing he could be one-third as rich, but in possession of a sled that he actually possesses. (Also why film is terrific for ghost stories.) That is the key difference between Kane and Menelaos; Menelaos wishes for lost companions, while Kane wishes he could exert his present power over the individuals buried in his past.

***

Ray,

Exactly, the objet petit a. I set myself the task, with this post, of writing a Lacanian piece without mentioning Lacan. Darn you!

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/22/09 at 08:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One other note: In order to get the embedded references exactly right, I should have called the post “I’m Wild About That Sled,” which would have been the correct way of referencing both the old Bessie Smith song and the new one by Steinski, treasures I leave for our readers to seek out and discover.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/22/09 at 08:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think Kane, though it’s a tragedy, is supposed to be sentimental. It’s not a tragedy like King Lear which undercuts its own sentimentality at every turn. I like to think of the viewer’s reaction and I think Welles was anticipating the viewer’s reaction. I think that Welles distinguishes tainted “empty”(to use Bill’s term) treasures like garish statues and personal zoos with childhood toys that have a ton of personal projected meaning assigned to them. Kane was seeking monsters to slay for his whole life and loses his humanity. He regains his humanity when thinking about that treasured object.

I think that “There Will Be Blood” is supposed to be a darker tragedy and its only light feature is the son who goes on to be an oil man in Mexico and rejecting his father. Both films work good together and I think they are ripe for comparison. Kane is sentimental but I don’t think it is syrupy.  Most people are sentimental- some highly so (I have at least a half dozen Rosebuds in my attic) Sentimentality is a real experience whereas the fully immersive nihilism of There Will Be Blood or King Lear is not the normal frame of mind of most people unless they have Nietzsche with breakfast each day.  When handled correctly, like in Citizen Kane, sentimentality can be authentic and powerful.

By Christopher Hellstrom on 02/22/09 at 09:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Oh, deaf child’s shoe!” is wonderful.  Although perhaps you intended the vocative.  (’O deaf child’s shoe!’)

By Adam Roberts on 02/23/09 at 09:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I did intend the Lear-ish vocative! --Although in retrospect, I also like the slight grammatical implication that he’s just noticed the shoe sitting in the corner of the room.

In any case, cheers. I had ta’en too little care of this.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/23/09 at 10:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There is a key difference between the endings of Kane and There Will Be Blood which speaks, I’d say, to what Joe says in this post.  Viz.: the ending of Kane feels like a deliberate coup de theatre, a reveal; it’s an aha! moment.  The ending of There Will Be Blood is (and I say this from the point of view of absolutely loving the movie) much more ‘wtf?’.  It’s an ending that mocks the viewer: Plainview saying ‘yes, I think I’m done here’, or words to that effect, at precisely the moment when the audience are going, ‘wait, what just happened? How does this relate to the rest of the film?’ An ending that defies the conventions of ending; which Welles’ film certainly doesn’t do.

By Adam Roberts on 02/23/09 at 11:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One other thing, this time to disagree: ‘Kane wishing he could be one-third as rich with Joe, but in possession of a sled that he actually possesses‘ is neat, but not right, I think.  One main point of Kane is to show that material possession and possession in the ways that are important to our psyches are, despite superficial similarities, really not the same thing at all.  Surely.

By Adam Roberts on 02/23/09 at 11:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The typing finger writes, and having writ goes ‘no, that’s not it.’

‘One other thing, this time to disagree: “Kane wishing he could be one-third as rich with Joe...’ should read ‘One other thing, this time to disagree with Joe: “Kane wishing he could be one-third as rich ...”’

By Adam Roberts on 02/23/09 at 11:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam,

My sentence about the sled was meant to express that irony in Kane, not to negate it as something incomprehensible; I entirely agree with your interpretation of the film as partly about the difficulty of possessing.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/23/09 at 11:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s interesting that, in this thread, Kane’s life is being reduced to (empty) acquisitiveness, as though he did all that merely so he could pile up the stuff. If that’s what the movie asks us to believe, then I think the movie’s emptiness comes from Welles. Kane’s ambitions may have been different from yours or mine, there may well be something reprehensible about them, but they were not simply about the need to accumulate stuff.

By Bill Benzon on 02/23/09 at 08:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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