If you’ve ever watched Citizen Kane, you’ve spent at least a moment wondering what ‘Rosebud’ means.
Well, I’ll save you some searching, if I can. In a unique and somewhat reluctant ‘explanation’ of his film in 1941, which you can read here, Welles rationalises Kane’s final words as follows: ‘In his subconscious it represented the simplicity, the comfort, above all the lack of responsibility in his home, and also it stood for his mother’s love which Kane never lost.’
Lovely! How conclusive and incontestably satisfactory! Stop by for next weeks article.
Or, if you think that, perhaps like the incomplete jigsaws puzzles montaged in the film, there are some pieces missing from this story, don’t let that answer satisfy. It shouldn’t; Welles obviously didn’t intend that, and would probably grin at the ‘dime-store Freud’ label that the author of the above link slaps unthinkingly onto Welles’s press statement.
Of course his explanation is dime-store Freud. Since when are artists in the business of explaining themselves? Welles’s statement gives us a complex key to lockbox. The box itself is fascinating, but we’re obsessed with the contents – a highly anti-climactic psychological portrait of a man, ready to be boiled down into a single sentence: ‘it represented… and also it stood for…’
In a far more straightforward conversation during a 1974 interview with Michael Parkinson, he says the following when asked a poorly disguised version of the question, ‘What is your Rosebud?’:
What I’m about? I don’t know. Plato told us that we should know ourselves and that the object of every artist, good, bad, or indifferent, is a lifelong inquiry into that subject, and his work is testimony to that effort, and I’m in no position to sum myself up, and I would be appalled if the truth could be offered to me in this moment.
No, Welles isn’t in the business of cheap psychology. Sure, he did have some interest in the creation of a ‘social document’ as he admits regretfully in another great interview with the BBC, but what truly underpins his masterpiece is just a great story filmed spectacularly.
Welles confirms in the same interview that ‘the storyteller’s first duty is always to the story.’ In film, that means fidelity to the picture; it is not enough to be eloquent, or even to have an original narrative – writers of novels and theatre have those fields monopolised. Great cinema demands a mastery of these more novelistic aspects of storytelling, but also great visual potency. Every shot must be as meaningful and indispensable as a sentence in an air-tight monologue.
To answer the Rosebud question must be an empty pursuit. Rosebud stands for meaning itself, and is ultimately disappointing. Meaning isn’t even the core stuff of literature, let alone that of film, and so Welles ties it like a carrot to the end of a stick to draw a hungry audience through the movie. We taste that carrot in the end, or at least believe we have, otherwise the movie would have died in the public eye long ago.
This isn’t to say that Citizen Kane isn’t about anything; that, too, would be boring as hell. But the main reason that the film is so firmly lodged at the top of everyone’s ‘best movies of all time’ lists is that it tells a great story that could never be portrayed with as much success in a novel or a play. It is distinctly cinematic, it delights in it’s own visual trickery.
I won’t bother you here with my version of the essay every film-studies student has written, gushing over the deep-focus aesthetic and the playful auto-reflexivity. It will suffice to say that the shot through that broken shard of snow-globe was, and is, the stuff of film-geeks’ wet dreams.
Perhaps the most refreshing practitioners of this anti-novelistic sort of cinema today is Quentin Tarantino. His most recent film, The Hateful Eight, was shot with classic 65mm lenses using the widest possible (2.76:1) aspect ratio:
It had a run time of over 3 hours, and included an intermission if you saw it in a theatre showing the full 65mm version. There is no real discernible protagonist, no real character development, no real meaning, and, as usual, no apology for the sheer excess of its gory aesthetic.
It might seem strange to call Tarantino a ‘nostalgist,’ but that’s exactly what comes through in a work like this. His film refuses to reward those watching at home via Macbook Pro. Like Citizen Kane, it begs to be watched on the big screen. That 15 minute intermission is just as much part of the experience as the rest of the actual film: You sit there chatting idly about the film thus-far, predicting who will die, who Samuel Jackson will kill, whether he’ll call them a motherfucker before doing so, probably; and you’ll do all of this within the walls of the Modern Church of Tarantino – that place where people of all walks of life come together to watch, in comic horror, the indiscriminate, unabashed bloodshed of American cinema.
That realisation that you aren’t the only one stifling a jerky, embarrassed laugh at Samuel Jackson recounting the story of how he sexual assaulted a confederate soldier’s son to the man’s face, followed by the collective relief of the audience letting go of that inhibition – that’s nothing short of catharsis. Aristotle would probably be pissing himself laughing.
Both Tarantino and Welles had an acute sense of what makes a film a film. It sure is nifty that we can pause a movie on our laptops, pull it up on our phones as we make our way down the hallway to the kitchen, where an iPad is ready for streaming whilst sandwich preparation is under way, but any film actually worth watching is worth watching the way the director intended it – Netflix and Apple free.
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