On Being Thompson

By Dai Vaughan

citizen-kane-orson-welles.jpgCitizen Kane, 1941

Citizen Kane offers itself explicitly as concerned with identity, telling the story of a quest for the man behind the legend. Implicitly, moreover, it offers itself as concerned with how such identity may be constructed in film: for the quest begins when an obituary newsreel is judged inadequate as a summary of a man’s life. What is curious, however, is that the unease of this film centres not upon its portrayal of Kane, the object of knowledge, but upon that of the knowing subject, the reporter Thompson. Kane we remember as a big man in a movie; it is the recollection of Thompson which prompts an involuntary shudder. 

The treatment of Thompson is certainly unusual. On the rare occasions when he faces us, he is in the middle distance and back-lit. For most of the time he is seen from a three-quarter rear angle: a position he assumes with some emphasis at the moment of accepting his assignment. Often his profile is obscured by a wide-brimmed hat. He is a tantalising, not to say frustrating, presence.

On the simplest level, we may observe that Thompson shares this silhouetting, this occlusion, with Kane himself as introduced in the mysterious prologue; and that he therefore serves to sustain this mood of mystery and to bridge it to the film’s ending. I wish to suggest, however, that the portrayal of Thompson, rather than being a prime source of strangeness, is itself an almost inevitable product of the film’s cognitive stance. The question then becomes: why can we not see Thompson properly?

The obituary newsreel, scratched and distressed in simulation of archival footage, with its hectoring, know-all commentary in the tradition of The March of Time, follows immediately upon the prologue; and it is immediately followed by a discussion in the viewing theatre where Thompson is charged with solving the riddle of Kane’s last utterance: the word ‘Rosebud’. This sequence is pivotal, not only in the obvious sense that it launches the film’s narrative project, but also for its place in the system of representation. In contrast to both the prologue and the newsreel, it exhibits several markers of realism: an absence of music, a scrappiness of construction and a degree of dialogue overlap quite shocking in a Hollywood production of that period. If anything may be said to embody a neutral vision, a bedrock for the film’s reality, this is it. Henceforth, up until the coda, every scene will – at least in principle, and at first sight – convey either Thompson’s direct experience or the recollected experience of his informants.

citizen-kane-orson-welles-2.jpgCitizen Kane, 1941

If it is the case, however, that the film is structured around the knowledge of Thompson and those he questions, we are entitled to ask whose knowledge governs the prologue. This comprises a series of shots, linked by dissolves, which take us nearer and nearer to Kane’s castle, Xanadu, to culminate in a big close-up of his lips croaking, ‘Rosebud...’ We might be inclined to read this as nobody’s vision, as straightforward ‘third-person’ visual narrative, were it not for the fact that the earlier shots seem to prowl restlessly outside the castle’s perimeter defences, its wire and its ‘No Trespassing’ signs, each apparently balked by a barrier only to be replaced, via the dissolve, with one which has surmounted it. The consciousness of each shot seems the freed spirit of the preceding one, their succession a kind of constrained omniscience. The style resembles that of a ghost story, where familiar grammar strains against the logic of narrated events. We are indeed surprised to learn later, in the viewing theatre, that the word ‘Rosebud’ has been overheard by the butler. The consciousness prowling the grounds is assuredly not his. Yet at the same time, though passing at ease through walls and fences, it is not the all-seeing consciousness of the purely conventional narrator. Though few filmic devices are inflexible in their meaning, the combination of dissolves – one of whose connotatory possibilities is time-lapse - with increasing proximity to Xanadu and with otherwise unmotivated camera-movements adds up to a strong implication of subjectivity.

Returning to the sequence in the viewing theatre, we must consider whether, since Thompson’s viewpoint is not yet established, this should not also be construed as ‘seen’ by the prowler of the opening images. Whatever its points of contrast, it resembles them in its heavy chiaroscuro. And the overlapping dialogue, though arguably signalling realism, also stamps it with uncertainty. If this sequence is the benchmark of the film’s reality, it postulates a reality murky and obscure; and it is in this that the figure of Thompson, cloaked in darkness as if he had never left the theatre, may be said to transmit the opening atmosphere throughout the film. It may be tempting to suggest that the ‘constrained omniscience’ of the prologue represents the state of knowledge to which Thompson aspires: prowler, gumshoe, journalist. At this point we must bring other facts into the reckoning.

For a start, the visual rendering of the informants’ testimonies does not sustain the convention, at first established, of confining itself to what those informants might actually have witnessed. When Jed Leland, in the third interview, ‘tells us’ of Kane’s meeting with Susan Alexander, or when we see superimposed on his image that of Kane with his first wife at the breakfast table, it is clear that these visualisations represent not Leland’s memories – for he was present at neither event – but an equivalent for words: either his words to Thompson or Kane’s words to him. By the time we reach the fourth interview, the film feels free to repeat a shot – the opening of the opera scene – already encountered in the third. It looks very much, then, as if what we are being given is the picture as built up by Thompson from his informants’ accounts. The very variety of stylistic means employed suggests tentativeness: literally, a series of attempts at knowledge. Further evidence for this interpretation is afforded by a number of visual tropes which occur throughout the film. For example, when Kane is challenged by Leland about the conduct of his political campaign, they are shot in extreme low angle, as if on the hustings; when Bernstein recalls something seen from a ferry boat, he is reflected in the polished surface of his desk as if in water; and Thatcher’s reminiscences, which Thompson reads in the memorial library, have him frequently glance to camera as if to mimic the direct address of the handwritten manuscript. Likewise Susan Alexander’s account is delivered with an almost comic exaggeration, bordering on caricature, which may be seen as a visual equivalent for her sardonic manner; and the famous shot of Kane in endless recession between two mirrors – in conjunction with the previous shot, where he has walked through a silent group of his servants, an eloquent statement of the solitude of his egomania – is taken from a viewpoint not that of the butler, in whose story this occurs. All of these tropes, linguistic slippages resembling that figure of speech where an adjective is conjoined with the wrong noun, make more sense if understood as representing Thompson’s shuffling of his data than as attributes of the interviewees’ own recollections.

citizen-kane-orson-welles-3.jpgCitizen Kane, 1941

If the consciousness of the film is in large measure that which Thompson constructs upon his investigations, there are nonetheless dark hints – the occasional unexpected camera move, echoes of the opening music – that another consciousness, overlaying Thompson’s and for much of the time indistinguishable from it, persists and is biding its time. The suggestion that this is the consciousness to which Thompson aspires receives support from the film’s coda, which reveals to us – though not to him – the specific information he has been seeking. But at this point there is something else to be considered. In the chiaroscuro of the viewing theatre, as in the scene where the camera crosses a roof and moves down ‘through’ the skylight of El Rancho to reveal an interview at a bar table, the ghostly idiom of the prowler, with its constrained omniscience, embraces Thompson himself.

Thus the contradiction implicit in the opening shots is reproduced at the level of the overall structure. In a film which insists upon the subjectivity of its viewpoints, the investigator is himself present to the consciousness to which he aspires. That is why he manifests the cloaked, mysterious, ambiguous quality of the eidolon which very often stands for ourselves in our dreams. A dream, after all, is not an experience but a story we tell ourselves visually. It is a first person narrative, but one in which the word ’I’ cannot be used. This eidolon sustains the film’s posture of subjectivity, which began in rejection of the ‘objectivity’ of the newsreel, whilst at the same time being a consequence of its difficulties.

Since Citizen Kane makes a problem of what most films take in their stride, we may care to ask what difference it would have made if the handling had been more conventional. Thompson-as-perceived-by-others would have been exposed to us. The interviews would have been shot with ‘reverse angles’, which are not true 180º reversals but the alternation of set-ups defined as complementary by the matching of eye-lines oblique to the picture plane. The function of this familiar technique is to define a narrative space, somewhat akin to the shallow-ed space of cubism, in which a location for the camera does not exist. Shots are detached from the implication of witnessed-ness. It is comparable to the writer’s ‘third person’, which lays claim to an underlying omniscience even where, as a matter of literary decorum, it restricts itself to an account of one person’s experience. The contrast here is with documentary film or literary reportage, which normally adopt a first person stance even if that person does not actually invade the page or the picture space. (The difference between documentary and dream, of course, is that in documentary the narrator is seldom the main protagonist, let alone being also the person to whom the story is addressed.) Kane, however, shifts fretfully between an implied third person and a suppressed first person convention. This, indeed, would be another way of describing the opening sequence. Without the eidolon of Thompson, pure narration would take over; and the story of the difficulty of knowing would be negated by the way it was told, the truth being seen simply as ‘out there’ to be discovered – or not.

citizen-kane-orson-welles-4.jpgCitizen Kane, 1941

The unease comes close to resolution as the film nears its end. Thompson has at last entered Xanadu; and his profile is almost visible to us. It is here that the line is spoken, ‘I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life’: a sentiment in which most viewers will concur, and which marks the abandonment of the quest. Yet for all that, the word ‘Rosebud’ did mean something; and the coda, eerily, explains it.

We may place what weight we wish upon this explanation: either that one word did, in this instance, sum up a life; or that the answer, had it been discovered, would have proven trivial. But what is undeniable is the strangeness of the moment. If the consciousness of the film has been that of a dream, this seems rather to resemble those out-of-body experiences reported by people who have returned from the brink of death. Had Kane adopted the classic third person narration, the surprise of this ending would not have survived first viewing. The reason it does is that it reveals to us a knowledge which, according to the film’s own logic, cannot exist. It confides in us something which cannot be known – or can be known only to God, who is not available for interview. Perhaps the invocation of childhood here has less to do with Kane’s psychology than with some lost paradise of cognitive absolutes.

citizen-kane-orson-welles-5.jpgCitizen Kane, 1941

The chimera of absolute knowledge is modelled in the impossibility of self-knowledge, since to be Thompson is to be a knowledge which encompasses its self knowing. Knowledge, if conceived as more than a bundle of representations, will always fail. Not only can we not sum up a person’s life in one word; we cannot sum up a person’s life at all. ‘Constrained omniscience’ is an oxymoron.


Dai Vaughan is a documentarist and writer.