Monday, January 18, 2010

Getting the News from Citizen Kane

As written and played by Orson Welles in the 1941 classic that many people judge to be the greatest movie ever made, the life of Charles Foster Kane begins and ends with poetry. The first and probably most memorable instance comes in the newsreel coverage of Kane's death that follows the film's opening "Rosebud" sequence, where Kane's estate is compared to Xanadu of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan." Coleridge's lines, "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree," appear onscreen a la title card and are followed by a series of scenes of Kane's luxurious estate with a voice-over reading:
Legendary was the Xanadu where Kubla Khan decreed his stately pleasure dome. Today, almost as legendary is Florida's Xanadu, world's largest private pleasure grounds. Here on the deserts of the Gulf Coast, a private mountain was commissioned and successfully built...

What's interesting about this "News on the March" voice-over is that the narrator actually misquotes the original "Kubla Khan," untangling the inverted syntax of Coleridge's line ("a stately pleasure dome decree") only to replace it with the inverted syntax of the news ("Legendary was the Xanadu"). This spectacular moment not only has the effect of turning the news into poetry and poetry into prose—a totally fitting twist for the newspaperman's obituary—but also, in introducing two ways of saying the Coleridge poem, figures the conflicted narratives at the center of Kane's tragic life: a man who could afford to buy anything but who wanted what money couldn't buy; a man who was a success in business but not in life, etc.

We encounter poetry a second time when we first meet Kane at the beginning of his career—a young man, played by Welles, in the office of the New York Inquirer, that feisty, rag-tag daily which gave Kane his start in the newspaper biz. In this scene (pictured below), Kane is no longer the young boy (Buddy Swan) playing in the snow out West and being removed to parts East for a proper upbringing, but a cocksure, idealistic underdog using his paper, in good Progressive-Era muckraking fashion, to root out corporate fraud and advocate on behalf of the poor. Kane's former guardian, Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris) of the legal firm Thatcher & Company, comes to see Kane to protest what he sees as the Inquirer's unfair coverage of these and other items and, while Thatcher's there, Kane is brought a telegram by personal business manager, Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane). Bernstein doesn't want to read the cable aloud, but Kane insists. Here's that passage:

Kane: We have no secrets from our readers, Mr. Bernstein. Mr. Thatcher is one of our most devoted readers. He knows what's wrong with every copy of the Inquirer since I took over. Read the cable.


Kane: Yes: "Dear Wheeler, You provide the prose poems, I'll provide the war."

Bernstein: That's fine, Mr. Kane.

Kane: Yes, I rather like it myself.

As we've mentioned before—via the "poem- ulations" of Emily Dickinson, Chum Frink, and James Metcalfe—prose poetry was no stranger to the daily news, but here Welles is actually leaving those poems unwritten; if the movie transformed news into poetry and poetry into prose early on, here it intervenes to prevent poetic composition in the first place, once again rewriting the poet as the newspaper editor, with the exception that both now deal in prose rather than in the verse of "Kubla Khan." Furthermore, it is Kane's news service that's granted power to make and create, able to conjure up wars (or pleasure domes) where none exist—a capability once associated with poetry and of particular concern to "Kubla Khan." In a sense, Kane takes the modernist cry to "Make it new!" and rewrites it as, "Make it news!"

In "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," William Carlos Williams famously wrote, "It is difficult / to get the news from poems..." People have offered all sorts of reasons why that might or might not be the case, but Citizen Kane offers us yet another possibility: that people do in fact get the news from poems, and part of that news is that American newspapers are the new poetry. From the perspective of 2010, by which point in time both poetry and newspapers have been pronounced dead or dying, that's one Xanadu, perhaps, that even Samuel Taylor Coleridge's mythical bard couldn't call back.


J said...


I like the look of Kane, but the story itself seems ....weird, and reading it as Welles/Mank.'s hatchet-job on Hearst, it may be even weirder. They shift the palace from west to east coast, SF to NY, change the history, add strange details (and Im not so sure Hearst was a Kane-like bitter, desperate sex-starved type). The showgirl theme came from Hearst's life, I believe, but Hearst was hardly left alone or bitter by losing one bimbo, was he? I doubt it.

Hearst was a muckraker--but Welles doesn't really address the real Hearst saga, yellow journalism, his battles with railroad barons,etc. Or some of his famous writers--like Ambrose Bierce. I have read the Joseph Cotton character might have been loosely based on Bierce, but hardly detectable.

CK may be brilliant in ways, but I read it as a typical Wellesian megalomaniacal production, with little basis in historical fact--

Will Dockery said...

To J.- The films of Orson Wellse are prose poems of sorts, not "biopics", and of course when reading or watching poetry it is best to remember "Do not mistake the speaker in the poem for the poet himself."