Portraits and the Subjectivity of Memory in Citizen Kane: A Close Reading of 2 Shots

It’s been a while since I last watched Citizen Kane (1941) in full, but the two shots I discuss below remain quite vivid in my memory (I probably have them memorized at this point). Also, I certainly don’t do the topic of memory (and its subjectivity and fallibility) justice in what follows; to do so would take a lot more work and writing. What follows is just one possible reading of 2 of the shots in the film.

Memory is not objective or immutable. Regardless of how serious or important their subject matter, memories are highly individualized. That is, they are heavily influenced by the experiences, perspective, and personality of the person to which they belong. Unlike history or traditional narratives, memory is not necessarily organized according to any clear of fixed chronology. Thus, trying to use memory to form such a history/narrative is no easy task, as Citizen Kane makes quite clear.

As complicated and messy as memory is, it’s also critical to Citizen Kane (both to its structure and overall plot). After all, a majority of the film (and just about every single bit of it depicting Kane himself) is presented as memory. For Thompson (the young journalist sent to find the meaning of Kane’s dying word “rosebud”) and for viewers of the film alike, scattered memories are their only means of accessing the now dead Kane. Below, I examine a pair of shots that shed some light on the film’s conception of memory. Together, the two shots also help reveal just a bit about Charles Foster Kane’s elusive character.

Though presented consecutively within the film, the two shots occur at different places, at different times (with an undefined distance between them), and (with the exception of Thompson and viewers) they involve different people. Still, there is more linking these two shots together than there is driving them apart. Examined together, the two shots give information concerning the relationship between Kane and Thatcher (the banker who serves as his childhood guardian) and declare that, due to the nature of memory, a man is ultimately unknowable through memories, and especially through the memories of others.
Citizen Kane (DVD)

Setting Up the Shots
Both of the shots show Thompson on his futile quest to find a memory that will explain “rosebud” and that in doing so, will dispel the mystery surrounding Kane. On my version of the film, the first shot runs from 29:22 to 29:54. The shot shows the end of Thompson’s examination of the late Walter Thatcher’s personal memoirs and takes place in the bank he once owned. When the shot begins, two figures are visible in the frame: Thompson sitting at a table looking down at the memoirs and a security guard standing behind him. Also visible (behind Thompson), in the upper left of the frame, is the bottom section of what appears to be a large and impressively framed image. A frustrated Thompson gives up on finding “rosebud” in the memoirs. Closing the book in front of him, he groans and turns to the security guard who walks forward. A female bank employee enters through a door at the back right of the frame, prompting Thompson to stand to leave. As he stands, the camera tilts upward. At first, it seems the camera’s movement is merely mirroring Thompson’s; but, even after Thompson has reached his full height, the camera continues to angle upward until Thompson and the bank employees, who were originally relatively centered within the frame, are entirely contained by its bottom half. The entire framed image is now visible; looming above Thompson and the bank employees is an rather austere-looking portrait of Walter Thatcher. The shot concludes when, after a brief exchange with the bank employees on either side of him, Thompson exits.

The second shot runs from 29:54 to 32:38 (though here, out of consideration for length, I only discuss it until about 30:56). This shot is set in the office of Mr. Bernstein (Kane’s former employee and current chairman of the board of what remains of Kane’s empire). Thompson is still trying to figure out “rosebud.” Bernstein and Thompson are already conversing when the shot beings. Thompson sits at Bernstein’s desk (in the foreground of the frame with his back to the camera). Across from him, Bernstein sits behind his desk in a high-backed chair. The height and position of the chair combined with Thompson’s gaze toward the wall behind Bernstein directs the viewer’s eye to the upper left portion of the frame where a portrait of Kane is positioned above the fireplace. For just under thirty seconds, Kane’s framed image is clearly visible; but as the shot and the conversation between Thompson and Bernstein progress, the camera moves in on Bernstein and his desk, gradually pushing both the portrait and Thompson out of the frame. As Bernstein reminisces to Thompson, he occupies the center of the frame and becomes the clear visual focus of the shot.

The most prominent image in each shot is that of a portrait. Though each contains a different man’s likeness, the two portraits are presented in a way that indicates a deep connection between them.

By showing Kane’s portrait in the same quadrant of the frame as Thatcher’s, Citizen Kane directs viewers to compare the two. Though silent and unmoving, each portrait visually dominates its respective shot for as long as it is fully visible. They are in the shots for a reason and are not to be ignored.

Still, there are numerous differences between the portraits (besides the men they depict). For instance, Kane’s is smaller, has a more ordinary frame, and shows him only from the chest up. Meanwhile, Thatcher’s is large, grandiosely framed, and shows his whole body. However, as with the shots that contain them, what the two portraits have in common is more important than that which might distinguish them.

First, that both Thatcher and Kane leave behind such portraits—and in spaces where they once held power—indicates a certain commonality between them. Just before the shot in which Thatcher’s portrait stares menacingly down at Thompson, a shot depicting one of the memories Thatcher has recorded in his memoirs shows an elderly Thatcher say to Kane, “What would you like to have been?” Kane’s answer is succinct: “Everything you hate.” Presumably, for Kane to come to embody everything Thatcher hates would be for him to end up as much unlike Thatcher as possible. Such a desire not to be like his guardian may even be suggested by the differences that do exist between the two portraits. Still, the film’s choice to show a similar portrait of each man indicates that, try as he might, Kane probably never quite managed to make himself as different from Thatcher as he would have liked.

In fact, due to the placement of the portraits and the fact that the two shots are linked by a dissolve, they actually (for a brief second) appear to morph into each other; visually, there is no clear line of separation between them. Even with nearly ninety minutes of the film remaining, the visual relationship between the portraits alerts viewers to the sad fact that, whoever he actually is, Charles Foster Kane was never the man he truly wanted to be.

A more general preoccupation with memory also connects the two shots described above. According to Citizen Kane, memory is entirely not logical, predictable, or reliable. As Bernstein tells Thompson, “A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember.” Bernstein makes this declaration just before diving into his story of the girl with the white parasol—a girl he saw only once “for one second,” a girl he never met, but can never forget. Bernstein’s anecdote makes it clear that (in Citizen Kane at least) the mere fact that a man remembers something does not mean it reveals anything important about him, his life, or those in the memory. 

The girl with the white parasol never spoke to or influenced Bernstein and he never knew her at all, but he remembers her just the same. All Bernstein can tell Thompson about the girl is that “a white dress she had on,” and “she was carrying a white parasol,” nothing more; this particular memory of Bernstein’s indicates that strong memory of a person does not necessarily indicate the presence of any meaningful, insightful, or even accurate knowledge of that person. Therefore, Thompson and the viewer would do well not to assume that what others remember about Kane reveals much if anything true about him.

More importantly, the exchange between Bernstein and Thompson indicates that, just as the girl with the parasol doesn’t tell Thompson anything about Bernstein except the fact that he remembers her, the fact that Kane thought to say “rosebud” just before dying may not mean much at all in the end.

Each shot uses its respective portrait to  further underscore those aspects of memory emphasized by Bernstein’s ‘girl-with-white-parasol’ anecdote. Once the portrait in the first shot is fully visible, one gets the impression that Thatcher has been ‘watching’ Thompson for as long as he has been in the bank hall examining memoirs. This impression is partially a result of the camera’s low angle. Because the portrait is filmed from so far below it, the man in it seems larger than he is and appears to be looking down. Even though Thatcher himself is no longer among the living, his presence in the hall and (perhaps more importantly) in the memoirs Thompson examines there is powerful. Thatcher may be dead, but his influence over Thompson’s (and the film’s) picture of Kane is not.

That Thatcher’s influence extends beyond the grave is further underscored by Thompson’s choice to address the portrait directly. As the portrait gazes menacingly down on everyone below, the female bank employee says to Thompson, “Did you find what you were looking for?” “No,” says Thompson in reply, before immediately turning to face the portrait. Thus, what Thompson seems to really say is “No, I didn’t find the secret to Kane’s last word. All I found in Thatcher’s memoirs and in Thatcher’s memories was what Thatcher left for me to find: a bit of Thatcher himself.” Just before turning away from the portrait, Thompson asks it “You’re not Rosebud are you?” By addressing the portrait directly, Thompson seems to indicate that he is cognizant of Thatcher’s posthumous influence over his understanding of Kane.

By allowing the portrait to dominate the shot as it does, Citizen Kane declares that, whatever the images and stories Thompson finds in the memoirs seem to say about Kane, they were controlled by the man who penned the manuscripts; any version of Kane presented by the flashbacks depicting scenes from the memoirs is only a version that Thatcher happened to remember and choose to record.

Similarly, the portrait of Kane in the second shot also demonstrates the power of memory in Citizen Kane as well as memory’s tendency to distort the truth. In Citizen Kane, Kane himself is obscured by the memories of others as much (if not more) than he is revealed by them.

When the second shot begins, the portrait of Kane is clearly visible, and it is the object in the frame that commands the most attention. But it does not remain that way. As Bernstein begins discussing memory with Thompson, the camera moves in on Bernstein and his desk, thereby pushing Kane’s likeness out of the frame. By the time Bernstein begins his story about the girl with the white parasol—that is, by the time he starts recounting one of his memories—the portrait of Kane has been eliminated from the frame entirely. As Bernstein’s memories take over, Kane’s image is removed from the shot.

Kane may have once looked like the man in the portrait, but he is not the man in Bernstein’s memory, just as he is not the man in Thatcher’s memoirs, or even the man he had hoped to be. With Kane’s portrait and the camera movement in this shot, Citizen Kane offers viewers a powerful reminder of the fact that the ways others remember Kane may say more about them than they do the film’s title character.

Final Thoughts
Through shared imagery and thematic content alike, Citizen Kane establishes a strong relationship between the two shots I have discussed, encouraging viewers to stop and consider, not only what each shot has to say on its own, but also what each has to say to about the other.

That Welles deliberately established a strong visual and thematic connection between the two shots is confirmed by the transition between them. A dissolve, rather than a straight cut, is used to join the shots. Thus, the images that comprise the two shots overlap and appear to merge. Even if the duration of this merger is markedly brief, it is still long enough for the viewer to perceive it. For an instant, it is unclear precisely where the one shot ends and the other begins. This is fitting; for, throughout Citizen Kane, one can never quite be sure where to draw the line between Charles Foster Kane as he actually was and Charles Foster Kane as reconstructed and imagined by the unreliable and biased memories of another.
Watch Citizen Kane now.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading. Feel free to leave a comment 😀

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