I’ll be honest. I didn’t have an immediate sense of wonder from watching Citizen Kane (1941), and pretty much nothing at all ever stood out as amazing or captivating. I would attribute that feeling to my ignorance of a lot of the elements and techniques used throughout, but to me, it just seemed like an old movie with nothing special. The motif of “Rosebud” propelled a sense of mystery, of course, but with something like this, I knew all along that it had been something to do with his childhood (though I falsely predicted it somehow related to his mother). The nature of the name led everyone in the film to conclude that he must have been referring to a lover, but these were obvious red herrings, because if he was, the solution would have been found immediately and there would have been no film.
I’ll also admit that the exposition in the beginning establishing who Charles Foster Kane was and how he had become such a sensation was pretty boring. Plus, I was confused by the fact that Kane died, and then in the headlines it referred to his manager dying, only to come back to the fact that it really was about Kane who had died. All it did was confuse me.
After the “news sequence” encapsulating Kane’s life concludes and the newspaper studio discusses the fact that they’ll need to investigate what ‘Rosebud’ means, the sequence of events becomes much clearer. We know that Kane is dead, so every time we see him thereafter is a flashback. This is about the life of a once rich and powerful man, not the repercussions of his death afterwards.
I will say that my favorite thing about the entire film was the extraordinary lighting. I know that I couldn’t pick up on all the symbolism it depicted, but enshrouding Kane in darkness as he wrote his promise of honesty and having the entire press room stand in darkness as they discussed the significance of ‘Rosebud’ was very well done—it’s obvious that Welles didn’t put those shots in arbitrarily.
Citizen Kane has some great moments and scenes, and really shines not through its story, but through its presentation. The motivations of each and every character is established succinctly and thoroughly, which is certainly not easy, given how little screen time several characters had. I even felt like I understood many of the characters better than they did themselves — and making your audience feel smart is always a good thing.
As a side note: I looked up the significance of the screaming bird. It’s non diegetic, comes with no warning, and is out of place with everything. At first I thought that something weird had happened with the film. Then I thought it was symbolizing something I understand. Turns out, Welles said he just put it in to wake the audience up before a pivotal moment in the film. I found that interesting because today’s film industry would never do a thing like that to a modern audience.