Rosebud

Charles Foster Kane is dying. Once he has said what will be his last word, “Rosebud,” rendered in that famous extreme close-up, the snowglobe he is holding slips from his hand and shatters on the floor. The noise brings in the nurse, and the next day, of course, his death is all over the world’s headlines. The reporter Thompson is told by his boss to find out what this “Rosebud” could possibly be, and Citizen Kane is under way. David Thomson’s marvellously idiosyncratic biography of Orson Welles, Rosebud (London: Little,Brown, 1996) points out that Kane is alone in this famous deathbed scene. The nurse enters only once she’s heard the glass shatter. There’s no one there to hear him say “Rosebud.” Thomson (the writer on the film rather than the writer in the film, the Tintin twin without the “p”) makes this the crux of his argument about the film. Why, he asks, does the final frames’ revelation of what Rosebud is strike so many viewers as false, as far too trivial for the weight it has in the film, as a miscalculation on Welles’s part? Thomson argues that this is precisely the point: it is trivial, sentimental, hollow, and that is exactly what it should be. The absence of anyone to hear that word turns everything in the film, newsreels and all, into Kane’s deathbed fantasy. This man who has lived out his life in public needs to imagine himself as having some purchase on public fantasy, as having some mystery at his heart. That the mystery turns out to be hollow is of no account at all. No one is there at the end to see the word on the burning sled, either. Except, of course, the camera, which has been there all the way through. The camera, this machine—and Kane is, after all, the age of mechanical reproduction itself—is posterity in the only form it takes here, and precisely because it is pure apparatus: not a person in sight.


Film has never had any problems with the impersonality of narration. Quite the contrary, the problems come about when the apparatus starts trying to pretend that it’s not a machine but someone’s viewpoint. Most of the time, first-person shots in film are not as if seen through the eyes of a character in the film; they’re over-the-shoulder shots, showing you both the character and what they’re seeing. That small angle between the camera’s line of sight and the character’s is a wedge of separation that’s structurally important. Reduce it, and odd things happen. You can do this for brief shots: the lurching onward rush of the zombies from 28 Days Later, the awakening from unconsciousness to see blurred anxious faces peering down. But when you try to sustain it, you get odd effects, as in  Robert Montgomery’s 1946 The Lady in the Lake, where the camera itself plays Raymond Chandler’s detective, Philip Marlowe (except when Marlowe sees his image in a mirror, and we see that he’s the director, Robert Montgomery). What you get is not the plenitude of a subjectivity that’s finally met its adequate technical expression, but a film full of anxious addresses to the camera, as though there’s something missing from this world, and everyone is pleading with or threatening the camera to get it back. LadyintheLake1 But classical narrative theory has lots of trouble with impersonal narration. Everywhere, it rushes to fill in the void by inventing personlike “narrators” who can be supposed to know, or see, what we are being told. It may be worth resisting this rush, to consider what might be at stake in the possibility of an impersonal dimension to narration. We have that, certainly, with Finnegans Wake, where there’s barely anything like an “I” to connect all of this to. But don’t we also have it already in, for example, the very common use of third-person narration focalized on one of the characters? Take A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for example. Doesn’t the third person there work not as the point of view of some impossible, magical being with access to Stephen’s inner life, but as an aspect of Stephen himself, this proud, idiosyncratic boy and adolescent who is always viewing himself as if seen not quite by others (for whom he often has a complete disdain) but by the universe itself? His questions are how a poet, an intellectual, the forger of the uncreated conscience of his race no less, should behave. This is the dimension lent it by the third person, one that would disappear if we were to transcribe Portrait entirely into the first person of its final diary entries. For the Wake, too, the Kane-like fantasy is everywhere in the first four chapters in particular, as they endlessly stage that unanswerable question of how the world seems to the unconscious, troubled sleeper.

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