Citizen Kane

For: pervasive nihilistic existentialism

Citizen Kane is a pessimistic masterpiece.  One of the most brilliantly directed films of all time, it pours all its artistic excellence into the story of a man whose lifelong search for meaning comes to nothing as he loses everything meaningful in life, and then loses the remainder in death.  An overarching existentialism throughout the story is wrapped up and tied with a bow in the final scene, which sums up the film’s moral, that even Kane’s search for meaning was meaningless.

Pervasive Nihilistic Existentialism

Nihilistic existentialism and Citizen Kane are characterized, both, by a search for objective meaning, the “discovery” of the intrinsic meaninglessness of everything, an attempt to create meaning subjectively, and the person’s unavoidable death and apparent annihilation. 

Citizen Kane spins through a series of well-developed flashbacks to tell Kane’s life story as a reporter searches for the meaning in Kane’s dying word, “Rosebud.”  Kane’s childhood is turbulent, spent far away from his parents’ dysfunctional relationship.  His young adulthood finds him an incredibly wealthy idealist believing he has found meaning in running a newspaper that stands up for the underprivileged.  Over the years, he loses focus, spending all his time at the newspaper but betraying all of his idealist ethics.  He fails in politics.  He fails in friendships.  His two marriages follow the same course:  infatuation, control, boredom, conflict, divorce.  His son is killed in a car wreck.  His newspapers and radio stations lose the people’s interest.  Finally he builds his own version of Xanadu, holes himself up in it, and begins endlessly collecting material possessions.  Then he dies, saying, “Rosebud.” 

The reporter is unable to discover what Kane had in mind when he said, “Rosebud,” but after gaining this panoramic view of Kane’s story, fixes himself on the idea that the word “Rosebud” is ultimately without meaning, just like the futile pursuits that characterized Kane’s life.  The film ends with a sea of crates containing Kane’s collection of expensive but meaningless art sitting in the hall of his Xanadu until someone comes to auction it off, and Kane’s few personally meaningful belongings, including a boyhood sled named “Rosebud”, being thrown into a blazing furnace.  Black smoke billows out of the abandoned palace’s chimney.  The end.

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