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Thursday, 16 June 2011

Citizen Kane (1941)

Filthy rich media-mogul Charles Foster Kane dies. Reporters comb his eventful and controversial life in an effort to find the meaning behind his last word - Rosebud.

Citizen Kane stitches together a contemporary story with self-referential flashbacks in a series of contradictory episodes whose ambition is matched by their technical brilliance. In the second of five attempts to discover the identity of Rosebud, reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) visits the "Thatcher Memorial Library" to review the unpublished memoirs of Kane's former guardian. A stern librarian (Georgia Backus) leads Thompson into a mausoleum-like reading room, arranges for him to view the manuscript, and gives strict instructions on which pages he may view.

The library has no visible shelves. The manuscript is stored in a safe. The librarian is perhaps the most severe representation of the profession ever projected onto a cinema screen. Unsurprisingly, library writers have denounced the scene. Phrases such as "the world's meanest archivist" and "a typically negative view of librarians" pepper online discussions. A blogger has written: "I watched Citizen Kane for the first time with a librarian and she was quick to point out how librarians are erroneously depicted in popular culture."

I think that the issue-desk critics have missed the point. They have overlooked Welles' subversiveness and his expressionistic filmmaking. They have ignored the fact that, unlike the librarian encountered by Woodward and Bernstein, Backus grants access to the library's most treasured document under the same conditions that every good librarian would impose. The reporter is watched, and his time with the manuscript is limited - yet he is allowed to read it.

Secondly, and remarkably, Backus is untypical of other screen librarians because she plays the character as a lesbian (David Lugowski uses her performance as a launchpad to "queer" the entire film). She is not the enbunned, horn-rimmed, cardigan wearing Plain Jane of librarians' ire. She is masculine, strong, and domineering, with an Annie Lennox dress-sense forty years before the Eurythmics. She is in charge of her collection, and in control of the situation. She is an empowering and emancipatory figure. She is mean, but you have to be a little mean to be a good librarian.

No books about rosebuds
Thirdly, and most importantly, the library is not a meant to be understood as a library at all. It's a deliberately indicated episode in a movie (note the silhouette of the camera lens on the closing library door). Negotiating the borders between drama, melodrama, and parody, Citizen Kane doesn't need any of the associations a real library would bring - it needs a room in which a book can be opened. It doesn't need a sultry blonde to distract the camera, nor a spinster for the audience to snigger at. The vault, the library's thick walls, and the librarian's strictness all point to an act of uncovering, and the audacity of Gregg Toland's lighting tricks us into expecting a revelation. The empty table and the blank room are used as tabulae rasae to set up the flashback.

Director: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles, Herman J. Mankiewicz
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Editing: Robert Wise
Original music: Bernard Herrmann
Cast includes Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Sonya Wagner, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Everett Sloane


  1. Great post, Colin.
    Couple of points.
    1. The library setting - I'd guess that Welles economised on the set here and turned this to his advantage by using the light to create a sense of the power of hidden knowledge. He might be having a bit of a dig at modernist American libraries ("no books" - sounds familiar?) as well.
    2. The sexual orientation of the librarian hadn't really bothered me. To me she does seem to be pretty much the stereotypical sexually repressed, remote figure. I don't think this is a seminal movie moment when librarians suddenly became user-focussed; she has to show Joe Cotten the manuscript or the story stops right there! However, I agree Welles is being playful, he enjoys making her into a larger-than-life custodian and we can enjoy that too.
    I agree completely with your last para. There is much to admire in the film - I particularly like the soundtrack, where Welles experience in radio is clearly evident.

  2. Brilliant analysis. I had never thought of the room as "not being a library at all" as you suggest. It is a paradoxical set up. We are led to believe that Joseph Cotten, the journalist, will be lead to a full supply of knowledge, but we are fooled; instead, as you put it, the library is "tabula rasa," as you put it. So is it a smoke screen? We are led to believe that the archivist will lead us to the truth of "Rosebud" but rosebud, in the end, is an inaccessible object of desire. The diary Joseph Cotten has access to leads him to no more truth about the mystery of Charles Foster Kane than the ending scene does: the incineration of the sled. So, it is not so much a criticism of stern librarianship, as you suggest, but rather a playful parallel to the next scene depicting Kane playing with his sled. So the "library scene" then seems to be the truth of the movie, then. All is laid out in its bare nakedness: the minimal lighting, the exposed pages of a book that tells us nothing deeper, the fade in to a childhood memory that in the end is never fully explained. So the "archive scene" is then the proof that rosebud is a MacGuffin, an object that leads us nowhere. The librarian is simply pointing out the truth: "this is all you can find." See, pages 83-142 will give you everything and nothing. I cannot help, though, to still think of the scene as a library. It is still a library, but it is not the mythic library that promises access to all knowledge, but rather the heavily scrubbed library that removes the dross to reveal the mundane, sometimes un-titillating truth: that pages 83-142 is all we have access to.

  3. A very belated thank you for the comments. I hope to write more on this at a later stage, so your thoughts are very useful in helping me sharpen my analysis.