Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Conspicuous Consumption

The original title for the movie Citizen Kane was AMERICAN.

To this day, many viewers still believe the mysterious word Rosebud, whispered twice in the movie, when Kane dies and when his second wife leaves him, represents an object or a person. Rosebud is actually a time.

To constantly guide the audience to understand the meaning of Rosebud, time is referenced within the story of Charles Foster Kane throughout the movie. So is reality. Characters are seen talking in the reflection of windows, through a glass window, in shadows, in tiny reflective sources and most obviously, through the memories, or reflections, of several characters. The movie begins with a version of a man's life told by an old fashioned media, the news film. A film is a mixture of light,reflection and glass, the celuloid projected through glass onto an opaque backdrop.

Citizen Kane remains a cliche addition on the must see lists of almost every player in Hollywood or film history. It remains a marker of stature because of the technical innovations in narrative, the flashbacks, the unreliable narrators, the camera angles and constant reminders of storytelling devices. It deserves to be re-visited for it's technical acheivements alone. Citizen Kane offers another much more valuable contribution to culture than it's formidable mise en scene. The movie also captivates audiences and critics with it's explorations of power, corruption and vanity.

But the viewer finds themselves caring about this greedy, cold and narcisist man, Charles Foster Kane. Why?

Early in Kane's career we find he has constant battles with authority. His guardian has always tried to control Kane as a child and then as a young man. When his guardian warns a 25 year old Kane that he is going to lose money on his publishing ventures, Kane says, As long as there are "decent hardworking people in this country being robbed blind by money mad pirates who don't have anybody to look after their interests" he will be the one to print the news for them and represent their concerns. Kane's battles with authority begin altrusitc for the underdog until power comntrols Kane and becomes the abuser himself. Both his wives are starved for his attention and love. He betrays his best friend by his corrupt ethics no longer the champion of the working man, but rather a champion only for his own desires and status.

Not only do we begin our quest to find out who is Kane through a newsreel, we follow a journalist who is sent out to discover, what made this man tick, and why did he say the word "Rosebud" on his death bed? The layers and formats for storytelling never cease throughout the movie. Eventually no one but us finds out what Rosebud really is. Something far more powerful and intangible than an object, a history or status.

For thousands of years humans have had economic stature associated with possesions and consumption. Our life depends on what we consume. Conspicuous consumption has manifested within economies in several fashions. In one manner having jewels and fine fabrics and wearing them was a way to frighten or impress our rivals. Jewels came from the deep earth, depended on slaves and gruelling labour to possess them. One's rival would feel how could they possibly compete with such a tribe who could attain mysterious magic light from deep within the earth. Fire and jewels have long been associated with magic.

Another form of conspicuous consumption was practiced by a social leader by giving away such items. A tribe or societies leader who kept the trinkets of power to themselves was looked down upon, their status was maintained instead by doling out food, jewels and animals. (today we see Rosie, Bono, Madonna, Oprah practice this form of conspicuous consumption)

Today conspicuous consumption has quite a different meaning. When someone drives an SUV or van, wears designer logos and clothes and carries a cell phone or drinks expensive lattes and cappucinos, they are not showing their individual status. Most people go into serious credit troubles to pay for their vehicles and designer clothes and drinks. Conspicuous consumption now reflects ones allegiance to the masters and leaders of our culture. We dress like them, eat like them and we all know one can not change their status within our culture unless one looks like the political and financial elite. When we drink a latte or drive an SUV we are not broadcasting our high status we are proving our submission to our dominators. Risking our own financial and environmental stabilty we demonstate our belief in their worth over our own worth.

Citizen Kane was a shopaholic. He bought endless things and created his own world grasping for a feeling that was lost in time. Much has been made about the movie being inspired by Randolph Hearst, a man whose life paralled Kane's, but the source of Kane's conflict was taken from Orson Welles childhood. The drive for acceptance and praise is rooted in many peoples dedication to fitting into our society. We want our masters to accept us and grant us ascent: our status within this closed economic matrix represents love and authority approval. Changing the title from American allowed the movie to become global in recognizing the end of childhood as a catalyst for how we live as adults. The profound abyss in Welle's childhood worked it's way into the script and drives home the danger of alienation and abandonment within families and communities that causes most conflict within our world today.

Citizen Kane still deserves to be on all must see movie lists.


Karen said...

Wow. That was a very insightful post Candy! I've never seen the movie but of course, like most of us, have seen clips including the infamous "Rosebud" being whispered. I'm going to have to rent it now.

mister anchovy said...

When we drink a latte or drive an SUV we are not broadcasting our high status we are proving our submission to our dominators. . That's an interesting way of putting it. Another way might be to say that we are wearing the effects of the tribe we want to join, not much different than wearing goth gear or punker gear or whatever, except that one group carries the influence and power of the ruling tribe. Or, as Frank Zappa said (haha, imagine me quoting Frank Zappa), we're all wearing uniforms.

Candy Minx said...

Absolutely, the point being that conspicuous consumption has changed. Instead of it being a way of showing our power and stamina and to frighten off our rivals...or liek some tribes, showing that we are gnerous and powerful by giving away precious items to others within it is a sign of slavery to the few elite. We can't move up the social ladder unless we fit in. When we wear a Frank Zappa t-shirt or a goth style, we are saying we belong to someone even though daddy doesn't love us and never approved we have remade the "family unit". But either is a form of submission to the status of a very few at the top.

All those mothers driving vans to the Starbucks are not showing their liberation or power, they are showing their subservient status. At least goths or Dead Heads don't go broke givng away their personal power. Whereas, unresolved abandonment issues provoke families to go into debt to send their kids to posh private schools or buy the most expensive running shoes or clothes and carry cell phones.

In a family-approval-bankrupt society the rich and powerful enjoy us worshipping their rare positions by copying them.

mister anchovy said...

Not all that different from the early 20th century ideas of Hesse in Steppenwolf?

Gardenia said...

No wonder Kane was rebellious - control will do that to ya.

Guess we all hunger for praise & acceptance in some ways....I know in high school it sure is important to be "like everyone else." Usually the monied people. When you think about it, our consumerism makes us slaves. The models model the crazy clothes, the manufacturers alter them slightly for the slightly less wealthy, on down to Walmart level. I was going crazy trying to find some shirts for work that didn't expose the belly. But ya notice NOW the shirts are all long - so to be approved, we gotta buy more...then pretty soon that's ALL that's on the market, so we are cornered if we need a new shirt...This is also CONTROL.

When I retire I'm wearing old flannel shirts, stretchy leggings or jeans, and 15 year old birkies alternating with rubber boots cuz my feet hurt all the time. An' that's it!

Ohhhh, I have to confess to Latte Love! Not for status, jes' cuz' I LOVE that ritual in the cup, the zap of the expresso and the smoothness of the added milk...what a treat. But treat only! The crowds I run in look down on everyday latte users.


Anonymous said...

one question. would the film have been as big if the name hadn't been changed?
or am i missing the point yet again?

Candy Minx said...

Mister Anchovy: I can't really remember all of Steppenwolf, it's been years...but did you mean Beowolf? Cause power, vanity, corruption are the moral of Beowolf. Actually, it's a classic lesson isn't it?

Diana, Yes, all of those things with clothing and trickel down design. Your retirement outfit sounds great. I always thought Katheryn Hepburn had it figured out with her men's shirts and baggy classic slacks, or Audrey Hepburn too. Look, it's not a bad thing to want to fit in, it's quite normal. I like lattes too! But I hardly ever drink them. Lattes aren't the issue it's the cost. The other day we had a meeting and it took place in Starbucks. I went and got a hot chocolate or some such thing, and it was over 6 bucks. I said to Stagg, my god, who is drinking this stuff? Really buying a home coffee steamer isn't a luxury now, it's a way to drink a cup of latte for .50 cents! The take out coffee, the public space is part of the attraction. It's not a bad thing that we want to be like our few elite, like the very few rich that run the world. Our sense of security, acceptance and community is just defined differently by our possessions and consumption than it was at other times. We now define ourselves as being subservient to people in power rather than their equals or their rivals. We copy Trump, Bush, Oprah and Jessica Simpson to show we believe in the system and economy and wish we were them.

The Cappucino Kid, you're a cup of coffee I like to drink every day, that's a good question. I wonder if it would have the same cultural importance if the title had been different, if the movie hadn't almost been censored and got all the press because of the Hearst scandal, and the directors insanely young age and flashy attitude (25yrs)? A good question. The movie is so cool for cinematography and acting though...and really the make up is stunningly good. I don't know, I wonder?

rauf said...

my favourite film for a long time. He never knew that he made a classic. I think I did not run well commercially, but was appreciated much later.

* (asterisk) said...

I love this movie, but I have only watched it twice, I think. I bought the DVD recently but haven't got round to seeing it again yet.

I'm not entirely sure about what you mean by Rosebud being a time. If you mean that it represents childhood and his loss of childhood, then I'm totally with you; if something else, I'm afraid I'm going to have to see the film again and get back to you! (It's probably 12 years since I last saw it.) Are you saying, essentially, that it's a MacGuffin? Certainly, I'd agree with that, too. Since really what Roebud is is unimportant in the scheme of simply telling a story of a man known in different ways by different people.

Enjoyed your post, though: had to print it out and read it in the lounge, cos I simply didn't get time to read blogs at my desk the last few days...

Candy Minx said...

Yes, Asterisk, I think Rosebud is the end of his childhood. The toy is ripped from him, he was a very playful child...and that sense of play comes into his ethics and adventure until he is slowly corrupted. Yes, I mean that although Rosebud was a toy, it represented his end of childhood, which he never was able to replace with adult love or money or success.