Abundance, by Tyler Smith

21 Oct

The best movies are those that would seem to somehow change a little bit with each viewing. Of course, we know that the films themselves haven’t changed at all. It’s the viewer. It’s us. We change over time, through new experiences, fresh insights, and engaging relationships, until the person watching a film for the fifth or sixth time could almost be considered completely different from the one that watched it the first.

At this point in my life, I’ve probably watched Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane around twenty times. It was hovering around ten, but then I became a film teacher, and the number skyrocketed. And the number will continue growing with each passing semester. My first time watching the film was as a teenager. I’d heard the film was great, but that didn’t begin to prepare me for the moral and artistic complexities contained in Welles’ masterpiece. After all these years of not merely watching the film, but studying both it and its creator, you’d think that the film had finally taught me everything that it was going to. 

But no. At age 37, after dozens of viewings, it would appear I still have more to learn from this fascinating film. 

In my most recent viewing, I began to pay attention to the protestations of Kane’s second wife, Susan. After being forced to pursue a largely unsuccessful career as an opera singer to appease her domineering husband, Susan has finally had enough. She declares that Kane, despite building her an opera house and buying her every material thing she could ever want, never actually gave her anything. Soon enough, she realizes – as Kane’s former best friend Jed Leland discovered years before – that Kane’s declarations of love and overwhelming generosity, while undeniably sincere, were really just a means of receiving love in return. What would appear to be motivated by selflessness was, in actuality, an act of self gratification.

Despite his protestations, Kane is a remarkably selfish man, and one whose comfort zone is so thoroughly established and unshakable that it may as well be set in stone. In fact, what is Kane’s ostentatious castle if not a physical realization of the man’s refusal to meet other people on any terms but his own?

All of this is only possible due to Kane’s immense wealth. Having never really had to rely on anybody, Kane became self sufficient in all the worst ways. In his own words, “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” Though said with a chuckle, that is an astonishing admission. It smacks of self loathing, and a deep understanding of his own shortcomings. And yet he seems unable – or, more likely, unwilling – to do anything about them. 

None of this is new information. Much of it is stated pretty clearly by the characters in the film. But as I approach middle age, I’ve come to realize just how similar I am to Kane. To be sure, our lives are not very similar on the outside. But on the inside, I can recognize Kane’s reluctance to challenge himself, or even to inconvenience himself at all. He doesn’t want to make himself vulnerable, nor does he want to be emotionally beholden to anyone. So he finds a way to fake real love without ever taking any risks. Through his wealth, he can give the appearance of love – through gifts and praise – while remaining stingy with those things that he is less comfortable loosening his grip on. In other words, Kane gives out of abundance. He gives in a way that doesn’t actually cost him anything, though to most onlookers it would seem to cost a great deal. 

Many people, including myself, have commented on Citizen Kane’s themes about the corrupting nature of wealth, both morally and emotionally. The film certainly contains these themes, but I think it goes much deeper than that. After all, most members of the audience are likely not wealthy; if the film were only about money, then many viewers could rest easy. But this isn’t merely about wealth; it’s about abundance. And there are all different kinds of abundance. 

I do not have a lot of money. I am not in the position of Charles Foster Kane, who can seemingly buy his way out of any situation. However, I do have a wealth of words. I can speak very well, and can convince almost anybody of my sincerity. I can feign vulnerability in the same way that Kane can feign generosity. In the same way that money doesn’t actually cost him anything, so words cost me nothing. Out of this abundance, I’ve been able to fool even myself that I’ve been very loving – of my friends, of my coworkers, of my wife – even when I haven’t been. And while sometimes words of encouragement and affirmation are what people require, and I am able to give them freely, sometimes people need something more concrete, like time or effort or attention or any of the other things that could actually require a sacrifice on my part. And in moments like that, I’ve found that, like Kane, I have a very well-defined comfort zone that I am terrified to leave.

Of course I realize that I’m maybe being a little too black and white in my thinking. Undoubtedly, like anybody else, there have been moments in which I’ve been genuinely selfless. As unhelpful as it is to be blind to one’s own failures, it can be equally unhelpful to dismiss one’s successes. And certainly I’ve had my share of both. But as I see the number of miserable, hurt people that Kane leaves in his wake, it has inspired me to take my failures a bit more seriously. It can be very easy to shrug these things off and say, “Hey, nobody’s perfect”, with every intention of doing better tomorrow. But as we watch Susan pack up her things and defiantly walk out the door and as we see Kane’s impotent emotional response, we realize that sometimes tomorrow is no longer an option. And we are left in our carefully-constructed comfort zones, safe and sound and so very, very alone. 

The film is a cautionary tale to anybody whose abundant resources – be they financial, physical, or emotional – have allowed them to be complacent in their relationships. It can fool us into thinking that we’re giving more than we are, when in fact we’re merely trying to buy other people’s love at what is actually a surprisingly cheap price.

Yes, my most recent viewing of Citizen Kane has certainly had an impact on me that previous viewings haven’t. Undoubtedly, it is due to changes within me over the years. But it is also a testament to the brilliance of the film that someone like me, who has seen it countless times, can suddenly see himself on screen, and in a way that is both illuminating and very discomfiting. It speaks to the power of art, in general, that this level engagement is possible, and that there is the very real possibility that the audience can, without warning, walk away from their experience feeling convicted and yearning for change. 

One Response to “Abundance, by Tyler Smith”

  1. Paul Munger October 21, 2019 at 1:48 pm #

    Excellent and insightful! You’ve made me want to go watch the film again because I never caught this before and am now very curious to watch this aspect of the characters play out.

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