AFTF #7: I’m Simply Wild About That Sled

(Cross-posted to the Valve. Also, look for the post on A Place to Bury Strangers and noise music, coming soon at PopMatters.)

(For new readers: AFTF refers to an “absolutely fun and true fact.” I’m not sure if we’re actually at #7 yet.)

So you know how Citizen Kane, over time, with the exception of that White Stripes song that quotes it, has slowly boiled down to the fact that “Rosebud” is the name of his sled?

Well, a friend referenced that fact today, and it struck me that the greatest spoiler in history is a lot darker than I had previously thought. I’d always intepreted the film pretty straightforwardly: Kane’s life of power drives him to madness and sorrow, and in his secret heart, he longs for the innocence of his childhood, an innocence symbolized by the sled.

But that doesn’t keep the revelation from being somewhat anti-climactic; whether or not you know in advance what’s coming, you do spend three hours getting there. It’s much ado about a sled. That, it seems to me, is precisely the point. The thing that is supposed to represent pastoral innocence is a thing, a fetishized object, not different in kind from all the objects that litter Kane’s private castle. In other words, the mystery of the sled, like the embellished memory of it that Kane constructs from within Xanadu, is there to convince you that Kane has undergone a fall, that his life is fundamentally tragic because of it, and therefore that it has the grandeur of tragedy. But in fact the bathos of the revelation confronts us with the triviality of his life, and with the fact that the sled is little more than wallpaper covering a gaping hole. He did not fall — Kane rose, as history records. The horror of his life was that there was actually no riddle to it at all, and into those flames, along with the riddle, goes any meaning, any permanence a life might contain.

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