The slow dissolution of a relationship encapsulated in a breakfast scene
To the extent that breakfast can define a masterpiece movie about the rise and fall of a would-be American oligarch, breakfast defines Citizen Kane. The scene comes nearly at the midpoint of the film, lasts only two minutes and ten seconds, and you see the entire dissolution of his marriage. Of course there’s more to it than that, which is part of the trick. The reasons narrative work, generally, is that we think our questions have been answered before the author lets us know that we weren’t asking the right ones.
Charles Foster Kane and first-wife Emily Monroe Norton Kane, notable for her four names and for her relationship to the president, sit down to a series of six breakfasts. “After the first few months, she and Charlie didn’t see much of each other except at breakfast,” Kane’s friend explains to a reporter. “It was a marriage just like any other marriage.” Kane and Emily sit at a table, having just returned from a night of sleepless partying. They go from talking; to her saying she hardly sees him; to arguing about attacking her uncle, the President; to his demanding she place “the most incredible atrocity” in the nursery with their son; to not speaking. Both read the newspapers. He, the one he publishes. She, his bitter rival’s. The camera zooms out to reveal that they’re sitting across the table from each other in total silence.
Breakfast is when your psychic defenses are at their absolute lowest. At dinner, or even lunch , you’re able to hide behind drink orders and people watching. If you’re at an appropriately date-y restaurant, you can easily spend an entire meal in silence, listening to the terrible dates of others. But breakfast, it’s pretty much you and the person across from you and maybe a coffee. If you’ve slept together, you haven’t even had time to have additional thoughts, really. Pretty much the only thing you can report on is your dreams.
I connect with this scene because I’m currently living it. The relationship I’m in, or was in, is dying in stages that are as predictable as this breakfast. I’m not a newspaperman, but I do write. At the beginning, everything was all-night parties and deadlines pushed. Then, like people do, we had a fight about how the all-night partying was getting to be a little much and could we please behave like normal people. So that fight turned into another fight, which then became a third fight, which has now become a fight about how we’re fighting. I could have told you, if I was being honest, exactly how things would end after that first fight. But I was scared, or didn’t want to believe it, or just too weak to cut things off. So things went on, and, since I knew how they would end, I guided them towards that conclusion. Generally, when your only contact is to argue, you put up your psychic newspaper, so to speak. (One of the real tragedies about the demise of the newspaper is that smartphones or tablets don’t make for nearly as effective shields.)
Citizen Kane is a movie about dreams, ultimately, or at least objects to dream on. Kane opens the movie dreaming of Rosebud. He marries Emily because he dreams that he can be publicly loved. He marries Susan Alexander, the woman he leaves Emily for and for whom he sacrifices his political ambitions, because he dreams someone can love him for reasons other than his name. Dreams all the way down, if you think about it. In that small scene you can see everything that the film is about—dreams, optimism, boundless ambition, cynicism, and how all those things, including relationships, contain their own deaths.
The Citizen Kane breakfast scene perfectly encapsulates the deaths of those dreams. Breakfasts between lovers go from precious moments with the one you care about most, to chores, to battlegrounds that nobody leaves unbloodied. You sit at the last breakfast, maybe sullenly recounting all the fights in your head, but mostly mourning other breakfasts, before things got like this.