The idea of materialism is most often associated with the rich and famous. Whether it be a film star, a pro athlete, or a business mogul, these individuals who seemingly have more money than they know what to do with capture the attention of people around the world evoking a wide array of feelings from fascination and envy to disgust. While most people think of the current day and age regarding materialism, this subject reaches as far back as one cares to look. This is evident in the films, Citizen Kane, City Lights, and Babette’s Feast. Each of these films appear to support a left wing moderate ideology while discussing materialism and the effects of either being obsessed with material possessions, as in Citizen Kane, completely rejecting the material, as in Babette’s Feast, or the farcical nature of the material, as in City Lights.
In the film, Citizen Kane, the story follows a man, Charles Foster Kane, who inherits a massive fortune. This fortune takes him away from his humble childhood and forces him to grow up in a world that is his for the purchasing. His materialism stretches further and further throughout the film culminating in his apparent ruin and longing for his simple past. Kane starts out as a fighter for lost causes and underprivileged portraying closely the attitudes and behaviors of the writer, director, and star of the film, Orson Welles. As the film progresses, however, Kane slowly shifts to the right until he is a cliche right wing politician. Kane’s materialism manifests itself in building his own private palace/prison called Xanadu where he slowly withers away in solitude. This film seems to be a warning against the evils of materialism and the corruption that great wealth and power can bring.
This view of materialism is very different from that of the dutch film, Babette’s Feast. In this film, the story follows two very pious sisters who live in the country. They are both daughters of a preacher who teaches them how to live life in such a way that rejects any type of materialism or human emotion. This is evident in the fact that he refuses all suitors who attempt to court his daughters, his disapproval of one of his daughters singing, and the effect the preacher has on the community who have all adopted this way of life. When a young woman named Babette leaves France to escape the troubles there, she arrives at the doorstep of the sisters, who take her in as a helper. After many years of living together Babette finds out that she has one the lottery and is now a rich individual. With her money Babette decides to create a meal for the sisters and the entire community that is lavish, decadent, and sensual. This meets opposition with the community at first since they have lived rejecting the senses, but Babette’s immaculate feast eventually wins them over. This feast brings together the community for the first time in what appears to be a lifetime and allows them to love each other. In the end the general at the meal sums up the message of the film saying that, “Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.” This film does not take the subject of materialism far enough to say that it is a positive attribute in any sense, but the film does seem to support the idea that the material world is not inherently evil. The material world provides everything required for the feast, in fact it costs Babette every cent she earns from the lottery, but what it provides is love, community, and understanding. The film suggests that materialism may have its extremes that lead to negative things, but material possessions can also lead to good things. The way in which the materials are used are to a selfless end on the part of Babette. Perhaps this suggests that materialism is neither good or bad inherently, but it is in the way that material possessions are used and seen that make them one or the other.
The idea of materialism is the central focus of Charlie Chaplain’s classic, City Lights. The film focuses on a tramp who befriends a rich man who loves the bottle, whom he uses to woo a blind girl, convincing her that he is, in fact, rich. This film, like the previous two, seems to promote a left wing moderate ideology in the way that it shows empathy for the less privileged. As far as its stance on materialism, the film shows the one wealthy man, the man who can have whatever he wants, as being very unhappy even leading him to commit suicide. This would seem to suggest that materialism is a vain goal. The tramp uses materialism to woo the young blind girl, but if it was a farce before this occurs, it most certainly is at this point. In the end, the viewer is left confused as to whether or not the girl will accept the poor tramp as he is or if she will deny him based on his lack of wealth. The film seems to suggest that things like money and material possessions are fleeting and empty. The entrance of wealth simply serves to complicate and corrupt.
In summation, each of these films warns against the dangers associated with materialism. Each film portrays a left wing moderate ideology suggesting that materialism is dangerous in a few different ways. In City Lights and Citizen Kane the obsession with materialism leads to nothing but sadness and trouble. In Babette’s Feast the complete rejection of materialism leads to the same problems. These films seem to all be suggesting that when materialism is involved, one should be very careful to not fall into one of these extremes.