I’m putting together a study guide for tomorrow’s midterm on Google Docs… anyone is free to use and collaborate! I’m sure I will be missing things so definitely fill in anything you want, I guess just try to keep the same general format.
I am not a viewer this week but wanted to share my notes from watching the movie, because I thought the blocking was so interesting in Citizen Kane. I started doodling the blocking that I thought was unique and thought it would just be two or three shots…. but it evolved into many more – showing the impressive use of character placement in the movie to add further depth to the scene. So attached are the doodles just for a random look into how I watched the movie and what visual placement impacted my viewing experience. Hopefully you will be able to tell to some extent where each one is in the movie.
Intersections of technology and the arts are always intriguing. This article is a particularly cool exploration of the applications of machine learning and computational analysis to literature. Scientists at the Computational Story Laboratory at the University of Vermont fed 1700 stories into an algorithm that used sentiment analysis to analyze the ‘arc’ of a story’s narrative. The Lab is hardly the first to attempt to categorize narrative arcs, but they’re certainly the first to take this modern technological approach. They were able to distill these findings down to six “core trajectories which form the building blocks of complex narratives”.
An example of a basic arc would be “man falls into hole, man gets out of hole”. This would form a “U” shaped narrative arc when run through their analysis. A rise-fall-rise pattern follows the action of the plot of Cinderella. The summarization of their results notes that the most popular formula for narrative arcs is a “stories involving two sequential man-in-hole arcs and a Cinderella arc followed by a tragedy”.
Any studies that have implications for the narratives of literature almost certainly has bearing in the cinematic world, especially since many cinematic works throughout history are derived from literature. The graphical arcs generated by the software discussed in this article are useful things to keep in mind when considering narrative. I certainly plan to try to envision the next movie I watch (or book I read) as an ‘arc’.
The central action of Citizen Kane lies in the mystery of Kane’s final word – “Rosebud”. The overarching narrative (the newsreel staff attempting to find an explanation for “rosebud”) binds together the eclectic genius of the film. In essence there are two plots – the story of Charles Foster Kane’s life, and the story of the attempt to explain his last words. The flashback sequences take up most of the actual time and space of the movie, but without the newsreel plot the film would lose a great amount of coherence and structure. The “meta” narrative of the newsreel provides context for the flashback sequences and also allows for a smooth transition between the sequences.
Given the title, it makes sense that the most important, interesting, and meaningful scenes all take place as flashbacks focusing on Kane. In essence, and I think where Orson Welles’s real passion and idea was, the film attempts to condense a man’s life into two hours of short vignettes. However, the audience does not start out with any knowledge or attachment to Kane. Welles uses the mystery of Rosebud drives our attention and engagement with the film until we can make the transition to engaging because of our attachment to Kane. At the end of the movie, the reporters explicitly dismiss the importance of Rosebud. I thought it was hilarious as the woman says “What about Rosebud? Don’t you think that explains anything?”, and immediately Thompson ostensibly dismisses the entire point of the movie – “No, I don’t.”
I think Orson Welles uses these more traditional narrative structures, a mystery and an investigation, to lure the audience into the story he really wants to tell about a man’s life.
I came across this video essay on Monday. It goes over how the “dinner table” scene adds to the narrative of a film. The “dinner table” scene, or any scene with characters eating at a table, is not a spectacle, in fact, the idea of watching people eat around a table sounds boring. However, it is commonly used in movies as a storytelling tool. When something deviates from our preconceived notion of eating with others, it stands out and has a larger impact on the audience.
In Citizen Kane, there was a montage sequence of Mr. and Mrs. Kane eating breakfast together in “dinner table” scenes. As time progresses, the relationship between Kane and his wife becomes tenser. We learn that Kane spends too much time working on the paper. We see how Kane’s initial method of deescalating conflict with his wife ceases to work and fades away. The “dinner table” scenes advance the plot, develop a relationship, and show us a conflict in the film. At first thought, the “dinner table” scene seems drab or unimportant, but it is actually a very effective tool for entertainment and creating a narrative.
I found Citizen Kane to be an interesting and intriguing film, and even though it’s been 77 years since it was made, I now understand why it continues to top “Greatest Films of All Time” lists. A large part of its draw is how innovative it was for its time. While we as a class are able to recognize the many techniques its uses (lighting, montage sequences, high angle/low angle shots, etc), it’s interesting to know just how innovative these techniques were 77 years ago. This blog post found online by Miss Cellania does a good job summarizing how the techniques in Citizen Kane continue to allow it to be viewed as one of the best films of all time:
Not only does the article talk about the innovative techniques, but it give insight into how they were accomplished by Welles and others working on the film. A few interesting things struck me from the article.
The newsreel sequence resonated with audiences at the time, since they were used to this type of media. I found it interesting that 127 different clips were blended into the newsreel, some of which included actual news footage instead of staged footage. Welles even dragged negatives across the floor to “age” the footage he shot.
Deep focus was largely unheard of at the time, but Gregg Toland, cinematographer for the film, wanted to mimic what the human eye sees, and states that, “…in some cases we were able to hold sharp focus over a depth of 200 feet.”
The makeup used to age Welles was not just latex wrinkles and gray hair; the makeup artist for the film, Maurice Seiderman, invented new techniques. As Cellania points out, “Rather than just cover Welles with latex wrinkles and gray hair, he made a complete body cast and used it to create custom-fitting body pads and facial appliances that show Kane aging gradually over 27 different stages of his life.” These appliances included 72 difference facial appliances which would change Welles’ hairline, cheeks, jowls, and bags under his eyes. Special contacts were made to age Welles’ eyes, and he had 16 different chins.
In most films, there are no ceilings present, as this makes lighting difficult. However, Cellania points out that Citizen Kane used a cloth canopy to simulate a ceiling. According to Toland, “The sets have ceilings because we wanted reality, and we felt it would be easier to believe a room was a room if its ceiling could be seen in the picture.”
These interesting techniques not only help to advance the narrative by doing things like showing the passage of time or giving a character and a setting more depth, but knowing how innovative they were also help us understand how Citizen Kane is a cinema of attractions. Seeing a film using flashbacks to tell a story in non-linear fashion, seeing ceilings in a shot, or watching a 25-year-old actor age 50 years in a film were (and still are) a draw for audiences. The innovation of the techniques intertwine narrative and the cinema of attraction.
As a final note, I wanted include this short clip of Welles explaining what prompted him to take these risks and make these innovations in film:
His short answer: ignorance. He was too ignorant to know that most films didn’t use these techniques. Of course, he also gives credit to genius Gregg Toland for teaching him about camera work, but I found it funny that he claims he wasn’t trying to take big risks and make a film that would change the landscape of cinema- he was just ignorant. He also states that, “There is nothing about camera work that any intelligent person couldn’t learn in half a day.” Though this seems like a bold statement for someone to make, Welles expands on it more in the first 4 minutes of the following clip, which is an excerpt from the documentary Arena – The Orson Welles Story (1982). Speaking 40 years after the movie was made, Welles seems more open and reflective, and I recommend watching the full video as well, as it gives insight into William Randolph Hearst and others who worked with Welles (not just innovative techniques).
I was surprised to read that despite the negative spotlight influenced by media mogul William Randolph Hurst, upon whom the character of Charles Foster Kane was based, the New York Times reviewer had a glowing review of the film, even writing, “it comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood.” I am quite impressed with the reviewer’s ability to instantly foresee that the film had the makings of a classic.
One thing that I found to be especially relevant to our discussions on Tuesday is that the viewer found the spectacle more impressive than the narrative itself. Orson Welles’s seized the myriad of actions enabled by the medium of cinema to create, as the reviewer put it: “a motion picture that really moves.” Watching the film for the first time in 2018, it is easy to forget how groundbreaking and revolutionary many of the techniques that Welles incorporated into Citizen Kane were. In awe of the attraction on the screen, the reviewer is much cooler on the story itself.
Here is where I do not agree with the author as much. The reviewer’s main gripe with the narrative is that it fails to provide a clear picture of Kane and his motives. During this time period, protagonists of a film were generally one-dimensional characters with a narrative featuring a neat and logical conclusion. Welles subverts nearly all the typical Hollywood conventions in developing his nonlinear narrative, and developing a central character with a very complex background and influences. This radical change was apparently too much for the New York Times reviewer to handle, but has been influential for 77 years now.
in this interview, Welles discusses Citizen Kane and reveals many of the things we discussed in class, such as his being given complete control of the film by RKO, it’s basis upon the life of William Randolph Hearst, and the loss of control over his works after Kane. While all of these points are very interesting, I find it more meaningful to examine his description of the making of Citizen Kane itself and his reasons for attempting it before he had begun. He claims he had never even wanted to make a film, and had no passion for it before he was deep into making Kane. “I didn’t want money, I wanted authority,” he states in elaboration of the nature of his contract of total control with RKO. Hearing these two points in particular, I cannot help but to see a parallel between Welles and the young Kane at the beginning of his career. Each only wanted to enter their career to make a point, something which Kane echoes numerous times throughout the film, how important it is to him to make a point. Kane and Welles both enter fields of great influence and permeation in society, and both were eventually attacked by their peers in that field. It seems ironic then that in consciously making a “social document” as Welles calls it, which attacked capitalism and the “acquisitive” persons of that society, he also unconsciously inserted a critique of himself within the film, and of the instability of any work which seeks only to “make a point.” As any film is influenced by the director’s lens into the world, it seems inevitable now that at some point he/she leaves some fragment of themselves within the film, either in a character or setting. Further, the unearthing of and examination of that element and their implications on society or the world of the film may reveal the true psyche of their creator.