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 Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, a special emphasis is placed on the importance of each character’s contribution to the narrative of the film. This is achieved partially through the use of deep focus, wherein all characters on screen are kept in focus regardless of their contribution to a given interaction. In this way, we are constantly told to question reality. Each flashback feels true, because we inherently trust what we see. But if all the storytellers are perpetually in focus, regardless of who is reminiscing at the time, then whose account can the audience trust?
Shadows also contribute to the surreal nature of the story shown to the audience. The reporter (shown in the image below) remains in shadow throughout his interviews, a mere mechanism for plot motion. He has nothing to directly contribute to the film’s narrative, instead serving to move it from one memory to the next. Key characters are sometimes placed in shadow as well, an uncomfortable experience for an audience expecting uninterrupted access to the focus of their attention. This both calls into question our perspective of the characters and hints at the subjectivity of what we see and hear through the memories of those reflecting on time long passed.
News headlines are a commonly used trope in films to convey a significant event with a tone of objectivity. In the world of Citizen Kane, many of the headlines are orchestrated by Kane himself as a means to his own goals. He makes his fortune by manipulating the stories told to the world by his paper. Kane himself is a primary manipulator of what we see in his world of news.
The scene where Kane walks past parallel mirrors and appears to stretch into infinity was particularly striking to me. It shows the many ways in which the life of this influential man can be perceived, and how each can somehow be the same and still carry different imperfections or idealizations. It is an extremely effective visual representation of Kane’s life, and one that I found striking.
This film calls into question elements of trust and objectivity. It forces its audience to question the truth behind the stories they hear on a daily basis. Do you think Welles effectively illustrated this with his film? Do you think his primary argument was on the fallacy of objectivity, or something else?
Citizen Kane is a film about the collapse of the “American Dream”, the struggle for love, abuse of power, and the toxicity of wealth. It’s also a film with a central message: no one can ever truly know who someone is. Kane’s story is told through a series of flashbacks, which all seem to contradict each other. As the faceless reporter interviews these various figures in Kane’s life, we get a different perspective each time. Below, I have posted a movie poster for Citizen Kane, in which different characters throughout the film are shown exclaiming different opinions regarding Kane.
When we first begin these interviews, it feels as though we are going to be presented with the truth and that we, the audience, will have an inside look on Citizen Kane and who the man really was. However, by the end of the film, it is clear that the truth has not been presented. The story is told chronologically, as we know with Kane’s aging appearance, but it seems that some events are left out. Each of the storytellers is telling the story that interests/involves them and not the full truth. At the end of the film, we appear to be handed the “missing piece” to the jigsaw puzzle, with the Rosebud engraved sled. However, was this really the final piece? To me, it seems like there are still pieces missing. It’s a jigsaw puzzle that is impossible to complete. No one can ever know who Kane truly was, perhaps not even Kane himself.
I’m not a searcher this week, but I did want to include an article I found because I found it very relevant to character analysis in Citizen Kane. Link to the article: https://blogs.psychcentral.com/movies/2011/12/citizen-kane/. When watching the story of Kane’s life as well as the stories told by others, I got that the sense that Kane could have narcissistic personality disorder. To me, he appeared to lack empathy, had no ability to love someone other than himself, and was easily upset when things didn’t go his way/he didn’t get what he wanted. After doing a bit of googling, I found the article linked above, which shared my idea and also made some other very interesting points. It is definitely worth the quick read.
I think this theory makes sense with the idea that no one could ever truly know who Kane was. Who is the true person behind the narcissist? Is it possible to know the individual behind that shell? Does an individual exist?
In class, we were asked to think about if/why we feel empathy for Kane’s character, even if we are not rooting for him. I think the story of Kane’s childhood at the beginning of the film, the one story hat I felt I could almost completely believe, helped develop my empathy for Kane’s character. His father is clearly abusive, as he tells Mr. Thatcher (Kane’s future caregiver) that Kane deserves to be beat. The way his father speaks is verbally abusive as well. His mother seems cold and emotionally distant from her son. She tells Thatcher that Charlie’s things have been packed for a while and she says this without any visible emotion. This is unusual for a mother who is basically giving up her son and making him live somewhere else.
I think his childhood is very troubled and this is what leads to his troubled adulthood and the development of his personality. At the end of the film, we see that Kane has died alone, with nothing but material things. In his life, he never obtained any real meaning. Being a human being who does feel empathy and emotion, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Kane and the way he ended up. The film is set up so we see his childhood early on and I couldn’t help but remember Kane’s childhood innocence and what could have been if his circumstances were different.
Perhaps psychoanalyzing Kane’s character goes against the central message of the movie- that we never truly know a person (and there isn’t one piece of information that will give us an answer). However, perhaps that is partially what Welles wanted us to do. The entire story of the film revolves around discovering who Kane was and the meaning behind his final words. It leaves the viewer helpless at the end of the film and accepting of the fact that Kane was just a sort of enigma. Maybe that’s all we can infer and maybe it is supposed to be left at that. Even when we see the Rosebud sled at the end of the film, though other characters are not aware of its existence, is this really some huge revelation? What does it really tell us?
In Citizen Kane, we get an interesting view into a fictional narcissist’s life. We get all of the pieces in the end, but we are thrust into a meandering jigsaw puzzle first. Charles Foster Kane surrounds himself with beautiful art, “a horde of mankind’s riches,” building a monument to himself in the form of the expressionistic nightmare of a castle Xanadu. He piles gifts, superficial generosity, money, empty promises on those around him, in the hopes he will buy their love, as Susan puts so well at the end of the movie before she leaves, revealing the folly of his actions and warped view of love and relationships. That scene in particular tears into his character wonderfully, finally spelling out the reason why Kane is so unrelatable. Kane can only ever mimic love, and only does so to get love back. He doesn’t have any humanity. His narcissism is so deep that even when his second wife leaves him, he can only relate through the lens of his pain, what she is doing to him. Even Xanadu sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, the castle of some crazy alien overlord, except our alien overlord is a bitter old man who dies whispering a word symbolic of his childhood, a time when he was happy, living a simple, rural life with his parents, and even then “Rosebud” refers to a thing.
The camera plays an important role narratively. We have the satirical newsreel footage in the beginning of the film, “documenting” the news of Kane’s death. The film revolves around a journalist trying to decipher Kane’s last words, so there’s an investigative news air to it. Ironically, Kane made his name around yellow journalism, and it’s yellow journalism that brings his name back down. So while we have this ironic, investigative, “neutral” standpoint, we also get extremely subjective flashbacks.
I want to talk about a few scenes in particular: the scene during the picnic, the scene where Susan leaves, and the scene where Rosebud burns.
Kane’s empire is dying at this point. Susan doesn’t want to sing anymore, she’s really feeling the isolation and power Kane is trying to exert over her. Camera angles set up the power dynamic clearly, in stark contrast to objective, non-narrative film like the news, or like documentaries.
All of the camera angles in the shot/reverse shot sequence establish Kane as looking down on Susan, and Susan looking up at Kane. We see both through the eyes of the other: extreme high angle for Susan, and low angle for Kane. And then we have that awful, maybe diegetic woman’s screams overlaying their fight. The agony of their relationship grinds through.
In the next scene I want to talk about, they camera establishes them on much more equal footing. Perhaps the actor for Kane is just taller, or maybe there is still some power dynamic happening here, but when Susan finally exerts some agency she is in a much more powerful position.
Further emphasizing the subjectivity of the narrative, this scene is implied to be a flashback of an older Susan. She’s talking about what happened.
Finally, we get the scene where the meaning of “Rosebud” is revealed. The journalist gives up—Kane’s final words are never understood. To establish that no one is seeing Rosebud, we have and objective viewpoint again. The camera is free and floats around, omniscient again.
So, what do you think the meaning of no one understanding Rosebud is? I didn’t really catch the larger idea there.
Also, how does the sort of mimicry of humanity and love reflect on Hollywood and cinema at large?
How else does narrative/non-narrative film come into play in the larger meaning of Citizen Kane?