Citizen Kane. RKO (courtesy of BFI Stills, Posters and Designs)
'big five' studios. The Citizen Kane story is most entertainingly (and largely accurately) told in a high-class TV movie RKO 281 (Ross, 1999).
Yet Citizen Kane, so efficiently suppressed, came to have such an enormous reputation. The reason - beyond the natural urge of cinema-loving critics and audiences (particularly students) to rediscover, protect and eulogise an 'art' film so crushed by the power of mammon - is that Citizen Kane is a phenomenally good movie. Citizen Kane is innovative. The film is a box of tricks, because Welles certainly saw cinema as precisely that. But Kane is more than 'clever'. It is universal in its themes, effective and massively influential.
Citizen Kane is a film that combines cinematic craft with human storytelling to provide something that - like Battleship Potemkin (see chapter 3) before it - breaks with the easy attraction of filmed theatre. It is a film, which exploits practically every cinematic technique that Welles and Toland had at their disposal. Welles challenged his colleagues to invent new ways to create a sense of physical and psychological reality on the screen. Yet, when you watch the film, no matter how much you try to pay attention to the cinematic craft, you will still get caught up in the human storyline. Therein lies the essential brilliance of Citizen Kane.
There is so much to see in this greatest of all Hollywood movies that the rest of this entry merely aims to start you watching.
• Narrative structure. The film begins at the very end with the death of its major protagonist. It then proceeds to try and piece together his life as though it were a giant jigsaw puzzle (a recurring image in the film)
• Camerawork: in particular the use of deep focus photography (utilising depth of field to keep all planes in focus) and the dramatising effect of extreme camera angles and camera movement.
• Editing: how the passage of time is condensed so that the enormous and intricate sweep of the film can be communicated economically and without the audience losing track. Note the use of sound bridges.
• The use of mise en scène as opposed to montage technique: lengthy shots in which the action takes place within the frame. Viewers are required to search and read with their own eyes. Also note when Welles and Wise chose to abandon this technique and utilise shorter shot durations or varied the rhythm of the editing.
• Lighting: chiaroscuro technique with painterly use of light and shadow - lit more like a stage or an opera set.
• Make-up: notice how Kane (in particular) ages throughout the film.
• Is the ultimate aim of the narrative to explain the significance of Kane's dying word: 'Rosebud'? If not, what is the function of 'Rosebud' in the film?
• Finally, a serious question: is Citizen Kane 'the greatest movie of all time'? (How could we watch it without all the 'canonical' baggage anyway?)
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