In the words of Scott Aukerman, I like films like Citizen Kane and The Godfather; those are the kinds of films I like. But as cliché as it seems, I couldn’t avoid screening Citizen Kane. Most people have heard of it, but not enough people have actually seen it (and not one person in either of my classes had), so for my students, it wasn’t a cliché.
I remember watching Citizen Kane for the first, after having read all the hype, and feeling like, really? This is the greatest film of all time? It’s really hard to appreciate what Welles did when your frame of reference is Fight Club or Pulp Fiction. But every time I’ve watched it since that first viewing, it’s only grown in my mind (and it’s a really weird thing to watch a film twice in two days, but I actually enjoyed it more the second time this week). There’s an economy to the film that is really remarkable, the way Welles mixes single-shot scenes with more traditional shooting, and the brilliant way he manages time and space. It’s easy to see why the French fell so hard for it: they already latched on to the auteurs of the Hollywood system, and Welles was given all the artistic power that people like Hawks or Ford were denied, so of course you end up with the auteuriest of Classical Hollywood films.
Of course, Kane is known primarily for its cinematography, and undeniably, Welles with cinematographer Gregg Toland created something truly special. There really isn’t anything new to add to the mountain that’s been written about it, but I’ll just say, my favorite moments involve Welles playing with the sensation of depth of field. If you simply read a discussion of Toland’s use of deep-focus, you’d have the impression that Kane was almost a 3D film. But that’s not really accurate. Weirdly, the deep-focus only emphasizes the flat, two-dimensional nature of the screen. Even in the justly famous Boarding House sequence, although you have four characters occupying four different “levels” of the image, they all really appear to on the same plane.
Recognizing this, Welles works to emphasize the depth in different ways, to create a sensation of 3D that the flat image doesn’t really do. In the Boarding House scene, he moves the camera from the window to the back room, showing us the approximate depth of the shot. In other scenes, he has characters walk from foreground to background (or vice versa), and in doing so, we realize the true depth of what we’re seeing. My favorite of these scenes is the one in which Kane’s financial control is being handed back to Thatcher’s bank after the crash of 1929. As Bernstein reads the legal document, Kane wanders towards a window pane in the background.
Initially, it’s hard to tell the height of the panes. We think he’s going to gaze outside (as a man contemplating his downfall would do), but as he keeps walking, we realize how truly tall these panes are. When he finally arrives at them, he can’t look out at all and is forced to turn around or stare dead-on at the wall.
What really grabbed my attention on these viewings, though, was the specific ways that he employs more conventional editing and even montage sequences. We often get these montage sequences, frequently using newspapers as time-stamps, that move us forward in time. (But this isn’t to say we know when these sequences take place; in fact, that was one of my dominant impressions from re-watching the movie. You never have a real sense of when, specifically, things are happening, but you can feel that time has passed.) At other times, he’ll slip into more traditional editing with shot-reverse shot, but always with a little acknowledging nudge. For me, this was most prominent in the musical sequence after Kane has hired away the best newspaper staff in New York City for the Inquirer.
Although it stops short in this clip, this is the scene where Jedediah begins to question Kane. The camera is over Jed’s shoulder as he attempts to talk to Bernstein about his worries, but because of the racket happening behind him (in the vicinity of the camera), you can’t quite make out what he’s saying. So Welles reverse-shots over Bernstein’s shoulder looking at Jed and out onto the spectacle of Charlie dancing with the showgirls. Now, as Jed leans in (towards the camera), we can make out exactly what he’s saying. To hear Bernstein’s response, Welles reverse-shots again, but this time tighter on Bernstein, and now he doesn’t have to shout for us to hear him. I love the way this sequence, while employing more traditional techniques, still has a sense of realism to it that most movies don’t. Here, the camera really mimics the viewer. It takes up the positions we would want to take up if we were going to try to have a conversation with these people in this overly loud spectacle (and this is a loud film, full of yelling and screeching: think of the squawking parrot transition). And maybe it rings true to me because my whole life is about rearranging myself to hear better (or not, should I feel like not hearing) because I’m deaf in my left ear.
So in the end, I don’t think Citizen Kane ever quite hits the level of realism that someone like André Bazin credits it, but in contrast with the other Hollywood films being made at the time, it’s a real grenade. Sure, I like Touch of Evil more, but Citizen Kane ain’t half bad. And if my students have learned nothing else, they at least know the truth behind Rosebud.