Sunday, February 7, 2010

Gagging On The Silver Spoon: Citizen Kane (AFI Top 100 #1)

I remember when I was on staff at the UIC newspaper and the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts were performing a play called “Orson's Shadow.” At the time, I knew very little about Orson Welles other than what I'd heard about his famous War of the Worlds reading. The play (which centered around the interconnected lives of Welles, Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh and Joan Plowright) was terrific, though, and it was one of the many times that I felt privileged to see something like that for free (press passes are awesome and I miss having one).* Not too long after that, I saw Citizen Kane for the first time. I remember liking it well enough, but I have to admit that I wasn't paying much attention to detail at the time. 

Fast forward to the present. Since it was in the number one slot on the AFI Top 100 list, I knew that taking on this project meant that I would either be watching it first or last – depending on the direction in which I chose to follow the list. I decided to read about Citizen Kane in order to get a feel for why this movie tops so many “best of” lists by film critics. Here's what I found: 

Citizen Kane was one of the first films to use a number of innovative techniques. “Deep focus,” for instance, was a way of shooting so that everything in the frame is in focus as opposed to having only the foreground in focus. It was also the first time a film used the now-familiar “wipe” - one image being “wiped” off the screen by another – as in a scene in which Kane is at first standing in front of a poster that is wiped off-screen by shot of an audience. Also, the story is told by someone other than the protagonist, which was a new way of storytelling for film at that time. Using those who knew him to tell Charles Foster Kane's life story (instead of Kane himself) worked to distance the stories from the truth: none of these characters is fully unbiased or a reliable narrator. 

But cinematic innovations aside, I wanted to experience the film and understand its greatness in my own way. I wanted to develop my own understanding of what makes a film “the best”; that is, after all, why I embarked on this project. 

While watching, I jotted down some notes and tried to pay attention to several things. I watched for when deep focus and wipes were used and took note of their effect on a scene. I also tried to watch for the way lighting was used. Some of this was eclipsed by the performance of Orson Welles and the terrific script (chock-full of really witty dialogue). As a young Kane, Welles is a suave, charismatic entrepreneur who quips, “I always gagged on the silver spoon.” He swaggers and gives amused smirks through much of the early part of the movie. But he's larger than life and untouchable in many ways, leading to an existence in which his closest friends, colleagues and lovers are always held at arm's length. He becomes cruel with a sense of entitlement – and he loses everyone but his staff of servants. It's actually sad – Kane spends his twilight years shut up all alone in an echoing castle he built for his second wife. 

There's a telling montage in the middle of the film – probably less than three minutes – that tells the entire story of Kane's marriage to his first wife, Emily. In several scenes at the same breakfast table, we watch the couple go from happy, intimate conversation to disapproving silence. Their failure of communication is timeless and comparable to that of any relationship. Later, in a scene in which Kane and his second wife, Susie are having an argument, lighting is used to show how he overpowers her. His massive shadow is seen dwarfing her figure where she sits, a visual representation of how he dominates her in their marriage. Other notable scenes are those in which the deep focus technique is especially apparent: the scene in which Kane's second wife, Susie is found unconscious from an overdose and the scene in which she leaves her husband. In the former, the bottle of sedatives are in the foreground, Susie's inanimate body lies in the middle and in the background is the door being shaken by a banging fist. In the latter, as Susie leaves Charles, we see her walk through a succession of doors. In each of the two scenes, it seems that a deep loneliness is expressed through the way in which the shot is arranged – the composition. With Susie's suicide attempt, everything is so large around her that she seems small. And as Kane's wife leaves him, we see how cavernous of a house he will have to occupy alone. It's stunning to see all that an arrangement of items or the lining up of a shot can do. 

Since this blog is supposed to be about my opinions and feelings about these films, I feel I should say that I liked how it is never said outright that Susie knows who Kane is upon meeting him. A look of recognition passes briefly across her face, but the movie doesn't insult the audience's intelligence by spelling it out for us. I also feel that knowing more about the film made my second viewing of it a much richer and more engaging experience, but that probably goes without saying. 

In the end, Citizen Kane seemed to be a story about how a person can have a life full of people without ever really being known or having intimacy. The movie ends where it began – with a “No Trespassing” sign that is rather poignant in itself. Something about that sign remains chilling and hard to forget. 

(factual data courtesy of Wikipedia)

*You can still find that review at The Chicago Flame archives here.

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