A Destiny Manifest
Citizen Kane is of course a very good example to introduce us to the world of film theory. Whether discussing realism versus formalism, ideology or gender, authorship or semiotics, Orson Welles's film (or just as readily scriptwriter Hermann J. Mankiewicz's, if you disagree with the auteur theory) is a fruitful work indeed. For many years seen as the greatest film ever made (according to a well-respected Sight and Sound Poll), it remains a masterclass in theory as well as a masterpiece in film.
Watching Citizen Kane many a viewer will see a formalist work, if by formalism we mean the sort of expressionist techniques adopted by German filmmakers in the twenties, and montage effects generated by the Soviet directors of the same decade. Watching German films such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Faust and Metropolis, one can see the films as elaborate exercises in imaginative mise en scene, none more so than Caligari, where "sets and costumes were designed to suggest a world of subjective anxiety." (Film Form and Function) Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, various attempts were made to extract film from the pro-filmic reality out of which it came as a recording device, and to emphasise the made quality of the work the degree to which it was put together by editing, where much of the meaning and the effect would arise in the cut. Jill Nemes and co. note that "in Strike, [Sergei] Eisenstein applies his principle of 'montage of attractions' to the editing. He believed that by creating visual 'jolts' between each cut, the viewer would be 'shocked' into a new awareness." (Introduction to Film Studies) The political meaning of the film wouldn't only come out of the story's content but also out of the very way it was made. In Battleship Potemkin, the horror of those getting killed on the Odessa Steps is partly due to the unremitting editing that emphasises the emotional impact of the atrocity rather than its logistical coordinates. It is as though people are getting killed over and over again as Eisenstein shows the Cossacks going down the steps mowing people down in numerous cuts that expand time.
Citizen Kane can seem like a combination of expressionist and montage styles, interested in the elaborate mise en scene of expression, allied to the use of effective editing to take us through the central character Charles Foster Kane's (Welles) life. Their amalgamation can be seen very effectively in a sequence that shows the steady disintegration of Kane's marriage. Instead of a voiceover telling us that the marriage was failing, the film, using swish pans between each brief scene, follows Charles' initial enthusiasm before the eventual indifference. As the film passes through several moments of their life at the breakfast table, over a number of years, initially the table is more or less empty though the enthusiasm pronounced as they are physically close together, but then the film in a series of shot/counter shots shows the table cluttered with flowers that indicate less Kane's love for his wife than an obstacle between them. In time, the flowers disappear (as if Kane can no longer be bothered trying to woo his wife at all) and the clothing becomes more austere. While initially, we see them in their dressing gowns, now we see them already dressed and as though moving further apart as they sit at opposite ends of the table. Finally, we see the couple reading the newspaper, their indifference complete; a marriage over. In the flowers that disappear from the table and the clothes that move from dressing gowns to formal wear, the film insists that the mise en scene conveys strongly the meaning the sequence wants to register: from love and desire to boredom and domesticity. At the same time, Welles conveys this not in just one scene that could have been offered in verbalised back story with the wife telling her husband how he used to buy her flowers every day and he would go late into the office (which would emphasise the mise en scene) but in a short series of scenes that make it clear the film is cinematic rather than 'merely' theatrical.
For many formalist theorists montage was vital, indicating that the film had long since left behind the fixed frame, single-shot aesthetics that made it look like a recorded theatre performance. "Not only do early films not offer close-ups but they don't offer any guidance as to what we should give our attention to within the mise-en-scene. Also undeveloped is any systematic organisation of point-of-view shots which just a little later became so important as a means of drawing us into the action and emotion of the event." (An Introduction to Film Studies) Film becomes a proper art form when it starts using its own means to create meaning and direct the viewer. Commenting on early film theorist Rudolf Arnheim, Dudley Andrew states: "the nexus becomes a symbolic language to be manipulated by the artist, and the artist must learn to organise this physical material so that his vision or idea shines through. Even if he wants to duplicate aspects of the physical world, he must study his medium diligently so that he can successfully translate his perception of the world into its proper codes." (The Major Theories) Such a perspective would be shared by the filmmakers involved in German Expressionism and Soviet montage if with different results.
There is no doubt that Citizen Kane categorically utilises the form to express meaning. We need only think of the expressive lighting and mise en scene in the opening scene showing Kane's death, and later when the journalist, Thomson, investigating Kane's life, enters a forbidding environment as he looks through a manuscript by someone very important to Kane's existence, his guardian Thatcher. The camera tilts down from Thatcher's statue to a woman talking as the room echoes and the music is a sombre blend of brass instruments. The lighting is chiaroscuro, with shafts of light falling into an otherwise darkened room. As the scene cuts from Thomson reading the manuscript to the young Charlie playing outside, the film segues from the white of the page to the white of the snow.
We would seem to have an exemplary instance of formalism in film, but Andre Bazin reckoned instead that Citizen Kane could be used to explore realist ends. For Bazin, what was important wasn't so much the scene we have just described, but moments afterwards where Charlie's parents discuss with Mr Thatcher the boy's education. Charlie is in the background of the shot, seen through the window playing in the snow. In the foreground, Thatcher and his parents discuss the boy's future. What Bazin noticed was that Citizen Kane often used deep-focus photography that allowed the foreground and the background to be equally in view. "That depth of focus brings the spectator into a relation with the image closer to that which he enjoys with reality." (The Evolution of the Language of Cinema) While many theorists before Bazin wanted to emphasise how film needed to escape from its relationship with recorded reality, Bazin proposed that films like Citizen Kane, as well as works by William Wyler and Jean Renoir, could take advantage of the reality it captured by finding techniques that brought out reality rather than masked it in what for Bazin seemed crude, aesthetic manipulation. "While analytic montage only calls for him [the spectator] to follow his guide, to let his attention follow along smoothly with that of the director who will choose what he should see, here he is called upon to exercise at least a minimum of personal choice." ('The Evolution of the Language of Cinema') Obviously, this apparent freedom often involved a degree of viewer focus. As David Bordwell notes, "within the objectivity of the single frame, Welles' angles...suggests subjective bias" in many a scene. Bordwell sees that "as Kane's career progresses, he is often shot from an increasingly low-angle, not only to indicate his growing power but also to isolate him against the background as he becomes more and more lonely." (Movies and Methods, Vol.1) Yet Bazin's claims have proved very important in the pursuit of a realist aesthetic in film.
If Citizen Kane can be utilised to explore both formalism and realism, then what about semiotics? Semiotics, or semiology, are "both terms [which] have a common Greek root: semeion 'sign'. Hence the science of signs." (Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory). The reason for the different names rests on the two key thinkers involved: the American C. S. Peirce introduced the world to semiotics; the Swiss thinker Ferdinand de Saussure to semiology. The difference rests on Pierce's interest in "the science of signs and (signals) in general; semiotics refers to the theory of sign systems in language." (Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory) For Peirce, the key distinction was between the index, the icon and the symbol. The index had a direct relationship with the sign: a footprint, a thermometer, a wind cock all relied on the direct presence of a foot, the temperature and the wind to reveal their function. The icon merely had to be a likeness, as in a painting or a sign of a man making it clear it is safe to walk across the street. A symbol, however, has no direct relationship with the object, as in roses signifying love. Peirce was well aware that often more than one of these categories would commingle and we can see how in Citizen Kane the sledge is indexical object filmed, an iconic item from Kane's childhood that he clearly cherished and kept throughout his life, and also a symbol of that lost childhood as he plays with it the moment he is taken away from his parents. Kane's dying word is rosebud as he drops the snowball out of his hands and at the very end of the film we discover the name of the sledge is Rosebud as it burns up in the fireplace. When Saussure differentiates between denotation and connotation, we can see that for Citizen Kane the sledge is denotative (direct and iconic, if you like) when Charlie plays with it in the snow, and connotative (indirect and thus symbolic) as it goes up in flames after Kane's death. Anybody who says what is the problem, we are merely watching a piece of wood burn, is missing the point; we are also watching a key to Kane's personality that the sledge contains: a man who gained the world but early on lost his childhood.
Out of that loss came egomaniacal need. "He married for love", his friend and colleague (Joseph Cotten) proposes: "That's why he did everything. That's why he went into politics. It seems we weren't enough. He wanted all the voters to love him too." The film was based loosely on the richest newspaper magnate in the US, William Randolph Hearst, or at least based on Hearst's life enough for Hearst to consider a lawsuit and that Hearst's newspapers would consider banning any mention of RKO product the studio that produced Citizen Kane. (Pauline Kael's problematic The Citizen Kane Book, which insists on crediting so much of the work to Mankiewicz, is very good on the background to the film's production and reception,) But while knowing the details of the film's reception can help us explore ideology and politics from the pragmatic arena of daily life, the film is also interesting ideologically because it captures a certain American ambition that indicates the importance of drive: figures like Kane, Noah Cross in Chinatown, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, all brilliantly capture manifest destiny in personalised form. "Manifest Destiny, in U.S. history, [is] the supposed inevitability of the continued territorial expansion of the boundaries of the United States westward to the Pacific and beyond," Encylopedia Brittanica notes. "Before the American Civil War (1861-65), the idea of Manifest Destiny was used to validate continental acquisitions in the Oregon Country, Teaxas, New Mexico, and California. The purchase of Alaska after the Civil War briefly revived the concept of Manifest Destiny, but it most evidently became a renewed force in U.S. foreign policy in the 1890s, when the country went to war with Spain, annexed Hawaii, and laid plans for an isthmian canal across Central America. The film suggests that a man like Kane was behind such intrusions. When a journalist in Cuba reports that he can provide some prose poems about scenery but there is no war, Kane says to report back that if the journalist provides the prose poems Kane will provide the war.
Rather than seeing an impressively self-made man, the film shows Kane to be a wounded child, a boy who grows up and grows old but who when owning vast resources cannot countenance that initial sense of loss. This is psychology of course, even psychoanalysis, but by introducing us early in the film to a newsreel announcing Kane's death, the film makes clear this is a man who represented America. One headline offers, "Kane, sponsor of democracy dies" as we see his death reported in papers from not only throughout the US but France, Spain and Russia too. "Kane jokingly tells [his great and loyal friend Bernstein] that 'Europe has been making statues for five thousand years, and I've only been buying for five,'" Marc Singer notes, adding that Kane "alludes to a disparity in the pace and scope of history between ancient, storied Europe and a wealthy and acquisitive America." ('Making History: Cinematic Time and the Powers of Retrospection in Citizen Kane and Nixon') Manifest Destiny can in this sense be seen as manifold theft, as if Kane isn't only the boy denied a past but also that America has been denied a history, and that it has to look elsewhere to claim a meaning. It is no accident that Kane calls his property Xanadu, Kubla Khan's great city and also a famous poem by Coleridge.
Yet at least the film itself focuses on American history, rather than appropriating it from elsewhere as one often finds in numerous American films that tell other people's histories for them, from classic epics like Spartacus and El Cid, to 300 and Troy, Braveheart and Kingdom of Heaven. Such films are very useful in understanding an aspect of ideology for cinema; the degree to which the films tell stories that belong to others but are offered in a Hollywood idiom based not on the complexity of history but on the principles of American cinematic narrative: heroes and villains, obstacles and goals, conflict and resolution. Braveheart and the others are all films that precede American history but Citizen Kane is a very fine example of a film that wants to examine its own immediate past and the power of someone who can influence the present. Kane himself might want to appropriate the history of elsewhere but Orson Welles' film creates in Kane the personification of a certain American power. It thus asks some interesting questions about ideology and politics in the process, while producing a very American work of art that does indicate a cultural history its own in a film that proves as important as any in making sense of film theory.
© Tony McKibbin