Having the urge to find out what the big fuss was about, I was merely 20 years old when I first watched Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). I was bored as hell and considered myself so clever and educated for figuring out there was nobody in the room when Kane uttered his famous last word.
Education really can shape your world by making you realize your vision was not as clear as you thought. YouTube is full of colorblind people using technological gadgets to be able to see color for the first time. When I re-watched Citizen Kane years later, even though it was in black and white, I was able to truly see color for the first time in my life. Considered regularly by the Sight&Sound Polls and millions of people worldwide as one of the best films ever made, if not the best, Citizen Kane is a complex composition of astonishing directing, acting and editing, being resurrected from fading out completely from the public memory by the film critics outside the USA, such as André Bazin. And I fell asleep when I first watched it. Twice.
This reminded me of reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in high school, stopping after he first dipped his madeleine cake into his tea. I felt like the rosebud mystery was all there was to it. I just wanted to find out what it meant, ignoring the journey, and consuming the story without paying attention to details that actually made it a masterpiece. A decade later, I went to the cinema alone for the first time in my life, deciding that after reading so much about Kane and Welles, I should give it a shot. It was a blizzard out there, but I had to see it again, this time with my new mental contacts.
While millions of people claimed this was a perfect piece of art, I hated black and white movies. They seemed so monotonous and atavistic, and were completely unappealing to a young mind, raised in the world of CGI. And Welles’s world was different back in the day as well. He worked in theater for so long and was just starting his career as a film amateur. That was his key to success: if you do not know what the conventions are in a new discipline, you might as well break them and create something new. To illustrate, Welles used such low angles that the movie set designers had to build ceilings because such low-angle shots would literally break the fifth wall. And some extreme shots required Welles to literally crouch into a hole in the ground, acting like a soldier in the trenches, doing everything he could to make that perfect shot.
German expressionist cinema, having a character of being an art style and a social movement as well, was resurrected as a novelty in the American cinema. Like Murnau, Welles used extreme camera angles and distortions to emphasize the characters’ psychological states by exteriorizing their most inner fears and desires. Playing with the lighting became the most important tool as well, not only for creating the gloomy yet sublime atmosphere for the Xanadu mansion but for emphasizing backlighting to anonymize the humans and make them just a background silhouette in a forbidding atmosphere.
Gregg Toland’s — the film cinematographer’s — chiaroscuro lighting is able to create a shroud of secrecy even when the characters are right in front of your nose, establishing a mystery in a seemingly everyday setting. The lighting reflects the plot and guides your perception. It may cloak a protagonist, or put an insignificant character in the foreground, establishing the technique of the future film noir.
When Charles Foster Kane starts his presidential campaign, we are witnessing a Metropolis-like vast landscape that depicts the audience eager to listen to his speech. This is where Welles’s genius comes into play: this is a still photo. Hundreds of holes were pricked in and lighting was used to create the illusion of movement. Inside a film, which itself is an illusion of movement for human eyes.
Kane’s resurrection of the deep focus provided Welles with the ability to see the background setting as clear as the frontal one, creating one of the most famous scenes where Kane’s destiny is being decided in the foreground, while he’s innocently playing in the snow in the background, which we can observe as clearly as possible. Every second, we get to contrast the boyhood and adulthood, the poverty of the material world and the richness of a child’s inner world. Deep focus photography emphasizes the mise-en-scène since every part of the frame is visible, and the viewer’s attention needs to be diverted using clever directing. Having perfected such a skill in the theater, Welles guides us to find order in chaos and become aware of the importance of simultaneity.
Citizen Kane is the story of a Man. His forced coming of age, his success, and ultimately his downfall. The story was allegedly based on the life of a famous newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, a notorious businessman who was no stranger to scandal. Hearst was fighting Welles and RKO Pictures to stop the screening of the film for years to come. Allegedly, the story goes that on the opening night of the film, Wells found himself with Hearst in the elevator, and invited him to attend the premiere. Hearst declined, and Welles remarked: “Charles Foster Kane would have accepted.”
A story about wax and wane, childhood and adulthood, religious worshipping and notoriety. James Naremore first noticed that years later, Kane’s guardian gifts the young Kane with a sled number two, whose name is visible for a split second: Crusader. Kane repays his guardian’s present by becoming a newspaper crusader and blooming from a rosebud into a knight, and ending his life as a knight as well — in the middle of a gothic castle. This is not a narrative depicting who Charles Foster Kane was, nor who heard the famous last words (notably, there was a butler present in the room): we should not care about such a dollar-book Freud, as Welles himself called it. Since Welles behaved as a painter throughout the movie, mimicking renaissance painters, playing with lighting and perspective, the issue of what rosebud meant is just a frame or a title of a painting. The story that it tells is up to us, and the frame is just here to support the painting, but the real enchantment lies outside of it.
Bazin, André (1947). The Technique of Citizen Kane. Les Temps modernes 2(17),: 943–949.
Bazin, André (1978). Orson Welles: A Critical View. Harper & Row.
Bogdanovich, Peter & Welles, Orson (1992). This is Orson Welles. Da Capo Press.
Carringer, Robert L. (1985). The Making of Citizen Kane. University of California Press.
Naremore, James, ed. (2004). Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook. Oxford University Press.
Peterlić, Ante (2002). Studije o 9 filmova. Hrvatski filmski savez.