Film Response #2 – Citizen Kane

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For our second response paper, we were asked to view Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and analyze a scene and/or cinematic technique. Here’s what I submitted. I do really like the film, but there are some glaring plot holes that disturb me to my non-critical core.

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Within its non-linearal structure, one significant two-minute flashback in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) that takes place during the interview of Mr. Leland (Joseph Cotton) at the hospital includes six brief scenes demonstrating the breakfast time exchanges between Kane (Orson Welles) and his first wife Emily Norton (Ruth Warrick), and these scenes feature clear and subtle clues to the sour trajectory of Kane’s first marriage. As the camera dissolves from Leland in the foreground to the early days of Kane’s marriage to Emily in what critic James Naremore identifies as the “celebrated breakfast table montage,” Leland states in a matter-of-fact fashion that, after the first few months, their marriage was “like any other marriage.” Through these six brief scenes, we learn that Leland’s observation of their relationship implies that most marriages begin with passion and dwindle into silent despair and contempt.

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941)

The first scene within this two-minute flashback opens with Emily sitting daintily at the breakfast table and pours herself tea. Her bright formal gown, we realize, has been worn since the previous evening, and Kane enters jovially with a cloth napkin and food for each of them. His tuxedo and demeanor are clearly aligned with his adoration of his young wife. Throughout this exchange, Kane appears to be so enamored by her beauty that he rather rudely interrupts her speech as he repeats a compliment. The shots cut back and forth on each character during this first scene, but the indication is clear that they maintain intense eye contact. Kane’s boyish body language exhibits his helplessness against her pronounced beauty. The sexually suggestive conclusion of this first sequence implies Kane’s willingness to sacrifice time from work in order to stay with his wife. Yet, this brief moment of mental and physical attraction is never superseded in the following five scenes within this flashback, during which the contents of the breakfast table and each character’s body language serve as two key unstated changes that support Leland’s claim of the marriage’s typical downward spiral of passion. 

During the subsequent five scenes, all of the food and drink are already on the table, which suggests that Kane’s cordiality has floundered. There is no physical contact, and each character experiences an increase in stress, though Kane attempts to insert self-serving wit to wash away the building discontent. Flowers appear between them in the foreground during the opening three portions, but they are absent remaining scenes, serving as a clear metaphor for their relationship. Though we are naturally drawn to each character’s face during each interaction, the removal of the flowers creates a void between them and seems to broaden and lengthen the physical space between husband and wife. This subtle space-generator signals the growing distance among two former lovers.

Consistently, each scene opens with a medium shot of Emily always facing Kane directly; however, Kane’s position across the table moves slightly to his right over the next two medium shots on him. This “turning away” indicates a departure from the giddiness we see in the opening scene. In the fourth scene, Kane is formally dressed for his day and faces her squarely, but this repositioning is overshadowed by his business-like demeanor. Emily questions Mr. Bernstein’s presence in the nursery, but Kane coldly rejects this concern. In the penultimate exchange, each character’s facial expression has drastically shifted to concern and defense. Emily’s hopefulness to discuss matters of concern has been replaced with a clear indication of her growing frustration. Kane’s squinted eyes demonstrate his equal amount of angst. The final wordless exchange, though, serves as a powerful microcosm of their marriage’s demise. Emily’s intentional choice of her husband’s rival newspaper implies her eventual departure, and Kane’s sneer over his copy of the Inquirer echoes his selfishness. 

Naremore identifies Citizen Kane as “a series of reminiscences by witnesses to Kane’s life,” and suggests that viewers are being presented the truth through these interviews. Though Mr. Thompson’s interview with Mr. Leland creates an opportunity for this flashback, the scenes potentially misrepresent the “truth” they attempt to exhibit because they are, notably, conjecture from someone who was not in the room during these alleged exchanges. If we assume these six brief moments were constructed in Leland’s mind through a variety of Kane’s comments, we must then understand that these scenes are subjective and not objective. Thus, the subtle strategy of this flashback further emphasizes Kane’s tireless protection of his ego and appearance to the world.  Naremore also centers on the ironies of the five distinguishable extended flashbacks. The six short scenes in the singular montage between Kane and Emily include examples of irony as well. Kane and Emily appear in either contrasting colors or clothing choices. Furthermore, viewers experience dramatic irony in this flashback since neither Kane nor Emily know that their marriage will dissolve before its tragic and sudden end in her death. 

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