Term Paper: Citizen Kane Film Is a Dramatic Art

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Citizen Kane

Film is a dramatic art form, but it is a form that tends more toward realism than does stage drama. For one thing, film always offers the illusion of reality because the action depicted is presented as if filmed while actually taking place, and no matter how clear it is that this is not so and that the action and setting have been created, the illusion of reality is accepted by the audience for the duration of the film. Realism does not simply mean a depiction of reality, of course, and realism is more an approach than a clear style. A film like Citizen Kane is realistic in the way it treats its subject and in the way it presents an image of the real world, though some of the techniques are expressionistic rather than realistic. Still, the essence of the film is at least a psychological reality expressed through characters who are bound to the real world in their actions and attitudes.

When we sit down in front of a screen, we have expectations that our interest will be maintained and that we will see something we have never seen before. A film that achieves this seemingly simple effect will be one that coordinates all of the elements that make up a film in service of this end. That film may be narrative or non-narrative, linear or non-linear, of any genre at all, a documentary, a depiction of reality, or a depiction of something completely new and fantastic. Even a film that depicts reality is not actually reality, for someone has selected elements, cut them together, and shaped all the elements around a central and imposed vision. Whatever the filmmaker sets out to do, he or she will be judged on how well it is done, and we need to be open to all the different possibilities and not be tied into such a specific aesthetic that we miss the beauty that lies in surprise.

Citizen Kane is a rich film in which one can find a wide variety of American values reflected or subverted in the actions of Kane and others in the film.

The film also reflects a sense of the history of this country in the first four decades of this century, a period of change in the economic and political realms embodied in the changes in Charles Foster Kane himself. He begins as an idealist in the American mold, a man who wants his newspaper not merely to report the news but to provide a forum for the truth. However, this entails the accumulation of a good deal of power, and the growth of this power becomes a rationale for trying not merely to report the news but to make it. The power corrupts Kane until he is more feared than admired. His political career is cut short by a scandal, and in some ways this tragedy takes the last of his idealism out of him.

The primary American values sought by Kane in the beginning are truth, honesty, idealism, and individuality. These continue to be the primary goals he has for the country and the citizenry as he enters politics and offers to fight the corrupt political machine then running the city. The scandal into which he falls is a personal one, but it becomes a public one, showing how the voting public often confuses private morality with the public values of a political figure.

The accumulation of wealth and power are also American values, seen as negative values which lead to destruction, corruption, and the negation of the positive American values noted above. Individuality is often to be seen in the first set of goals, and individuality is a primary American value. The individual is the one who lives his or her life according to a private moral code, and when this is a positive it is not unlike the code that Kane puts on the front page of his newspaper in its first edition. The accumulation of wealth and power are also manifestations of individuality, but this is the dark side of individuality. By the end of the film, Kane has isolated himself behind the walls of Xanadu and embodies the dark side of individualism in his lonely death.

Roger Ebert recently gave an assessment of the importance of the film when he wrote,

Citizen Kane is more than a great movie; it is a gathering of all the lessons of the emerging era of sound, just as Birth of a Nation assembled everything learned at the summit of the silent era, and 2001 pointed the way beyond narrative. These peaks stand above all the others (Ebert).

The story itself is not as remarkable as the way the story is told. Films had been made about rich and powerful men before, but the more common approach to making a film was to do so in a linear fashion. Citizen Kane presented its main character as a true character study, analyzed from outside by an investigator who then hopes to put all the pieces together. The story comes from a variety of sources, all after-the-fact, since Kane is dead at the beginning of the film. His life is revealed through news footage, home movies, flashbacks, and similar means.

Much of the originality of Citizen Kane came from a synthesis of techniques used before but never brought together as they are here. Citizen Kane was noticed, so many of its techniques were seen as completely original, when in fact they had been seen before in isolation in otherwise unremarkable films. When Orson Welles made a hit in New York through his stage and radio work, he came to Hollywood and watched films for many months, learning and taking ideas from different sources. He learned what was truly cinematic and then made full use of what he had learned. Other films had used false newsreel footage before, but Welles made this the opening of his film and used it to set a tone. Flashbacks were also nothing new, though few films had mad such extensive use of them prior to this or had bent time to such a degree. Many of the sets recalled aspects of German Expressionism, as did the lighting. Welles was noted for putting ceilings on his sets for psychological effect, something that had also been done before, though not necessarily to such good effect.

Even the plot of the film and the way the film was structured may have derived from an earlier work that was also about a wealthy man dead at the beginning of the film, whose story is told in flashback, and whose death holds a secret to be revealed only at the end of the film. That work was the Power and the Glory (William K. Howard, 1933), written by Preston Sturges. The film was celebrated in its time, but it is not well-known today and has only recently been restored. The connection between the two films has recently been recalled, as in the following description from the online TV Guide Movie Database:

great deal was made of the unorthodox structure, which studio publicists dubbed "narratage," an uneasy bastardization of "narrative" and "montage." The theater in New York where the picture debuted had a bronze plaque placed outside commemorating the historic event, though most critics pointed out it was nothing more than a clumsy use of flashbacks with narration over them. After a fast start at the box office, and generally favorable reviews, the film did disappointing business, perhaps because of the depressing subject matter. Several years later the negative was destroyed in a fire and only after many more years did the American Film Institute put a complete print together. "Narratage" was mostly forgotten until eight years later when, streamlined and adjusted, it was used to tell the story of a man's rise to the heights and the loneliness there?

Citizen Kane (TV Guide Online.)

Too much can be made of the fact that Welles borrowed so heavily from other films. What is important is the use to which he put these techniques and ideas, and he developed a fluid and powerful film quite unlike anything seen before.

The fragmented surface style of postmodernism develops in film in the 1960s. Andre Bazin suggests a modernist perspective when he states that a film should represent reality as closely as possible following a mimetic theory of art, or a theory of imitation in art. Bazin is emphasizing film as realism, but a more expressive theory developed in the view of film as exploring issues of reflexivity. Reflexivity is defined by Thompson and Bordwell as follows:

tendency, characteristic of cinematic modernism, to call attention to the fact that the film is an artifact or an illusion (Thompson and Bordwell 823).

Such an approach is self-conscious and self-referential, looking at the film experience from both the outside and the inside at the same time. The film remains mimetic in that it is a photographic account which seems to… [END OF PREVIEW]

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