Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Citizen Kane

[I wrote this long back, as the Cultural Representative of my Film School Class, to promote the daily film viewing, in the auditorium, after the class. We were probably the only batch who watched films in the auditorium and used the library as we wished. The second batch of LVP enjoyed some of these too. From the third batch onward, the management imposed many restrictions on students. I don't know how many organized film screenings take place in a week, for the current batches. But, I know, there is no way of learning to speak unless you hear others speaking first. People who claim they do not watch films, or never did, before they made their own, are either insane or liars.]

Citizen Kane (1939) is considered a textbook for any cinema student all over the world. Even almost seventy-five years after its release.
The reaction of the common student after a first viewing of the film is also similar worldwide – boring and useless.

But, is it really boring and useless?

On the surface, this is the story of a journalistic detection, to make a scoop. Imagine a contemporary billionaire like Steve Jobs mumbling “Rosebud”, on his last breath. Would not the media run after the meaning of this strange word? Especially, when none knows it apparently?

Citizen Kane is the story of that meaning-hunt. And just as Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, are intertwined in layers of our day-to-day living, the story of Charles Foster Kane is a story of the American dream – the dream of democracy, rags to riches. How far is that dream true? A great fortune always comes at the cost of some great sacrifice. How much is that worth it?

Citizen Kane is the story of that.

Just like Eisenstein’s Strike (1924or Battleship Potemkin (1925), or like Disney’s Fantasia (1940) , the story is told visually. Citizen Kane was probably the first film that tried which Eisenstein called Polyphonic, overtonal montage successfully. Visuals, in conflict with one another, can create explosive emotions. If such emotions can be connected to conventional stories, the result would be interesting. Although the storytelling was not conventional in its day - snaps from different phases of Kane’s life, through documents and interviews, connected by the backbone of the story – the mysterious rosebud.

Today we are used to watching non-linear movies. In fact, anything presented in a too linear fashion makes us bored. Even TV serials are made non-linear. But, in 1939, Citizen Kane was like a revolution with its fragmented, jigsaw puzzle approach.

Everyone who has seen the film even once must remember the first scene in which Kane’s character comes alive on the screen, for the first time, as a child.

In the second shot of the scene, the camera takes a long journey from the window sill looking outwards, into the room pushing the kid into the background. This shot, in fact, is the most momentous event in the story, and can be considered the first plot point, in the traditional purpose of the term. The clue to rosebud is also hidden in this.

The Director (and the Hero of the film) Orson Welles wanted a technique that would show everyone from foreground to the background, involved in different, but linked, actions in the frame. Gregg Toland achieved that with his already refined technique of Deep Focus. Few months back, in France, Jean Renoir had used the same technique in Les Regles du Jou (1939), for almost the same ulterior motive. Both Renoir and Welles wanted to split the hypocrisy of the bourgeois in their respective societies. Bourgeoisie cannot sustain on its own. It needs the protection of other classes. A deep focus photography would be a natural ploy for that purpose.
The famous breakfast sequence shows up the emotional separation of Kane and his first wife through a montage. A newly married couple who chattered so much on the first days of their marriage, finally took positions on the opposite ends of an elongated dinner table with different brands of newspapers stuck to their noses.

Who can forget the extremely apt use of split field filter, where both foreground and background were in focus (something impossible to achieve in normal photography) while the middle-ground with a overdosed, suicidal Susan Alexander out of focus? Nobody had seen such narrative use of focus before. Such innovative use of simple cinematic techniques are rare even now.

Citizen Kane would be a landmark for in-camera special effects, choice of lens and aperture, extreme low-angle camera positioned juxtaposed with extreme high-angle bird’s-eye-view shot, use of noir lighting to showcase a man’s fight with destiny, and his eternal retreat to an almost non-existent childhood, Fast cuts coupled with slow, long takes.

Welles crafted grammar, and pushed cinema at least a hundred years, by making this film. While Griffith gave the medium a voice, Eisenstein a brain, Welles gave it a dance of its own.

It is understandable why the contemporary generation does not like this film. Most of the prints we are forced to watch are like bad copies of a Xeroxed book. Toland’s brilliant compositional scheme, with his dark noir lighting, does not surface above the grimy image in the grainiest copy. Nor does Welles’ modern acting.

In this new, restored edition made along with a Blu-ray the images would give you an approximation of how the 1939 audience had received Citizen Kane. It was not for nothing that AFI voted this the best film of the Century for decades, before it finally receded to second position (to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)), just a few months ago.

Watch Citizen Kane for a vivid insider criticism of 20th century American life and its capitalist economy. Watch Citizen Kane to hone your own storytelling skills.

Always remember, while viewing, that you are watching a film on investigative journalism. It is like a detective fiction. Try to guess the answer from the clues presented as the movie unrolls. See if you can get it!

Happy watching!