Fantastic cinematography in motion pictures is often thought of as that which captures gorgeous sweeping landscapes, a myriad of perfectly combined colors and light, and cleanly edited scenes; yet, Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) is critically acclaimed particularly for its cinematography, writing, and editing – in fact, it was nominated for the Academy Award in all three categories but only ended up winning the award for its writing – still, the film does not contain any of the three characteristics of “fantastic cinematography”. As a matter of fact, Citizen Kane‘s cinematography plays by its own rules and is considered revolutionary for the period of its release; that feature which stands out (ironically) is the focus on the non-spectacular, the mundane, and the seemingly erroneous.
The film’s opening is something out of a nightmare and it sets the tone for the rest of the story; soon, we are asked to embark on the same quest as the characters to find out more about the subject of interest, Charles Foster Kane, and the last word he uttered before his death: “Rosebud”. The aforementioned principle characters are reporters who produced a newsreel summarizing Kane’s life story, yet they are intrigued to find out more about “Rosebud” – an elusive secret which, they believe, will help them unlock the mysterious side of Kane.
Jerry Thompson, one of the reporters, is the one we accompany throughout this journey; he gets hustled from one person who was in Kane’s life to the next, always about to unlock the secret yet never really getting close to an answer – only more questions reveal themselves. As Todd McGowan explains in his work, “Looking for the Gaze: Lacanian Film Theory and Its Vicissitudes” (2003):
The film repeatedly brings the spectator close to an encounter with this object, but each time the encounter is waylaid. We see different accounts of Kane’s life, and each account adds elements to the total picture. The film explores multiple perspectives, but none can render the object visible. (35)
As the stories he is told are revealed through flashbacks, the cinematography truly starts making an impact.
The above scene from Kane’s childhood shows him through a window, playing in the snow as his parents discuss something quite important about his future. In the backdrop of the serious discussion we hear the sounds of Kane’s joyful laughter and see him playing excitedly in the snow; our focus is constantly torn between the adults deciding Kane’s fate – which will set the entire story in motion – and the oblivious child, completely stealing the scene away. The line between the spectacular and the non-spectacular becomes blurred.
This becomes a feature of the film: interruption. In real life, when two people are talking over each other it may seem awkward or out of place; Citizen Kane presents that non-spectacular aspect as quite ordinary: in many of the scenes, the characters talk over each other as if that were the norm. As if some subtext is purposely hidden behind such messy dialogue. The same kind of interruption is noticed visually: the way the shadow interrupts the light and vice versa; it becomes – once again – unclear what should be the focus on. All the while, all the cinematic shots are sharply focused; that is the only certainty in and about the film.
Another thing is Kane’s relationship to windows; whether he’s behind them, in front of them, seen from them, leaning on them, etc…there seems to be some kind of symbiotic relationship between them. Kane ran a newspaper, The New York Inquirer; it could be said that newspapers are the windows which we can see the news or the facts through.
Depending on the perspective (both figuratively and literally), Kane could be a window himself, merely seen through a window, reflected through a window, or dependent on a window.
Another shot where Kane stands in front of a window, looking at his career (metaphorically speaking).
Once again, during his adulthood, Kane’s closest friend, Jed Lelland, and Mr. Bernstein, Kane’s business manager, discuss something quite important about the future of his career as Kane’s reflection bounces off a window.
Elements which tend to be discarded as merely props are shown particular care and attention in the construction of scenes. Sometimes, the shift may be removed from the characters and more to the characters objects – their “things”. An important theme in Citizen Kane is materiality and materialism.
This is the reflection of Susan Alexander, Kane’s second wife, in her mirror as she is talking to Kane; the camera also focuses on her pictures and toiletries rather than focusing on Kane himself as he is humoring her.
This is another scene where Kane and Alexander are arguing, yet the camera is also sharply focused on the doll (seen left). Another line which gets blurred here is the subject and object, whereas the subjects of both scenes – Alexander and Kane – become objects, and the various physical objects become the subjects. That reminds us of the importance of objects, which in turn reminds us of their inevitable unimportance, as a pivotal theme of the film.
Finally, one of the last aspects of the cinematography I would like to mention examples of is distance and the manipulation of space. The film often showcases large settings with either objects in the background or total emptiness; the characters are also put in distance from each other, and the camera focuses on those who are distanced, as well as those in proximity, all the while never losing focus on the space between them.
This is a low-angle shot of Lelland and Kane speaking together. The distance put between them is actually great yet the angle does not put much emphasis on that in this case.
This is another example of Kane (front left), Lelland (mid right), and Bernstein (in the far back) who are at considerable distance from each other, yet all are shown in the scene.
This particular setting shows Alexander and Kane at a great distance from each other, to the extent that they often miss what the other is saying considering the great space and the echo which is produced whenever one of them speaks. This physical distance signifies their changing relationship.
In this scene, Alexander walks away from Kane leaving him; however, the focus is on the spectacular – the intricate design of the arch, which steals away the show from Alexander walking out, making her (the subject) non-spectacular. This is a noticeable battle between cinematography and story, which is actually quite generative rather than destructive; it aids in emphasizing the theme of materialism and its important unimportance.
Citizen Kane is a work which blurs several clearly drawn lines purposely to reveal that things are not always certain and set in stone. We can remain unsure, and that is okay. What should be focused on is not always what we want to focus on; furthermore, the questions we ask can lead to further questions, which are more generative than any possible answers. The act of questioning itself is greater than answering because certainty can be detrimental and make us prone to vulnerability; questioning is non-spectacular and that, in itself, is quite spectacular. Everything and nothing both really matter.