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OTHER ITA SITES:
The Search For One's Identity: Citizen Kane
The search to find one’s identity is at the heart of Orson Welles’ film, Citizen Kane. The film’s main protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, is in a life-long search for his true self. The sequence of Kane’s first marriage to Emily Norton is a representation of Kane’s search; his life in microcosm. Understanding the construction of the marriage sequence is therefore important in understanding it as a microcosm of Kane’s life. The unique application of cinematography, mis-en-scène, editing and soundtrack come together to construct a sequence of six segments, each of which highlights the changes in Kane as he becomes disillusioned with a search that he is unable to complete. An analysis of the marriage sequence will be essential in understanding how Citizen Kane explores Kane’s search for his elusive identity, but also give meaning to the film’s most intriguing mystery: “What is Rosebud?”
The cinematographic construction of the marriage sequence begins with a slow tracking shot into Kane and Norton as they eat at a breakfast table. Kane and Norton sit close to one another at a table of medium-size. The setting is illuminated with high-key lighting, leaving diffused or little shadows against the characters. This establishing shot clearly defines the space in which the two characters are inhabiting. By establishing that Kane and Norton are sitting close together at a table, we not only see the closeness in their relationship, but we also see Kane completely comfortable with himself and his relationship with Norton. The establishing shot also delineates the 180 line through the two characters, which is approximately parallel to the length of the breakfast table. The remainder of the shots in the sequence do not cross the 180 line, ensuring spatial continuity.
The maintenance of spatial continuity continues with the shot/reverse shots that follow the establishing shot. Kane and Norton are framed in medium close-ups, that is, only from the chest upwards. The position of the camera does not change, making each shot virtually identical. These shots make use of offscreen space by only capturing one character on screen at a time. Even though we do not see the other character, we know that they are there. By using offscreen space, emphasis can be placed on each individual character. The characters also create eyeline matches between shots; that is, when Kane looks to the right of screen, we can follow his point of view into the next shot when Norton appears on screen, and vice versa. Eyeline matches make the scene easier to follow by allowing us to follow the characters’ point of view. Identical shots, offscreen space and eyeline matches become important when the mis-en-scène changes between each segment of the sequence, highlighting the disintegration of the marriage and the effect of Kane’s failing search on his attitudes toward life.
The shot/reverse shots are split at different times by a unique ‘fast-forward’ transition that distinguishes the six individual segments within the one sequence. The ‘fast-forward’ transition itself appears to be constructed of a dissolve from the end of one segment to an extremely quick panning shot and then a dissolve to the beginning of the next segment. This transition effectively ‘fast-forwards’ over the majority of the marriage, stopping only to view the parts that affect Kane’s struggle to find himself. The transition is a temporal ellipsis that omits months and even years of the marriage. By cutting together the six segments with this transition, the marriage sequence becomes a montage sequence where we sense years of story time passing, even though only a few minutes of real time pass.
The sequence ends with a slow tracking shot out from Kane, revealing a much longer breakfast table with Norton sitting on the opposite side. This shot is virtually identical to the establishing shot but in reverse. The shot re-establishes the spatial relations between the characters, but more importantly, it highlights what has changed from the establishing shot. The longer breakfast table stands in contrast to the intimate table setting in the establishing shot, giving us a physical representation of the distance that has grown between Kane and Norton.
The unchanging cinematographic construction of the marriage sequence allows us to see the significant changes of mis-en-scène and performance between each segment. As each segment is short in duration, we see these changes quickly. Describing these changes between segments in detail will demonstrate the power of them within the marriage sequence.
The first segment displays Kane at a time where he is closest to the identity he had as a child. Kane is happy, well adjusted, and married to the President’s niece. This is no doubt the bright future Kane’s mother wanted for him when she sent him away. Kane is optimistic and willing to do for others, as he preached in his ‘Declaration of Principles’ at the Inquirer. In this instance, Kane is willing to take time off the Inquirer to spend time with his wife. As a result, Orson Welles as Kane and Ruth Warwick as Norton perform this scene by only having eyes for each other, they sit close together and lean in towards each other. The table at which they are sitting is of medium size, allowing for an intimate setting. Few objects clutter the table; representing the openness between the newly-weds. Kane is dressed with flair in a tuxedo while Norton is open and receptive to Kane wearing a dress that bares her shoulders. This segment represents one of the rare moments in Kane’s life where he all but ceased his drive to prove himself to others and be comfortable with himself.
Kane becomes side-tracked in his search in the second segment as the Inquirer takes over his life again. Kane and Norton now sit opposite one another. Clutter has accumulated on the table, giving a physical representation of the barrier Kane is now putting up between himself and Norton by working all hours at the Inquirer. Kane is more casually dressed and is leaning back into his chair. Both elements are suggestive of feigning interest in Norton. Norton is dressed up to her neck, revealing to us that she is no longer receptive to Kane. The performance of Welles and Warwick in this scene creates an underlying antagonism, despite the comical nature of the segment as the two characters tease each other. Kane highlights this antagonism when he lights his pipe and flicks the match in his hand in front of Norton with a smug tone in his voice. The smugness is borne out of Kane’s ability to be swayed by money and power, a fact Kane himself recognises as an older man when he tells his manager Bernstein, “if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”
The third segment shows the first signs of Kane’s regression back to his rebellious behaviour, similar to his management of the Inquirer to anger Thatcher. As for the marriage, the first real friction between Kane and Norton emerges. Clutter on the table still obstructs the view between Kane and Norton, a barrier with which Kane uses to close himself off from Norton. Kane is even more casual, his shirt is more open, and Norton is formal. Warwick gives an aggressive performance by sitting up straight and leaning towards Kane as she questions him why he is attacking the President. Welles on the other hand makes Kane sit side-on and backward in a defensive position, using bluster to deflect Norton’s aggression. Kane calls the President Uncle John, denigrating him by calling him a ‘fat-head’ with poor control over his corrupt political advisors. This attack on the President by Kane is in essence, an attack on Norton. Kane’s desire to attack those who denigrate the underprivileged is repeated in his management of the Inquirer, and in his political campaign to become governor of the state and eventually President of the United States. By doing this Kane is pursuing an alternative avenue in his search by returning to his origins. Kane believes he was done wrong as an underprivileged child and he wants to make sure this does not happen to anyone else like him.
The fourth segment has a clinical, detached feel. Norton retains her formal wear. Kane on the other hand is dressed like a cold business executive. His hair is slicked back and his suit is black, and Welles gives an emotionally bereft performace. Norton attacks Kane by not wanting his friend Bernstein to visit their nursery. This is a personal attack on Kane, similar to the way in which Kane attacked Norton in the previous segment. In response, Kane is stern, cold and unresponsive to her on an emotional level. In this segment, Kane has lost sight of the search.
The fifth segment sees the solidification of the disillusioned Kane, and the serious cracks in the marriage. Kane is dressed in a tuxedo. Heavy make-up is employed to make Kane appear older. Norton is still dressed in her formal wear but softer make-up is employed to make her look older. Welles gives an arrogant performance, with Kane spouting angrily at Norton that the people will think “what I tell them to think”. This one line is the first real reversal on Kane’s ‘Declaration of Principles’ that he wrote in his early days at the Inquirer, and serves to show how he has not only lost sight of his identity, but he is actually becoming the opposite of it. The segment has sinister overtones, as Kane retaliates against the life he was given, much like the boy that attacked Thatcher out of anger with a sled at the beginning of Kane’s life.
The final segment displays Kane as he is at the end of his life, shut off from Norton as he is shut off from everyone in Xanadu. The marriage is all but ended. Neither character is speaking to each other. They are both clearly in opposition, as shown by the use of the newspapers they are reading: Kane is reading the Inquirer while Norton is reading The Chronicle, Kane’s rival newspaper. The use of props, the newspapers, is serving the narrative function of the opposition between Kane and Norton.
The marriage sequence is underscored by a musical soundtrack that changes with each segment. The first segment has a romantic motif, highlighting the closeness shared by Kane and Norton. The second and third segments have comic tones as the characters tease and antagonise each other. The fourth segment expresses the tension and concern for Kane as he loses faith in the search for his identity. The fifth segment is sinister and ominous, representing Kane’s harshness toward the people that let him down. The final segment has a futile motif, representing the marriage as a failure, and thus his search as a failure.
The break-up of Kane’s marriage is his life in microcosm. Kane needed help in finding his identity. Norton is the face of the people he sought help from. He gained the help he sought and then he lost it through the distractions of wealth and power, resulting in the disintegration of the search for his identity and his withdrawal into Xanadu at the end of his life. Kane is forced to repeat this experience over and over again: his mother allows Thatcher to take him away from everything he knows and loves, he loses the respect of the voters when Boss Gettys releases the story of Kane’s extra-marital affair to the newspapers, and he loses Susan Alexander at the end of his life when she has had enough of living as a prisoner in Xanadu. The first three segments of the marriage sequence show a Kane that had the ability to find himself, while the final three segments show a Kane that was ultimately unable to find himself. Kane’s inability to re-initiate the search for his identity after he loses the love and respect of the people makes him a tragic character.
‘Rosebud’ then is the physical name Kane gives to these experiences of loss. Every time he loses the love and help he seeks, he returns to the small child who was taken away from his mother. Kane whispered the word ‘Rosebud’ when Susan Alexander walked out on him, but he has in fact been saying this subconsciously to himself throughout his entire life. Kane had an identity, and without his consent, it was given away by his mother and taken by Walter Thatcher. What emerged was a man constructed from wealth, power and fame. He is everyone, and no one.
Kane believes that ‘he did pretty well under the circumstances’ to be the best men that he could. Kane’s approach to running the Inquirer is the practical application of his desire to distance himself from what Thatcher wants him to be. It is the driving force of his soul; an action Kane performs in retaliation against Thatcher when Thatcher takes Kane away from his mother as a child. Bernstein, Kane’s manager, was astute to say to the reporter Thomspon, ‘this Rosebud you keep asking about, maybe it was something [Kane] lost?” Kane’s loss is demonstrated in the marriage sequence and is the reason why this sequence provides a valuable insight in to Charles Foster Kane and a detailed overview of the prevailing theme of Citizen Kane, the search for one’s identity.
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