Citizen Kane – textual analysis of the ‘picnic scene’
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Directed, produced and starring Orson Welles, Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941), is famous for its many remarkable scenes, cinematic and narrative technique and experimental innovations (Dirks, 1996). Written by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz and filmed by Gregg Toland Kane is classed as a fresh and classic masterpiece (Dirks, 1996). Kane is a brilliantly crafted series of flash backs and remembrances centering around the investigations of a dynamic man in a dynamic world (Quicksilver, 2001). Kane draws much of its power from its violation of classic codes and conventions. In his debut masterpiece, Welles uses film as an art form to energetically communicate and display this narrative through imaginative and powerful cinematography, setting, sound, lighting, editing, music and performance. The focus of this essay is the picnic sequence that appears late in Susan Alexanders recount to Thompson. Consisting of 23 shots and lasting for 2 minutes and 10 seconds, this scene signposts the end of the relationship between Susan and Kane.
In the previous scene, beside the enormous Xanadu fireplace, Susan is reduced to completing scores of jigsaw puzzles, depicting various outdoor scenes, as an escape from the cold and sterile situation that has estranged husband and wife. However, the couple are denied even the spontaneity and ease of the outdoors after Kanes decision on a picnic (Jaffe, 1979, p. 353). The sequence begins with a medium shot of a joyless and casually dressed Susan and Kane side by side in the rear seat of a Dusenberg. Kane wears a hat and sunglasses representing the day that is visible through the rear window alongside another vehicle. The 15-second blues-style musical cue begins during the fade from Kane at Xanadu to the first shot of this scene with muted trumpets playing in a dark and foreboding manner. This musical motif illustrates Susans feelings and the frigid distance between herself and Kane. Whilst travelling to the picnic the distant couple continue to argue and, as punctuation on Susans line You never give me anything I really care about, trombones join the trumpets and distort the motif, highlighting Kanes irrevocable authoritarianism and the uselessness of Susans efforts (Thomas, 1992, p. 189). Susans monotone delivery and the sideways glance that she receives from Kane (through tinted glasses) also demonstrate this.
Linked by a dissolve, the following frame is a linear shot in deep focus with the bright light of midday casting thick, black shadows directly under the line of cars. A new variant of muted trumpets makes the rigid, lugubrious and seemingly infinite stream of cars on the beach look much like a funeral procession in their black, uniform order. The use of a blues piece in this shot allows a seemingly continuous flow of music absent of any abrupt change in tone or style when followed by the mournful rendition of This cant be love.
A dissolve from the shot of the cars to a close up of the face of the singer in the third shot draws attention to the lyrics this cant be love, because there is no true love. They serve as some kind of existential comment on not only the relationship between Susan and Kane but also Kanes life. Using deep-focus cinematography, the mise-en-scene becomes vital in directing the attention of the audience; In this style it is not the lens that makes the arrangements for our eye, it is our mind that is compelled to follow the dramatic spectrum in its entirety (Bazin, 1996, p. 233). The appearance of a formally dresses Raymond, the butler from Xanadu, commands our attention, his black suit standing out amongst the other casually dressed guests.
The way that the camera seemingly follows him as it pans left in deep focus of the festivities makes the viewer aware of the space. Also, we expect that, as in the past, Raymond will lead us to Kane. Our uneasy couple is unable to leave Xanadu behind and so it travels with them in the form of staff and finery. Balancing this shot are the luminous tents, delicately woven into the everglades. Looking much like an island surrounded by water, the brightest and closest of these tents is occupied by Susan and Kane. Set apart from the others as the only one with a canopy at the entrance, the camera zooms forward and enters the tent via a dissolve.
It is here that Welles adopts a more traditional shooting and editing style. The action and dialogue inside of the tent becomes a succession of shot/counter shot in favor of either Kane or Susan. The camera cuts according to the shifting of the dramatic centre of gravity, choosing for us what we see at the moment when it must been seen. Layering dialogue of Susan over shots of Kanes face and vice-versa so that we might capture their reaction. The cutting of the camera can be compared to the compulsive movement of ones head as if it were coupled to the lens of the camera (Bazin, 1996, p. 231). Here we find a tired, aging and overweight Kane slouching in a chair. Before him an agitated Susan, kneeling on the floor, a pose seen numerous times before in the shots in front of the Xanadu fireplace and at her opera debut. As the scene plays out, with obvious discrimination, Kane is lit using low-key illumination technique to cast a shadow over the left if his face. This serves to suggest a dark side to Kane and as a direct effect of the light that is mounted to his left. As Kane sits above Susan she accuses him of confusing loving with buying, a rather poignant accusation considering both Susan and Leyland emphasize that Kane had an inability to love, especially in terms of the way that Kane confuses love with ownership and monetary exchange (Carrol, 1986, p. 259). These comments made by Leyland and Susan are of significance because they are not contradicted by anything else said in the film and are the only attempts at explaining Kanes behaviour. Also, it is inferred by now that Kane is simply doing unto others as the bank, [particularly Thatcher,] did unto him (Carrol, 1989, p. 259).
Kane sits stripped of his armour. Glasses, tie, hat and coat are gone and he sits hunched over in low-key light, his wrinkles making him appear older and obviously prostrate. Despite his casual dress, the top button of his shirt remains fast and his coat clasped between his hands. With his chin on his chest he appears fragile yet stubborn. His tone spells out his weariness and his boredom with Susans continuing attack. His obvious attempt to avoid the discussion through remarks on Susans volume and his wish for her to cease display his desire to avoid conflict and keep up appearances with the guests. Kanes character is not developed traditionally and never reaches the point of full development, remaining ambiguous (Cardullo, 1986, p. 242). Although we want to know Kane, what knowledge we get serves only to alienate us from him, especially due to the conflicting points of view and it is because of this that we never become sympathetic towards Kane in the traditional cinematic sense. We learn of Kane and know him through the eyes of others, seeing him in the narrative present only at his death. However, we come to know Susan through the eyes of the filmmaker in the narrative present and therefore, particularly in this scene, develop a sympathetic relationship with her (Cardullo, 1986, p. 242).
Susan has changed her dress entirely and sits in a relaxed fitting, low cut nightdress suggesting that she has nothing to hide. She has decided that it is time to stand up to Kane. The close ups of her face in three point lighting and high angle camera shots serve to represent her as almost angelic, devoid of all flaws; a young and beautiful innocent rising up against her oppressor. As the accusations flow from her mouth, Kane becomes increasingly more forceful in his tone and volume, with Susan reciprocating with a heightening pitch of her voice during her rebuttal. The tension peaks with Kane standing. The eyes from his face, casting an evil and overbearing shadow shot in a low angle, glare down and an eye-line match shows a high angle shot framing Susans child-like face.
The following images of his [Kanes] massive form towering over the submissive woman are more than simple evocations of tyranny: We fear along with Susan, but we also feel sympathy for Kane who is pained by age and thwarted desire (Naremore, 1989, p. 288). As this cant be love continues to blare suggestively in the background, Kane and Susan share a heated moment that nears climax. Adding to the tension is the fact that their guests are enjoying themselves at a swampy encampment while the jazz band plays against a sinister and prehistoric matted RKO background, complete with flying pterodactyls (Naremore, 1989, p.288). They are oblivious to what is going on in the tent behind them.
The camera returns to the tent and Kane stands over Susan in a dramatic low angle shot. Kane tries to explain and it is here that we see the love in his eyes as his face softens at he sight of the woman he loves kneeling before him, here we feel for Kane as he breaks the silence, Whatever I do, I do because I love you. Susan is disgusted, you dont love me, you want me to love you…[mimicking] Im Charles Foster Kane, whatever you want name it and its yours, but you gotta love me! the violence in her voice and its pitch escalate the tension to climax. Kane slaps her. In defiance, Susan does not allow him to see her pain. Her line dont tell me your sorry declares her inability to forgive him, underlining the futility of an apology. The music is abruptly cut short at the moment Kane makes contact with her face, A womans screams and cries replacing the music, heard outside and act as a subtle auditory cue to Susans pain (Quicksilver, 2001). It is here that the end of the relationship between Susan and Kane is made concrete by Kanes cold reply, Im not sorry. The sequence ends with a close up of Susans face glaring up at Kane, dissolving into the next sequence to a follow shot of Raymond who once again leads us to Kane to inform him of Susans leaving.
Marking the final blow to Kane, this sequence highlights Kanes misconceptions of love, drawn from the theft of his childhood and his upbringing by the bank. His confusion of love with ownership and monetary exchange exaust Susan and finally drives her away. In its strategic use of deep focus, weaving narrative and cinematic pattern that repeatedly insists on the lure of the past and the power of the unconscious, the viewer is continuously waiting for the mystery to unfold and become crystal clear, but unfortunately, this is never to be. The action in this scene is examined both dramatically and geometrically in terms of action, blocking, composition and framing. This geometry includes line of sight, lines of power as well as the lines of figure in the shot. And the form that it generates. The use of long takes and brief cuts within this single sequence harness Citizen Kanes unconventional emphasis on the full resources of both montage and mise-en-scene as an essential part of its visual unity. The music and sound effects are intended to be heard yet pass unnoticed, casually offering the viewer a key to the scene. However, perhaps what is most fascinating is that we owe the most famous and highly acclaimed film of all time to a young man of twenty-five ‘who had nothing to recommend except his ideas'(Quicksilver, 2001).
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