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Film Style and Citizen kane

In The Importance of Film Form we considered the formal elements at the filmmaker’s command, and the the overall pattern of these elements that make up the film’s formal system. This post focuses on the elements of film style – mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, and sound – providing a few examples of how Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) utilises these elements in and, in doing so, draws on other prominent film styles.

Mise-en-scene. This term (originally from theatre) can be somewhat ambiguous and is used in differing senses but, essentially, mise-en-scene consists of (at least) setting, costume and make-up, staging (acting and movement), and lighting. That is, everything that happens in front of the camera and appears in the final shot. Mise-en-scene is, as you can imagine, a terribly important part of filmmaking and, in its broadest sense, can be taken to be the whole look and feel of a film – its direction. Indeed, sometimes film directors are referred to as ‘metteurs-en-scene’.

In Citizen Kane, setting functions to highlight key aspects of Kane’s life. For example, the ceiling (constructed on set) in the cluttered Inquirer offices cannot contain his vast personality while the enormous emptiness of Xanadu reveal his isolation. Costume and make-up are also put to good use (the ageing of some of the characters was quite revolutionary for its time). Staging in Citizen Kane is crucial, Welles manages to convey great depth of field – which is then captured expertly by cinematographer Gregg Toland – making the placement and movement of the actors key in our understanding of the various relationships at play (below is one of the most famous examples of deep focus – the ‘boarding house scene’). Finally, note the use of light and shadow; why, for instance, is Thompson (the investigator) always in shadow?

Cinematography. The second stylistic element is cinematography. Cinematography is the process of capturing moving images on film (or some other medium) and the manipulation/ development of such images. As mentioned above, the cinematographer must work very closely with the director. The above example of ‘deep focus’ cinematography – which allows the viewer to see the fore-ground, mid-ground, and back-ground of a shot in clear and sharp focus – is only one of the tools at his disposal. The cinematographer also has control over the film stock used; in Citizen Kane a range of different film stocks from earlier periods was used to give the impression of a real newsreel in the ‘News on the March’ scene. Camera movement is also within the cinematographers remit. Kane makes use of a wide range of shot types: low angle shots in the Inquirer offices (note how this combines with the use of actual ceilings on set); the crane shot which leads us into El Rancho, etc.

The crane-shot is used again at the end of the film to reveal the truth about ‘Rosebud’.

And again in the celebrated opening scene of Touch of Evil (1958).

Editing. The third stylistic element of film is editing. Editing in film is the coordination of one shot with another; a shot is one or more exposed frame in a series on a continuous length of film stock. These shots are combined, via the editing process, into scenes (a segment in a narrative film that takes place at one time and space or that uses crosscutting to show two or more simultaneous actions). The joins whereby two shots are combined can take different forms (cut, fade, dissolve, wipe) of which the cut is by far the most popular. An ordinary Hollywood film typically contains between 1000-2000 shots; and an action-based movie can contain 3000 or more. As such, editing is a vital part of the process of film-making.

In Citizen Kane, Welles occasionally foregoes editing in favour of the long take (see for instance the example of deep focus above); however, he also adopts editing techniques from Hollywood, such as the shot-reverse shot technique seen below. Of course, Welles gives the breakfast scene his own particular touch, providing a montage sequence chronicling the breakdown of a relationship. He also uses shock cuts, as in the introduction of the News on the March sequence or the cut to a shrieking cockatoo later in the film.

Sound. Lastly, sound plays a great (although somewhat undervalued) role in film. Sound in the cinema is of three types: speech, music, and noise (also called sound effects). This sound can be either diegetic (part of the story world) or non-diegetic (external to that world). A good way to think about this distinction is in terms of what the characters in the film can hear. For example, would you be surprised if a character asked for the music to be turned down?Welles uses sound (both diegetic and non-diegetic) to great effect. Note for instance how the (non-diegetic) melody in the breakfast scene changes from romantic and playful to sombre and foreboding. Consider also the contrast between the (diegetic) sound in the cacophony of the Inquirer office as opposed to the echoes in the vast empty halls of Xanadu.Remember, the important thing when analysing a film is to determine the narrative structure and to identify salient techniques and patterns they form. Functions must then be proposed for these techniques and their patterns. Citizen Kane provides us with rich fare here, both in terms of its narrative structure and its use of style. Stylistically, it borrows from other movements such as German Expressionism, Soviet Montage, French Poetic Realism, as well as the classic Hollywood narrative. In class we’ll look at examples from classic films from each respective movement: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920); Battleship Potemkin (1925); The Rules of the Game (1939), and; The Maltese Falcon (1941).

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