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20.9.16

Revolutionary Culture

It is probably safe to say that most people reading this article have never seen Citizen Kane, nor remember Orson Welles for more than his regular stints on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson or Dean Martin's Celebrity Roasts.  In fact, few may remember him other than his still-famous though rarely heard Halloween broadcast of War of the Worlds on CBS radio in 1940.

In fact, it was the radio broadcast that got him noticed in Hollywood.  Welles and his Mercury Players, already well known on the New York theater scene, had taken a classic novel and dramatized it as a news broadcast, regularly 'interrupting' pre-scheduled shows with updates from reporters and interviews with 'experts.'  Listeners who did not hear the disclaimer at the beginning and end of the broadcast were, in many cases, genuinely terrified, with extreme cases of mass murder/suicides in some parts of the country, though the validity of the reports has been questioned.

Welles was given a three-film deal with RKO Pictures based on the phenomenal success of the radio broadcast.  Welles, being all of 26 years old and never having produced a feature film in his life, received copious amounts of scorn from Hollywood insiders, because he had been given complete creative control over his films, a deal all but unheard of in the studio-dominated industry of the period.

Welles set about co-writing, producing, directing and starring in his first film, Citizen Kane.  The script alone was a marvel of innovation.  Until that point, nearly every film ever released by Hollywood followed a standard narrative style of a beginning, middle and end, with the story progressing in a straightforward timeline of events.

Citizen Kane turned the standard narrative on its head.  The story began with the eponymous character's death and went on to tell the story as a series of news reels and interviews with various supporting characters.  The narrative was held together by a reporter, whom we never meet or see clearly, on the trail trying to discover the meaning of Kane's last word, "Rosebud."  In fact, none of the characters in the story ever understand the significance of the word, but we the audience are clued in by the final shot of the film.  The story jumps back and forth in time, though it loosely progresses chronologically  through Kane's life.

What was even more radical than the story itself was the visual execution.  Even today, some of the visual effects and transitions can draw awed attention, for example the camera flying through a neon sign and then down through a skylight in a virtually seamless transition.

In fact, one of the most remarkable innovations of this film is the camera movements and positions.  Up until Citizen Kane, the camera was primarily a passive recorder of events in front of it.  It stood roughly eye-level and other than a pan or tilt, never moved.  In this film, the camera becomes a character itself, no longer passive, but imparting information and emotion by the choice of angles and movements.  Welles went as far as to jack-hammer holes in the studio floor and design new rigs in order to get never-before-seen angles and movements through scenes.  Greg Toland's cinematography, including lighting, was nothing less that astounding for his choice of lenses for deep depth of field and the shadowy scenes of newsmen gathered to assign the reporter.

But these innovations were still not all.  The film editing by the now-famous Robert Wise (Run Silent Run Deep, Sound of Music and much more) cut the film to reflect the radical change in style that Welles and Toland had delivered.  The pacing is brisk, lingering only enough on wide shots to establish the settings, but in many cases staying in medium and close-up, when the story did not require much in the way of establishing shots.  There's hardly a moment when the viewer feels bored, as the pace is unrelenting, much like the central character.

Part of the editing are the transitions between scenes, and Wise cannot take credit for many of the ones in Citizen Kane, they were obviously pre-planned by Welles.  One famous transition has the camera dolly in on a photo of a rival newspaper's editorial staff, which then seamlessly become a live shot as Kane walks into it.

Mel Berns' make-up effects almost single-handedly launched the prosthetic craze in Hollywood.  The subtle and realistic aging of the characters over time, especially making a 26-year-old Welles into an 80-year-old man with flesh-like texture and movement was major departure from the grease-paint effects that had preceded it.

There was, in fact, a creative fire-storm raging around this film.  From the art direction to the acting, everyone seemed determined to out-do everyone else in their creative efforts.  Even the settings reflected the characters and the narrative, telling entire stories of their own.

One of the most famous scenes in the film is the legendary "breakfast table," where Mr. and Mrs. Kane progress through an entire lifetime of their relationship with as much of the story being told by the actors and make-up, as by the props.  One gloriously subtle detail near the end of the scene is Mrs. Kane reading the newspaper of Kane's largest rival.

The list of firsts in Citizen Kane is a long one and touches on nearly every aspect of film-making.  There is hardly a director today who is not influenced in some way by Welles and his ground-breaking work.  Every time you see a camera fly through a window, you can thank Welles.  From Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Player to the long travelling shots or worm's-eye/fly-on-the-wall views in Kubrick's remarkable filmography (Welles notably called Kubrick the greatest film-maker of all time), the greatest Hollywood directors have all stood on Welles giant shoulders.

Welles' fatal mistake, other than his notorious penchant for not finishing projects, was that Citizen Kane was widely interpreted as an indictment of William Randolf Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day.  One certainly cannot deny the superficial resemblances of Kane to Hearst, even to the extent that "rosebud" was widely rumored to be Hearst's pet name for his mistress' private parts.  However, those who know Welles' life story can easily pick out the autobiographical elements, and even the eerie way Kane's life mirrored Welles' in later years, especially the character's motivations and flaws.

I highly recommend that even the casual film-goer watch, or re-watch, Citizen Kane.  It is instructive to see the seeds of modern cinema being planted and edifying to know that one man could have such an influence on an art form, in a way that is more readily apparent than, say Claude Monet's impressionist revolution.

It is important to note that it is not just technical developments and technique that set Citizen Kane apart, but the narrative style itself.  Reverse exposition and the use of retrospective storytelling in film can all be traced directly to this landmark film.

It is also noteworthy that Welles' achievements throughout his filmography have often been copied, but rarely equaled.  In many ways, even the modern achievements with CGI and other technologies are little more than perfecting the innovations brought to film by Welles.  Citizen Kane was not a fluke - a one-off burst of creativity - but rather the first shot in an amazing volley of revolutionary visual and narrative techniques.  Even a cursory study of Welles' work will bring one to a much greater appreciation of the value and power of the creative mind is advancing the cultural milieu.

Though we are not all destined to have such public or examined effects on our world, it is nevertheless a worthwhile effort to push our creativity as far as we can in the service of culture.

Who could have predicted that Monet's failing eyesight or Welles' brash and youthful ignorance would have had such profound effects on our world?

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