Most students struggle with Module B. The critical study of texts raises a lot of questions for them, such as: What is Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane about? What themes are in it? How do you write about them?
Studying a film for Module B is something a lot of students find intimidating. This is because film uses conventions and techniques that are different to those found in novels, poetry, or plays. As such, engaging in a close reading of a text like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is something students find quite intimidating.
In this post, we will give an overview of what Citizen Kane is about; how it conveys reputation; and then have a close look at how the opening scene develops this concern.
What is Citizen Kane?
Citizen Kane recounts the life of Charles Foster Kane.
- Kane was adopted and as a child then raised by a wealthy trust fund manager.
- He grows up to become a media mogul and polarising public figure.
- The film begins with an obituary that outlines his life.
- The film’s narrative is that of a journalist trying to find out about Kane’s life and the meaning of his last word – “Rosebud.”
- The journalist’s journey is a frame narrative.
- The life of Kane is told through several interviews.
- The interviews are vignette’s that include flashbacks from various periods of Kane’s life told from the perspectives of the interview subjects.
- This approach gives us small windows into Kane’s life. But this makes it difficult for us to understand who Kane was and what motivated him as we are not given a complete picture of who he was.
- The audience, that is us, are forced to assemble their understanding from these disparate perspectives and judge him from there.
The structure and focus of Citizen Kane is a fictional biography. However, classifying the text in this manner oversimplifies Welles’ film.
Welles appropriates the cinematic conventions of Gothic horror, romance, film-noir, tragedy, comedy, and even news-reels to depict the life of Charles Foster Kane. This blending of different forms was ground-breaking in American cinema.
The theme of “Reputation” in Citizen Kane
Past HSC questions have asked students to engage with the film’s key themes. To answer questions like these, you must use themes as a way of discussing how Welles’ has developed meaning in his text.
In order to understand how to explore the text like this, let’s consider the core theme of reputation.
The theme of Reputation is concerned with how individuals are obsessed with others’ perceptions of them.
- Kane wants to be loved.
- Kane is a man whose reputation precedes him.
- Kane perceives his reputation to be of more importance than those of individuals who surround him.
- He wants the adoration of the public, his employees, his friends, and even his enemies, and feels that he needs to gain it through their perceptions of him.
- Consequently, Kane crafts a gregarious and opulent persona for himself that is often quite superficial and clichéd.
How do I analyse a scene From Citizen Kane?
To understand how Welles develops the theme of reputation in Citizen Kane, let’s consider the opening scenes.
1. The Title Card
- The film’s title card utilises a variation of Futura inline and Agency Gothic Open, fonts which were commonly used for newspaper front pages and posters.
- This symbolises the narrative of newspapers and media, while framing its subject, Charles Foster Kane, as news.
- This foreshadows the film’s focus on the various perspectives on Kane and his reputation.
- Newspapers report perspectives and opinions on events and personalities. Citizen Kane explores the difficulty of understanding who somebody is from their public persona.
2. The No Trespassing sign
- The opening shot of the film is a close-up of a “No Trespassing” sign.
- Kane is a man who has secluded himself from the world.
- The extra-diegetic sound – that which is external to what is happening in the scene – is slow and ominous.
- These are conventions that are borrowed from the Gothic and horror films. The horror films that existed during this period were predominantly tragedies such as: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, Nosferatu, and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
- These Gothic and horror conventions are applied here to evoke a sense of tragedy, characterising Kane as a recluse and somebody who keeps themselves closed off from others.
3. Kane’s dying breath
- Film-noir conventions are applied in this medium close-up shot of Kane’s corpse.
- After he has died, Kane is covered with a sheet. The silhouette effect of this shot is called chiaroscuro, and it is caused by the window casting him in deep shadow.
- This makes it difficult for the audience to see his features. At this point the audience is unsure who this man is, his identity being concealed makes him even more mysterious.
- This foreshadows the film’s focus and is symbolic of the impossibility of seeing who Kane was. As we didn’t know him, we are limited by the perspectives that others had.
4. The epigraph to Xanadu
- The epigraph is a reference to the poem “Kubla Khan’ a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
- Kane has taken the name for his palace from this poem.
- Coleridge’s poem reflects on a historical emperor’s massive and decadent empire and its collapse.
- The opulence of Xanadu is developed further by a montage that shows the construction of Kane’s massive home and the excess of its furnishings – including a golf course and a zoo.
- This characterises Kane, suggesting he was a man of excess and greed.
- The narrator claims that “Since the pyramids, Xanadu is the costliest monument that a man has built to himself.” This observation supports the characterisation of Kane as a greedy and decadent figure.
5. The “News on the March” montage
- The montage of newspapers presents the various headlines of Kane’s death.
- These headlines differ greatly in their characterisation of Kane.
- This foreshadows the film’s narrative, trying to find out who the real Kane was and what “Rosebud” means.
- It is ironic that Kane is the focus of headlines as he was a man who made the news in every sense. He owned newspapers; he was a very public figure who was the subject of newspaper articles; and he oversaw what the papers wrote about.
- Kane often invented headlines and stories to sell papers. This was known as “Yellow Journalism”, and was the predecessor to today’s online media environment and “fake news.”
- In the montage, Kane himself is a victim of Yellow Journalism. This is ironic.
How do I write about Citizen Kane?
Module B is a critical study. What does this require you to do? Let’s have a quick look:
- You must present an argument about the meaning of the text. This must be based on your personal understanding of the text.
- You must discuss whether the text has lasting value, or if it has textual integrity.
- Lasting value means that the text appeals to a variety of audiences across time. Ask yourself: is the text a classic? Why?
- Textual integrity refers to the unity of the text. You need to assess whether “the form and language of the text work together to produce a unified whole in terms of meaning and value”. BOSTES provide a support document explaining this here. If you want a more detailed explantion of what textual integrity is, you must read our Essential Guide to Textual Integrity.
- You must do this by providing a close reading of the text. You must provide examples and discuss how they support the film’s themes.
- You must focus on your own personal insights into the test. What do you think it means? Why?
Your Module B essay needs to look at the text in detail. So, don’t be afraid to engage in discussions of how Welles develops meaning in the minutiae of his directorial decisions.
What should a paragraph about Citizen Kane look like?
Now that we’ve had a look at the theme of reputation in the film and explored some examples, let’s see how they might be used in an exemplar paragraph on reputation:
|Orson Welles represents Charles Foster Kane in an intentionally ambiguous way to illustrate the complications of conflating individuals with their reputations. Media depictions of individuals compel us to consume multiple perspectives of an individual to attempt to grasp their true character. Kane, as a newspaper mogul, is aware of the dichotomy between the public’s perception of an individual and their true nature. Kane attempts to control how the public perceive him and, consequently, after his death it becomes impossible to understand who the true Kane was. Welles captures the irony of this by using a newspaper headline font – a combination of Futura Inline and Agency Gothic – for the film’s title card, framing Kane as a news headline. Our first perception of Kane is of an individual who’s desire for privacy is outweighed only by his grandiose home and wealth. Welles intentionally presents Kane as a mystery to the viewer. The “News on the March” obituary montage of newspaper front pages presents conflicting views of Kane. The New York Inquirer, his own paper, states that he “died after a lifetime of service;” while the Daily Chronicle claims “that he finds few who will mourn for him.” The newspapers don’t present a clear and unbiased view of who Kane was. This is the point Welles is making about reputation: reputation can be manipulated for the sake of public perception and never reflects the true person. Citizen Kane demonstrates textual integrity in representing reputation, as Welles uses newspaper conventions – fonts, headlines, interviews, and articles – as dominant motifs that craft and reflect the conflicting public perceptions of Charles Foster Kane.
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