“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say and not giving a damn.” – Orson Welles
...because today, everyone pretty much loves it – you know, “the greatest movie ever made” – but that hasn’t always been the case. In directing his first film, Orson Welles pissed off pretty much everyone he could, from the financing company RKO to media mogul William Randolph Hearst, the alleged inspiration for Charles Foster Kane. The film’s visionary innovations of non-linear narrative, flashback and deep focus cinematography are all pretty common techniques now. Yet that’s a big part of why "Citizen Kane" is worth watching: not only did it weather the storm of its own production, it also shaped pretty much our entire concept of cinematic storytelling.
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Flashback, framing devices and non-linear narrative – even today, when a film or television show uses them, it’s usually pretty cool. In 1941, no one had really ever tried to restructure film narrative this way, certainly not in a major Hollywood production. Whether in theater, radio or film, Welles was determined to experiment with dramatic forms. Instead of telling the story of Charles Foster Kane from cradle to grave, he used a journalist’s investigation into the great mystery of “Rosebud” as a way to jump through the chronology of Kane’s character journey. The film’s structure also hints at the subjectivity of events, a daring conceit even today. Welles also took advantage of film’s visual qualities to examine his story from every angle, often literally. The use of POV perspectives and the compositions of shots all serve to underscore the relationships between the characters on screen, as well as Kane’s transformation from idealistic young man to embittered loner.
It’s hard to imagine a world without deep focus cinematography. In fact, it’s so common today that we don’t really use the term anymore – it simply means keeping the foreground and background in focus at the same time. Yet, "Citizen Kane" was the first film to try this technique, and with stunning results. For Welles, this allowed audiences to choose the action they followed, democratizing the viewing process while also allowing for more complexity in scenes. Yet, Welles experimentation with cinematography techniques didn’t end there. The film also made use of low angle shots as opposed to the standard straight on perspective, framing the characters for heightened effect within the scenes. Even today, shots such as Kane’s image reflected in a series of hallway mirrors still amaze viewers. The film also begins and ends with some of the most famous tracking shot sequences in film history, the first to set up the mystery of Rosebud, the last to reveal it…and leaves the audience with lingering questions.
When it comes to greatness, sometimes it’s hard to keep things on the cheap. Welles, under contract with RKO, was given complete creative control in producing "Citizen Kane" so long as he produced it for under $500,000. Of course, the budget ballooned to $830,000, but even for that price, the film still made impressive use of available resources within a production schedule. Often, Welles and his designers used tricks to suggest the scope of their sets were greater and more lavish than they were. For many of these shots, the film used black velvet, set up in a way that created a sense of infinite depth on sets such as Xanadu's Great Hall. Even going over budget, the filmmakers still engineered ingenious solutions to ensure Welles’s vision made it to the screen.
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