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Citizen Kane

1941. RKO Pictures. Directed by Orson Welles. Written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles. With Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane, Dorothy Comingore, George Coulouris, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Hussey, William Alland

Is there a more wrenching moment in the cinema than the end of the "News on the March" newsreel in Citizen Kane? This strident little film has absorbed our attention and filled our screen for several minutes. Suddenly, the words "The End" appear, we get an oblique angle of a movie screen and the deflating sound of the sound-track running down. It takes a moment to understand that all of that history and enterprise has been unfolding within a small screening room and that we are not even its intended audience. There before us are the men who put the film together, joking about its shortcomings.

Kerry Brougher, curator of a 1996 exhibition called "Art and Film Since 1945: Hall of Mirrors," writes in the exhibition catalog that this moment, "The End" of "News on the March," marks "the symbolic rupture between the classic cinema and the self-reflexive cinema to come." Among the many things coming to an end here —the newsreel, the life of Kane, his once-great empire, and the expansive half- century that gave rise to it—is the golden age of Hollywood; post-war self-consciousness and self-examination is in the wings. Leading the way is Orson Welles, whose great film, having reached this end-point after only 12-1/2 minutes, proceeds to turn inward on itself.

While it's hard to agree that movie reflexivity began with a jolt in 1941, or that Hollywood had not previously been interested in examining its own processes and deconstructing its own mythology, it is true that Citizen Kane lifts the curtain in a new way. Welles was born in 1915, well into the cinematic era, and both he and Hollywood were fully-formed when they got together. He approached the movies with an outsider's objectivity; how did this thing work and what could be done with it?

Thus we get the unabashedly "constructed" Citizen Kane, exploiting one cinematic trick after another with its models, painted backgrounds, transparencies, superimpositions, fragmentary sets, and found footage, plus its intrusive lighting and sound effects. Half the fun of the film lies in its ingenuity— a Xanadu created from bits and pieces, a newspaper office in forced perspective, animated birds flying around a creepy picnic scene. Welles feels free to show an anachronistic bank of lights in the scene with the dancing girls; who's he fooling anyway? The camera calls attention to itself in the best expressionist manner, diving through skylights and playing with depth of field. I would especially point to the use of artificially distressed film stock—the very material of cinema manipulated to disguise its age, giving Citizen Kane the appearance of emcompassing the full history of motion pictures. Allusions to the Hollywood-Hearst connection and references to the personality of Mr. Orson Welles himself add to the inward-gazingness of the thing.

The pivotal point remains "News on the March," the movie within the movie that both orients the narrative to come and sets the movie's agenda. Completing this inner film about the life of C. F. Kane becomes the project of the outer film about the life of C. F. Kane. And neither one succeeds. The newsreel producers never do find that "angle" they are searching for, and though Citizen Kane stumbles across it, it proves inconclusive and perhaps not even relevant. Citizen Kane is not an "empty" film—it's full of interesting characters and events-but its glory is in its effects.

Citizen Kane is one of those movies that "eats its own tail," and if it is far from the first film to consider itself reflexively, it is probably the most influential. It appeared just as the Dream Factory was closing down and, as Kerry Brougher says, Hollywood films were never the same.


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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein