Synopsis of Class: November 14, 2000

I began by reminding students of the very first lecture class we had in this course: August 22, 2000. I also recalled some of the terms that we went over in those first two weeks, specifically story and discourse, proairetic and hermeneutic codes, and diegesis. Class suggested some of the ways that Citizen Kane uses its discourse to affect the story (generic forms like the gothic, the diary, the newsreel; the use of camera angles; lighting; music, etc.). A good example is the first 40 seconds of the film in which the story is: "here's a fence and a house in the distance"; despite this minimal storyline, the class managed on that momentous August 22 day to come up with most of the important plot and thematic elements that would dominate the rest of the film (thanks, therefore, solely to the discourse). We then looked at the next few minutes of the scene--Kane's death--to see how the film uses the falling snow of the crystal ball to evoke a number of things that are not actually there in the diegesis of the film. That is, it is not actually snowing in Kane's room (the technical term for this effect is a "subjective shot."); the snow represents metaphorically the winter of Kane's life (including, as Maria Weir suggested, the coldness of his heart) and also, possibly, his mental reflections about his childhood innocence. The close-up on the lips also emphasizes the importance of Kane's last words and, thus, on the importance narrative wishes to give to closural moments like a person's death. The reflection of the nurse also appears to suggest a lens, thus underlining a certain formal self-consciousness on the part of the film-maker; that is, the film will be, to a certain extent, about film-making and about the subjective "lenses" that frame our understanding of others.

The movie also discursively re-orders the chronological events of Citizen Kane's life. Each narrator (including the one in the News on the March sequence) tells his or her version of the story chronologically but each narrator chooses to discuss different elements in Kane's life depending on the interests of that narrator: News on the March is interested in those events that affected America and the world; Thatcher is only interested in making money and so only relates those moments when Kane gains or loses money; Bernstein relates events that have to do with the rise and fall of the newspaper; Leland thinks that Kane only wanted to be loved, so he recounts all of Kane's love affairs; Susie Alexander only recounts the events that involve herself; and Raymond, the Butler, who's trying to get money from Gerry, the faceless narrator, only relates events that might shed light on Kane's final words, "Rosebud." Bernstein and Thatcher (the latter unwittingly) present Kane in a positive light--a man of the people; Leland and Susie present Kane in a negative light--a self-deluded if pitiable egotist. In short, the narrations tell us as much about the person recounting the events as it does about the person being described. It is up to the viewer to piece together the actual complete chronology of Kane's life, much as one might a jigsaw puzzle, the primary metaphor for this process within the film itself. The suggestion in the end is that it may be "impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence--that which makes its truth, its meaning--its subtle and penetrating essence" (Heart of Darkness, page 24). Having originally thought about doing a film version of Conrad's tale, Orson Welles might, in fact, have had this passage and the structure of Heart of Darkness on his mind as he wrote and shot his film.

We also discussed the importance of narration in this film and the ways that Welles reminds us that we are seeing the story through someone else's eyes: the highlighting of the reporter's glasses, thus emphasizing his role as objective witness (and the fact that, as a faceless narrator, he acts as a surrogate for the viewer, as Meg Lowry suggested, recalling the Friedrich painting we analyzed earlier in the class); the placement of narrators on the edge's of the camera's frames; the trick of having Thatcher look repeatedly right into the camera. We discussed Welles' use of window frames throughout the movie as a commentary on the difficulty of "framing" or "getting an angle" on Kane. We also discussed the meaning of Rosebud: is it a commentary on Kane's lost childhood or does the use of the "Keep Out" sign at the end of the film warn us, once again, about attributing a single meaning to Kane's life?

Finally, following D. J. Dangler's lead, we discussed the relationship of Citizen Kane to the figure of the Romantic hero and to the concept of the sublime. This led to a discussion of how Citizen Kane relates to epic form as well. Some points made include:

1) If the new epic hero of the nineteenth century was Victor Frankenstein because of his quest for scientific truth, the new epic hero of our era may be the self-made businessman who, like Odyssesus, and as the News on the March sequence makes clear, builds "empire upon empire" through his capitalist acquisitions.

2) The "News on the March" sequence could actually be seen as a mini-epic of sorts, as Jasmine Criswell suggested in an earlier version of this class, since what we have here is Kane's life as it affects the "story of the tribe" or "history from above."

3) we are also presented with epic proportions in this first sequence, a large expanse of both time and space.

4) Kane can also be accused of a good deal of hubris (thinking he can force people to love him; control public opinion; and even change history, through the war in Spain).

5) We are presented with a public persona who must deal with an image culture obsessed with self-presentation (hence all the images of Kane that proliferate through the film).

6) One might even say that we have an epic catalogue of sorts at the very end of the film when the camera moves among Kane's acquisitions.

7) The presentation of the narrative is highly "episodic"; in addition, as in the Odyssey, the entire narrative is first given in the initial few "pages" of the film.

8) Through the allusion to Coleridge's "Kubla Kahn" (see the Reader), we could say that we have in Kane a modern version of the Romantic hero, someone who seeks always to go beyond himself in a search for, if not the sublime, then fame, love, and justice, a search that can easily (as with Kane) lead to disappointment and dejection.

Thanks to the whole class for a superb discussion of this film!

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