Synopsis of Class: August 22, 2000

On this first class, we began by discussing the meanings of our names (Dino, from deinos = terrible, monstrous; as in dinosaur, from deinos and saurus = monstrous lizard), I then went over the course syllabus and the class policies, thus setting up the concerns that will interest us over the course of this semester: narrative, the epic, the novel, film, and ideology.

This class also served as an exercise designed to introduce students to the most basic elements of narrative: story and discourse. I showed the first minute or so of Citizen Kane and asked students to tell me what they learn from this opening sequence, in which all we see is a "No Trespassing" sign, followed by a sequence of gates or fences, one with a 'K' on top, and then a mansion in the distance. The "story" in this sequence, as Maria Weir correctly explained, is: "there is a gate and there is a mansion." That's all! However, the discursive presentation of this story led to a number of interpretations that went significantly beyond this rather simple diegesis:

1) Although, as Meg pointed out, Orson Welles established a number of film techniques that would only subsequently become conventions, a number of conventional generic elements are, nonetheless, evoked, some perhaps borrowed from literature, as DJ Dangler correctly pointed out. As DJ continued, we appear to be in a setting straight out of Bram Stoker, that is to say a gothic tale, or perhaps a mystery, perhaps even a detective story. Certainly, as Stacey Morgan suggested, we expect some terrible event to occur in the following scenes; we anticipate danger or some evil, perhaps a death and, as Anu Karumanchi explained, the gloomy music adds to our sense of immanent doom. The lighting of this nighttime scene similarly contributes to our sense of foreboding, Lane Sanders explained. (As it turns out, although the movie is, in fact, a biography of sorts, these generic expectations are fulfilled in the following scene in which we witness the enigmatic death of Kane in what appears to be a gothic castle.)

2) As a group of students pointed out, the sequence of fences and the "No Trespassing" sign suggest that the viewer will not be allowed fully to reach the object of the film, "Citizen Kane." Indeed, the fences seem to get increasingly thick as if to say that the closer you get to this subject the less you will know about it. Beth added that the sequence of fences suggests some sort of transgression; we are placed in the position of an interloper. Indeed, as a result, we are given the sense that something mysterious is being hidden here, something that we desire to learn more about, and yet something that the director seems intent on denying us, since each fence we cross is followed by another. Even once we finally reach the enigmatic window of the mansion, the light suddenly goes out before we can see what hides inside.

3) Michelle Beauchane then offered up a possible reading for the landscape we are being presented with. Could the house and its grounds be a metaphor for the person that lives in it? If so, we cannot help but understand this person as not only incredibly rich but also paranoid, scared, depressed, and unhappy, someone who is suspicious of others and refuses to trust anyone. He or she might be someone that sets up barriers between him/herself and others, although, as Lily Ewing pointed out, he or she is clearly somone who once lived a glorious life of wealth and power. It is clear, then, Lily continued, that we are entering a narrative in medias res, at the end of a long life. As Jenni Jacobson explained, the landscape evokes the figure of Miss Havisham, a character in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations who, after being jilted at the altar, spends her life preserving the moment of the wedding feast until her house becomes a morbidly decrepit reminder of a now-lost past. Perhaps the main character in Orson Welles' film has suffered a similar trauma, perhaps even a trauma tied to an unhappy or tragic love.

4) Stacey Morgan pointed out that the creeping camera, which slowly seems to get closer to the window in the top right corner of the screen, creates suspense. As Meg Lowry suggested such a lap dissolve technique (Melissa Young-Spillers directed us to this term by pointing out the "fade-in shots"), with the window anchoring each indivual shot, forces the familiar to become unfamiliar and forces to reader to "read into" the otherwise mundane fact of a lighted window. We are presented with a static scene, another student pointed out (the camera does not actually move; instead, the effect of movement is created through the sequence of lap dissolves), but, through the use of such technical devices, the film gives us a sense that the scene is pregnant with possibility.

5) One more brilliant point from a student in an ENGL 230H class from Fall, 1998: As Elizabeth Lowe pointed out in that class, the camera angles and lighting add to the film's sombre mood in this opening sequence. The house is consistently shot from below which gives the viewer a sense of being small, removed, not in control, a feeling that is reinforced by the sequence of gates.

What is most amazing about these truly impressive interpretations is that, although none of these students had actually seen the film before, their interpretations are spot on, even though they were reached solely on the basis of the film's discourse (the presentation of events: lighting, music, camera angles, etc.) and not on any actual story event. Nothing is actually happening in this scene and, yet, students were able to determine all the major interpretive issues of the film from this apparently innocuous first scene, suggesting indeed that the discursive presentation of a story and not the story itself is, in fact, the heart of narrative.

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