Archive | October, 2009

Film in Focus: Citizen Kane, Mise-en-scene & Themes of ‘Loss’

26 Oct

citizen-kane

The term ‘mise-en-scene’ is used to “signify the director’s control over what appears in the film frame” (1) and covers such elements as setting, lighting, costume and the movement and actions of figures appearing within the film.

The iconic Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941), a biopic that traces the life of fictional newspaper magnate Charles Kane, uses the elements of mise-en-scene to reinforce ‘loss’ as a recurring theme throughout the film. As a faceless reporter goes about collecting personal recounts of Kane, the stories told suggest that throughout the majority of his life, Kane was “moving inevitably toward [an inner state of] bitterness, disappointment and loss” (2).

citizen-kane-deepfocus

The first flashback scene shown (set at Kane’s childhood home) begins Kane on this aforementioned negative emotional journey. Kane is shown in the background of the scene, while in the foreground, his parents and Mr. Thatcher discuss his future. Kane appears visually trapped within the frames of a window, echoing the way in which he is being ‘trapped’ into Mr. Thatcher’s guardianship. During this scene, a close up of Kane’s indignant expression fades out slowly to reveal the sleigh he happily played with moments before. Having unwillingly left his simplistic home for the riches and supposedly assured success Thatcher can offer him, the sleigh is all that remains, shown abandoned in the foreground, covered in snow. Snow in itself bears “connotations both of burying [the past] and freezing [this idealised memory in Kane’s mind]” (3). Kane is never again shown against a pure white background, suggesting that his childhood (and implicitly his innocence) was wrested from his in this instant, left behind him with his sleigh, all for the sake of trying to guarantee that Kane’s future is a ‘successful’ one. Although Thatcher later gives Kane another sleigh, it is too late; Kane’s defiant rejection of the sleigh demonstrates the way in which it is not so much the sleigh, but his previous childhood happiness that he longs for.

Kane forever onwards appears to harbour a longing for the ‘frozen’ memory of his lost, though most likely idealised childhood. This is suggested by his gasping of “Rosebud” (referring to his much loved sleigh, and essentially, his much missed childhood) at the films beginning.

The theme of loss within Citizen Kane is also shown through his loss of personal relationships, in exchange for what he is taught to perceive as success. His lonely death shows the sad turn that his life has clearly taken, however, the loss of other personal relationships are traced throughout Kane.

Although Kane and his first wife Emily’s relationship is initially depicted as being quite loving and tender, the scenes that follow their blissful courtship demonstrate the loss of such feelings. Their emotional separation is made apparent by the increasingly terse and stilted dialogue the once happy couple share. The tone of their voices become hardened towards each other, and the amount of words they exchange on a daily basis dwindles. The unsettling, almost unnatural stillness of the final scene they appear in together, set amongst an elegant dining setting, appears more as a staged theatre scene than a cozy domestic meal. This suggests to the viewer the way in which Kane and Emily, in their later years, merely played roles in a marriage that no longer satisfied either party.

After Kane’s eventual loss of his newspaper, the loss of his close friendship with Leland, the loss of the election for the Governor of New York and the demise of both of his marital relationships Kane is left utterly alone. Footage from the ‘News on the March’ montage showing a wheelchair bound Kane affirms the loneliness felt in his later years. This feeling of loneliness is perfectly captured by the deliberate poor quality of the footage; that and the unsteady way in which it is shot suggests that he is no longer a man important enough to deserve the solid focus he previously enjoyed.

Bibliography

(1) Bordwell, David & Thompson, Kristin, 2004, Film Art: An introduction, 7th ed., McGraw-Hill, New York, p 175

(2) Pipolo, Tony, 1993, ‘Screen memories in Citizen Kane’, Persistence of Vision, Number 10, p 55

(3) Mulvey, Laura, 1993, Citizen Kane, BFI, London, p 54

Additional Resources

Cowie, Peter, 1973,’The Study of a colossus: Citizen Kane,’ A ribbon of dreams: The Cinema of Orson Welles, A.S Barnes and Company, Cranbury, 32.

Gianetti, Louis, 1990, ‘Chapter 2: Mise en scene’, Understanding movies, 5th ed., Prentice Hall, New Jersey.

Lebo, Harlan, 1990, Citizen Kane: the fiftieth-anniversary album, Doubleday, New York.

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Film in Focus: Suburban Noir & Pulp Fiction

11 Oct

pulpfiction

The term ‘film noir’ (literally ‘black film’ in French) describes an enduring filmic genre that emerged in the early 1940s, drawing inspiration from both the visual aesthetic and dominant themes of German Expressionism and the stories found in American hard-boiled detective novels. The classical film noir period encompassed “several hundred motion pictures produced… between roughly 1940 and [early] 1960” (1).

 The striking stylistic conventions of classical film noir have made it one of the most easily recognisable filmic genres to date. Directors such as John Huston, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock worked with varying degrees of darkness (2), chiaroscuro lighting, rain-slicked city streets, world-weary protagonists and scheming dames that effortlessly exuded sexuality to tell twisted tales of criminal deeds.

As a genre or stylistic tradition, ‘film noir’ has undergone many reinventions and intensifications since this classical noir period. The ‘suburban noir’ (sometimes referred to somewhat paradoxically as ‘sunshine noir’) emerged during the early to mid 1990s. This sub-genre marked a clear shift from a dark, gangster-obsessed and city-based classical conception of film noir into a noir based in the suburban space.

Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) is a prime example of the suburban noir, violently clashing a sun-drenched suburban setting (specifically, that of Los Angeles) with a dark criminal underworld. Within Pulp Fiction and the suburban noir, the safety and security of the everyday, domesticated suburban lifestyle is infected by the dangerous kind of criminal activity of classic noir. Staple suburban locales such as the family home, local restaurants or even a high school (see Brick) become potential drug dens, murder sites or gang controlled areas. Although there is very little actual violence shown during Pulp Fiction – approximately 2 ½ minutes from a 153 minute running time (3) – the violent acts that occur burst into typically non-violent spaces; for example, Honey Bunny and Pumpkin hold up a diner, an area that is generally frequented by families rather than armed criminals.

As well as meshing criminal and domestic spaces, suburban noir also displaces classical noir figures into the suburban setting. Mobsters such as Marsellus Wallace, hit-man Vincent Vega and his partner Jules Winnfield co-exist with home-based drug dealer Lance, polo-shirted informant Marvin and Vincent’s indignant wife-fearing friend Jimmy.

The displacement of classical noir characters into the suburban realms can often yield arresting results. Although Mia, with her slick red lips, vampy features and seemingly powerful sexuality (4) , appears as a femme fatale character, her largely unspectacular demise suggests that there is no space for fatales in the suburbs. Her failure as an actress and her later overdose leaves her weak, powerless and deathly pale, a far cry from the sexually potent and glamorous fatales of the classical noir period.

Other themes commonly found within the suburban noir also include the demise of the family unit (5) (note the absence of stable, functional familial relations within Pulp Fiction), the destruction of the ‘American dream’ (Mia’s failure as an actress) and the idea that the ‘safe’ suburbs mask hidden danger and perversity (consider what lurks in the basement of Maynard’s store).

Under Tarantino’s gaze, suburban Los Angeles is a potentially dangerous land of failed dreams and alienation. Within Pulp Fiction, as with many suburban noirs, the suburb is constructed as a site of unexpected danger, and criminality.

Taking noir out of the shadows, despite the supposed safety of good clean family living, suburban noir shows that it takes more than mere daylight to expose the hidden dangers of the contemporary world. This perhaps marks the most striking commonality between classical noir and suburban noir; things are not always as they seem.

 References

(1) Silver, Alan, 1996, ‘Son of Noir: Neo-Film Noir and the Neo-B Picture’, Film Noir Reader, Limelight, New York, p 331

(2) Place, Janey, 1998, ‘Women in Film Noir’ in Women in Film Noir, ed E. Ann Kaplan, London, BFI Publishing, p 51

(3) Yaquinto, Marilyn, 1998, ‘The Prince of Pulp and Royal Hoods’, Pump ‘em Full of Lead: A Look at Gangsters on Film, Twayne, New York, p 228

(4) Hayward, Susan, 1996, Key Concepts in Cinema, Routledge, London, New York, p 118

(5) Klein, Norman M., 1997, “Suburban Noir and Cyberspace”, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the erasure of memory, Verso, London, p 296