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Citizen Kane is a 1941 drama film directed by Orson Welles and praised for its innovative sound and editing methods in cinematography. Experimenting with creative storytelling techniques and non-linear plot construction, the director treated the time parameter sensitively, replacing time continuity of real scene by a subjective continuity, controlling the rhythm and pace of all scenes. Editing in Citizen Kane shall be analyzed in this essay in detail.
Developing specific editing techniques, Orson Welles constructed the plot from separate fragments and several voices, affecting the spectators’ perception of the plot and emphasizing the impossibility of portraying another personality.
Main Editing Techniques
A jigsaw puzzle is one of the central motifs and techniques used by Orson Welles in his editing experiments. Implementing the principle of psychological associations, Orson develops editing techniques that emphasize the complexity of human personality, which can be seen differently by various storytellers from their specific perspectives.
Thus, involving several storytellers in the process of portraying the characters, the author allows the audience to collect separate fragments and scattered facts that help understand the fractured personalities of the main characters. Some of the fragments are intentionally made contradict each other to produce the impression of a controversial and biased depiction of individuals by storytellers.
As opposed to traditional editing schemes, the technique chosen by the editor for Citizen Kane involves spectators into the process of solving the jigsaw puzzle, making them active participants of the investigation process. Not wholly reliable and controversial evidence provided by friends and associates of the deceased man requires critical evaluation and analysis. Telling a story of the spiritually failed man from several equally not trustworthy perspectives, the author makes Kane’s portrait enigmatic and non-sequential.
Instead of telling the story chronologically, Welles combines it from separate elliptical flashbacks, which represent overlapping segments of the puzzle. Allowing each narrator to express personal opinions and interpretations of the situation, the director intentionally sacrifices the accuracy of their evidence, giving rise to spectators’ doubts concerning the reliability of the narrators’ memories. With the help of specific editing in Citizen Kane, Welles may have intended to suggest that Rosebud, the last word uttered by the main character before his death, is one of the most significant segments of this puzzle.
One of the narrators, Thompson, exclaims: “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle—a missing piece” (Citizen Kane). Making his film a collection of scattered evidence of several storytellers, Welles offers his spectators to solve a jigsaw puzzle, gathering the segments of the characters’ portrayals one by one.
The crosscutting montage of a quick succession of the narrators’ voices produces the impression that the whole town is speaking simultaneously. However, the same technique was also used by Welles for creating different effects, such as showing the growing tension between Kane and his wife through editing the quick succession of the episodes from their breakfast quarrels.
As opposed to the traditional mode according to which one character completes an utterance before the following one starts his/her remark, Welles does not allow the characters of Citizen Kane to express their thoughts till the end, interrupting then with the comments or questions of the following speaker.
The Importance of Editing for the Plot’s Integrity
This editing technique, when the remarks of different narrators are overlapping, and one speaker starts the idea while his follower continues, it demonstrates the integrity of the plot and all its elements. The innovative technique of combining flashbacks and contradicting pieces into a whole shows Welles’ editing art. It was his aesthetic sense, professional skills, and talent that allowed mixing the contradicting segments for producing a particular effect on the audience and achieving specific goals.
The film under consideration demonstrates that editing and other filmmaking techniques can be even more significant than the main actors’ play. Kuleshov and his followers believed that with the advances in the sphere of editing techniques, the importance of traditional acting skills had decreased significantly (Giannetti, 2010).
The film techniques Citizen Kane put the main emphasis upon editing separate episodes and making it a whole. Combining flashbacks produces the desired effect upon spectators. It enhances their understanding of the authors’ messages, which have been encoded not only in the development of the plot lines but also in the manner of presentation of the material.
Thus, the montage of unfinished remarks of different speakers or the episodes at the same location is used for not only tell a story of Kane’s spiritual degradation but also demonstrate the audience how complex and controversial depiction of one individual can be.
Film’s Realism as a Result of Editing Techniques
The original techniques of collecting the jigsaw puzzle from the evidence given by different narrators, a combination of flashbacks, and a quick succession of utterances of different speakers were implemented for creating a more realistic feeling in the scenes of the film. On the one hand, narrators are shown with all their human weaknesses, including bias and subjective interpretation of particular events.
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By the way, most Kane’s associates telling his story are elderly and forgetful. Thus, working in the realistic key, Welles allows his narrators to age, and this circumstance adds a unique appeal to their narration. On the other hand, the combination of overlapping and frequently contradicting segments and flashbacks shows spectators how multi-sided and controversial the depiction of an individual can be.
As is clear from the analysis essay on Citizen Kane, these techniques involve the audience in the process of investigating the case, requiring their critical analysis of the information retrieved from unreliable sources. To give the spectators food for thought and make them active participants of the development of the plot lines, Welles used innovative editing techniques, violating the chronological principle and altering traditional dialogue and storytelling patterns. At the same time, the support of the director in decoding his messages cannot be underestimated.
For instance, the meaning of the rosebud, which was the central enigma of the whole story has been disclosed until the end of the film. Surprisingly, the rosebud appeared to be the name of the sled from Kane’s childhood, the only period in his life when he was truly happy. The film Citizen Kane tells a story of the ups and downs of the main character.
Thus, creating the links between the words of a dying man and his memories of careless childhood, the author conveys raises a philosophical issue of the meaning of human happiness. Electrifying the audience during the development of the plot lines, Welles provides them with more questions than answers and preserves the enigmatic atmosphere until the end of the story.
Orson Welles used innovative editing techniques in Citizen Kane, ignoring the chronological parameter of the narration and altering the traditional dialogue and shots techniques. The jigsaw puzzle portrayal of the main characters and the quick succession of different voices create a more realistic feeling of the scenes and affect the spectators’ perception of the movie.
Giannetti, L. (2010). Understanding movies. New York, NY: Allyn & Bacon.
Welles, O. (Producer and Director). (1941). Citizen Kane. [Motion picture]. United States: RKO Pictures.