What Works & What Doesn't: 'Citizen Kane'
Welcome once again to What Works & What Doesn't, whereby we look at the craft of screenwriting by examining elements from classic films and determining whether they're effective or not.
Last month, we explored the dynamics of a well-written scene by deconstructing the opener to Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avery's seminal film Pulp Fiction, specifically how beats are used to turn a scene page by page, generating intrigue (and thus audience interest) by reversing the values set at the beginning. For this month's installment, we're going to go one step further and discuss sequences, which are a collection of scenes strung together to further unravel the narrative, generate deeper audience intrigue, and either tighten or undermine the values of previous sequences. Think of the sequence as a scene, with the same set of rules governing its dynamics, only BIGGER.
And when we're talking about Big Sequences, why not mine from one of the Biggest movies in history, featuring one of cinema's Biggest characters, one so big his name's in the title. I'm talking, of course, about Citizen Kane, Orson Welles's first film, the one least maligned by studio influence, and thus arguably his best. It's not only recognized as a classic, but some even consider it the greatest film ever made. And whether it's a film you enjoy re-watching (as I do) or not, once you begin to closely examine its structure, it's hard to disagree with such a bold opinion.
So let's jump right in, starting by—as usual—a word from a screenwriting 101 guru.
The Sequence Defined
For a solid definition of a sequence, consider this paragraph from Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting:
Beats build scenes. Scenes then build the next largest movement of story design, the Sequence. Every true scene turns the value-charged condition of the character's life, but from event to event the degree of change can differ greatly. Scenes cause relatively minor yet significant change. The capping scene of a sequence, however, delivers a more powerful, determinant change.
A SEQUENCE is a series of scenes—generally two to five—that culminates with greater impact than any previous scene.
Pretty straightforward, yeah? If not, just hang tight, as we're going to next deconstruct a few sequences from Citizen Kane that best encompass this definition. We're going to take the same analytical approach as that used for Pulp Fiction last month, examining what works and what doesn't about the sequence in question as we go along.
Ready? Let's go.
What Works & What Doesn't
Citizen Kane is a extraordinary example of non-linear storytelling, whereby the mysterious life of Charles Foster Kane is slowly revealed through the investigation of a journalist named Thompson, tasked with discovering the meaning of Kane's deathbed word, "Rosebud." Quite brilliantly, Thompson is mostly shot from behind, and when his face is shown, it is usually obscured by shadow, a detail which is written into the actual script:
It is important to remember always that only at the very end of the story is Thompson himself a personality. Until then, throughout the picture, -- we photograph only Thompson's back, shoulders, or his shadow -- sometimes we only record his voice. He is not until the final scene a "character." He is the personification of the search for the truth about Charles Foster Kane.
This approach to Thompson effectively casts the audience in the investigative role. As Thompson searches, we learn more and more about Kane—albeit in a patchwork manner, like slowly putting together a puzzle, all the while searching for that integral piece that will finally put the whole picture together (that puzzles are a recurring visual motif in this film is no accident).
Writers Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz begin this sprawling narrative by first showing us Kane's equally sprawling estate, Xanadu, complete with a zoo and a mote. This is the first bit of intrigue, giving us virtually nothing of the man save his enormous mansion, this near-parody of stylish, wealthy living. Welles and Mankiewicz then take us inside the mansion, to the grandiose bedroom where protagonist Kane lies on his oversized mattress. He utters the now iconic word "Rosebud," and dies. We next see a meticulously crafted newsreel piece on the life of Kane, which gives the audience a basic overview of who this man was—a newspaper man who unsuccessfully ran for governor at one point in his career and who found himself at the center of numerous scandals (a character modeled after real-life newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst).
Following the newsreel, we pan back from a movie screen to reveal a press room, where the piece has just been screened. The head honcho Rawlston isn't satisfied.
...Thompson, you've made us a good short, but it needs character --
That's it -- motivation -- What made Kane what he was? And, for that matter, what was he? -- What we've just seen are the outlines of a career -- what's behind the career? What's the man? Was he good or bad? -- Strong or foolish? -- Tragic or silly? Why did he do all those things? What was he after?
Rawlston's words effectively sum up what the audience is thinking at this point in the narrative. We see where the man lived, a place far bigger than he. We hear him speak, but he only says one cryptic word, and then dies. We learn the surface details from Thompson's newsreel, but we're still left asking, just who IS this Charles Foster Kane?
Now, it should be clear that the actions described above are a collection of scenes that build up to a story event, also known as an inciting incident. A broader discussion of the inciting incident and its importance within a script is a topic for another time, but real quick let's turn to McKee for a definition:
The Inciting Incident, the first major event of the telling [of a story], is the primary cause for all that follows...
It is clear that Rawlston's dissatisfaction with Thompson's newsreel and his desire to learn the meaning of Rosebud is the inciting incident, because it generates every story event or plot turn that follows. Had Rawlston given the okay on the piece, there wouldn't be a movie at all. Thus, we can identify everything we've already seen—Kane's mansion and his death, the newsreel, and Rawlston's subsequent dismissal of the piece as "not enough" as a sequence, right?
However, identifying sequences can be a bit difficult at times, and the placement of scenes within the architecture of a sequence can make or break the sequence. Consider the scene that follows the inciting incident: Thompson goes to El Rancho, a "cheap cabaret" in Atlantic City where the second ex-missus Kane, Susan, performs "Twice Nightly." He finds Susan drunk and antagonistic, and is told by a Captain (perhaps the boss or doorman) to come back in a week. Thompson asks the man about Kane's last word, but he states Susan "never heard of Rosebud."
Following this, we see Thompson enter the Thatcher Memorial Library, to read the personal papers of Walter Thatcher, who we saw previously in the newsreel. Kane become Thatcher's ward at a young age, and given that Susan was a bust (for the moment), Thompson decides to research the closest thing to a father Kane ever had. We see here one of the most famous and elegant transitions in film history, whereby the white paper on which Thompson has written his memoir becomes a snow-blanketed field, the inky period of Thatcher's sentence becoming a snowball that young Charlie Kane throws directly at the camera.
In successive scenes, we see innocent little Charlie Kane become ruthless businessman Charles Foster Kane, but again, only through the eyes of Thatcher, whose relationship with Kane is decidedly icy. We learn a few things about the man, but not from someone who was at all close to Kane, and we still have no clue what Rosebud means. Thompson leaves the library tired and a little wistful, but still determined to solve this mystery (though of course that final puzzle piece was right under Thompson's nose, and he didn't even know it).
Now, let's consider the structure here. We begin with the "framing story" of Thompson entering the library and reading Thatcher's papers, followed by a stream of quick scenes showing Kane attempting to become "everything [Thatcher] hates." Then, we cut back to the library, where Thompson leaves. The values from his entrance are changed when he exits, because he now has more information, more leads as to the whereabouts of this Rosebud, be it a person or an object. But at the same time, Thompson is also less exuberant about his task than before, because he's getting his first glimpses as to just how sad Kane's life truly was—the man who had everything clearly didn't have everything. The true extent of this tragedy has yet to be revealed, but it is almost as though Thompson (and, vicariously, us) senses the maladies to come.
In this way, we can identify these scenes involving Thatcher's memoirs collectively as a sequence.
But if we can recognize those scenes from the film's opener to Thompson being charged with discovering Rosebud's meaning in the press screening room as a sequence, then where does the scene at El Rancho with Susan belong? I think it's safe to say we can't place it at the end of the first sequence, as the inciting incident acts as the perfect button for not only that scene, but also the sequence. However, it feels decidedly out of place being the first scene in the library sequence, given that all other information comes from Thatcher—the action is centered around his accounts of Kane and is perfectly framed by the scenes of Thompson reading in the library. Moreover, we don't see the investigator go back to El Rancho until much later in the film, Susan's story being one of the last told, one of the last pieces to be placed in the puzzle.
So what do we make of this initial El Rancho scene? Bear in mind that we aren't dealing with an instance where the first half of Susan's scenes in the cabaret were excised in the editing room and moved earlier in the film; Welles and Mankiewicz wrote this brief glimpse of Susan into the script, appearing exactly where it does in the final cut. Is it simply that this scene is standalone, that it provides a kind of bridge between the two long sequences prior to and following the action in El Rancho? This explanation best validates the scene's placement at this point in the narrative—not to mention that seeking out Kane's ex-wife is the logical first step, since who else but a former spouse would be able to provide the most intimate details of the man behind the career, as Rawlston put it?
Instances like this are when the "What works and what doesn't" test becomes essential. From a narrative flow standpoint, it might seem odd on paper to place the El Rancho scene in between two long sequences, but ultimately when analyzing the film's construction, you have to consider whether or not the odd choice works or not. And part of this process is imagining the scene appearing anywhere else in the film—perhaps lumped in with the latter El Rancho scenes and Susan's accompanying flashback? (This is, by the way, the basic structure upheld throughout Citizen Kane—Thompson interviews one of Kane's friends, co-workers or acquaintances in present day, with flashback "reenactments" of their remembrances.) Really imagine Susan's first appearance popping up anywhere else in Citizen Kane, and ask yourself, does that work?
I think you'll find it doesn't. The scene in its proper placement within the narrative serves, as previously mentioned, as the next logical step for Thompson and for the viewer. But it also acts as a short breather, an interlude between two long sequences, which is especially important, given that Thompson goes from reading in Thatcher's library to speaking with Bernstein, a man who worked with Kane for several years in the newspaper business—which of course features the requisite flashback to Bernstein's primary experiences with Kane. The El Rancho scene isn't a part of either sequence it's sandwiched between, but rather it's own entity, a slice of a sequence to come.
But ultimately, the El Rancho scene's placement is integral to the narrative because it grazes at the truth we crave, and it hints at perhaps uncomfortable truths we weren't necessarily anticipating. Remember, Susan is trashed and screams at Thompson to get out. She's distraught over Kane's death, but we get the sense not out of grief, but because of deeper wounds, intimate details about the man that will dispel the myth. It's as though instead of a life, we're searching for a diamond: this scene is akin to seeing the diamond encased in glass across the room, light shimmering off its crystalline surface, but being unable to get within ten feet of it—it is just out of our reach. (Tellingly, Thompson next reads Thatcher's memoirs, a man not particularly close to Kane, and then he interviews Bernstein, who was about as close as a business associate could get to a man, but was decidedly not intimate with Kane). In every way imaginable, this initial El Rancho scene is a teaser, meant to give a jolt of intrigue that keeps the audience invested in Thompson's further research, lets some of that electricity we witnessed in the cabaret seeps into the successive scenes and sequences.
I encourage you to seek out Welles and Mankiewicz's script for Citizen Kane and pour through it, taking particular note of the sequences described above. In the comments section, let us know your thoughts on the placement of the El Rancho scene, as well as any other structural elements you find odd or intriguing (or both) throughout the pages.
Until next time.
***FYI: The Kindle edition of Robert McKee's Story (linked below) is on sale for $1.99 right now. I highly suggest snatching this one up if you don't already own it.
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