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Point of View in Citizen Kane

02/16/2012

Of all the cinematic contributions made by Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane, the narrative innovations are among the most significant.  Where most films would follow Aristotle’s tradition of telling stories that have a beginning, middle and end, Welles, chose to tell the story with roughly the same structure as a newspaper article.

It starts with the big news: Charles Foster Kane is dead.  It then proceeds through a series of interviews with those who knew him best.  The Macguffin here is Kane’s last word, “rosebud.”  The reporters ask everyone they see about it, but there is only one character who has the good sense to say, “I don’t think a man’s life can be summed up by a single word.”

In Eric Von Stroheim’s review of the film, he praises its directing and production design, but harshly criticizes the narratives inherently disruptive nature.  His frustration brings to mind the question of audience empathy.  Who is it that we are identifying with, exactly?  Many people consider Kane to be the protagonist of this story, or perhaps a simultaneous protagonist/antagonist type of character.  But this viewer projection is broken up through the use of interviews and flashbacks.

We cannot track with the life of Kane very well, because we never really get inside his head.  We don’t know what he looks like when he’s alone.  We don’t know what his motivations are.  All we know is what he did; that is, what are the facts of his life.  The essential issue in a narrative analysis of Citizen Kane then, is whom our protagonist actually is, and from what point of view the story is being told.

The only character that we track with chronologically throughout the film is that of Jerry Thompson, the reporter in charge of finding out who/what “rosebud” actually is.  He is primarily presented in shadow, or with his back to the camera, and we are given no biographical information about him.  He is the vessel through which we the audience pose our questions.

But Jerry has no character arc.  And the bulk of the movie is hardly from his point of view anyway.  Rather, he is the connective tissue between collections of memories about the legendary Charles Foster Kane.  The bulk of the film is told through flashbacks, visually represented in the third-person according to which character is telling the story.

Flashbacks in real life will always be in the first person, that is, we do not see ourselves from the outside, and therefore cannot remember what our bodies would have looked like from a third-person vantage point.  But when we are watching a movie, and a character thinks back to his past, we zip through his brain into the past as he saw it, albeit with one key difference, its being in the third-person point of view.

This dichotomy between first and third-person points of view is something that many critics have acknowledged in many films.  There is an interesting preference here, however.  In the Nicholas Cage film, Snake Eyes, flashbacks are shown in the first-person, but interestingly, this technique is considered more distracting, because we are accustomed to project ourselves into characters from the outside in.

As to the question of point of view, it is relevant that these flashbacks do not belong to our reporter.  The audience’s point of view really does shift between characters, making the protagonist a vaporous one.  At the basic level, the foundation for viewer projection is in the reporter, but as soon as the interviews start, we are drawn toward the interviewees.  After all, it is their minds that we are now interacting with.  But in their memories, Charles Foster Kane is this great and terrible man.  We want to get inside his head, so we nearly identify with him.  But as Von Stroheim points out, the fractured sense of narrative completely prevents us tracking with his decisions or motivations.  Thus, when Kane dies at the beginning of the film, we don’t have enough information to care.   It carries no weight.  Kane is not a sufficient vessel for the audience’s emotions.

There is one point of view in the film that I have not yet described, and that is the brief omniscient camera.  It occurs only in the first and last shots of the film.  The first is Kane’s death, where he whispers, “Rosebud.”  The last shot is the reveal of what Rosebud is.  While it is mentioned in the film that someone heard Kane speak the word, we the audience are not seeing this scene through their eyes.  And while there are characters that are involved in the final scene, we are not seeing it from their point of view.  We are seeing it from an omniscient point of view, rolling around telling us what the characters do not know.  Rosebud has its own point of view, that we are briefly privy to.

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