How Does Orson Welles Move Us Back And Forward In Time In ‘Citizen Kane’?
Citizen Kane begins with confirmation of death of the main character, Charles Foster Kane. A news report follows, that condenses the 70 years of Charles Foster Kane's life into a few minutes. The news report is not in chronological order, yet the order in which it is presented is microcosmic of the order of events in the proceeding scenes of Citizen Kane. Conventionally the death of the main character and detailing the events of the main character's life on which the Film's narrative is based would signify the end of a Hollywood Film. But in Citizen Kane the death of the main character and flashbacks from his life are an introduction to a jigsaw puzzle which is built up in the proceeding scenes in no specific order through a series of sequences from varying perspectives. A somewhat near complete portrait of Kane is progressively revealed. This introduction informs the viewer what Kane did, but not how he did it and who he was.
Following the news report Welles cuts to the projection room where the report was projected. Welles reveals a room full of Journalist's just before the end of the report. By abruptly cutting from the obituary news report of Charles Foster Kane's life, Welles places the viewer in the present. By placing the viewer in the present with the journalists, Welles creates suspense. In the previous two scenes inform the viewer learns of the results of Kane's actions but Welles neglects to show the events that led to those results. What follows is the exploits of a Journalist referred to as Thompson. Thompson seeks to learn more of who Kane really was and what his last word 'Rosebud' meant. Thompson becomes a vehicle for the Citizen Kane diegesis to be fully explored. Thompson interviews the people that mattered to Kane, his former wife Susan Alexander, and close colleagues, Bernstein and Leland. Through these interviews a portrait of Charles Foster Kane is gradually composed.
Thompson first visits the library of Kane's former guardian, Thatcher. Thompson reads through Thatcher's manuscript in search of more detail on Kane. Thompson seeks information related to Thatcher's and Kane's relationship and an explanation of the term 'Rosebud', which was Kane's last word before dieing. Welles uses Thompson and his act of reading the manuscript as a trigger for montage of the contents of the manuscript. This moves events back in time and the viewer thus sees a representation of Thatcher's manuscript represented in a chronological order. The reappearance of Thatcher library officials trigger the end of the montage and move the viewer from a Thatcher orientated representation of sequences of Kane's life to the present time.
Thompson then proceeds to conduct a series of interviews with people close to Kane. He begins with Bernstein. Like the manuscript, Welles uses Bernstein's story telling as a trigger for a flashback sequence. While the order of the sequence is chronological, some of the scenes return to previous moments in time shown in the previous flash back's at Thatcher's library. By returning to previous times of history that were shown in the Thatcher manuscript montage, Welles shows events in greater detail for instance in the Thatcher flashback the viewer learns that Kane buys the inquirer, but in the Bernstein flashback the viewer learns in greater detail of the time when Kane took over the inquirer. As the flashback is from Bernstein, it is from his perspective â€“ Bernstein is ever present throughout the scenes of the flashback â€“ this helps the viewer develop a more rounded opinion on Kane's character. As Bernstein's flashback ends, and the narrative returns to the present time, Bernstein and Thompson introduce the next interview, with Leland.
As with Thompson and the following flashbacks Welles uses the interviewee in this case Leland a device for going back in time in the Citizen Kane diegesis. Even though events in Leland's flashback correlate with events in previous flashbacks and the viewer knows the result of such events, Welles nevertheless manages to create suspense. Previous flashbacks have introduced the end results of certain events. The viewer knows that Kane's marriage deteriorates and his political career fails from the 'News On The March' news report at the start of Citizen Kane. All the viewer does not know in relation to those events is when Kane's political career fails and when his marriage fails and how his political career and marriage fail. This combination of the viewer knowing the end result without being told how and when the end result is reached create the suspense. This uncertainty is coupled with the fact that Welles used another vehicle in order to project a representation of Kane, by portraying the memories of Leland in a montage.
Kane develops further and increasing suspense throughout Citizen Kane with the recurring motif of 'Rosebud'. As the viewer is taken on a journey from past to present through the eyes and memories of various sources, i.e. Thatchers manuscript, Bernstein, Leland, former wife Susan Alexander and the Xanadu manager (Raymond), Thompson continues to investigate the meaning behind 'Rosebud'; obtaining an individual perspective different to the other in relation to a possible explanation of 'Rosebud'. It is not until the end of Citizen Kane is the 'Rosebud' mystery arguably solved, and the suspense built up throughout the previous scenes of the film is met with a resolution.
Through the movement forward and backwards in time, facilitated by the use of the above mentioned vehicles for that movement, Welles creates a form of pulsating rhythmic montage that is constantly alternating. Within the Bernstein flashback, the viewer learns of the Inquirer's growth through a series of quick shots that are cut equally together that condense a number of years around a minute of actual screen time. Welles use of montage within flashbacks is not limited to Bernstein's, but in all of Welles use of this technique, no great detail is shown. Any detail that is significant to the narrative and is introduced briefly in one montage is revisited in another: Such as the montage showing Susan Alexander's opera career. The career is first mentioned in the montage of shots in the 'News On the March' news report at the start of the film, then developed further later on in the film in Susan Alexander's flashback.
Welles insistence on moving backwards and forwards in time to develop further previous sequences of information and show new sequences of information, leaves the onus to the viewer to connect the events spatially and chronologically themselves. It could be argued that Welles insistence that the onus to connect events chronologically be left to viewer, is potentially confusing. It could perhaps be more successfully argued that by using this technique Welles maintains an element of mystery that even in the end is not really solved. The viewer has to continually balance reordering events into a chronological order with digesting new and developing information as Citizen Kane progresses which further emerges the viewer in the Film and to some extent places them in the story.
In conclusion Welles use of abrupt cutting from firstly, Thatcher's manuscript montage to transform from one time to another introduces a concept of Temporal Frequency used throughout the rest of the film. Orson Welles uses various triggers for flashback's, that introduce topics such as Kane's time at the inquirer which at first is not explained in any great detail but is later shown in detail in further flashbacks through the use of further triggers such as interviews with Kane's close colleagues Bernstein and Leland. By introducing such topics in previous flashbacks and later developing them, Welles builds suspense that captivates the viewer and to some extent gives them a stake in the story and explanation of Kane's life. The use of different people who interacted with Kane throughout his life, his wife and colleagues etc, helps build a progressive portrait of Kane from different perspectives. The introduction of topics and events in Kane's life in one Montage and reappearance in another, often reappear in the form of montage sequences: Through the use of quick cutting in these montage sequences, in combination with the rest of the Film, a sense of rhythm is developed which further excites the viewer. The use of 'Rosebud' as a recurring motif throughout the flashbacks and interviews conducted by Thompson, further develops suspense and introduces a sense of mystery that even in the end of Citizen Kane is perhaps not really solved. The effect of switching back to a time previously explored is that the viewer sees events in greater detail and as Welles uses different character's to trigger these flashback's the viewer sees Kane in different perspectives and in these different perspectives perhaps we learn the greatest truths to Kane's character free from individual bias or opinion. The continual alternation in time from the present time of Thompson investigating Kane's life, to flashbacks of Kane's life from various perspectives, in no set chronological order places the onus on the viewer to assemble event. Coupled with the suspense and excitement previously developed by Welles, the onus to assemble events is left to the viewer: Orson Welles insistence that the onus of assembling events is left the viewer, coupled with the suspense and excitement previously developed through the use of film-making techniques emerses the viewer even further into the story and gives them a stake in the outcome of various events of the life of Charles Foster Kane.