When re-watching Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) a few days after watching The Last of England (Jarman, 1988) I was caught by how the deep focus, long take and camera movement creates a sense of montage even in shots which appear to be the antithesis of it. The deep focus allows the audience to flit between both foreground and background creating a juxtaposition of the two of the kind that might be created more traditionally in montage through cutting shots together. When this deep focus is combined with a moving camera in a long take, we find ourselves continually shifting our attention between elements of the images on screen, creating our own, internal montage from a single uncut shot.
Nowhere is this technique more adeptly used than in a scene near the start of Citizen Kane in which the camera opens on a young Charles Foster Kane playing with his sled in the snow outside before pulling back and revealing the inside of his home, where his mother and father are signing away their rights to him.
Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland’s choice of deep focus allows Kane to stay painfully in focus as we watch his parents agree to send him away; creating a tension between the events taking place in the different planes of the shot. The happy Kane is set in opposition to his dour parents, and this comparison infers that these very events are fundamental in making the adult Kane the flawed man that he grows to be; that his deep desire to be loved was born in this very moment. That these two events, shown simultaneously in the same shot by the use of deep focus, create a greater meaning by their juxtaposition is an exemplar of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, the theory on which montage is built, despite the lack of a physical cut.
Similarly, when I watched The Last of England I found its audio montage so densely layered that it was impossible to take it all in at once, I had to choose which elements to listen to, I had pick what I thought was important. This concept of giving the audience the power to choose what they want to focus on, of suggesting rather than telling, is one which is frequently achieved via long take.
I’d always considered long take and montage to be two distinct theories and styles, and although I’ve seen them used together in the same film, I’ve never before noticed the theory of one in the execution of the other, and this intrigues me.
Citizen Kane also fascinates me on a thematic level. It explores thes concept of memory and remembrance by only ever presenting us with a Kane seen through the recollections of others. Kane himself lives his life haunted by the memory of that fateful day in the snow. And his memory of that day is surely represented by the distorted but eternal winter inside the snow globe.
Welles’ sound design seems only to further highlight the fact that we’re watching someone’s recollections (rather than the true events) by having the sound noticeably drop out as the actors and camera separate or move out of frame. It suggests that we (the audience) can’t hear what was said, because the person remembering this moment couldn’t hear what was said when they experienced it. The film also flits between the pivotal moments in Kane’s life, skipping six years from a photograph into a new photo shoot for the same journalists and tracing the course of Kane’s first marriage through a sequence of increasingly discordant breakfasts, mimicking the way in which our minds hold onto what we see as critical moments, but discard the filler.
It’s also notable that Kane is presented as an icon to those around him; he’s idolised and hated, but never truly understood. Who he is is subjective and based on the perception of the person remembering him. Welles references this when Kane talks about being two people, both the shareholder and the publisher, highlighting the different interpretations of his character by those around him. He also alludes this by having Kane collect statutes, which he sends to his employees. These statues are remote icons onto which the viewer can place their own context and meaning, just as those around Kane see him as the person they want to him to be.
Jarman, D., (1988), The Last of England, Anglo International Films
Welles, O., (1941), Citizen Kane, RKO Radio Pictures