Posts Tagged ‘ Richard Strauss ’

“Love on my terms …”

Citizen Kane at 75

1. Leland’s recollection (“Not that Charlie was ever brutal, he just did brutal things.”).
Leland (Joseph Cotten): “Hello, Charlie. I didn’t know we were speaking.”
Kane (Orson Welles): “Sure we’re speaking, Jedediah. You’re fired.”

Citizen Kane, which for long periods has been saddled with the title of “greatest film ever made,” had its general American release 75 years ago this past month, on September 5, 1941.  (It had premieres in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles the previous May. The interval from then until its general release was filled with threats, legal review, unwillingness of distributors to show the film, etc.) The movie never enjoyed great popular success. It failed to recover its relatively modest cost during its initial run, although a large part of that failure was owing to the determined opposition of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who used his vast media empire to bluster and smear those associated with the project (including director Orson Welles, whom was repeatedly called a Communist by Hearst newspapers) and whose associates vaguely threatened reprisal because Hearst himself was the none-too-secret model for the main character.  The major Hollywood studios, which owned the distribution networks at the time, did what Hollywood does best—they cravenly capitulated, restricting distribution, fearing the worst and acted to avoid bad publicity. (It would not be the first, or even the most spectacular, of Hollywood’s cowardice-induced paralysis. Its actual cravenness to the powerful and rich and even just the conventional helps explain why it so often champions movies about those who stood up to the powerful and rich and the conventional.) Louis B. Mayer of M-G-M, a friend of Hearst, even offered RKO $842,000, well above the production costs, to destroy the negative and all prints.

The Beatification of Citizen Kane

The critical response, in contrast to the tepid box office response, was enthusiastic. In fact it was the unanimous acclaim of the leading newspaper and magazine critics (outside the Hearst empire, of course) that goaded RKO to release the film. Many critics wrote that it was flat-out the best movie they had ever seen. Most pointed out the innovative technical and stylistic aspects of the film. The acting was also considered superior.

2. Boss Jim W. Gettys watches as Kane makes his one campaign promise:

2. Boss Jim W. Gettys watches as Kane makes his one campaign promise: “My first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W. Gettys!”

The enthusiasm of the critics was unable to persuade distributors to risk the wrath of the unethical and megalomaniacal Hearst and his vast empire of yellow journalism outlets. It was not just that the empire could libel with impunity, it also could refuse advertisements in the local papers by the distributors for other films. Smear was also a tactic. “Communism,” even before World War II, was an effective way to ruin a reputation, and the Hearst empire more than once accused Welles, who had been actively anti-Fascist in the New York theater, of being a fellow-traveller. Being tarred with communism meant that everyone or thing that was associated with the target, however indirectly, even (or especially) a small town movie theater, would be tarred as well. RKO threatened to sue the studios if their distributors refused to accept the film. So some paid for it, but didn’t show it. Others only showed it a few times. The movie really had no chance for box-office success, and in Hollywood that is the one criteria that movies are judged by.

So as with all American movies of the time, it descended into oblivion after a short run. At the time there was not the secondary markets for films that exist today (television, art houses, home entertainment, for example). So when a film ended its run, it usually ended its claim on public attention. Ultimately it was French intellectuals who resurrected interest in the film.

Jean-Paul Sartre saw the film in a private showing in the United States in 1945 and reviewed the film in L’Ecran français in August. He allowed that the film “was the work of an intellectual,” but that was hardly complementary to Welles, for Sartre, who after failing to generate interest in a literary underground in occupied Paris, spent his time during the war writing radical pieces that never offended the Nazi censors and after the occupation began espousing the uselessness of intellectualism in art, as something divorced from politics and therefore backward looking. Sartre was promoting art that emphasized the future, and one that had a decidedly political orientation, and Citizen Kane, he felt, was “a story in the past tense” where “everything is dead.” (Welles was not even the worst offender here. Sartre felt that all of Zola’s work portrayed a “false disorder” where everything obeyed the “narrowest kind of determinism.”) Citizen Kane was not the kind of work that would be useful for the French, Sartre concluded, however much it was of interest to the Americans, presumably in the cultural hinterlands.

4. The pivotal meeting between Kane and Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). Kane:

3. The pivotal meeting between Kane and Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore).
Kane: “What are you laughing at, young lady?” …
Alexander: “You’re funny, Mister. You’ve got dirt on your face.”

When the movie was shown in Paris in July 1946, however, French critics, not carrying the cultural baggage of Sartre, saw the film as revolutionary. Roger Leenhardt, who was an important film critic and who had argued that sound technology provided the means by which works of genuine realism could be made, hailed Citizen Kane as a work of genius. Bazin, Leenhardt’s protege, expanded on this observation in an essay tracing the history of cinema from its beginning to the emergence of post-war Italian neo-realism. In this history Bazin found Citizen Kane as its most important inflection point. Bazin believed that the cinematic convention of camera work which had developed in D.W. Griffith’s time had calcified a decade into the sound era. Shot editing had allowed the director to focus the audience’s attention on particular aspects of a scene. This may have been essential in pre-sound days (where cards could hardly support all of the audience cues) but by the late 1930s it had become a lazy convention that obstructed, rather than aided, a realistic version of events. Bazin explained it this way in “An Aesthetic of Reality”:

“Classical editing, derived from Griffith, separated reality into successive shots which were just a series of either logical or subjective points of view of an event. A man locked in a cell is waiting for the arrival of his executioner. His anguished eyes are on the door At the moment the executioner is about to enter we can be quite sure that the director will cut to a close shot of the door handle as it slowly turns. This close-up is justified psychologically by the victim’s concentration on the symbol of his extreme distress. It is this ordering of the shots, this conventional analysis of the reality continuum, that truly goes to make up cinematographic language of the period.”

Bazin wrote that Welles in Citizen Kane broke with this tradition by restoring “to cinematographic illusion a fundamental quality of reality—its continuity.” He did this by several means but principally by a static shot with a wider angle than was traditional and deep focus allowing the audience to see from the back of the visual set to the foreground in equal definition. This also had a number of collateral consequences, such as allowing the viewer freedom to survey the entire scene and requiring the actors to act more naturally rather than confining them to close-up speaking and reaction shots.

These features were expanded upon and detailed in the 1950s in pieces by Bazin and his followers in the journal he founded, Cahiers du cinéma, the French vehicle that gave cinema, for the first time,  a claim to intellectual and cultural importance. The Cahiers writers had their own programme, related mostly to criticisms of the then current state of French film, and Kane provided what seemed to be a point for point counter-example for the failings of French cinema. But above all, Bazin argued that the director was, or should be, truly the auteur of the film, much as a novel was the author’s work. Kane happened to nicely prove this point because Orson Welles, had been able, as a result of his string of successes and resulting publicity in New York theater and national radio, to negotiate with the RKO a contract that gave him complete control over the film, an unheard of liberty (and one that made long-time studio functionaries so jealous that they laid in wait to pounce on what they hoped would be Welles’s failure to deliver). Moreover, Welles’s theatrical background gave him experience in every aspect of stagecraft that a film required, from costumes to make-up to sets to lighting to script editing, and so forth. And he used all of his experience, combined with the impetuosity of youth and that of the brilliant associates he collaborated with, in his first film.

4. After the defeat. Kane: “Toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows.”

Much of the match between Welles’s instinct and Bazin’s prescription for the New Wave, came simply from Welles’s theater background. For example, a great deal of the problem of staging a play is to have the characters project into the audience (usually by facing it). Bazin objected to the cliché of cutting from one full-face close-up to the other when two characters were talking. Welles, who never liked the close-up shot to begin with, simply staged the movie as he would stage a play, often with both characters facing the audience (see, e.g., #1 , #3, #4, #14, #19). Ceilings, Bazin’s indicium of the restraints on human activity as well as further visual evidence that the characters were inhabiting a realistic environment, simply were the natural result of the “frog’s eye view” (as Marlena Dietrich put it much later), a signature of Welles’s cinematography from then on— and similar to the way audience members in the orchestra saw a play (seee.g., #4, #15, #16). And that special “trick” that Welles’s and cinematographer Gregg Toland worked so hard to achieve (and did so spectacularly)—deep focus—was theatrical rather than typically cinematographic. Plays are static shots in which characters moved from front to back as well as side to side, and therefore were inherently more three-dimensional than the flat screen had become. The convention that had grown so stale in film, the facial close-up, was of course unknown in theater and something that Welles only sparingly used in his film career, was another instance where Bazin’s objections lined up with Welles’s instinctive practices.

There was some resistance to Bazin’s sweeping assessment of Citizen Kane, mostly by those who pointed out that certain stylistic innovations had been used, or at least prefigured, by others, such as films with scenes having greater than normal depth of field and those employing non-chronological narrative. While he was able to distinguish such counter-examples, his point, he said, was larger than the invention of particular visual or stylistic points; rather, it was that the particular use of them together formed a narrative style, which so differed from convention that it created a new cinematic language:

“The novelty of language, cinematic or otherwise, must be understood from the point of view of style, not from the point of view of vocabulary or syntax. … [E]ven if Welles did not invent the cinematic devices employed in Citizen Kane, one should nevertheless credit him with the invention of their meaning. His way of ‘writing’ is undoubtedly his own. I don/t mean the mere architecture of the story, although the ordering of the film’s scenes is worthy of our consideration. In this sense the connection between Citizen Kane and the novels of  Dos Passos is obvious. … The substitution for the classical story of a kind of jigsaw puzzle, whose pieces are provided by the memories of a series of witnesses, can hardly be traced to The Power and  the Glory (1933) or even Marie-Martine (1943).”

5. Kane brins back a President's niece as the staff of the Inquirer watches through a window.

5. Kane brings back a President’s niece as the staff of the Inquirer watches through a window.

The last sentence was a response to Sartre who claimed the narrative structure derived from two movies, the later of which was released two years after Citizen Kane. The earlier movie, The Power and the Glory, written by Preston Sturges, was noted by both Sartre and Borges (see below) as a possible influence on the structure of the Welles’s movie. Bazin showed how the non-chronological nature of Sturges’s screenplay functioned in a way unlike Citizen Kane. Nevertheless, Pauline Kael, in her attempted take down of Orson Welles, claimed the structure of Citizen Kane to be borrowed from it. She based her argument only on recollection, however, since a print of the film had been lost until after her essay (discussed below) was published.

When Citizen Kane had a limited revival run in 1956, Andrew Sarris was writing for Film Culture. Sarris had not long before spent a year in Paris where he became associated with Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, both of whom had deeply imbibed Bazin and contributed to the Cahiers du cinéma agenda.  Within four years he became film critic for the Village Voice, where he would become America’s foremost critic and from which he espoused the film theory of the Cahiers du cinéma crowd. But in 1956 Sarris wrote an influential reappraisal of Citizen Kane, this time the focus was on the narrative structure and “meaning,” not its technical innovations.

6. Thompson at Thatcher Library. The formal, implacable rules of the institutionalized history of the great and powerful obscure rather than reveal genuine motivations.

6. Thompson watches the ritual at Thatcher Library. The formal, implacable rules of the institutionalized history of the wealthy and powerful are designed to obscure rather than reveal genuine motivations and justify wealth and power.

Sarris saw Citizen Kane, not as a collection of self-referential techniques nor as a film that subordinated content to style, but rather as a work that has “inner consistency of theme, structure, and technique.” He viewed the theme as the progressive hollowing out of Kane’s inner life and the narrative means of the Rosebud detective story:

“Within the maze of its own aesthetic, Kane develops two interesting themes: the debasement of the private personality of the public figure, and the crushing weight of materialism. Taken together, these two themes comprise the bitter irony of an American success story that ends in futile nostalgia, loneliness, and death. The fact that the personal theme is developed verbally while the materialistic theme is developed visually creates a distinctive stylistic counterpoint. Against this counterpoint, the themes unfold within the structure of a mystery story.”

The themes are embedded in the overall structure of the film. The movie begins with the “intense reality of the fence” (the objective world) and then moves into the “fantastic unreality of the castle” (the world that Kane had constructed for himself). At the end, the camera performs the reverse operation: “[T]he mystic pretension of the castle dissolves into the mundane substance of the fence. Matter has come full circle from its original quality to the grotesque baroque of its excess.”

“As each flashback unfolds, the visual scenario of Citizen Kane orchestrates the dialogue. A universe of ceilings dwarfs Kane’s personal stature. He becomes the prisoner of his possession, the ornament of his furnishings, the fiscal instrument of his collections. His booming voice is muffled by walls, carpets, furniture, hallways, stairs, and vast recesses of useless space.”

The distinctive camera work of the film is not simply a matter of style, nor eve just a means of enhancing the realism of the scenes. It is a metaphorical illustration of the theme. Story and style worked together to comprise a work of art.

This summing up became the accepted critical consensus. And for a decade it became commonplace to consider Citizen Kane the most influential, if not the “best,” film of all time.

The Kael-ing of Citizen Kane


7. To Thatcher (George Coulouris) the Inquirer was an outrage. And for Kane, his populism was perhaps merely a weapon for his unresolved Oedipal rage.

Pauline Kael rose to fame (and obtained her job at the New Yorker) for being a contrarian. She championed Bonnie and Clyde while critic at middlebrow McCall’s. They wouldn’t print it. She was eventually let go because she condemned every big budget movie Hollywood produced. Her point of view was somewhat contradictory. She equated popularity with trash (and she condemned popular movies), but claimed that movies arose from trash (and disliked movies that strayed too far from their origins): “Movies took their impetus not from the desiccated, imitation European high culture, but from the peep show, the Wild West show, the music hall, the comic strip—from what was coarse and common.” And nothing represented “desiccated, imitation European high culture” more than the auteur approach to film and its American representative, Andrew Sarris, who would become her nemesis. She was therefore an odd choice to write the introduction to Citizen Kane (the movie lauded by “desiccated, imitation European high culture”) when Bantam Books decided to publish the movie’s shooting script (and other production notes). But in hindsight it was entirely predictable that she would use the opportunity to attempt to take down Welles, who was the big game of hunters like herself of “auteur theory,” an approach she entirely rejected (at least then).

The essay she produced, entitled “Raising Kane,” was the longest extended work of her career. It appeared in two successive issues of the New Yorker in February 1971 before it was later that year published in The Citizen Kane Book by Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Little, Brown. Kael’s goal was to show that Welles was not solely (or principally?) responsible for the movie. Since nearly everyone responsible for major aspects of the movie had publicly attested to Welles’s guiding hand in each department, she was left with only one area to attack Welles, the screenplay.

Welles took only co-writing credit together with long-time Hollywood screenwriter (and recent Welles collaborator) Herman J. Mankiewicz. At the time Welles had engaged him to produce a draft of the story they agreed on, Mankiewicz was nearly an outcast in Hollywood owing to his alcoholism and unpredictable behavior. Welles had previously used him to create radioscripts from popular books for the weekly national radio program, The Campbell Playhouse, that Welles and John Houseman produced for CBS Radio. When Welles arrived in Hollywood with his new RKO contract, he had the idea of filming a version of Heart of Darkness shot by a camera recording events from the narrator’s eye view (a story that he adapted for sceen himself). When that concept proved prohibitively expensive, he began casting about for a new project. He discussed the matter with Mankiewicz, and after some time they came up with the idea of creating an original screenplay based on a mogul in the likeness of William Randolph Hearst. Mankiewicz was full of gossip about Hearst and even knew him slightly, having attended parties given by Marion Davies, the actress who Hearst had set up in California to be away from his New York wife’s prying eyes. (Davies would become the model for Susan Alexander in the movie.) Welles agreed to hire Mankiewicz come up with the first draft, but first, wary of Mankiewicz’s notorious binge drinking, Welles set him up in a sanctuary outside of Los Angeles and engaged his long-time producer John Houseman to ensure Mankiewicz worked rather than drink. From there Mankiewicz produced a first draft, with some help from Houseman, that they sent to Welles. Other drafts were generated from the comments and personal visits from Welles and eventually a script was produced. The shooting script included in The Citizen Kane Book was the final written draft, approved by RKO, but even it differs drastically in some places from what appeared on screen. Nevertheless, Mankiewicz probably saw his work as the last (and undoubtedly best) item in his legacy and began claiming that Welles had little, if any, input. When the screen writing was the only Oscar (out of nine nominations) won by Citizen Kane (Hollywood in the end had its revenge on Orson Welles, the boy wonder; he never won another Oscar), Mankiewicz publicly claimed the he only, and not Welles, deserved all the credit and that the writing was what carried the movie.

Relying solely on reports of comments by Mankiewicz (who had been dead for two decades at the time) and information from his living allies, and not calling Welles (or most of those involved in the production) at all, Kael used the occasion of her supposed appreciation of Citizen Kane to make the case that Welles had no responsibility for the script of the movie except, perhaps, for occasional superficial “consultations” with Mankiewicz. The essay is not a model of persuasive writing. It begins with a long detour into the history of the “coarse and common” of American film history, especially the “flapper” and “zany” comedies of the silent and early sound era. She details Mankiewicz’s roles in many of those movies and then attempts to show how those movies led into the “girl reporter” movies like Front Page. Mankiewicz had nothing to do with Front Page, but Ben Hecht did, and he was a friend of Mankiewicz and also a newspaperman from New York before coming to Hollywood, just like Mankiewicz, so she weaves it into her thread. She describes the “girl reporter” movies that followed, showed their similarity to earlier comedies and argued that these were predecessors to Citizen Kane. Since Citizen Kane had not even a superficial resemblance to these comedies, other than it also involved journalism (but no girl eporter), she makes the assertion, evidently to persuade those who never saw the film or were planning to, that  Welles’s film derived from the  “commercial comedy tradition” —and is “practically a collection of blackout sketches … ,” the form that Mankiewicz had specialized in. It was a bizarre form of analysis, but her “direct” evidence that Welles had no responsibility for the script was even worse. Kael’s argument depended for direct evidence on industry gossip solely from those who had axes to grind against Welles (a large enough group), failed to elicit testimony from Welles or anyone in the know who was not openly hostile to him and ignored Welles’s life-long history of effectively re-writing novels, stories and even plays for his own scripts for plays, radio programs and later movies. (I have shown how Welles “re-wrote” even his sainted Shakespeare, by condensing, re-arranging scenes and distributing dialogue among different characters, all without changing any word, but substantially refitting the story. See Shakespeare, Freud, Machiavelli and Welles: The “Prince Hal Problem.” With less hallowed writers Welles simply rewrote the story.) Just the next year he converted Booth Tarkington’s novel into perhaps his best scripted movie, The Magnificent Ambersons, without any additional help. And Mr. Arkadian was based on a novel he wrote converted into a screen play by him (again without assistance).

Raymond's recollection: Emerging from Susan's room, now broke up, holding the globe, Kane first mouths

8. Raymond’s recollection: Emerging from Susan’s room, now broken up, holding the globe, Kane first mouths “Rosebud,” as the Butler (Paul Stewart) watches.

When she finally reached the point of “analyzing” the film, Kael simply produced a list of the things she liked and the things she didn’t, the laziest form of any kind of criticism. Oddly, the things she didn’t like tended to be attributable to the script, so if Welles had nothing to do with it, he escaped her worst volleys. But even in listing her gripes, she makes superficial and often flatly wrong assertions. I will give one example only because you occassionally hear it repeated by those who dislike the film. Kael was the source of the complaint, that one often reads in “fan” critiques of the movie these days, that no one was in the bed chamber to hear Kane utter “Rosebud,” and therefore the entire movie is based on a gaffe—the search for his “last words” that no one could have heard. She doesn’t elaborate, but I suppose she came to this belief because after Kane utters the remark and drops the globe, we see only a sinlge nurse opening the door and entering the room to draw a sheet over Kane’s head. But there is nothing to show (such as a pan of the room) that no one else was in the room before she entered. In fact, the movie itself contradicts Kael’s assertion. Near the end of the movie, the butler Raymond (Paul Stewart) tells the reporter of the two times he heard the term. After we see Kane emerge from the room he has destroyed, picking up the globe and mouthing “Rosebud” at the entrance where Raymond stands, the scene returns to Thompson questioning Raymond:

Thompson: I see, and that’s what you about Rosebud?

Raymond: Yes. I heard him say it that other time too.

The “other time” is in Kane’s room, as he lay dying. Raymond was, therefore, waiting with him as he slept. As you would expect, someone that close to death, especially a wealthy man who could afford it, would have attendants around the clock (as Susan Alexander did, on doctor’s orders, after her suicide attempt). But if there were any question about what Raymond meant (did Kael think that Raymond was referring to a third time Kane said it?), the shooting script, which Kael’s essay was supposed to be introducing, makes clear, what Raymond meant:

Thompson: And that’s what you know about Rosebud?

Raymond: That’s more than anyone knows. I tell you, he was a little gone in the head—the last couple of years anyway—but I knew how to handle him. That Rosebud—I heard him say it that other time too. He just said Rosebud, then he dropped that glass ball and it broke on the floor. He didn’t say anything after that, so I knew he was dead. He said all kinds of things that didn’t mean anything. [The Citizen Kane Book, p. 286.]

Evidently Kael specialized in barbs, not close reading of a film’s text.

The essay would substantially damage Kael’s reputation. The negative response was so overwhelming that her supporters advised her not to reply, hoping that it would be forgotten. (The Age of Movies, the Library of America’s anthology of her work, does not include it, even though it is her most remembered work.) Sarris, of course, responded, as well as other critics and a host of actors and production personnel. Kael’s piece was so littered with factual misstatements that it is hard to ascribe it solely to carelessness. The most effective critique, however, was Peter Bogdanovich’s in Esquire, which met the charges point by point, assailed her good faith, but most devastating for Kael’s reputation contained the disclosure that she had misappropriated the research of U.C.L.A. scholar Howard Suber, who gave it to her under her representation that his essay would be published along with hers in the book. Instead, she incorporated his work into hers without attribution. Kael it turns out had fewer ethical restraints than the Inquirer newsmen portrayed in Citizen Kane.

9. Leland and Bernstein discuss the nature of selling out, while a dancing Kane is reflected in the window between them.

9. Leland and Bernstein discuss the nature of selling out (the new reporters or maybe even Kane himself), while a dancing Kane is reflected in the window between them.

Finally, the main thesis of her essay was decisively put to rest by Robert L. Carringer, who studied the seven completed drafts of the script before the shooting script. The first draft is a sprawling series of rumors about Hearst booted about among journalists, many of them libelous, but in any event entirely different from the movie. It contained, for instance, scenes in Italy showing how Bernstein and Kane plotted to take over the Inquirer without tipping their hand to Thatcher. Kane’s son does not die and becomes a major character with Kane at Xanadu. Susan Alexander betrays Kane with a lover, who ends up dead after Kane discovers the affair. And so forth. It was a problematic (from a legal point of view) draft, but also an undisciplined melodrama. Carringer shows how Welles took this draft and over several successive versions molded the work to a tighter story reflecting his own view of the move. Welles not only supervised the writing, he did extensive re-writes himself. Carringer’s conclusion was as follows:

“In the eight weeks between the time [Mankiewicz’s original] material passed into Welles’s hands and the final draft was completed, the Citizen Kane script was transformed, principally by him, from a solid basis for a story into an authentic plan for a masterpiece. Not even the staunchest defenders of Mankiewicz would deny that Welles was principally responsible for realization of the film. But in light of the evidence, it may be they will also have to grant him principal responsibility for the realization of the script.”

Kael’s essay had the reverse effect of what she intended: It resulted in the digging up of proof that Welles was intimately involved in the script writing, just as he was involved in every other aspect of the film. If anyone in film history was an auteur, it was he. And as the years passed, Kael gradually acceded to the view that the director was the “author” of the film and engaged in analysis accordingly. She had given up (but never admitted the defeat). The essay, however, had an unfortunate impact on writers for the general public, however. Citizen Kane, as well as Welles’s later works, were treated as things that should be interpreted by reference to insider’s views of how the films were made. Instead of treating the movies as works of art, capable of analysis on their own right, almost all popular writers on Welles and his works treat him and them as subjects for rehashing insiders’ gossip. Perhaps that lingering effect is why Citizen Kane is currently losing its allure to first-time viewers and seen as the province for Hollywood trivia buffs or those devoted to outdated and “desiccated” European film theory.

Citizen Kane’s Diamond Jubilee

At 75 Citizen Kane no longer generates the enthusiasm it used to (it has even been knocked off the top spot in several film society all-time lists) nor the controversy. In fact, it seems to have gone unremarked on, unlike its 70th anniversary, which produced a new digital transfer. The customer response on Amazon or shows that younger viewers mostly fail to understand, or are actively hostile to, the acclaim that the film received. Used to the Hollywood production values of today, some of which are the same as the cliches Citizen Kane challenged in 1941 (rapid cutting, pinpoint close-ups to direct audience attention, over-reliance on musical score to provide emotional content) and some which are new (rapid plot development to cover lack of characterization, reliance on suspense and shock in routinized ways, emphasis on special effects), first-time viewers of Citizen Kane today seem to have little interest in what they see as a cinematic language that has been superseded. The question is, Does Citizen Kane have more than historic interest?

10. Bernstein's recollection:

10. Bernstein’s recollection: “It wasn’t money he wanted. Thatcher never did figure him out. Sometimes even I couldn’t.”

To answer that question, instead of starting with questions of the cinematic style of the film and whether the elements were original or effective, let’s start with what Welles said he was attempting to say with the film. When it was leaked in January 1941 that the film was based on the life of Hearst (the production of the film had been a closely guarded secret), Welles issued a statement to the press denying that the movie was so intended. (The statement is found at Brady, pp. 283-85.) Welles said that he wanted “to make a motion picture which was not a narrative of action so much as an examination of character.” He intended to show that a single personality could generate numerous different opinions, even from those who knew him best. For this, he said, he needed “a public man—an extremely public man—an extremely important one.” He first considered making him President of the United States but discarded the idea probably because it would be difficult to have the audience believing a counter-factual man in real historical times when the real figure was so well known. Welles then concluded that the only other character who could have as decided an influence on public life in American democracy was a wealthy newspaper publisher.

“It is possible to show a powerful industrialist is potent in certain phases of government. It is possible that he can be good or bad according to the viewpoint of whoever is discussing him, but no industrialist can ever achieve in a democratic government the kind of general and catholic power with which I wished to invest my particular character. The only solution seemed to be to place my man in charge of important channel of communication … .”

So Welles fixed on the tycoon of a newspaper empire. And because the character had to represent a sort of New Man, he had to be in charge of papers that pioneered yellow journalism.

But Welles had a second part to his central premise. He was to make this a story of failure, not success.

“I did not wish to portray a ruthless and gifted industrialist working his way up from a simple lumberman or streetcar conductor to a position of wealth and prominence. The interpretations of such a character by his intimates were too obvious for my purpose. I therefore invested my character with sixty million dollars at the age of eight so that there was no considerable or important gain in point of wealth possible from a dramatic point of view. My story was not, therefore, about how a man gets money, but about what he does with his money—not when he gets old—but throughout his entire career. A man who has money and doesn’t have to concern himself with making more, naturally wishes to use it for the exercise of power.”

11. We see Susan Alexander through the sky light of El Rancho before the camera travels through it to encounter her for the first time.

11. We see Susan Alexander through the sky light of El Rancho before the camera travels through it to encounter her for the first time.

The method of examining this character was also specified. He chose a psychoanalytic approach. He would try to find the underlying reason why such a person would “fail” despite his ample means of “succeeding,” and he would use the character’s closest friends and foes to probe his psyche. Power is what Kane obtained, what he wielded. But there was something else he was looking for, even if he did not consciously know it, and it was why he threw everything he had away in the vain hope of acquiring. It was the purpose of the “Rosebud” theme to symbolize his deeper, subconscious driving force. The story is about what Kane is secretly looking for and ultimately how he fails in his quest. Welles would later admit that his analysis of the character was “‘dollar-book’ Freud, but, nevertheless, it’s how I analyze the film.” We’ll come back to this “admission” later.

Now, this statement of what was intended shows how different the movie was from what we see made today. Yes, there are similar characters that provide models for such a film now. One need only consider the former CEO of Fox News. But no one would consider examining such an unappealing and distasteful character today in the same way that Welles did then. All our political characters today are cardboard. Political villains, especially, beggar the limits of our empathy whatever political viewpoint we have. So Hollywood would never consider making such an examination. And independent films have settled into examination of issues other than public ones. (Television programs are these days more likely to make such examinations but given the episodic nature of such series, they are not comparable to movies.)

Moreover, the method chosen, psychoanalytic, is foreign to current film. Greed explains everything in our day, probably because our society has reduced everything to commodities with a price. It would therefore be a meaningless exercise today to set out to find why someone with wealth and power acts as he does, because most see it as self-evident. But let’s assume this method is fruitful and see where it leads in this movie. After all, all art has to be examined in relation to what was intended. If we rejected that proposal, there is nothing more to say about a work.

12. The Newsreel, from which we learn the formal chronology of his life, is a flat construct. The reports are not looking for depth, only a

12. The Newsreel, from which we learn the formal chronology of Kane’s life, is a flat construct. The reports are not looking for depth, only a “hook” to finish their artifice.

What drives the narrative of this film is the supposed search for the meaning of “Rosebud.” It makes the film something of a psychological detective tale. But why are we looking for it? This is not how Freud or his disciples would examine a man’s psyche. No, the quest is launched by the makers of a news reel, journalists of the type that were replacing the yellow journalism of newsprint. And while they didn’t operate quite like Kane’s papers did (they did not start with a conclusion and work backwards), they nonetheless began with the assumption that the story of this man’s life could be made engaging, understandable or entertaining with a “hook.” And they arbitrarily picked the dying word of Kane. So the quest is the quest of the new mass information disseminators into the life of one who operated under old principles. But both were motivated by the same thing, mass consumption of information.

Not to get ahead of ourselves but let’s consider how this quest ends for the new journalist, Mr. Thompson (William Alland). Although he speaks to the surviving characters closest to Kane at the key moments and even consults the memoirs of Kane’s surrogate father, he does not answer the question he was given: What did “Rosebud” mean? This, despite the fact that he talked to the butler Raymond, who twice heard Kane say the word and told Thompson of the glass globe, a clue that Thompson makes not attempt to follow up on. As he leaves Xanadu and its hordes of items that Kane possessed (among which we will find the meaning of the word), Thompson delivers himself of his conclusion that the search was a waste of time. Rosebud was simply the missing piece of a puzzle, and in any event one word could not sum up a man’s life. And with that the search is over, and nothing has been learned of interest to the new journalists.

13. Before we see Kane, we see the window which encloses him. The camera will penetrate that barrier.

13. Before we see Kane, we see the window which encloses him. The camera will penetrate that barrier.

But we have watched the search, and we have observed the principal crisis points of Kane’s life, their immediate causes and their long-term effects. We have seen a pattern that makes up the arc of his psychic life, and we can come to certain conclusions about Kane’s inner life. In his famous 1941 review of the film Borges (who saw the film in Argentina, where it ran a month before the general U.S. release) said that it represented what Chesterton called a “labyrinth with no center”—the most frightening thing of all. By that he meant, not that the movie was a pointless puzzle (as some have interpreted it), but that Kane himself was a “simulacrum, a chaos of appearances.” Whether we agree that is so or not, Borges is at least partially right in seeing this as the “psychological and allegorical” solution to the “metaphysical detective story” we embarked on. The new mass journalists found none of that interesting. In fact, the entire movie, its comments on Kane’s character, the intimate details of his life, the things that only his confidents knew, the conclusions we can draw about the meaning of his life, all of what we find compelling is what the new mass media considers unimportant. And so, at least in part the movie says that journalism is not the means to make the “metaphysical quest.”

Yet in less than an hour and a half, we understand Kane and to a certain extent, at least, can empathize with him. And this might be the most surprising thing of all. How can this be when even those closest to him had no clear picture of him? Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloan), a follower whose identity is so merged into Kane’s that we don’t even hear his first name mentioned, says to Thompson (#10): “Thatcher never could figure him out. Sometimes even I couldn’t.” Chekhov called the soul, what Borges said was a labyrinth without a center, a cave.  But Bernstein, who was there “from before the beginning” and now “after the end,” at least knew what to look for to find out: Whatever it was that Kane wanted. And Bernstein also knew that, maybe, Rosebud was “something he lost. Mr. Kane was a man who lost almost everything he had.”  He was talking about a man who died in a castle he built from the stones of Europe among gardens and bestiaries and the “loot of the world” enough to “fill 10 museums” (in the words of the Time on the March newsreel). And yet it is Bernstein, the only one to profit from his association with Kane, the only curator of the unsullied image of Kane, the outsider to old line Anglos-Protestant elites—it is this Mr. Bernstein that comes closest to uttering a Christian morality on the destruction: For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

The other witnesses don’t see Kane’s life in moral terms. The banker, Thatcher (George Coulouris), the substitute father (and mother), the man responsible for raising him, saw Kane only as a series of ledger book entries. His final conclusion on Kane’s life, as he tells a bemused congressional committee, is that Kane was a “communist.” Leland (Joseph Cotten), his oldest and perhaps only friend, his social equal, or perhaps superior because his place was conferred by his parents not sudden, randomly achieved wealth, saw him, in the end, as having “behaved like a swine.” His butler Raymond summarizes his view: “He was a little gone in the head sometimes, you know?” Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) suffered the most at the hands of Kane, but she also has the most ardent and conflicting emotions. But she cannot articulate her feelings, she can only suffer alone. Perhaps a man’s intimates are incapable of fully judging him, because they can only see him in terms of their own values, desires and losses.

If journalistic fact and the recollections of intimates do not bring us to the center of the labyrinth, then what does? It is here that the techniques silently carry the load. Until then there was no movie that used all the technical resources available to allow the audience to view inside the “cave.” Visual techniques, of course, are the most obvious. And while Bazin highlighted the static frames and deep focus, Welles also employed his own version of montage and cutting. But the main visual effect of the movie is the omnipresent camera, a sort of divine eye that we get to view through. It is a tool, unlike the flat, dispassionate view of mass communicators (#12), which can penetrate depths, not simply gaze at surfaces. From the very beginning, when we are confronted with the “No Trespassing” sign on the fence of Xanadu, we see what the camera can do. In this case it slowly floats above the fence and proceeds into the grounds and in a fairy tale way we see “once upon a time.” It proceeds through the remains of a menagerie, gondolas in a strange lake which reflects a castle, what looks like a crumbling gazebo, an abandoned golf course, a haunted gardens until finally we see the fairy tale castle itself with one light one. A close-up shows a barred window with a light that suddenly goes dark. And then we are on the inside watching a snow storm from the inside  of a globe. The camera, we see, can penetrate barriers and see inside small globes. We then watch a man die. The odd feature of the camera, allowing us to penetrate through windows is seen again when we first visit Susan Alexander at El Rancho in Atlantic City. We first see her trapped in the club from its vista through the sky light (#11). The glass does not prevent us from traveling into the enclosures to meet Susan directly, however. But our freedom highlights her enclosure, perhaps from sorrow, but certainly from having had contact with Kane. For no one is visually enclosed more than Kane. And whatever the camera is (psychoanalysis? empathy? divine insight?), it first must disengage Kane from the confines he is held in before we can understand him. The camera portrays his boundaries, visually, and then allows us to invade them.

As Mary Kane signs the papers transferring her son to the banker Thatcher, her husband looks on impotently and Charles is seen through the window in happy ignorance.

14. As Mary Kane (Agnes Moorehead) signs the papers transferring her son to the banker Thatcher, her husband (Harry Shannon) looks on impotently, while Charles is seen through the window in happy ignorance.

The camera constantly tracks Kane, even when he is not the center of the scene’s attention. It is a visual reminder of his narcissistic personality disorder but it also holds him up to view as a specimen being observed, as the object of the scientific inquiry. But even more the enclosures show how he is boxed in, how his freedom is circumscribed, how he became what he did. He would have died behind a castle window out of sight, were it not for the camera’s ability to pierce it (#13). From the very first time we encounter him him (outside the news reel, which itself is a visual box without depth), we see him becoming enclosed. At first he is playing as a child in the snow but by a reverse tracking shot we see him slowly enclosed in a box which becomes smaller until we see it is the window in the background during the grown up’s decision of his future (#14). Although the discussion is about him, he far from their presence and enclosed in a visual cage.

The “framing” of Kane is ubiquitous in the film. When Bernstein speaks of him to the reporter after his death, he gazes on the framed portrait of Kane in his office (#10). Kane drafts his “Declaration of Principles,” which he feels will make the Inquirer as important to the people of New York as “the gas in that light,” at the window, and we see him from the outside, “imprisoned” by the window frames, while Leland wistfully gazes into the “open: world (#18). At the moment of his greatest professional triumph, when he has acquired the entire reporting staff of the rival Chronicle, he celebrates by dancing with hired call girls. As we watch Leland and Bernstein discuss the consequences of hiring reporters who hewed to political line opposite of the Inquirer‘s, we see Welles in the background, his figure reflected in the window between them, as though he was ever present, but always hemmed in (#9).

15. through the doorway into Susan Alexander's apartment.

15. Susan and Kane in her room for the first time seen through the doorway of her apartment.

The camera pictures Kane as transfixed by enclosing borders at his highest, his lowest and his most critically important moments. The staff of the Inquirer have planned a homecoming when he arrives from his celebratory vacation in Europe. He runs off embarrassed after he drops off a society notice. The staff is perplexed until his notice is read: he is engaged to Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warwick). After they run to the window, we see the couple for the first time through the frames of the window, as though fenced in below (#5). Emily, we soon find out form Bernstein, “was no Rosebud.” But by complete accident (#3) Kane allows himself to believe he has another chance. When Kane first enters Susan Alexander’s room, we see them both framed by the doorway (#15). He reflexively shuts the door, and we hear her say, when she opens the door so we can see them again: “Hey! Excuse me, but my landlady prefers me to keep the door open when I have a gentleman caller.”

But Kane was given no second chance. The visual enclosures presaged his lack of freedom. His future was as determined as his past. At the moment of his greatest political triumph, when he is delivering his last speech at a time when everyone is expecting him to be elected governor, his implacable enemy, Jim W. Gettys, watches him from a balcony whose view encloses (confines?) Kane, as he is vehemently promising to jail Gettys (#2). The two political enemies confront each other in a scene from which only one will survive unscathed. And the confrontation takes place with the combatants face to face, penned in by Susan’s doorway, too confined for an arena, but the match is not of physical prowess, only a matter of will (#16). During this his most fateful encounter, when Gettys confronts Kane with the reality that his political life, his family and ultimately his only friendship requires him to do something that he cannot—bend to the will of another that fate made superior to him for once—he is visibly ensnared and shadowed. Everyone but Kane knows it. And Gettys delivers his disdainful conclusion when Kane refuses the one way out Gettys offers him: “If it was anybody else I’d say what’s going to happen to you would be a lesson to you. Only you’re going to need more than one lesson. And you’re going to get more than one lesson.”

Kane and Gettys fight for their lives as Emily Norton Kane watches Kane.

16. Kane and Gettys. both bathed in the darkness of their intent, fight for their lives as Emily Norton Kane watches her husband from inside Susan’s apartment.

I won’t continue for the second part of the movie this list of visual cues that show how Kane’s behavior is strictly, almost mechanically determined. Kane operates under the illusion that he is in control. As he tells his wife, his great political nemesis and Susan all incongruously assembled to hear him: “There’s only one person in the world to decide what I’m going to do—and that’s me.” But like a figure from a Greek tragedy, Kane had it almost right. It is true that no one else will decide for him what to do. But he is mistaken that he makes the decision. In the second half of the film, his life with Susan, we see his life following the same deterministic rules. Despite what he has seen, he is still trapped in circumstances and behaviors beyond his volition. When the end comes, and Susan leaves him despite his inept attempt at change, he has an explosion of uncontrolled rage, destroying Susan’s room. When he emerges, the camera captures him framed in a doorway (#8). He is still trapped by external (or by the logic of the story, internal) forces that compel his conduct. As he heads towards his room, where he will disappear from our sight, we see visually the final image of his doom: the series of his identical images in the mirrors, all enclosed in the same way, all heading for the same tomb, his final enclosure (#17).

17. Our last view of Kane, and the last expression of his fate. All possible versions of him are doomed to suffer identically.

17. Our last view of Kane, and the last expression of his fate. All possible versions of him are doomed to suffer identically.

What constrains Kane, the condition that determines his behavior and ultimately his fate, is something that now has a name. Kane suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. We know this now because in this interminable election season we’ve seen in on display in a particularly vulgar version. The DSM-5 describes what we’ve seen in the movie (and in the GOP candidate): Grandiose feelings of superior intelligence, success and power, excessive need of submissive love and admiration from others, inability to empathize with others, wanton exploitative conduct, a belief in entitlement that has been wrongfully denied. The populist demagogue is an exemplar of this condition. It’s not an objection that the DSM was not around when Citizen Kane was made any more than that Sophocles did not know about the Oedipal Complex or Shakespeare about Represession when he wrote Hamlet. Usually diagnostics imitate art.

18. Kane drafts his Declaration of Principles as Leland seems to look for freedom from the enclosure.

18. Kane drafts his Declaration of Principles as Leland seems to look for freedom from the enclosure.

The hints in Citizen Kane are unmistakeable. Leland tells Thompson that Charlie never gave anything to anyone he only “left you a tip.” Susan complains that Kane never loved her, he only gave her things, nothing that really mattered. And Kane’s method for obtaining admiration, consent and love is to make promises. And his closest friends know what his promises mean. When he drafts his famous Declaration of Principles, Bernstein warns him (jokingly) against making promises he can’t keep. At his campaign rally he teases about promises he won’t state because he is too busy preparing to fulfill them. And twice with Susan, after all he had supposedly learned, he makes promises that he immediately breaks.

The first promise to Susan is after her suicide attempt. He doesn’t understand her intense desire to quit singing, something that he had poured all his hopes into after his bitter electoral defeat. She tells him, plaintively, “You don’t know what it’s like to feel that people—that a whole audience doesn’t want you.” This is a concept that a narcissist has a particular way of dealing with, and Kane blurts out, “That’s when you’ve got to fight them.” But then, seeing that she cannot mount such a fight, assures her, “All right. You won’t have to fight them any more. It’s their loss.” But as Susan eases into a look of relief, the scene dissolves into a night view of the castle of Xanadu, accompanied by the ominous Power motif (discussed below), which in turn quickly dissolves into a resentful Susan working on a jigsaw puzzle. Clearly, Kane had not taken her interests into account in this last move. Instead it seems that Kane has taken refuge in priveleged isolation to shield himself from the humiliating stares of a public who knows of his political failure and the failure of his wife’s musical career which he used to justify or at least replace the former.

Kane’s second promise to Susan was one that he knew was his last hope of adulation, the response he repeatedly mistook for love. It was day following the night that he struck her for the accusation that he did not love her. The next day she packed and announced to him that she was leaving. For the first time he is reduced to begging:

Kane: Susan, please don’t go. Please, Susan. From now on everything will be exactly the way you want it. Not the way I want it—but your way.

[Script direction: She is staring at him. She might weaken.]

Kane: You mustn’t go. You can’t do this to me.

[Script direction: It is as if he had thrown ice water into her face. She freezes.]

She realizes that Kane is only thinking of himself. Her needs mean nothing, and with that resolution she leaves.

Kane’s tragic flaw is that he lacks the capacity to love another. When Leland tells him that he demands love only on his own terms, Kane agrees, he thinks wisely, by saying those can be the only terms that anyone knows (#4). And it is not just that he is incapable of giving love, he seeks only a particular kind of return on his gestures. We learn that Kane responds, not to personal love, but to abstract adulation. When confronted with the choice to withdraw from the gubernatorial race or see his family destroyed by scandal, he refuses to withdraw. Even when Susan pleads that he consider his “little boy,” Kane’s only concern was that Gettys was trying to take from him “the love of the people.” Leland told the reporter Thompson that Kane told him after he first met Susan that she represented “a cross-section of the American people.” The love he pursued from her, then, was of the same sort that Gettys was trying to deny him. Susan finally leaves Kane when she realizes that she represents nothing more to him than ego gratification.

19, Kane (Buddy Swan) resists leaving with Thatcher. Jim Kane (Harry Shannon):

19. Kane (Buddy Swan) resists leaving with Thatcher.
Jim Kane (Harry Shannon): “What that kid needs is a good thrashing!
Mary Kane (Agnes Moorehead): That’s what you think, is it, Jim? … That’s why he’s going to be brought up where you can’t get at him.”

Now, if we can return for a brief moment to Welles’s comment about “‘dollar-book’ Freud,” we can see how the movie treats the cause of Kane’s narcissistic imprisonment (the etiology, if we choose to be a bit more pretentious). In “On Narcissism” Freud developed his early explanation both of the development of the libido and the component parts of his proposed psychic structure (then called id, ego and ego ideal). He also introduces the concepts of repression and sublimation. Freud asserted that libido pre-dated the construction of ego in a child. While the ego is being developed, the child’s libido is object-directed (primarily toward the mother). (Originally the child knows no difference between inward and outward affection, because its ego is absent or only rudimental. It is the life-long, and impossible quest, to return to the state where one is united with everything.) As it extends its libido outward, a child’s (healthy) narcissism is depleted. Only the return of love by his love-object (mother) can restore it. An ideally healthy adult is one who ego ideal is constructed (normally by the father) while his outward-libido remains in balance with his ego-libido (supplied by the mother), and one’s ego is eventually sustained on its own by fulfillment of the imagined expectations of the ego ideal. When there is a disturbance in the normal development a person can substitute narcissistic object choice for normal anaclitic object choice. (Thus a profound narcissist, just like Freud’s example of homosexuals and others whose sexuality did not develop “normally,” has a stunted desire for heterosexual objects of libido.) However, an adult develops the equation is the same as during ego formation. Extending libidinal energy outward (to an object of love) depletes narcissistic investment in one’s ego; being loved, however, restores one’s self-regard and enhances one’s ego.

We can speculate that Welles had a fairly good grasp of basic Freudian theory, not only because he repeatedly draws on Freud throughout his careen in describing characters (including Shakespearean ones) or even because Freud’s world-view was much more prevalent in the early half of the 20th century than it is now. But also Welles himself experienced similar repression and displacement when the physician Maurice Bernstein moved into his house, replacing his father and becoming the primary influence on Welles. Bernstein was remained so important to Welles, that he flew to Los Angeles to take care of Welles during the production of Citizen Kane when Welles broke his ankle. This relationship was so important to Welles that he named Everett Sloan’s character after him, perhaps as an intended clue. (But with Freud, there is generally no unintended clue, only subliminal.)

One further textual clue suggests that orthodox Freudian explanation of narcissism is intended to be depicted perhaps comes from the nature of the relationship between Kane and Susan. Because the narcissist has substituted narcissistic object choice for normal anaclitic object choice (that is, ordinary heterosexual erotic object), the narcissist seeks abstract rather than erotic love. Leland suggested the Kane was interested in Susan for what she represented, not what she was (and he laughs about it). We then see a scene of a coquettish Susan meeting Kane (#3). But she is quite proper in observing the conventions, even insisting that the door be kept open. Susan herself twice insists that before they were married she had no sexual relations with Kane. The first time was during the encounter in her apartment between Kane and Gettys, where she indignantly asks “What story?” The second time was when she first spoke to Thompson. He questions her as though she were a gold-digger, she insists that he was only interested in her voice and she only got music lessons out of it. The marriage was forced by the publicity and loss of the election. (Even Leland says that Kane’s motives with respect to Susan was to eliminate the innuendos of the newspaper headlines.)

20. The Declaration of Principles, which Leleand

20. The Declaration of Principles, which Leleand “had a hunch it might turn out ot be something pretty important.”

Whether or not Welles intended such a deep digging into psychoanalytic theory, it is clear that he was pointing to a quasi-Freudian explanation of Kane at the very least. Kane is strongly attached to his mother when we see him at the age of eight. She has shielded him from the influence of his father whose values would normally be instilled to form his ego ideal (see #19). But he is nevertheless taken from her to live with Tatcher. Whatever unresolved Oedipal rage Kane had against his father, he now directs against the banker. Kane therefore had no chance for a well-adjusted ego with anaclitic object choice (in Freud’s terms). Instead, Kane and Leland enjoy a raucous and undisciplined adolescence at various colleges most of which they were thrown out of (according to Bernstein). Kane’s rage against his surrogate father never dissipates (his Oedipal complex is never resolved), however. When Thatcher, as head of the bank that takes back ownership of Kane’s newspaper empire in the Depression, asks Kane what he would like to have been (a startling question for a man who was supposed to have raised him), Kane answers: “Everything you hate!”  With his damaged ego development, Kane has little chance to have a normal psychic life. We see the strategy he would employ his entire life from the beginning of his role at the Inquirer (#20). Kane expected immediate adulation in exchange for promises to be paid later. But as Leland observed looking back: “He never gave anything away. He just left you a tip.” As for love, Leland said: “That’s why he did everything. That’s why he went into politics. It seems we weren’t enough, he wanted all the voters to love him too.”

So there is support for Welles’s “dollar-book Freud” but the visual framing of Kane and the testimony of his intimates are not enough to make us viscerally feel the desperate constraining limits of Kane’s psyche and how it came about. Two other techniques are required.

First, there is the musical (and more broadly aural) soundscape of the film. Whenever Welles had the technical capabilities (which some of his self-funded movies lacked), he always devoted considerable attention to its sound ambiance and musical score. His long radio career, which he pursued simultaneously with his theatrical one, taught him the emotional impact of sound. When he became executive producer of his own nationally broadcast shows he closely supervised sound production and engaged in a variety of experiments. With RKO, Welles had become associated with the studio that was most interested in the sound of its films and the one with the most advanced sound equipment. On Citizen Kane Welles was able to use sound engineers with radio backgrounds. Even so, it was Welles’s close supervision and innovative concepts that made the sound of the movie as groundbreaking as was the visual style of the film, according to James G. Stewart, the film’s sound engineer, who also credited Welles with teaching him the principles of sound aesthetics which he thereafter used for the rest of his career.

Many of Welles’s sound techniques enhanced the realism of scenes, much as Bazin noted his visual style did. For example, after we see Susan begin her aria in the staged opera, the camera pans slowly upward through the rigging. As our view ascends higher, we hear Susan’s voice diminish, like aural perspective. This was not done by simply lowering the volume of the recorded sound, but rather by increasing the microphone’s reverberations, a technique used in Welles’s radio productions. When Kane delivers his political speech in the great hall, Welles declaimed his speech with the timing of one speaking in a large, cavernous hall with sound reflection. In postproduction the reverberation rate of his voice was manipulated to simulate the sound of the echo in such a venue. Scenes at Xanadu have a cavernous sound, usually produced in postproduction. Much of the sound involving multiple sound sources, like the scene where Welles is dancing and the new reporters are celebrating, was recorded live, with especial care given to sound levels from different sources so dialogue can be heard and yet the scene sound genuine.

But the soundscape was not only designed to add realistic details to the film but also to plumb psychological depth. Much of this was done in connection with Bernard Herrmann’s musical score or the score in connection with recorded sound. The best example of the latter is the musical-sound confusion during the montage of Susan’s final opera tour. As images flash of the efforts made by Susan, the exasperation of her singing coach, newspaper headlines and the reactions of Kane and the audience, the sound is a cacophonous mix until the end when only her voice is heard then the frequency reduced so that it sounds as though she is running out of steam just as the light filament (by then the only image) burns out. Usually, however, it is Herrmann’s music which underlies scenes requiring sound interludes, for example the montages of photographs.

Herrmann invested a great deal of thought and time into the score and he did so with the active collaboration of Welles. He made a decided choice to reject the prevailing approach by Hollywood veterans such as Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Dimitri Tiomkin and relative newcomer Miklós Rózsa, all of whom employed full symphonic orchestras to play their version of lush late Romantic music along the order of Richard Strauss. The music was inserted after the movie was a finished print, to enhance the emotional or dramatic intensity of particular scenes often during dialogue. Herrmann’s music was largely subtle, produced by small groups of unusual instrumentation and never during the most dramatic scenes, which depended exclusively on acting and mise-en-scène. The quiet background added an unexpected drama because it was so unusual then (and now).

Herrmann composed fully structured pieces for set scenes, especially montages. Welles often waited for Herrmann to compose a piece and shot or cut the scene around the composition. The best example is the famous “breakfast montage” (see video below) where Welles portrays the disintegration of Kane’s marriage with Emily by successively cut scenes of their breakfasts. (Welles himself added this to the script based, as he admitted, on the concept by Thornton Wilder in his one-act play The Long Christmas Dinner.) Herrmann composed a waltz (a musical form that introduced us to her (#5)), which together with the successive shots underwent a series of variations each becoming more dark and dangerous, just as Kane himself was becoming so himself. But the music merely underlies the drama, not overwhelm it. Welles decision that Herrmann compose the piece and then edit the scene following the cues of the music was an unheard of deference to the musical content of a film.

But for our purposes the two most important pieces of music were two two-bar motifs which we first hear at the very beginning of the film. The first, which Herrmann called “Kane’s power” is heard in the first two bars of the score, played by the bassoons and muted trombones. It consists of five notes (E–D♯–E–E–B♭). It is darkly foreboding, and represents the icy exterior of a place owned by an evidently powerful man. It is related to the “There is a man” tune that is sung at the reporters’ party (#9), which later becomes the theme of Kane’s political campaign. Both are heard when Kane’s fortunes are on the upswing (one intensely serious, the other buoyant and optimistic). It is the “power” theme, however, that suggests the deep driving force. When Kane’s fortunes take a decisive turn, only the “power” theme continues. Throughout the film the motif transforms to a variety of forms including ragtime, polka and finally the funeral end of the film. It is the force that keeps Kane plowing forward in the furrow that he has dug for himself. It represents Kane’s id.

A second motif is also heard at the beginning. It is melancholic but strangely wistful, and Herrmann calls it the “Rosebud” motif. It too is made up of five notes (C♯–D–B–F♯-C♯), and we hear it played by a solo vibraphone the second time we see the castle. We hear it with fuller instrumentation and repeated when we see the snow globe for the first time. This theme is repeated throughout the film, but not usually in the same circumstances as the “power” motif. It is found when it looks like Kane may have a way to redemption. It is prominent when he meets Susan and ascends to her apartment (#3), for example. The motif represents Kane’s idealized ego, restored to the harmony of mutual maternal-filial love, the longing for the unattainable condition where there is no distinction between inward and outward libidinal direction. Its distinctive mood is unsettling and gives a distinct coloration to the film.

As effectively as the camera and musical motifs guide us through the psychological inquiry, they are aided by the cutting. In most movies cutting is so prevalent that it becomes second nature and we rarely notice it. In Citizen Kane, there are unusually long set shots filmed by a single camera. When there are cuts, they are usually surprising and punctuated by a very brief musical statement or exclamation. The cut from the poster of Susan to the long tracking shot through the rain to the skylight of El Rancho is accompanied by a startling musical attack, much like lightening, for example. Some dissolves transition from one form of information to another. One example is how the white page that Thompson is reading in the Thatcher library becomes the snow that young Charlie Kane is sledding on. Another is how Leland’s narration from the hospital dissolves into the scene at Kane’s breakfast. Montages with more rapid cutting are designed to show a process acting over a period of time, telescoped to a few moments. The famous breakfast montage (in the video above) is an example. So is Susan’s opera tour, showing how she has been worn down by the ordeal of performing before audiences who think she is ridiculous. That montage directly cuts to the long, fixed scene of her bedroom after she has overdosed on pills. The stationary camera showing a glass and spoon prominently in the foreground and the door in the distant background with what appears to be a bed between is all the more effective as it followed the rapid cutting and dissolves of the opera tour montage.

But the most effective use of cutting occurs when it shows how two episodes are related, even though they are separated by an expanse of time. A good example is the cut between scenes after Susan attempts suicide. A pale and exhausted Susan explains her suicide attempt: “Charlie, I couldn’t make you see how I felt.” She tells him of her humiliation before audiences that didn’t want her. Kane at first, impulsively, follows his id: “That’s when you have to fight them!” But then relents and tells her she won’t have to sing again. It will be “their loss.” She relaxes in relief, perhaps believing that Kane has finally understood her. All of this was accompanied by the “Rosebud” motif. But then the scene cuts to a picture of the foreboding Xanadu castle with the “power” motif again heard. What she exchanged for humiliation was haunted loneliness and isolation, Kane’s ultimate perversion of his narcissistic drive (#21).

21. Susan’s relief and happiness when Kane relents and lets her stop performing cuts to the reality of what her next ordeal would be.

This temporal cutting can  take place in the middle of things. We hear Susan practicing the aria from The Barber of Seville in her parlor but the scene cuts in the middle of singing and in the next scene she seamlessly continues, as Kane, in different clothing, sits listening in the same chair, although it is a much later time. He claps, and as he does, the scene cuts to the clapping at a political rally. Sometimes the cut shows identification between people or events. When, for example, Leland is making a pitch on the street the scene cuts mid-sentence to Kane in the great hall who finishes Leland’s sentence. All of it causes the audience to realize that it is on an analytic exploration in which chronological sequence is a hindrance. In fact, we come to see the soul of Kane only by viewing one long ago cause and its matching much later effects, separately considered. It is as though this fracturing of time and visual frames of reference and even points of view are all required to gain empathy with another. On reflection that conclusion applies as much to each of us as to an examination of Kane.

In the end the film succeeds as a work of art because it had a single, perhaps unusual, point of view, and all technical facilities of the movie studio and all the artistic possibilities of a theater troop combined to realize that viewpoint in original (and therefore exciting) ways. Bazin once dismissed as an impossibility the notion of “total cinema.” But to the extent a film approaches that impossible limit it can be measured as great art. There are exceedingly few films that came as close to that ideal as Citizen Kane.


Paul Arthur: “Out of the Depths: Citizen Kane, Modernism, and the Avant-Garde Impulse,” Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook ed. James Neremore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 263-84, reprinted from Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Perspectives on Citizen Kane (New York: G.K. Hall, c1996).

Peter Bogdanovich, “The Kane Mutiny,” Esquire, pp. 99-105, 180-90 (October 1972).

André Bazin, “The Technique of Citizen Kane,” Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews from the Forties and Fifties trans. by Alain Piette and Bert Cardullo; Bert Cardullo (ed.) (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 231-39, originally “La technique de Citizen Kane,” Les temps modernes, no. 17 (February 1947), pp. 943-49.

André Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” What is Cinema? trans. by Hugh Gray (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1967-71) (2 volumes), vol. 1, pp. 23-37 (Translation of selections from Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? a collection of essays published posthumously in four volumes (Paris: Éditions du Cerf., 1958-62). The particular essay was a composite of three essays written by Bazin between 1950 and 1955.

André Bazin, “An Aesthetic of Realism: Neorealism,” What is Cinema? trans. by Hugh Gray (Berkeley, Calif: Universit of California Press, 1967-71), vol. 2, pp. 16-40. Originally published in Espirit (January 1948).

Jorge Luis Borges,  “An Overwhelming Film (Citizen Kane),”  Selected Non-Fictions ed. by Eliot Weinberger (New York: Viking, 1999), pp. 258-59, translation by Suzanne Jill Levine of “Una Film Abrumador,” Sur, no. 83 (August 1941). 

Frank Brady, Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles (New York: Scribner, c1989).

Robert L. Carringer, “The Scripts of Citizen Kane,” Central Inquiry, no. 5 (1978), pp. 369-400, reprinted in James Nevemore (ed.), Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 79–121.

Robert L Carringer, The Making of Citizen Kane (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, c1985).

Sigmund Freud, Zur Einführung des Narzissmus (Leipzig: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, 1924) (a book version of an essay originally published in 1914), translated in Joseph Sandler, Ethel Spector Person, Peter Fonagy (ed.), Freud’s “On Narcissism—An Introduction” (New Haven : Yale University Press, c1991). A version of Freud’s essay (without identificaiton of the edition or the translator) is found online at

Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Perspectives on Citizen Kane (New York: G.K. Hall, c1996).

Bernard Herrmann, “Score for a Film: Composer Tells of Problems Solved in Music for ‘Citizen Kane’,” New York Times, May 25, 1941, Dram-Screen-Music section, p. X6 (online; subscription required), reprinted in Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Focus on Citizen Kane (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 69-72.

Pauline Kael, “Raising Kane—I,” New Yorker, February 20, 1971 (online) and “Raising Kane—II,” New Yorker, February 27, 1971 (online), reprinted as the introductory essay to The Citizen Kane Book (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1971) (and in other collections of Kael’s writings).

Istvan Meszaros, The Work of Sartre: Search for Freedom and the Challenge of History (New York: Monthly Review Press, c2012).

Frank Rich, “Roaring at the Screen With Pauline Kael,” New York Times Book Review, October 30, 2011, pp. 1, 12-14 (online; open access).

Andrew Sarris, “Citizen Kane: The American Baroque,” Film Culture, vol. 2 (1956), pp. 14-16, reprinted in Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Focus on Citizen Kane (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 102-08.

Andrew Sarris, “Citizen Kael vs. Citizen Kane,” Village Voice (April 29, 1971), reprinted online by

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Quand Hollywood veut faire penser: Citizen Kane, Film d’Orson Welles,” L’Ecran français (August 1, 1945), reprinted in Olivier Barrot, L’Ecran français, 1943-1953: histoire d’un journal et de une époche (Paris: Les Editeurs français réunis, 1979), pp. 39-43.

Lawrence Van Gelder, “Pauline Kael, Provocative and Widely Imitated New Yorker Film Critic, Dies at 82,” New York Times, September 4, 2001, p. C12 (online; open access).

Orson Welles, “Citizen Kane is not about Louella Parsons’ Boss,” Friday, no. 2 (February 14, 1941), p. 9, reprinted in Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Focus on Citizen Kane (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 67-68.

Leila Wimmer, Cross-Channel Perspectives: The French Reception of British Cinema (New York: Peter Lang, 2009).

Bill Wrobel, “Herrmann’s Citizen Kane,” Film Score Rundown (November 4, 2001) (PDF).

100 Years Ago Today: The Russians Claim Ballet for Modernism

Posed photgraph of original dancers from Le Sacre du printemps (Wikipedia, from a 1913 issue of the English weekly The Sketch).

Posed photgraph of original dancers from Le Sacre du printemps (Wikipedia, from a 1913 issue of the English weekly The Sketch).

One hundred years ago today, on May 29, 1913, occurred one of the defining moments of modernism: the premiere of The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The riot that took place to greet Stravinsky’s score and Nijinsky’s choreography is often used to show how violently New Music or Modernity in general was an offensive shock to an unsuspecting public. The fact is the “riot” was almost certainly staged by a faction with a preconceived agenda, and it likely represented nothing other than the expression of self-satisfied “patrons” who were offended that the theater was not catering to their narrow views on entertainment. I saw something of the same thing back in the early 1970s when Pierre Boulez was routinely heckled in New York for daring to introduce pieces that were not at least 75 years old. On one occasion a gentlemen in a dinner jacket stood up on his folding seat to better offer up boos at the premiere of a Ligety piece. He undoubtedly felt that he belonged to the honorable tradition that goes back now 100 years, a tradition where wealthy arts patrons act like children in the name of preserving artistic traditions. (Or perhaps he simply hadn’t yet learned that Leonard Bernstein was no longer the musical director of the New York Philharmonic.)


Nicholas K. Roerich, ethnographer, mystic, philosopher, lawyer and artist, designed the sets of Rite of Spring from his research into Russian folk history. This painting shows the first scene, “The Kissing of the Earth,” which depicts a sacred Slavic guessing game with dancing in the Valley at the sacred hill. In the score this part is titled “L’Adoration de la Terre (Adoration of the Earth).” (

The actual “riot” in Paris in 1913 was shabby enough, according to the New York Times cable report (which translated the title of the work as “Consecration of Spring”).  It apparently amounted to hissing and some shoving. The affair was summarized by Alfred Capus (who would go on the defend the “purity” of French culture as one of the “immortels” ) in Le Figaro. Capus claimed that the production itself was nothing more than an attempt by the Russians to flatter the “idle rich” of Paris into paying double ticket prices and then insult them with “the last degree of stupidity.” He was referring to the stupidity of the ballet, not the Parisian idle rich. The Times correspondent noted that since “M. Capus’s article there have been disorderly scenes at the Champs-Élysées Théâtre …” (The writer also noted that management learned to quell the disorders by turning on the lights; Parisian upper crust, unlike those of 1970s New York, were not willing to be seen acting the boor and settled down.)

Roelrich's design for the second part, "The Great Sacrifice." which takes place on top of a hill in the stone maze, where the girls are playing a secret games. They end with the choice of the sacrifice, who dances her last dance and then falls dead.

Roelrich’s design for the second part, “The Sacrifice on High.” which takes place on top of a hill in the stone maze, where the girls are playing a secret games. They end with the choice of the sacrifice, who dances her last dance and then falls dead. In the score the part is called “Le Sacrifice (The Sacrifice).” (

The vulgarity of the riots notwithstanding (their intensity and significance undoubtedly increased as the memory of the witnesses grew older), there was no better place or time for Modernity to throw down the gauntlet. If anywhere, Paris had for decades been the center of advanced ideas. In fact, the taproot of Modernism goes back to the Paris of the 1860s and 70s with Baudelaire and the Impressionists. And poetry and art had made significant leaps in those areas since then. 1913 was also the year that the first installment of Proust’s great experiment in memory, autobiography and art, À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), would be published. Even in music Debussy was working his way out of the prevailing Romanticism. Nowhere else were there such combustible elements waiting for an ignition to explode.

The Woolworth Building in Manhattan at night in 1913. (Library of Congress; from Wiki Commons.)

The Woolworth Building in Manhattan at night in 1913. (Library of Congress; from Wiki Commons.)

New York, of course, was a backwater at the time, looking to Europe for all its cultural instruction. It generally did not criticize its betters. The New York Armory Show, which opened in February 1913 and put together the largest collection of Post-Impressionists, Fauvists and Cubists ever seen outside of Europe, offended mainly cranks and was embraced, as these kinds of things usually are in New York, by self-satisfied financial and business elites as a sign of their enlightenment, particularly inasmuch as more than 160 pieces were purchased. This was much the reaction when Mahler conducted in New York a few years before, although he remained in safe territory by not straying far from Mozart and Beethoven. Perhaps because it married business, finance and industrial enterprise with design, architecture, in the form of office skyscrapers, would become the first quintessentially American art form. If so, 1913 was a signal year in New York arts, because the newly completed Woolworth Building became the world’s tallest structure.

London’s musical scene, at least as far as English composers went, was barren at the time. In art it had never really assimilated Impressionism, much less Post-Impressionist advances, dominated as the London art scene was by Whistler’s legacy. Theater appeared ready for a change, but the only real avant-garde was taking place in poetry and fiction. Yet the various proclamations of Ezra Pound, including the introduction of the Vortex (which would take place in 1914), seemed to spark debate mainly in high-brow literary and cultural journals. D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers was published in 1913 to mainly indifferent reviews. Joyce would begin writing Ulysses the following year and it only later dribbled out in a small literary journal in the United States, but when it finally attracted notice, it was more as an example of modern smut rather than modern sensibilities.

First fights end the debut of the masters of the Second Viennese School at the Konzertskandal on

First fights end the debut of the masters of the Second Viennese School at the Konzertskandal on March 31, 1913. (Die Zeit, April 5, 1913 from Wikipedia.)

Visual expression in Berlin and Vienna was still primarily in the design phase; Expressionism was only in its tentative beginnings. Much of music there was exploring the end of chromatic Romantic music and (still) the implications of Tristan (which fittingly enough had its premiere in Vienna rather than Paris, because of the ridiculous antics of the Jockey Club in Paris at the perforance of Tannhäuser in 1861). It is true that Schoenberg (Schönberg then) had broken more or less completely from diatonic tonality with his second string quartet (of 1907/08), Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten, op. 15 (1908/09), his Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 16 (1909), Erwartung (1909) and most dramatically in Pierrot Lunaire, op. 12 (1912). But these pieces were not well known in the big capitals, although Sir Henry Wood performed the Five Orchestral Pieces (the most conservative of these works) to disapproving audiences in London in September 1912. Just weeks before the Rite of Spring premiere, Schoenberg himself reprised his Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 9 (1906) and debuted two pieces by his students, Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6 (1909/10) and Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, op. 4 (1911/12), as well as a more conventional new piece by his father-in-law, Zemlinsky’s Six Songs after poems by Maeterlinck, op. 13 (1913). Webern’s work produced taunting laughter and Berg’s both taunts and fist fights. The disorder was so great that Schoenberg did not attempt to finish Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. The outbreaks were greater and the violence more genuine (the concert produced one more lawsuit than the affair in Pairs), but the event (now known as the Konzertskandal) never became The Case in Point of the clash of the New with the Old, possibly because much worse would befall Schoenberg and his students in the future (and not just humiliation), or because Austrian thuggery, more than a little tinged with virulent anti-semitism, would become much more the rule than the exception not too much longer in the future, or maybe because then as now the music of the Second Viennese School was not considered “serious” in the way that upper class consumers of classical entertainment demand.

Non-representational painting and sculpture was bubbling out of many other corners of Europe, but it would take a while to fully comprehend how radical and permanent a departure this would signal.

Boulevard Raspail, Paris, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

Boulevard Raspail, Paris, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

So if a Modernist bomb was going to be ignited, Paris was the perfect place to light the fuse. It seems likely, however, that neither Stravinsky nor Nijinsky intended to light a fuse (at least in the way that Ezra Pound kept trying to do in London), and Stravinsky seemed genuinely hurt that the work was not appreciated on the merits. And much of the fireworks had to do, not with the merits of the music, but rather with French xenophobia. Capus was plain in his contempt for the Russians (the Russians, he wrote, “are not entirely acquainted with the manners and customs of the countries they visit …”). But it also had to do with the French belief that they defined ballet. (The Times piece noted that Parisians admitted that Nijinsky was “a wonderful dancer,” but “they add that he knows little about stage setting.” The reporter from this observation labelled the Rite of Spring performance a “failure.”)

Jardin du Lexuembourg, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

Jardin du Lexuembourg, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

The French believed that they invented and perfected the art form. And even if they didn’t invent it, ballet was certainly central to French art music and performance from the beginning. Jean-Baptiste Lully, himself a dancer, had organized one of the oldest ballet schools, and the choreographer for Lully’s operas, Pierre Beauchamps, established the standard positions for classical dance and  invented the written notation for recording choreography. And while the Russians had a ballet company in the mid-eighteenth century, that was still nearly a century after Lully had founded the Paris Opera Ballet. (Diaghilev himself produced his first French performances of the Ballets Russes at the Paris Opera Ballet.)

So all of this was enough to offend French hauteur, but was the event really revolutionary?

First, the company.

Russisches Ballett (I), oil on canvas by  August Macke (1912) (Kunsthalle, Bremen).

Russisches Ballett (I), oil on canvas by
August Macke (1912) (Kunsthalle, Bremen). Click to enlarge.

The Ballets Russes, as a money-making enterprise, was not revolutionary, although it would increasingly look to the future. Its founder and impressario, Serge Diaghilev, a Russian critic turned performance producer, was educated, urbane, forward looking and a risk taker. He had ideas how ballet should be presented, and it involved using the latest in art, choreography and music. More important, he was willing to raise and spend money to realize his vision. The Ballets Russes would soon number among its set and costume designers giants in the world of art (including Picasso,  Matisse, Braque and Rouault). Its choreographers would become the definers of Modernity in dance (including Nijinsky, Massine and Balanchine). And of course Diaghilev championed the composers of modern music, at least programmatic music. The company not only employed avant-garde artists, it influenced the arts outside of ballet.

The pairing of Nijinsky and Stravinsky was the ignition for the bomb. Nijinksky was an incendiary dancer. His performance in the Ballets Russes production of L’après-midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun), choreographed by Nijinksy himself in 1912, was expressly erotic and, as a dance, was itself controversial. Diaghilev had commissioned Stravinsky to orchestrate a Chopin piece for the Ballets Russes in 1910. After that came Firebird and the more conventional Petrushka. Nijinsky would choreograph Debussy’s score Jeux, an eccentric ballet about tennis and (possibly) homosexuality, and that odd piece would immediately precede Rite of Spring, which would be the first time Nijinsky choreographed Stravinsky. The combination of the two Russians proved too much for the French audience.

The ballet was based on the great Russian political belief that there was a golden peasant past, before serfdom, before Peter the Great, where the people lived in an idyllic comunal harmony with nature. (

The ballet was based on the great Russian political-religious mythos that there was a golden peasant past, before serfdom, before Peter the Great, where the people lived in an idyllic communal harmony with nature. (

But there was a third Russian involved. Nicholas Roerich, a polymath whose tastes ran to mysticism and Russian folk history, designed the sets and costumes. His settings were based on his own scholarly recreation of Russian folk past, which was undoubtedly influenced by the great Russian politico-religious mythos first championed by Pan-Slavists of the middle of the previous century, whose central tenet was eventually adopted (to a greater or lesser extent) by thinkers as diverse as the Socialist Alexander Herzen and the reactionary Dostoevsky: The myth held that in some remote past, before the rot of Western Europe corrupted Russia, and even before Orthodox Christianity, the Russian folk lived in a kind of blissful communal state whose economy was governed by principles of common ownership as radical as anything proposed in 19th century Europe and that Russia’s “salvation” would come from that past, separate from all outside influences.

The hidden ideological motif of the performance was therefore a look to the future in the ancient. (In Russia’s case the myth system was a surrogate political language arising from the fact that political repression prevented any real political discussion.) This would not be the only modern work with that subtext, but the particular mythos embedded in the Rite of Spring may have been the one with the longest pedigree of promotion by one country’s intellectuals.

The music.

To recreate the ancient, Stravinsky stripped his score of everything that could be considered modern sophistication. There was no irony, no subtlety and no self-reference. Rhythms were strictly defined and metric. In parts rhythmic patterns were so clearly defined by accented notes that it carried through the section even against loudly articulated counter-rhythms. In other parts the march-like rhythm is so strongly felt that it gives an impression of  exultant euphoria. The forward-driving propulsive effect is achieved through steady crescendos. Climaxes come with rapid crescendos and often with instruments filling a larger and more densely packed range.

All of these things, far from being “new,” are many steps back from the prevailing overly refined Romanticism and Post-Romanticism of both Paris and Vienna. The instrumental tonal color was somewhat novel. In many places it is the strings that act as the time-keepers and the woodwinds and brass convey the melody. The introduction is played by a solo bassoon in an extremely high register creating a odd and ethereal mood, much like the beginnings of spring, arising from the melting snows. Other unconventional instrumentations occur, but this hardly placed the piece out of the mainstream of European art music.

Stravinskys attention to detail is shown by the score to one bar (!) of the work. The tonal balance and rhythmic interrelations tend to be overlooked when concentrating on the dissonant "harmonizations." Click to enlarge.

Stravinskys attention to detail is shown by the score to one bar (!) of the work. The tonal balance and rhythmic interrelations tend to be overlooked when concentrating on the dissonant “harmonizations.” Click to enlarge.

The stripping down and simplification was necessary for Stravinsky to undertake and highlight what was in fact his true achievement: dispensing with traditional harmonization. The first critics recognized this experimentation as the most radical. When the ballet premiered on Drury Lane in London on July 11, 1913, the New York Times correspondent sent a cable summarizing the overnight responses of the critics. The consensus was that the music “apparently has no relations whatever to the ordinary rules of harmony and leaves Strauss and even Schönberg behind …” In fact, Stravinsky was not trying to develop new rules for harmonization, but rather dispensing with the ordinary concept that harmony arises out of the melody and instead radically extended the concept he first tried out in Firebird of a sort of ditonality: using unrelated harmonies, or even different keys, against a melody. The melodies were simple enough. They were both “catchy” (Schoenberg’s unachieved desire that cab drivers would hum the tunes of modern music in the future) and grounded in folk music. The “harmonies” were not simply, or even at all, chromatic, they were unrelated to the melody, except through some intuitive (and evidently not rule-based) concept of Stravinsky. (Stravinsky’s instinct in this piece proved true, because many works thereafter, for many years, contain quotes and snatches of the melodies or angular “harmonies.”)

Because it’s nearly impossible to explain music without examples, and because Anthony Newman is insightful and clear, it is useful to hear his  explaination of how Stravinsky used musical “archetypes” with “wrong note” harmonization to create his exotic effects:

The video unfortunately breaks in the middle of a musical example and continues here:

It’s a fair bet that almost everyone reading this encountered the Rite of Spring first either as an audio recording or in the concert hall without the dance. As a disembodied piece of music even today it is jarring on first hearing. But even accounting for our immensely more degraded (or enhanced, depending on your viewpoint) sensibilities, it does not strike one as something a full-scale riot would ensue from. In fact, in hide-bound, conservative London, while it was not a hit is any sense, the New York Times correspondent reported that the first reception was greeted with “a mixture of applause and hisses, although the applause won finally.”

What really offended the French, and what made the piece one of the advanced posts of Modernity, was the combination of the music with the dance.

The Choreography.

Drawing of Marie Piltz in the “Sacrificial Dance” from The Rite of Spring, Paris, 29 May 1913, in Montjoie! (magazine), Paris, June 1913 (Wikipedia).

If you have only encountered the work as a concert piece, you lose altogether its programmatic aspect. The music is clearly program music; it is not organized as a piece of “absolute” music. So a listener needs to know what the music is “about.” It undoubtedly helps to see one of the 200 or so different productions that have been mounted since the original. But modern versions tend to (wrongly) emphasize the outlandish and promote a supposed modernist take by, for example, using naked or nearly naked dancers or appealing to an erotic undertow in the music. It took Millicent Hodson’s tireless choreographic archaeology to recreate what Nijinsky designed. The Joffrey Ballet then nearly a quarter century ago put on the nearest approximation we are ever likely to see of the “intention” of the creators, and it was a stunning eye-opener.

Even today the movements of the dancers can be described, as the New York Times London correspondent did in 1913, as not involving “dancing in the ordinary sense of the word.” It is more like an architecture of movement, where geometric patterns are achieved by groups of dancers using angular movements of legs and arms and posture. The dancers introduce themselves by emphatically stomping on the stage, as though to test whether the earth has returned solid from its capture by winter. One figure, the old lady conjurer, is characterized by an extremely bent body and small shuffling steps. Groups of dancers arrange themselves as you would think ancient tribes did. Celebrations and mysteries are performed according to ancient rules, the antiquity of which provide their justification.

No attempt is made to display virtuosity. Instead, groups move as integrated units in simple and repetitive motions. The secret game to pick the sacrificial victim is repeated with small variations, just as is the music highlighted by pizzicato strings, until one is selected. She briefly shows her grim deference to custom, then her terror, and then her grief in the only solo dance of the performance. She finally succumbs to the communal rules and forfeits her life to ensure that the tribe endures for one more year.

It is extraordinarily effective and had to have come as an electric current to those looking forward to seeing divas performing en pointe. It is difficult to understate how this piece represented a decisive break with the past. You owe it to yourself to see the original:

The Effect.

All together, the piece delivers a shocking, visceral and powerful emotional jolt. And, yes, even if the riot was largely preconceived rather than spontaneous, the French had a right to see in it the revolution that would come. The Future, as the Twentieth Century would tell over and over, was in our ancient past. The New is what we originally were. And whether it came from pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, African masks, Egyptian poetry or Russian folk myths, we are forced to confront what we are by looking to our original fears and aspirations. And a large part of what we are is determined by the Irrational.

Modernity was a way of looking at things that radically departed from not only Romanticism but also the Age of Reason. At a time that science was pursuing a method that validated concepts by trying to eliminate the random, biased and irrational, art proclaimed that we could never escape the irrational, and in fact held out that by celebrating it we help excoriate it. (That, after all, is the original purpose of rites, then religion, then philosophy, then psychoanalysis, and so forth, throughout the progression of history.)

But Modernism was not an unqualified success. In politics, for example, “Modernist” movements that looked to the Aryan or Roman past produced untold suffering and sorrow. Modernism did not automatically bring with it a moral compass and it often sat precariously between progress and vicious reaction. Not all who felt uneasy in Paris that night 100 years ago were necessarily overly privileged snobs who played the connoisseur. There might have been some among the original Parisian viewers who, at least subconsciously, felt the actual (not just artistic) terror of the Modernist revolution at at hand. After all, not much more than a year later France and all of Europe would experience the first consequences of modernity’s political quest for the essence. Those sacrifices were not one at a time as in the ballet that night, and no one had time or interest in experiencing the terror and grief of each victim. It would cost more lives than anyone ever expected or, indeed, could have conceived, but it was just the beginning. That, however, is a different story.

Destroying the Old is not always the way forward. But that was not what Modernism was about. And in any event, there was no choice. The world was changing and art had to reflect that reality or become irrelevant.

It did not become irrelevant. So today we should at least acknowledge that 100 years of the modern have revealed things that the Ancient Order never could have conceived. Many of those things we can celebrate.