The elements of the mise-en-scene discussion
film Citizen Kane (1941) has been widely critiqued and often written about as it is both moving and iconic in its unique representation of an early film example of the drama genre. The work expresses intense feeling, while maintaining an aloof and vague solution to the enigma that is Charles Foster Kane, a fictitious newspaper tycoon who is reluctantly wealthy and extremely misunderstood. The film posthumously chronicles the man’s life as he follows a resented path through life and love, never finding peace or embracing what he really wants, to return to simpler days, when he felt safe and loved. This essay will analyze the “Everglades Picnic” scene of Citizen Kane using mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing and sound as the basis for analysis, demonstrating that the film is a characteristic and skilled early example of the dramatic genre. (Bordwell & Thompson, 2004, p. 175)
The film takes the man’s mysterious dying word, “Rosebud” and attempts to make sense of it. It turns out that Rosebud, in a very delayed reveal, was the inscription on the sled he was gleefully playing with when he learned from his future caretaker that he was wealthy and that he was to be forever separated from his mother and his simple childhood home in the Colorado snow. (Bordwell & Thompson, 2004, p. 73)the most telling segment of the film, is the scene nicknamed “Everglades Picnic.” The scene is cast with Kane his now unhappy and lonely second wife, Susan and an unknown colorful group of followers of the man, all of whom are youthful, excluding the black jazz singer and completely separate from the couple, who like in their palatial home are cordoned off from life in their tent. Mise-en-scene, demonstrated through the segment the dramatic and pinnacle nature of the interaction between these two characters, who have both been stuck in a rut, going about their lives separate and lonely. The scene bounces back between the face off, between the couple and the merriment of the youthful, crowd and the gleeful but characteristically bluesy soul singer. The outside world, living in relative ignorance of the problems of others, seeking joy and the inside world, of the large dark room, where the characters must yell to be heard and the interior of the relatively intimate tent where the illumination is limited to the faces of the two and their palatial harem like tent. The characters are clearly and completely removed from the world and only together out of habit, as the scene builds to a climactic crescendo with the slap.
A all the elements of the mise-en-scene are deployed to light up the field of action like a pinball machine, ringing up values and bonuses which differentiate the characters, objects, and events depicted. The narrative cinema is designed precisely to exploit the characteristics of our psychic life, most prominently the valences of sexual difference which obsess us. All the resources of the cinema function to promote the pleasures associated with such obsessions and the still greater pleasure of our security that these obsessions are natural, that the fictions of cinema mirror the facts of life. (Andrew, 1984, p. 148)
The characters are successfully developed in the mise-en-scene, used to demonstrate their complacency and even their passion.
The moving cinematography in the scene expresses to the viewer Kane’s destructive inability to share with those around him his desires, hopes and wishes to return to a simpler existence. He wants to express the desire to picnic, like anyone else would, yet is again trapped in a lavish setting characterized by his extreme and resented wealth and loneliness. (Cohan & Shires, 1988, p. 83) Like the remainder of the work, as his attempt at the newspaper business is frequently corrupted by his wealth, despite good intentions. The scene “Everglades Picnic” begins when Kane walks into a large room in the cold unfinished mansion, known as Xanadu, where Susan sits day after day in front of a huge palace fireplace putting together hundreds of jigsaw puzzles. In the scene the fireplace is cold and dark and Susan sits in stark contrast to the elaborate mantle. Susan juxtaposed with the giant mantle, and the cold but built fireplace is cinematographically significant, as she becomes one of Kane’s collection, along with the elaborate and flowery harem tent in the close of the scene. The darkness of the scene demonstrates the darkness of the moods of the characters, while the revelers on the “outside” are glowing with the flickering light of the campfire and even the black singer is licked by glowing warm flames.
The Editing of this scene, as well as the one that follows when they return home and Susan finally leaves Kane is probably some of the most elaborate, filled with the cinematic and dramatic coding of the theater.
Traditionally, the purpose of the elaborate codes and conventions on which the theatrical frame is founded is to permit the spectator to ‘read’ the performance appropriately as a dramatic representation. He derives from the conventionalized onstage happenings a range of dramatic information which enables him to translate what he sees and hears into something quite different: a fictional dramatic world characterized by a set of physical properties, a set of agents and a course of time-bound events. (Elam, 2002, p. 88)
Each look by the characters involved in the drama and those seemingly oblivious to it is quintessential of well timed emotional drama. The juxtaposition is so essential as editing tells the lonely story of two lives set completely apart from the facade they are trying to build. Kane is bored, unhappy and slouching, edited into the form of an uncaring beast. Susan is animated and angry and those outside are filled with life and joy. From the time Susan is told that Kane wants to have a picnic, which to Susan simply means a time when Kane forces many unwilling participants to simply go out and sleep in tents on the beach, without asking anyone (meaning her) what they really would like to do she is ranting.
In Citizen Kane, a confrontation between Kane and his second wife Susan is played in a shot-reverse shot pattern which has Susan (or the camera) looking up to address Kane in one shot and Kane (or the camera) looking down to address Susan in the next shot. Susan is oppressed and diminished by the camera angle while Kane’s stature is magnified. In this sequence, the manipulation of camera angles is the major means by which the audience is informed about the changing relationship between the two characters. (Turner, 1999, p. 60)
The scene of the picturesque representation of a long funereal drive, with many black cars down the beach to the picnic site is also reflective of Susan’s message, where she continues to rant about how Kane just gives and gives without ever asking anyone what they really want or giving anything that means anything to him.
The soundtrack of the work is also telling as, Kane walks into the room, asking Susan “what are you doing?” In a loud harsh tone, characteristic of the man, even though the puzzle solving seems to be the only thing the woman has done for a very long time, as both have aged considerably between the previous scene and this. Yet, the palatial room requires yelling, which Kane happily concedes to and Susan follows up with, even in the relative intimacy of the tent, a point that Kane even expresses in dialogue. The bluesy but joyful singing of the crooner, also skillfully frames the separation of the couple from “their” party. Susan rants so forcefully that Kane slaps her, and closing the scene she asks for an apology, amid fearful female disembodied screaming (not coming from her) and receives instead Kane’s almost parental stern response. “I’m not sorry.” The close-up of Susan that closes the scene demonstrates that she has had an epiphany and will likely no longer maintain the shadow of her lonely life. The crooner is all the while singing the blues classic, “It Can’t Be Love” while Susan reiterates the message of the work in a step-by-step angry rant, associated with dire unhappiness, reflective of the ignorance and unfeeling nature of her now aged husband. The song, the ranting, the sound of the slap and most startlingly the disembodied screaming of the young girl outside all play upon the structure of the scene, making it a telling and symbolic message of the changed relationship and the fear and anger associated with it. “Loudness, pitch, and timbre also shape our experience of a film as a whole. Citizen Kane, for example, offers a wide range of sound manipulations. Echo chambers alter timbre and volume. A motif is formed by the inability of Kane’s wife Susan to sing…” (Bordwell & Thompson, 2004, p. 351) the development of sound in the film determine the whole of the changing characters and their relationships within the film.
The meanings and effects of the four differing aspects of the film, taken separately, as above, demonstrate significant messaging and coding in the work. They all work together to demonstrate how the world of Kane becomes exceedingly separate from his desires, i.e. To be an honest and simple man, clinging to his childhood memories in Colorado. His whole life was an attempt to reject his destiny, that of wealth and power. Kane builds his character to match demands that he does not desire, in fact much like his own father, who is stripped of any power or say as to where and with whom Charles will live and be raised, as he is not named as the owner of the land, that profits the family.
Andrew, D. (1984). Concepts in Film Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K. (2004) Film Art, 8th Edition. New York: McGraw Hill.
Cohan, S., & Shires, L.M. (1988). Telling Stories: A Theoretical Analysis of Narrative Fiction. London: Routledge.
Elam, K. (2002). The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. London: Routledge.
Turner, G. (1999). Film as Social Practice. London: Routledge.
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