Realism and Citizen Kane

The term realism comes from the literary and art movement of the nineteenth century, which “rejected traditional forms of art” (The Art Story, 2017). Realists rejected “idealistic images and literary conceits” (ibid) and chose to bring the margins of society and everyday life into their work, often portraying life’s more “unpleasant moments” (ibid). Philosopher Georg Lukács defined a realist as someone who could set aside “his own prejudices and convictions and describe what he really sees” (Armes, 1970: 19). The popularity of realism in art grew with photography, with its ability to capture the likeness of life and to produce images that recorded the world objectively. Film was the perfect medium for depicting real life, with its roots in photography but with the added dimension of movement it could almost mimic reality. André Bazin wrote that only a photographic lens was “capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for [an object] something more than a mere approximation” (Bazin 1967: 14).

The earliest exponents of film and cinema such as the Lumière brothers saw the opportunity to capture life as it unfolded. However even while the technology was in its infancy, differing opinions about how the medium should be used were developing quickly. The Lumières were producing films including the forty-six second La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (1895) and fifty second L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de la Ciotat (1895), which were documentary in their style. The Lumières had come to film through photography. Contemporary filmmaker Georges Méliès was creating more fantastical and theatrical styled films such as Une nuit terrible (1896) and his best-known work Le voyage dans la lune (1902). Méliès was a well-established stage illusionist and had previously experimented with technologies such as automata to create his stage shows and “saw immediately film’s ability to change reality” (Monaco, 1981: 236).

The contrast between film’s abilities to present either an illusion of space and time through composition and manipulation or the preservation of that same time and space, have historically been used as a basis to classify, compare and study film.

Siegfried Kracauer stated:

“If film grows out of photography, the realistic and formative tendencies must be operative in it also. Is it by sheer accident that the two tendencies manifested themselves side by side immediately after the rise of the medium? As if to encompass the whole range of cinematic endeavours at the outset, each went the limit in exhausting its own possibilities” (Kracauer, 1960: 30).

A debate began around whether film should reproduce the seamless continuity of time, or be manipulated for effect through the use of editing. “Controversy over the structure and importance of the shot and the cut, of the shot vs (sic) the cut, forms the bedrock of film theory” (Hill, 2000: 13). There was a division into “two nearly mythical camps of thinking about editing: those represented by Soviet director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein and those following French critic André Bazin” (Cook, 1982: 319).

Bazin thought that editing was manipulative and forced the filmmaker’s views upon the audience. He believed that “excessive dependence” (Ibid) on montage and editing violated “the essence of cinema” (Ibid) and encouraged filmmakers to rely less on montage and tricks and to preserve the illusion of reality through long shots, deep focus and continuity devices such as matching cuts when editing was necessary. He was also appreciative of everyday details, apparently trivial events and small moments that accumulated into an overall effect. For Bazin “cinema’s ‘evolution’ is a continuous progression towards providing more convincing representations that mirror the complexity of our real experience of the world” (ibid).

He believed the audience should be allowed to make decisions for themselves, unlike in Hollywood cinema that “presupposes analysis and choice” (Bazin, 1971: 81).  He argued that “The narrative unit is not the episode, the event, the sudden turn of events, or the character of its protagonists; it is the succession of concrete instants of life, no one of which can be said to be more important than the other” (ibid). He compared film to theatre, suggesting that if a film were played on the stage it should have the same meaning to the audience, that changes by the camera would have no effect on the story. He wrote of two broad and opposing trends in cinema between 1920 and 1940: those directors who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality. Bazin also discussed the role of “plastics” (ibid) or everything that makes the film, the set, the lighting, the makeup in imposing the filmmaker’s interpretation on the audience.

Eisenstein took the opposing viewpoint. In his films, he used editing effects such as montage and rapid cuts to create shock and conflict, to create meaning, to provoke a particular reaction from the audience, to address history and for political statement. He used editing to “reorganise reality” (Cook, 1982: 319) such as in the “Odessa Steps” sequence in Battleship Potemkin (1925). The continuity of time becomes secondary to the impact that the editing has, so much so that some shots are repeated and there are inconsistent jumps in the positioning of some of the people in the film “the temporal and spatial relations are purely fictitious” (ibid).

In his 1949 book Film Form (a compilation of his essays on film), Eisenstein lists types of conflicts. He writes how differing shots can be brought together to create different types of conflict and how movement and the use of metaphor, association and abstract elements such as symbolism could be used to gain an emotional effect. He wrote: “Formulation and investigation of the phenomenon of cinema as forms of conflict yield the first possibility of devising a homogeneous system of visual dramaturgy for all general and particular cases of the film problem” (Eisenstein, 1977: 55). He relates film to music, how the build-up of different tones in music and their impact against each other “becomes one of the most significant means of affect” and that “We find the same thing in optics, as well. All sorts of aberrations, distortions, and other defects, which can be remedied by systems of lenses, can also be taken into account compositionally providing a whole series of definite compositional effects” (Eisenstein, 1977: 67).

Both Bazin and Eisenstein reference more traditional art forms in their discussions of film, both referring to Picasso among other artists and their influence in the realist movement. Both of their visions on cinema are described as “painterly” (Hill, 2000:16). The difference between Bazin and Eisenstein is that Bazin asks the spectator to look at and put the parts of the image together, to achieve understanding through contemplation. For Esienstein, the viewer must respond to the “invisible space” (ibid) between “images in conflict” (ibid). Eisenstein’s concepts dominated film theory for a short period through the 1920s and 30s, Bazin’s ideas had a much more powerful and long-lasting influence.

When silent films came to an end in the late nineteen twenties with the first feature length “talkie” The Jazz Singer (1927) directed by Alan Crosland, German and Soviet cinema had done everything they could with plastics and montage.  “Through the contents of the image and the resources of montage, the cinema has at its disposal a whole arsenal of means whereby to impose its interpretation of an event on the spectator. By the end of the silent film we can consider this arsenal to have been full” (Bazin, 1967: 26).

At the end of the 1930s, films were being edited in a consistently “Hollywood” style: montage, soft-focus, close-ups and conventions of editing. “The classical Hollywood style (…) asks that form be rendered invisible; that the viewer see only the presence of actors in an unfolding story that seems to be existing on its own” (Hill, 2000: 13). The style became institutionalised and it was easy to keep making films in that way, Eisenstein recognized this as a capitalist version of his own work: “a form that placates its audience, foregrounds story and characters, satisfies and creates a desire in the audience to see (and pay for) more of the same” (ibid). It was also economical to reproduce. The “Hollywood” style became more than aesthetics: it was also economics, politics and ideology.

In an article in Screen Journal in 1972 Patrick L. Ogle discusses a number of influences on realism in American cinema. These include documentary films and “similarly realistic work of (…) photojournalists” (Ogle, 1972: 48) like Henri Cartier Bresson, “in magazines such as Life and Look” (ibid). While America was turning film into an industry during the twenties and thirties, in Europe filmmaking was seen as an art. Ogle credits Jean Renoir in France for his influence in moving “American cinematographic styles in a more realistic direction” (ibid) describing Renoir’s “very realistic” (ibid) work that “tended towards the preservation of a greater depth of field” (ibid) and the inclusion of “realistic background activities” (ibid).

Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) was to mark a change in the direction of filmmaking. Bazin wrote that “The influence of Citizen Kane cannot be overestimated” (Bazin, 1967: 33). Orson Welles not only broke the conventions of Hollywood film, but absorbed them into Citizen Kane. Most significant was the use of depth of field to render whole scenes in relatively sharp focus. Rather than regular cuts, long shots are used instead, often with a fixed camera, the actors moving within the frame to indicate their importance within the scene. Welles did use montage, but in a different way, particularly to show passage of time, he used it as part of an abstract method of storytelling as he also did with soft-focus and close-up shots.

Realism as a concept in film studies is important in understanding and explaining Citizen Kane because realism was a driving force in what Welles was trying to achieve with the film. In an article in American Cinematographer in February 1941, Gregg Toland (the cinematographer that worked with Welles on Citizen Kane) goes into detail about the techniques used in the film but describes how realism was the key objective: “the picture should be brought to the screen in such a way that the audience would feel it was looking at reality, rather than merely at a movie” (Toland, 1941). He goes on to describe how the sets in the film were purposely built to have a role as vital as any of the actors and “helped trace the rise and fall of the central character” (ibid) and the concept that all parts of the film should flow together so well that the audience were unaware of the filmmaking technique or apparatus.

Although realism was the objective in the filmmaking process, its execution was anything but realistic in the way that Bazin had originally theorised. There are many instances within the film where camera trickery and manipulation in editing were used to achieve that “realism”. Orson Welles, through Toland, became a master of cinematographic illusion, his work arguably closer to the fantastical work of Méliès than the realism of Lumière. Although he achieved a realistic look through the use of huge depth of field or “deep focus” and in doing so returned the power of interpretation to the audience, he often achieved the deep focus through clever tricks. For example, the shot of Kane sat at a typewriter with Leland stood in the background was created by the joining of separate shots of each actor. Combinations of optical printing, matte painting and animation were used to achieve numerous shots. “The curtain wipe, an optical printing effect was used to great effect in Citizen Kane. In the opening shot at the Thatcher Library, the statue of Thatcher is a miniature. By a skilfully concealed curtain wipe, we move to the base of the statue, which is an actual set (…) As printed it appears as a single continuous shot” (Carringer, 1985: 92).

By the late nineteen forties Bazin’s discussions in cinema were moving away from realism and towards Auteur theory. In What Is Cinema? Bazin states that Orson Welles’ appearance marked the beginning of a new period in film “Citizen Kane is part of a general movement, of a vast stirring of the geological bed of cinema, confirming that everywhere up to a point there had been a revolution in the language of screen” (Bazin, A. 1967: 37).


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