Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Stylistic Choices in "The Magnificent Ambersons" and "Citizen Kane"

(Written in October, 2015)

Orson Welles used many different stylistic choices when it came to images and sounds in his films, but especially so in "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons". Coming from a background of theatre and radio, Welles ended up using many of these types of choices when it came to his films. Specifically, he used some lighting choices in both of these films that could be seen to have been derived from his background in theatre, and theatre lighting, as well as his general way of direction and framing characters. As well, his radio background can be seen by the way he uses sound in both films, as well as his use of background noise. A lot of  examples of both of the kind of stylistic choices that he made in "The Magnificent Ambersons" were cut from the theatrical version, but can be seen in Welle's original cut of the film in it's reconstructed form.
            Citizen Kane has a lot of interesting stylistic choices when it comes to images. A lot of these seem to be influenced by theatre conventions. One example of which is A scene, late in the film, where Kane, played by Welles, is talking to his wife, Susan, from across a large room in Xanadu while she does a jigsaw puzzle on the floor . The scene has interesting lighting going on, mostly bright, but dark in some areas to add shadow to the scene. But for the most part the scene is light much like a stage in a theatre production might be. Indeed, this scene is mostly filmed in long shots, almost as if the camera is set where the audience might be in a theatrical production, and the characters move far away from each other and the camera, creating a sense of space.
             Another interesting image choice used by Welles in "Citizen Kane" is when Kane is adopted at early childhood. There is a scene of his parents sitting down and negotiating the adoption while Kane as a child is playing outside in the snow. This scene is maybe one or two shots, and the camera mostly stays still. You see, in deep focus, the mother and Thatcher in the front, the father arguing with the mother in middle, and Kane, viewed through a window, playing outside. This is very much an interesting image choice, as it shows multiple actions going on at the same time, just how characters in a theatrical production might be doing many different kinds of actions at the same time. The way this is filmed gives the audience time to look around and see all the different kinds of actions going on, and again sort of gives the visual appearance of being an audience on a stage, with things going on in the foreground and background.
            "Citizen Kane" also has some very good uses of Sound throughout the film as well. Welles uses a very interesting sound technique in one scene between Kane and his first wife, Emily. The scene is a montage of different breakfasts over the years, and he has their lines carry on and finish in the next shot, implying passing of time. This helps links the two times together but also lets the audience know that time is passing, as their subjects change and their happiness sours in their voices as the montage goes on. Aurally, the scene ends completely at a different note than it starts, and the change of opinion throughout the relationship is evident from sound alone, which could be thought of as coming from Welle's background in Radio.
            Another scene that has a good audio choice is the scene where Susan and Kane are on vacation in the Everglades and they are in a tent. They are having an argument, but you can tell part of the location as well as how many people are around them from sound.
You can hear a record playing, as well as people singing along. There is a sort of outdoor party atmosphere, and it is used almost as background noise, if you don't pay attention you might miss it. But it helps build the place in your mind, and add some activity around the characters that isn't necessarily seen on screen. You can even hear screaming in the background after Kane slaps Susan. This is definitely a hold-over from Welle's radio days, and especially with radio dramas, as one good way to define a place in a radio drama is to have the sound of the place in the background to help the audience understand where the action is taking place. Welles uses this in the scene for the same reason, and also to help show that this is not an argument happening in a faraway room, it is indeed taking place in a tent very close to the party.
            "The Magnificent Ambersons" has a few good images choices that can be seen in the theatrical version. One interesting choice is that at the end of the Amberson's dance, when Isabel and Eugene are saying goodbye to each other at the same time that George and Lucy are saying goodbye. They are shown in profile, and they are mostly in shadow, almost silhouetted. This is a very interesting lighting technique, and while not exactly lifted from theatrical productions, there is a definite use of light that could be seen as theatrical in this scene. In fact, there is a lot of shadow in that scene, and it is used very interestingly, with both couples moving in and out of it before becoming silhouetted and saying goodbye. It adds to the romantic element of the story.
            Another interesting visual choice that Welles uses in the Theatrical version of "The Magnificent Ambersons" is in a scene where Uncle Jack goes to talk to Isabel and George is watching, and so is his Aunt above him. Much like the scene from Citizen Kane with Susan and Kane in the large room, this scene is shot with the actors being far away from the camera, and framed almost like a stage. But here Welles does something a little different, as he pans up and reveals that George was watching, Then panning up again to show that his Aunt was watching as well. This scene seems to show that Welles was playing around more with what the camera could do and becoming more of a filmmaker, but his Stage influence can still be seen in these shots.
            "The Magnificent Ambersons" also has some good use of sound throughout it. One good example is when the family and friends are going to go to town, and George and Lucy are riding around on a horse-drawn sled. There is a lot of sound going on here, from the sound of Eugene trying to start the engine, to the various family members talking. The whole scene has a lot of talking going on, including the overlapping of different people asking George if he is alright after the sled flips off the road. This adds a bit of realism to the scene, and also adds some comedy too. It also creates the space much more. That scene wasn't shot outside, but the soundscape as well as the atmosphere created by the family members creates a place, much like the tent scene in Citizen Kane. Another good use of sound is a transition at the end of that scene. That scene is pretty happy, with the family driving off singing a song and having a good time, and then there is a fade, and then there is some ominous music that plays, which then goes on to the funeral of George's father. The transition in tone would be kind of odd if not for the use of sound in transitioning the mood of the audience.
            There are a lot of things that were cut out of "The Magnificent Ambersons" for the theatrical release. Orson Welles's original version had some more uses of image and sound than the version released.
            One example of a good use of image in Welle's cut was the buildings in front of the Amberson mansion. According to the reconstruction, there was a scene where The Major and Fanny go outside and see the housing that The Major built to try and get some more money. It is shown that it was not maybe the best investment for him to make. This scene seems to be an almost parallel of the scene where George and Uncle Jack go out in a rainstorm and see the houses being built. These scenes would have added another dimension to the Amberson's wealth decline. Also, the use of the same image, seemingly framed the same way, as can be seen from the storyboards presented in the reconstruction, but at different times helps show the time passing, in much the same way as the breakfast montage in "Citizen Kane" shows the changing moods, those shots would have shown the changing neighborhood where the Ambersons live.
            Another strong visual use that was cut out was the ending scene. In the theatrical cut, there is a scene where George walks around town and sees how the town has changed. In the original cut, the reconstruction shows that a very similar scene would be shown at the end of the film with Eugene, and he doesn't even notice the place where the Amberson mansion used to be. The town has changed that much. This scene would have had a callback to the scene mentioned with George, but also to the whole film to try and show a better vision of the town changing over time, and how things change and people don't even notice after a while. This scene connects logically and shot-wise with the similar scene with George earlier in the film, helping end the film in a more complete way than only seeing it once from one person's point of view did.
            It's a little bit harder to find sound decisions that were cut out of "The Magnificent Ambersons" for it's theatrical release, but there is at least one important omission. The opening scene in both versions has Orson Welles as The Narrator, talking about how things used to be. In the original cut, The Narrator went on about the town some more, and talked about how people thought about money, and savings, and just in general how The Ambersons are, along with how back then luxury was thought of as sinful. This is in the Theatrical Cut, but not so much expanded upon as in the original cut, which is why it's mentioned here. The Theatrical cut in particular goes on about the town, adding in a different way to the scene of place through audio, Welles tells us how people lived, and how they thought, which helps firmly place us in the setting without having to rely on visuals, though visuals are also utilized. The influence from Radio is obvious in this particular scene as it is a narrator setting up the story for the audience.

            Many different kinds of Stylistic choices were used in both "Citizen Kane" and both cuts of "The Magnificent Ambersons", which helped make the films the well-known great films that they are. Perhaps a lot of why they work so well for Welles is because of his background in theatre as well as radio, and knowing showmanship along with a general idea of how things are done artistically.

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