Citizen Frame: Depth of Field, Well(es) Done

One of the great things about Citizen Kane is that, every time you watch it, you notice something new. This time around (my third in an academic context), the Bazin reading really primed me to think about the depth of field as I was watching, and, as a result, to note its role in echoing (or even crafting) the emotional context of the narrative. (The depth of field was probably the cinematic technique that captivated me the most besides the foreshadowing, and often figurative, use of lighting). As I was watching Kane, I found that the depth of field recurrently contributed to the construction of visually confining frames. Yet, at times, the deep focus did the opposite, leaving characters drowned in an expansive background. Both of these approaches, though in a sense stylistically juxtaposed, serve similar effects: these visual compositions almost always chime synchronously with the narrative and emotional state of the characters (as I’ll point out with specific examples.) Most commonly, I saw the depth of field, in either of its stylistic manifestations – one loud with action, and the other roaring with compositional quiet – work to communicate its characters’ stark isolation.

A couple of moments stood out to me as particularly emblematic of this pattern. I’d made a note of the tableau in El Rancho before Monday’s class, but had considereScreen Shot 2017-01-31 at 5.57.07 PMd it with slightly different logic: instead of thinking about how the frame composition suggested boundaries (and their traversal), I was caught by how the linear bifurcation siphoned every character into his/her own distinct section of the screen, with Mr. Thompson entirely in shadow. The characters are literally operating in completely different spheres (or, rather, rectangles), and the camera highlights this complete lack of unity amongst the characters.
In regards to the portrayal of divisions, as the shots below demonstrate, spatial composition and framing also highlight the personal fractions between characters. In the conversation with Leland and Kane, the pair’s spatial divisions emphasizes their deepening personal divisions, as well as Kane’s growing isolation: the two are on opposite poles of perspective, and poles literally separate them in the frame. (Kane, recessed, is surrounded by “Kane” campaign posters: beyond emphasizing his ego, this visual minimizatio  drowns Kane as a person in Kane as an idea). In the ensuing scene of the Gettis confrontation, on the other hand, rather than striate its characters, the framing heightens the claustrophobic sense of conflict by visually constraining them.

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Overall, it was precisely this insistent interplay between visual suffocation and isolation that underlined my experience viewing the film.

 

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