October 01, 2011

The Screenplay of 'Citizen Kane'

"You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been very rich I might have been a really great man."

Statutory Warning: I am assuming that you have watched the movie before reading this. Please don't read further if you plan to and haven't.

Let's go through the narrative structure of 'Citizen Kane'. It begins with the death of the protagonist - Charles Foster Kane, followed by a loud 15-minute news film on his life, revealing to us almost every major landmark, almost all crests and troughs that came to him. At this point a group of journalists decide to find the relevance of the last word uttered by Kane. The word is 'Rosebud' and the journey that a journalist called Thompson undertakes to find its significance forms the body of the film. We hardly get to see Thompson's face, though we are constantly with him. And in the end we hardly come to know anything about 'Rosebud' - possibly the most famous MacGuffin, arguably the most talked about secret in the history of cinema.

The rest of the movie is a jig-saw puzzle, going back and forth in time, often repeating the same incidents with different perspectives. It is definitely not as twisted as '21 Grams' or 'Memento' or other such modern puzzles, but is definitely more mature in its narrative structure than most. Interestingly, unlike other 'time-twisted' films, it doesn't complicate matters just for the sake of it, nor does it rely on seducing you to solve it, rather it tries to prove the futility of such an exercise and revels in its inherent complication - the journey to explore the life of an enigmatic man. What puzzle can be more interesting to experience, more challenging to solve? And since the 15-minute short-film has already narrated to us his life, we are more interested in knowing 'why and how' rather than 'what'.

The film is told from the perspectives of multiple narrators. Like it would happen to all of us, after one dies, his life-story can only be constructed from others' memories of the person, and depends significantly on his relationship with them, and on their respective world-views. Furthermore, all narrators here - the news film, the memoirs of Kane's guardian, his old manager, his ageing friend who later turned against him, his alcoholic and depressed second wife, and the obviously greedy butler - are unreliable. Naturally, it makes us think - perhaps Kane was not as bad as he appears in the film. The eventual hint at the meaning of 'Rosebud' also creates an out-of-character image for him, thus establishing the limitation of the entire endeavour to try to understand a person through the perspectives of others. I believe that this helps us admire Kane better with repeated viewings, and an apparently anti-hero emerges to be someone we'll always want to know more about.

Go through the preceding three paragraphs again, one by one. You will agree that each has the promise for a truly fascinating and complex screenplay. Even today, to write something structurally and philosophically as complicated as this will be an arduous task. 'Citizen Kane' had it all organically woven into one, not to forget that most of these tools were unheard of back in those days.

However, the screenplay of this movie is not great only with respect to 'its time'. In my opinion, despite the various technical accomplishments of this film, it is its writing that remains its most timeless and unparalleled achievement. A screenplay as good as this will always end up as a memorable film, whether its translation on film employs the best of technique or not. If it can ever be considered a yardstick of cinematic excellence - the Oscar for Original Screenplay was the only win this movie could manage out of nine nominations. Even the worst of hostility towards it during that year's Academy Awards function could not prevent this to happen. Today, for all screenwriters, the script of 'Citizen Kane' remains the ultimate challenge, and inspiration, though ironically, no one can actually learn or teach to write something like this, a story which manages to impress and entertain without adhering to the classical screenwriting rules, and eventually mocking them with its sheer brilliance.

P.S. If you are interested in reading this screenplay, please send a request to s.satyanshu@gmail.com. I will mail it to you.

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