Please note that you will need to be logged in to view the content featured below
This month we explore Orson Welles’ 1941 multi-faceted cinematic puzzle, Citizen Kane. The movie presents the life story of Kane, a media baron and politician based on the press magnate William Randolph Hearst. Described by Barry Keith Grant as a ‘cubist portrait’, Welles’ film follows the journalist Jerry Thompson (William Alland), on a quest to discover the meaning of Kane’s dying word, “rosebud.” Thompson speaks to those who encountered Kane in his personal and professional life – his second wife, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore); his late banker and financial advisor, Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris); his business manager, Bernstein (Everett Sloan); his boyhood friend Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten), and Raymond, his butler (Paul Stewart).
Citizen Kane has inspired criticism and analysis from a range of perspectives, including Laura Mulvey’s discussion of the film from a feminist psychoanalytic standpoint in her BFI book ‘Fetishism and Curiosity’. Mulvey situates the film in its historical context – it was released six months before Pearl Harbor, in an America split between isolationists such as Hearst, backed by his press empire, and ardent anti-fascists such as Welles, who was deeply engaged and influenced by European cultural forms such as German Expressionism. She goes on to consider how reading the film through a Freudian lens (despite Welles’ own claim that it represented mere ‘dollar-book Freud’) reveals a wealth of psychoanalytic reference and a narrative structure informed by psychoanalytic theory.
The story of the Kane screenplay, co-credited to Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, is told in the Academy Award™-nominated movie Mank (2020), directed by David Fincher. In his chapter on Citizen Kane in ‘Constructing Dialogue’ Mark Axelrod takes a deep dive into the film’s opening sequences and shows how the screenplay sets up the QBA, or Question to be Answered – ‘what is “rosebud”?’.
The artistic triumph that Kane represents arose from the coming together of a group of expert creatives – not only the director, actors and screenwriter but editor Robert Wise and composer Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann composed not only the film’s non-diegetic music but also created an aria from a fictional opera, Salammbo, to be performed (disastrously) by Kane’s wife Susan Alexander, whom Kane encourages to pursue an operatic career far beyond her capabilities. Commenting on the scene, Herrmann wrote “Our problem was to create something that would give the audience the feeling of the quicksand into which this simple little girl, having a charming but small voice, is suddenly thrown.” In this chapter from his book ‘Cinema’s Illusions, Opera’s Allure’, David Schroeder explores the role opera plays in Citizen Kane, both to signal the pretensions of the high society to which Kane aspires to gain entry, but also to signal the tragic mismatch between Susan’s talents and the great stage onto which Kane’s ambitions have thrust her.
A film such as Citizen Kane does not exist in isolation, and in their discussion of the film in their book ‘The Language of Film’ Robert Edgar, John Marland and Steven Rawle show how its meanings are imparted through the audience’s prior knowledge of other cinematic, literary and media texts and genres to which the film refers. They explore how Kane continues to resonate in contemporary culture, most recently in controversies around ‘Fake News’ and the power of the media in the run up to and aftermath of the 2020 US Presidential Election.
Screen Studies brings together a wealth of content addressing the many forms of filmmaking in national and regional cinema contexts as well as cinemas of migration and diaspora. In the introduction to her book World Cinema and the Ethics of Realism, Lúcia Nagib addresses the term ‘world cinema,’ arguing that it should not be seen as the ‘other’ of ‘mainstream’ or Hollywood cinema, but when approached from “a positive, democratic and inclusive” perspective, as a diverse phenomenon with “peaks of creation in different places and periods.”
Cecília Mello builds on Nagib’s idea of world cinema as enjoying “peaks of creation” in her study of the contemporary Chinese director Jia Zhangke. Mello explores how Jia tackles questions of realism and memory in films made from the 1990s onwards, identifying his recurrent aesthetic and thematic preoccupations. Returning to the question of national identity and cinema, she considers the contexts of Jia’s creative practice in China’s political and artistic history, but also how he has been influenced by other traditions of making, writing and thinking about cinema.
Many national cinemas developed in the 20th century alongside their country’s path to a modern nation state. Sarah Barrow considers the part played by cinema in forging a Peruvian national identity in Chapter 1 of her book Contemporary Peruvian Cinema. She draws attention to the tension between the state’s desire to use cinema to tell a unifying story about national history, and the desire of filmmakers and thinkers to represent difference and minority voices – for example, the Third Cinema movement which emerged after the Cuban Revolution, which was committed to social and cultural emancipation.
Filmmakers in Africa have often charted a path between a pan-African cinema, asserting an ‘African’ fellowship across national borders, and the desire to create a national cinema as part of the development of a post-colonial national identity. In a conversation with Valentina Vitali and Paul Willemen for their book Theorising National Cinema, the filmmaker John Akomfrah discusses this tension in post-war African cinema and cultural politics, with reference to directors such as Ousmane Sembène and Suleymane Cissé.
The responsibility of cinema to foster political and cultural change is explored by James S. Williams in his Ethics and Aesthetics in Contemporary African Cinema. Williams discusses how the 1960s generation of black African filmmakers and critics, wrestling with the legacies of European colonialism, believed that cinema had an urgent imperative to create idealizing myths of nationhood, modernity and cultural revolution. Williams shows how, in representing subjects such as the eroticised male body, the new African metropolis, and questions of migration and transculturalism, more recent filmmakers such as Abderrahmane Sissako, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Fanta Régina Nacro, Alain Gomis, Jean-Pierre Bekolo, Katy Lena Ndiaye and Mati Diop are helping to redefine ‘African cinema’ in ways that are no longer tied to the ideals of pan-Africanism.
In one of our original overview articles, Daisuke Miyao traces the development of cinema in Japan in the early 20th century, highlighting how Japanese film-making grew out of kabuki theater traditions.
The 1930s, 1940s and 1950s saw the flourishing of talents of the great directors Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse and Akira Kurosawa. In the opening chapter of Classical Japanese Cinema Revisited, Catherine Russell considers the industrial, cultural and aesthetic features of classical Japanese cinema, its relationship to Hollywood and to Japanese national identity. In a similar vein, Robert N. Watson’s study of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s epic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the BFI Film Classics series, considers how the film highlights “analogies between British and Japanese medieval history, and between Shakespeare as an epitome of high western civilisation and Noh drama as an epitome of high Japanese civilisation.”
Hit by the rise of television and home video, theatrical cinema in Japan declined in the second half of the 20th century. But the late 1990s onwards has seen a resurgence of a lively national cinema with directors such as Kitano Takeshi and Hirokazu Kore-eda releasing films that are both critically and commercially successful, and the popularity of genres such as the yakuza (gangster) film, horror, and anime. In this chapter from Contemporary Asian Cinema, Darrell William Davis provides an overview of the Japanese cinematic landscape, and Michelle Le Blanc and Colin Odell’s BFI Film Classic considers one of the most memorable examples of anime: 1998’s post-apocalyptic cyberpunk feature Akira.
Peter Wollen’s writing was hugely influential for the development of film studies. While working at the British Film Institute, Wollen wrote the seminal film theory text, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, introducing ideas from semiotics and post-structuralism to the analysis of film. First published in 1969, Signs and Meaning was published in a new edition in 2013, with a foreword by D.N. Rodowick in which Rodowick considers the importance of the book in its various editions in changing the way we understand film as an art form.
In this chapter, Wollen considers the auteur theory developed by critics at the Cahiers du cinéma in relation to the films of directors including Howard Hawks and John Ford.
Wollen was to return to the auteur theory in his masterly analysis of Gene Kelly’s role as co-director, choreographer and performer of the eponymous dance sequence in Singin’ in the Rain, the subject of Wollen’s contribution to the BFI Film Classics series.
The film philosopher and historian Thomas Elsaesser played a key part in the development of the academic study of film. Elsaesser was based for much of his career in the UK, at the University of East Anglia, and latterly at the University of Amsterdam. Like Wollen, Elsaesser engaged with both classical Hollywood and European cinema, and with questions of film authorship. In his study of the 1925 science fiction classic Metropolis, Elsaesser situates the film as an example of ‘UFA style’ – its technical complexity and attention to detail not attributable solely to the vision of director Fritz Lang, but the result of a collaboration “between set designers, cameramen, art directors and countless other, highly skilled specialists” employed by the film studio, UFA.
In his contribution to Alfred Hitchcock: Centenary Essays, Elsaesser explores what he terms the ‘dandyism’ of Hitchcock’s unique persona, a quality that also informed his filmmaking style. Elsaesser suggests that Hitchcock’s life and art alike represent “a determined protest, the triumph of artifice over accident, a kind of daily victory over chance, in the name of a spirituality dedicating itself to making life imitate art.”
In a contemporary globalised cinema landscape, is the concept of the director-as-author still valid? In this chapter from his Limina Award-winning book European Cinema and Contintental Philosophy, Elsaesser outlines some of the defining features and industrial forces shaping 21st century authorship.
“I had a world. I don't think I had a career. I made films.”
- Agnès Varda, 2009
Agnès Varda was not only a pioneering film-maker in her own right, but a key figure in the French New Wave movement, characterised by its realist style, influenced by Italian neorealism and Hollywood, its subject matter of intrigue and crime and its questioning of bourgeois social norms. Hilary Neroni’s study of Varda’s classic Cléo de 5 à 7 situates Varda as part of the French New Wave and as an avowedly feminist film maker.
In an article for the French film journal Positif, Varda herself looks back on forty years of film-making since the release of her first feature La Pointe Courte (1955) and her artistic debt to the great director Luis Buñuel. As Kate Ince describes in her book The Body and the Screen, Varda’s documentary Les plages d’Agnès (2008) mixes autobiographical narration with installation art and filmic and photographic montage in an evocative journey through her life and film-making career.
Film festivals have changed hugely since the first festival, Venice, opened in August 1932 with a screening of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The biggest, such as Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Sundance, and Toronto, function variously as global film marketplaces, the chance for a ‘first look’ at new releases before they make it to theaters, and for audience engagement beyond the screen, with personal appearances by film-makers and stars. In the film journal Projections, Gus Van Sant recalls a memorable encounter with Derek Jarman at the Berlin Film Festival and, in The Guerilla Film Makers Movie Blueprint, Chris Jones provides a how-to guide to launching your film on a global stage.
The 21st century has witnessed an ever-increasing multiplicity of festivals: local and regional, genre or identity based, even digital festivals. Film festivals can provide an opportunity for audiences to engage with films in a very different way to a standard cinematic experience – explored by Lesley-Ann Dickson in her case study of programming and exhibition practices at the Glasgow Film Festival, and Rosana Vivar in her research with fan communities at the San Sebastian Horror and Fantasy Film Festival. Geli Madelmi surveys the emergence of online festival platforms that enable the viewer to program their own personal film festival from amongst thousands of new releases.
Stanley Kubrick's impact on cinema goes far beyond the fourteen films he directed though, each meticulously-executed artwork, from his early non-fiction short The Day of the Fight (1953) to his late masterpiece Eyes Wide Shut (1999), is testament to his holistic, perfectionist approach to film-making. In one of our new overview articles, Maria Pramagiorre dubs Kubrick’s oeuvre ‘a cinema of failure’: his anti-heroes, despite inhabiting hyper-masculine milieus, embodying a troubled masculinity beset by anxiety and weakness.
In his study of Kubrick’s ‘Total Cinema’, Philip Kuberski describes how the director, who in his early career had worked as a photographer, used both natural and artificial light ‘as a means of illumination’, to create visual effect and impart meaning. In addition to their formal innovations, Kubrick’s films reached beyond the conventions of genre. In ‘The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick’, Norman Kagan explores how Kubrick consistently tested genre boundaries, whether in the science fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or the claustrophobic horror The Shining (1980). Discussing Barry Lyndon (1975), Kubrick’s foray into period drama, Ryan Gilbey argues that, by avoiding “the fusty clichés of tour-guide film-making”, Kubrick achieves an emotional authenticity that allows contemporary audiences to connect with its 18th century characters.