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The technical innovations of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane range from the depth of focus to his lightning mix. He utilized graphic and acoustic matches to depict the narrative of a man’s meteoric rise to power and his painful slip into oblivion. Director Mike Nichols implements many of Welles’ tools to create the world of Benjamin Braddock’s affair in The Graduate. With these techniques the director creates a distortion of the narrative and their characters, but through this distortion paradoxically comes a clarity that illuminates subtle meanings, which contribute to the larger symbolic fabric of the film.
In the beginning of Citizen Kane, a snow globe rolls out of the recently lifeless fingers of Charles Foster Kane and shatters. The next shot comes from a low vertical perspective with a fish-eye view through the broken globe glass as a nurse walks into the room to attend to Kane. A similar distortion occurs in The Graduate, except this time it is shot through a fish tank after Mrs. Robinson devilishly tosses Ben’s car keys into the tank’s water. Both objects that create the distortion have symbolism in the films: the snow globe of Kane symbolizes his childhood, while Ben’s fish tank symbolizes the constraints of the upper middle class suburban life style. Although the image on screen becomes distorted in these shots, they bring clarity of meaning to the overall narrative.
Welles utilized the graphic match as a transition technique in Kane. A dissolve transported the audience from the address number of the building to a newspaper photo of the building the next day after Kane’s affair with Susan Alexander. By merging two images into a distortion, Welles allows for a fluid motion of subtly connected scenes. On the other hand, Nichols implements a graphic match as symbolism for Ben’s life. The scene comes at the end of a long montage where Benjamin flows in and out of his life at home and in the hotel. At home, Benjamin springs from the pool water and lands on his raft, which instantly becomes Mrs. Robinson back in the hotel room. This functions as a symbolic match because he has been drifting on his raft and through life with his affair with Mrs. Robinson. Soon the audience hears the stern voice of Mr. Braddock, “Ben, what are you doing?” leading them to believe that Ben has been caught in his affair, however in actuality it is an illusion in the form of a comic sound bridge as Nichols cuts back to poolside where Mr. Braddock’s voice synchronizes. In this moment the audience gains a glimpse of the possible repercussions of this affair and a preparation for the fallout that looms in the future. Nichols interchanges images for each other as well as dubs a scene in order to build audience anxiety. The scene gives a clearer picture of the Ben’s undertaking of this affair in such a sheltered, yet conformity policing society.
Welles invented the lightning match, which he used to show the passage of time in young Kane’s life with Thatcher. Years pass by in an instant with the simple phrase “Merry Christmas…” finished off by “And a Happy New Year” a substantial amount of time later. The time warping allows Welles to condense a man’s whole life into two hours, cutting out minor details that were inconsequential to Kane’s life. Nichols also uses the lightning mix, not to illustrate a substantial gap in time, but instead as a simple transition and comparison. The transition takes place after Benjamin lies to his mother about where he goes at night and as she starts to walk away and he yells, “Wait a minute, wait a minute…” and he continues this phrase in the bedroom with Mrs. Robinson as he asks, “Mrs. Robinson, do you think we could say a few words to each other first this time?” It sets a contrast in that Benjamin does not wish to speak to his mother, who wants to speak with him, whereas he wishes to speak with Mrs. Robinson but she has minimal interest in conversation. His desire to speak with Mrs. Robinson marks his search for love in what Mrs. Robinson believes to be a purely “business” transaction. He rejects the caring love of his mother in order to pursue it from a source not willing to give it. The scene shows a clear division between the overbearing mother and the cold-hearted lover. Neither fulfills what Benjamin wants and this leads to his love for Elaine. By opposing these two older women in a lightning mix it reveals Benjamin’s predicament in his parents’ society.
In the depth of focus that Welles brought to the silver screen, he allowed the viewer to be democratic and choose his own line of action. He used three planes of action and the viewer could actively choose where to focus, thereby conjuring their own meaning for the narrative. Welles would place characters in the foreground, middle ground, and background all in the same shot, all in focus, and all actively participating. Nichols places a creative twist on this formula, especially in the scene from Elaine’s bedroom. In this sequence shot, Benjamin takes his place in the background and Mrs. Robinson dominates the foreground, however there appears to be an absence of a character in the middle ground. In the place of a character is an object, in this case the bed, a sight of future action, which completes the three planes. Nichols’ allusion to future action continues as the audience notices the portrait of Elaine behind Benjamin. Nichols distorts Welles’ three planes of action and transforms it into planes of action and future action, creating a microcosm of the movie’s syuzhet.
Another innovation on the planes of action arises when Nichols alternates the characters’ grounds within the scene. Near the middle of the film, Benjamin lies face down on his raft as his parents swim on both sides of him in the pool. His father swims to foreground with Ben’s mother in pursuit, as they demand to know why Ben refuses to ask Elaine on a date. The mother then enters the foreground and the father makes his way to the background as Ben stays in the middle. Their circular movement around Ben is reminiscent of sharks circling prey, consistent with their oppressive and domineering nature toward their son. By constantly changing the structure of the scene, Nichols alters the perception of the characters and depict them as closer to what they truly are.
Distortion to achieve clarity has prominence in both Citizen Kane and The Graduate, and when Nichols distorts Welles’ innovation his narrative and characters reveal their true nature.
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