In both texts, these strategies suggest similar attempts to represent the present moment’s relationship to the American past. Faulkner’s devastating analysis of race and Welles’s meditations on wealth and worth both serve to undermine the ideology of American self-determination, and both do so by interrogating the figure of the self-made white man as a stand-in for the nation.
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A few years ago I was teaching William Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! in one of my classes, and a student asked me, did I think it would be possible to make a film adaptation of this book? Sometimes it’s hard to resist a quip, so I said that in fact it had already been adapted for the screen twice – in the 1941 version titled Citizen Kane and the 1974 remake called Chinatown. I haven’t thought much about how well the claim about Chinatown would hold up, but critics and readers have often noticed the striking thematic similarities between Welles’s movie and Faulkner’s novel. John Duvall runs through several of these in an elegant little summary that describes the plots of both texts simultaneously:
a man of humble rural origins . . . leaves behind his biological family and rises to great fortune. This fortune allows him to conceive of a design of male mastery and authority, which he ruthlessly pursues. . . . He is eventually stripped of his wealth and power by the logic of his own design and by larger historical forces that overwhelm him. A parodic shadow of his former self, he dies a lonely and tormented old man, leaving behind a dark mansion that symbolizes his failed dream of empire. In the aftermath of his death, a younger man . . . is forced to search the archives of text and memory in order to attempt an interpretation of the dead man’s life. (105)
I’m going to suggest that in addition to these resemblances at the level of plot, the book and the film have a fundamental formal similarity as well. This similarity is visible in the way that each text constructs, and experiments with, its most basic and crucial elements, the written sentence and the cinematic shot. If Citizen Kane is a sort of unacknowledged adaptation of Absalom, Absalom!, it is one that employs an unusual cinematic language in order to create effects similar to those created by Faulkner’s unusual written language.
Faulkner’s relationship to cinema can be approached from a number of different angles. He spent time working as a Hollywood screenwriter, and some of his novels and stories have been adapted for the screen, although none of these adaptations have made any attempt to replicate the formal qualities of the fiction. On the other side of the coin, many readers have seen Faulknerian technique as employing a range of cinematic effects, such as flashbacks, freeze-frames, and montage sequences. But for the purposes of this article, the key relationship between Faulkner and film is the one between fictional and cinematic form. As Bruce Kawin argued in his 1977 book Faulkner and Film, Faulkner’s “place in film history . . . depends not on Faulkner’s films but on the influence of his fiction” (145).
I would suggest, though, that we don’t even need to speak of “influence,” but rather simply of relations and congruences among texts. Certainly there are filmmakers who have been influenced by Faulknerian styles and methods, such as some of the French New Wave and Left Bank directors of the fifties and sixties. (Agnès Varda, for example, cited The Wild Palms as the inspiration for the narrative structure of her early film La Pointe Courte.) But in the case of a film like Citizen Kane, there is no clear or definite line of influence running from Faulkner’s novel to director Orson Welles or to writer Herman Mankiewicz. Instead, the two texts, when examined together, appear as variations on the theme of interpreting the American past, creating similar effects by employing the particular techniques available in their two distinct media.
The techniques I’m interested in here are the most famous and characteristic elements of each text: Faulkner’s long sentence and Welles’s long take. This may seem like an obvious point of comparison, but I am not aware of any scholarship that has explored it in depth. Kawin’s study does note that “the burden of [Citizen Kane’s] camerawork is . . . to transcend montage – to embrace a variety of conflicting elements within single shots, as Faulkner himself tried [in Absalom, Absalom!] ‘to say it all in one sentence, between one Cap and one period’” (146), but he mentions this only as a concession, before arguing that montage is actually the dominant mode of both texts.
Let’s start by looking at one of those all-encompassing Faulknerian sentences. In this one, Quentin Compson is envisioning the outrageous process by which Thomas Sutpen somehow manages to bring elaborate tombstones for himself and his wife home to Mississippi in the midst of a raging Civil War.
It seemed to Quentin that he could actually see them: the ragged and starving troops without shoes, the gaunt powder-blackened faces looking backward over tattered shoulders, the glaring defeat watching that dark interdict ocean across which a grim lightless solitary ship fled with in its hold two thousand precious pounds-space containing not bullets, not even something to eat, but that much bombastic and inert carven rock which for the next year was to be a part of the regiment, to follow it into Pennsylvania and be present at Gettysburg, moving behind the regiment in a wagon driven by the demon’s body servant through swamp and plain and mountain pass, the regiment moving no faster than the wagon could, with starved gaunt men and gaunt spent horses knee deep in icy mud or snow, sweating and cursing it through bog and morass like a piece of artillery, speaking of the two stones as “Colonel” and “Mrs Colonel”; then through the Cumberland Gap and down through the Tennessee mountains, traveling at night to dodge Yankee patrols, and into Mississippi in the late fall of ’64, where the daughter waited whose marriage he had interdict and who was to be a widow the next summer though apparently not bereaved, where his wife was dead and his son self-excommunicated and -banished, and put one of the stones over his wife’s grave and set the other upright in the hall of the house, where Miss Coldfield possibly (maybe doubtless) looked at it every day as though it were his portrait, possibly (maybe doubtless here too) reading among the lettering more of maiden hope and virgin expectation than she ever told Quentin about, since she never mentioned the stone to him at all, and (the demon) drank the parched corn coffee and ate the hoe cake which Judith and Clytie prepared for him and kissed Judith on the forehead and said, “Well, Clytie” and returned to the war, all in twenty-four hours; he could see it; he might even have been there. (154-55)
The sentence is not only long, but breathlessly comprehensive. Although it reads at times like a sort of montage sequence, its depiction of the journey of the tombstones moves both forward and backward in time, so that the histories of the Sutpen family and of the Civil War are presented not as a sequence but as an aggregation of moments that must be apprehended simultaneously. It is a whole without unity, in which one part of the story reaches out to try to embrace the whole thing, but instead only creates the need for more such sentences, with each one enacting the large narrative failure of the book in microcosm. And, crucially, the process of narration is itself incorporated into the sentence as a framing structure, with the ending repeating and expanding the opening description of Quentin’s experience of the event as a kind of vision – “it seemed to Quentin that he could actually see them” – as if he were watching the scene as directed by D. W. Griffith. Or, more accurately, as if it were directed by Quentin, since what we are made aware of is not only how the history is narrated, but how the history is created by the narration, and how both these processes are enacted in the structure of the sentence.
If the long sentence is the self-repeating building block in the fractal structure of Absalom, the long take in deep focus serves a similar purpose in Kane. Deep-focus shots, in which several planes of action stretching from foreground to background are kept in focus, were the specialty of Gregg Toland, the cinematographer who shot Kane, and it is the combination of Orson Welles’s adventurousness and Toland’s technical genius that is responsible for the film’s distinct visual style. When paired with the long take – a shot that runs for several seconds or even minutes without cutting – deep-focus photography can create an effect similar to what Roland Barthes described as “writeability,” the effect that is often attributed to self-consciously difficult modernist texts, which demand the reader’s active participation as a producer of textual meaning. And the film critic André Bazin argued that this is precisely what long takes in deep focus do. Because the eye is not being guided by shifts of focus and directed camera movement – as it is in, say, a film by Howard Hawks – the spectator is forced to apprehend the whole mise-en-scene simultaneously and to construct meaning out of its disparate, and equally valued, elements through active intellectual engagement.
With this in mind, here are two examples from the film. In the first – a particularly famous long take – young Charles Kane plays in the snow while his mother, who has unexpectedly come into enormous wealth, makes arrangements for the banker Thatcher to become the boy’s legal guardian. In the second, set almost sixty years later during the Great Depression, Kane is forced to sign over control of his newspaper businesses to Thatcher’s bank. Each shot runs about two minutes. (The average shot length in Hollywood movies at the time was around 10 seconds; in contemporary films it is between 2 and 3 seconds.)
One of Bazin’s key examples when he made his claims about the function of the long take was Citizen Kane. He further argued that the long takes in the film created an effect of realism, giving the viewer the impression of life unfolding naturalistically, while the mediation of the camera seemed to disappear. But as any number of subsequent critics have pointed out, this is a bizarre claim to make about Kane, a film in which the camera persistently draws our attention to its presence. The camerawork enacts the film’s theme of the impossible investigation of Charles Foster Kane by pulling out the cinematic stops in order to show that it is trying to see Kane from every possible angle and point of entry, and yet failing to capture him. The shots as constructed by Welles and Toland are not realistic; they are self-consciously anti-realistic. Like the long sentences of Absalom, they are marked by a “stretchy” quality; while in the Faulknerian sentence time appears to accelerate and to slow simultaneously, this manipulation of time in Kane is dramatized through a space that expands and contracts.
Both texts use these techniques to construct historical connections, to layer multiple actions and time frames over one another. Faulkner’s layered narration scheme has a corollary in the overlapping spatial planes that Welles employs. Both texts are narrated from multiple perspectives, and both foreground the act of narration itself. The examples from Kane that I have shown do this initially by introducing the handwritten text of Thatcher’s memoir as a transition between the scene of the reporter reading the memoir and the onscreen presentation of the memory. But Kane further incorporates the act of narration into the shot itself through the use of deep focus. In my examples and in others throughout the film, Welles places a figure or figures – and usually the narrator of the flashback is among them – in the extreme foreground, so far forward that they often appear distorted and flattened, like cardboard cutouts set up in front of the action of the scene; they are both a part of it and separate from it. These figures are generally either discussing Kane or making decisions that will affect his life, while Kane himself appears, in full-figure and in sharp focus, in one of the background planes. They are, we might say, creating Kane’s story through the telling of it, while he goes helplessly through the motions of acting out the story being told. The effect is much like that of Absalom’s sentences, in which the narrators (in the foreground) both reconstruct and, through reconstruction, create the story of Thomas Sutpen. Meanwhile, Sutpen himself is always at the center of the narrative but also always at a distance; he is clearly and vividly seen, but not accessible to the reader.
In both texts, these strategies suggest similar attempts to represent the present moment’s relationship to the American past. Faulkner’s devastating analysis of race and Welles’s meditations on wealth and worth both serve to undermine the ideology of American self-determination, and both do so by interrogating the figure of the self-made white man as a stand-in for the nation. Sutpen is a mythical figure whose “design” for success, in its conception and its failure, becomes a synecdoche for the South and for America itself. Kane, who of course is identified at the outset as a “citizen,” insists several times that his defining quality is his Americanness.
But both of these central characters, these paradigmatic characters, are ultimately unknowable; they are the empty centers around which the two texts circle, and the narratives of both novel and film are keys to a lock that never existed. When the reporter Thompson in Kane gives up his quest for Rosebud and suggests that no one single thing can explain a person’s life, the roving camera nonetheless does his job for him and concludes by showing us that Rosebud was the sled, the symbol of a lost childhood. But this apparent answer, the source of many dull college essays, is a last sleight of hand, one that tells us about as much as Quentin’s circular and unenlightening interview with Henry Sutpen at the end of Absalom does. Both texts are puzzles, circular mazes, because both are attempting to cope formally with the problem of the American past. It is the thing that both dominates and constructs the present, and the thing that is itself constructed by the present and thus is forever slipping away from our attempts to know it.
If the endings of both Kane and Absalom expose the impossibility of assigning any sort of ultimate meaning to the American pasts that they evoke, I would suggest that the true heart of both texts resides in the formal strategies that they employ. In their uses of the sentence and the shot, the novel and the film construct capacious and elastic spaces within which the past and the present meet and separate, and within which the process of narration is represented as both separate from, and present in, the history that it is trying to tell. These deliberately artificial constructs have an unexpectedly utopian quality; they hold past and present, history and historiography, together in an extended and elaborated tension that potentially enables the viewer or the reader to participate in the epiphany of “seeing history” that Quentin experiences in the sentence I quoted above. It will all fall apart by the end, when the past reasserts its radical otherness and appears again as an unusable scatter of puzzle pieces. But while they last, both the sentence and the shot construct analogues of the historiographic process in all its complexity, with all its various and conflicting elements rendered in deep-focus clarity.
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Duvall, John. “Entering the Dark House: Teaching Absalom, Absalom! through Citizen Kane.” In Stephen Hahn and Robert W. Hamblin, eds., Teaching Faulkner: Approaches and Methods. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001, 105-117.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! 1936. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
Kawin, Bruce. Faulkner and Film. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977.