(Viewer) Nonlinear Storytelling in Citizen Kane

This is my second time watching this film and I think I finally got to appreciate it a little bit instead of trying to figure out what is going on in the story. I think this confusion comes from the non-linear storytelling technique used in this film which is quite unusual from all the other films I’ve watched. In this post, I want to dive into the nonlinear story telling technique used in Citizen Kane and analyze how it may enhances the story.

In the film’s opening sequence, a series of newsreel clips, newspaper headlines, and interviews with those who knew Kane serve as a montage that introduces the audience to the character. These fragments offer a non-linear glimpse into Kane’s life and impact before delving into the specifics of his story. The montage is a way of nonlinear storytelling and it used multiple times in this film, usually with a narration, to give us an idea of the character’s growth.

The film presents the story from various perspectives, including those of Kane’s close associates, such as his friend Jedediah Leland, his second wife Susan Alexander, and his butler Raymond. Each perspective provides a different layer of insight into Kane’s character and adds complexity to the narrative. Each story is laid on top o each other and each of them offers a little clue into who or what rosebud is. The non-linear narrative unfolds as a journalist investigates the meaning of this word, prompting the viewers to piece together Kane’s life through various memories and recollections, each of which unveils a part of the puzzle.

It was also interesting to see how the film layers its storytelling by intertwining the personal story of Kane with the broader cultural and political context of the time. There were a few times where a montage of a historical event was shown in between the story of Kane. This approach invites viewers to consider how Kane’s life was influenced by the social and historical events of the early 20th century.

For example, Kane’s life is revealed through a series of flashbacks that jump back and forth in time. One notable flashback shows Kane’s failed first marriage to Emily Norton. Instead of presenting it in a linear fashion, the film weaves this backstory into the narrative, revealing the strain on Kane’s personal life and how it relates to his public persona. Usually, films use a linear storytelling technique and weave in some flashbacks in the middle. In Kane, I feel like we are constantly jumping back and forth, which made it hard for me to comprehend when I watched it for the first time. I don’t know if it is such an effective technique to be honest.

I also noticed that the imagery of a snow globe shattering as it falls from Kane’s hand, revealing the word “Rosebud” inside, appears a few times in this film. The use of repetition and motif also becomes a way of non-linear storytelling and becomes a clue that encapsulates the complexity of his character and the fragmented nature of memory.

I personally think that this film is like a biographical documentary of some sort because the story line itself is not complex. The way the story was narrated, however, is what makes the film interesting. This makes me question whether ‘form’ is the most important part of a film. While many stories and themes were already explored, the ‘form’ which the director chooses to tell that story is what distinguishes them from the rest. Citizen Kane could become a documentary-like film, or a film that simply portrays a character’s growth from a third person’s perspective – bildungsroman. I realized the importance of narrative structures after watching Citizen Kane. I wonder, however, if there would be a more elusive way of narrating the story without making it so confusing.

Here is a synopsis video that I find helpful in understanding the narrative structure of the film. Let me know what you guys think.

2 thoughts on “(Viewer) Nonlinear Storytelling in Citizen Kane

  1. Hi Skye! Just wanted to say that I absolutely loved your analysis. I wholeheartedly agree with you on the importance of narrative structure, especially in a film like Citizen Kane. Like you stated above, the plot of the film itself is quite simple, and it could have been easily narrated in a normal third person documentary style. However, what separated the film from the rest is its unique narrative style. From the constant flashbacks and drawing from separate plot lines from different characters, the director is helping the viewers to piece together different parts of of Kane’s lives, and the different pieces of the information eventually joins together and forms the entire plot line. I also agree that although having a unique narrative structure is good, if a narrative structure is too complicated, it could also make it hard for the viewers to comprehend. For example, in this case, I also had trouble some part of Citizen Kane while watching the film because of the constant shifts of timelines and flashbacks. Overall, I think the film is a good example of how a unique narrative structure could elevate a film’s viewing experience.

  2. Hi Skye, I agree that jumping back and forth in the narrative was quite confusing at times in the film. I also thought that the hair and makeup of each character was important for that specific reason, it helped keep the time but not entirely. I think what is so interesting about the form in this film in the way that you describe it is that even when this third perspective is narrating the film, it still feels like it’s from Kane’s perspective. When each character talks about Kane and we dive into their story, the story is rarely viewed from that character’s perspective, but more so from Kane’s perspective in the way that character might perceive his own character might act or think. It’s confusing but I agree that there might be a more subtle way than journalists running rampant to find out what “Rosebud” means.

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