Pulp Fiction and Citizen Kane: A Study of Character Redemption and Artistic Structural Advances

         Throughout the years many films have revolutionized the art of filmmaking, from technological advances in cameras or special effects, to postmodern influences in storylines which replaced the monotonous standard of linear progression. Two such films, both considered classics in their own right and of their time, are Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). Both films changed the way the public perceived the cinema and propelled an inspiration that would affect future artists.

         Citizen Kane has frequently been named the greatest American film of all time, despite being a commercial failure when it was originally released. From the beginning of preproduction to its eventual release, Citizen Kane was riddled with controversy. Welles at the age of twenty-four left New York for Hollywood, where he was contracted to film a picture for RKO Production Company. He had complete control of the production, a practice unheard of at the time, especially considering his age and lack of experience in the film industry. Welles ran into a problem, however; he could not think of an idea for a script. After a dinner with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, an idea sparked in his head; and he began writing with his friend Herman Mankiewicz the screenplay named American, which was later re-titled Citizen Kane. The story of the film showed the rise and fall of Charles Foster Kane, from his humble beginnings to his rise to power, both politically and financially, culminating with his eventual demise caused by his inflated ego. The story closely parallel the life of Hearst, who was considered one of the most powerful men in the country, a man that controlled a majority of the newspapers, and thus public opinion, causing Hearst to begin a war against the film. Despite his many efforts, which included a blackout on all articles covering Kane in Hearst papers and an offer to RKO to by the prints of the film just to be destroyed, Hearst was unable to stop its release.

         Citizen Kane also enhanced many technical techniques used in film. Welles, with the able assistance of cinematographer, Gregg Toland, made use of depth of field in many of his shots by using a wide-angle lens and deep focus photography, creating layers of images, and making use of the entire frame, allowing the audience to witness the actions of many character at once. Welles was a perfectionist, doing whatever it took to obtain the shot he desired. At one point he broke through the floor just to allow the camera to be low enough to see the monstrous Kane in the foreground while action continued behind him. Other examples of the advances include the use of long takes, where Welles panned and tilted creating takes that were previously thought to be impossible. One example is the pan up the side of a music bar, over the roof, and through a skylight to find the character Susan (Dorothy Comingore) sitting at a table having a drink.

         The storyline was also a new approach, consisting mostly of flashbacks by characters describing Kane’s past to the investigating reporter. As the reporters search for the meaning of Kane’s last word, the movie progresses along the story of his life, which approaches the current time, finally culminating in the destruction of Kane’s precious Rosebud, the one possession that Kane truly cared for. This possession kept reminding him of his past and possibly reproducing his regrets from life in his mind, representing a time before he had been corrupted by ego and left by his parents.

         Though not as revolutionary technically as Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction, frequently referred to as the most important film of the 90’s, made similar use of the structure of time, creating an intertwined story where time does not exist until the film is over and the audience can piece together the different stories. The film ends where it began, in a restaurant as a robbery is taking place. It was a perfect representation of the postmodern movement in the early 90’s, combining humorous natural yet profane dialogue with pervasive violence and drama.

         Like Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction is character driven, only instead of Kane, in Pulp Fiction the viewer sees through the eyes of more characters including Vincent, Marsellus, Jules and Butch. Both films as well can be depicted as focusing on redemption. In Citizen Kane it could be said that Kane’s last word, “rosebud,” are an attempt to reclaim the innocence he had lost through the years as his power and influence increased; only it was too late; he was dying, alone, and broke. In Pulp Fiction nearly all of the characters are given a chance at redemption and only John Travolta’s character of Vincent chooses not to follow the path. Of all the main character, Vincent is the only one that meets an early demise, being shot with his own gun by the man he is trying to kill. Vincent is given a chance to rebuke the lifestyle of an assassin when his partner, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) has an epiphany and decides to leave the life of a killer, subsequently allowing two wannabe thieves to leave with his money instead of taking their life as he would have done before. The other characters, when presented with the chance to change and thus survive, take the path as well. Perhaps John Travolta’s Vincent comes to the same realization that Kane does moments before he dies. Kane was given many opportunities to salvage his life; but, like Vincent he decides not to.

         Both films changed the way the audience looked at the cinema. The parallel that Welles made between Kane and Hearst will always be remembered but will not overshadow the character study it depicts from the obsession of power, money, and property, none of which, as the film shows, can bring back the happiness and uncorrupted nature of innocence. Pulp Fiction reflected on the same vision of redemption, but it also changed the style of the cinema in the 90’s. Many films to follow would emulate both the non-linear structure and the comical, profane and realistic dialogue that Tarantino created. Both Pulp Fiction and Citizen Kane will always be remembered for their contribution to the evolution of American cinema, in structure, style, and message.

Taylor Sutton

Table of Contents