A closer examination by latest speaker: What factors contribute to ‘Citizen Kane’s’ greatness?

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For the second installment of the 2023 Library Speaker Series, community members were invited to hear Harlan Lebo, the author of “Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey,” a book about the making of one the most impactful films in cinema history. Photo by Samantha Bravo/TMT.

Malibu Library Speaker Series continues its installment with author and cultural historian Harlan Lebo

For the second installment of the 2023 Library Speaker Series, community members were invited to hear Harlan Lebo, the author of “Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey,” a book about the making of one the most impactful films in cinema history.

Despite the rain, film enthusiasts gathered at the Malibu Library on Feb. 28 to learn about the making of one of Hollywood’s greatest films, learn about the compelling tales of censorship, individual rights, creative freedom, and one of the most exciting chapters in Hollywood history. 

The 1941 American drama film was directed, produced, and starred Orson Welles. The film was nominated for Academy Awards in nine categories and won Best Writing, Original Screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz, who also co-wrote the screenplay.

The picture was Welles’ first feature film. “Citizen Kane” is frequently cited as the greatest film ever made. For 50 consecutive years, it stood at number 1 in the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound decennial poll of critics, and it topped the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies list in 1998, as well as its 2007 update.

“‘Citizen Kane’ is one the most explored, analyzed movies ever made — there’s been books written like mine, there have been academic and theoretical studies done, but it is still a motion picture that is filled with mysteries,” Lebo said. “I think more people have decided to become filmmakers after seeing ‘Citizen Kane.’” 

Lebo’s book, “Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey” is a movie lover’s history of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs behind the making of the film. The cinematography, editing, music, and social commentary are considered innovative and precedent-setting. 

Lebo talks about set designs, transitioning, lighting, deep sets and realism. 

“Deep sets don’t have to be big; even small fragments were created with depth and realism in mind,” Lebo said. “Simple small things that make a scene visually interesting and at the same time, much more realistic.”

In cinematography, deep focus keeps all elements of an image in sharp focus, simultaneously capturing key activities in the foreground and background.

“At the very least, deep sets are visually interesting. They look good, they seem real, but there’s more to it than that,” Lebo said. “A deep set allows for deep focus, and Welles could highlight several issues at the same time.”

On a technical level, Citizen Kane is important for the innovative lighting and focusing methods of its cinematographer, Gregg Toland, and the dramatic editing style of Robert Wise. It was Orson Welles’s debut as a film director, and it has been hailed by many critics as one of the greatest movies of all time.

“If you look at any movie from the ’30s and ’40s the action is from left to right, people talk, they move this way, and they don’t have a lot of creative freedom to move around,” Lebo said. “By extending the set back, the director Welles has much more creative freedom to move characters naturally, the way they normally do in life, through the scenes.”

While color films were barely introduced around the 1930s and ’40s, “Citizen Kane” was filmed in black and white. Lebo said they had a tight budget and couldn’t afford to use colored film.

“I hope that you can see the making of ‘Citizen Kane’ was one long exercise and a brilliant problem-solving film,” Lebo said. “And tonight we just began to touch on some of the elements that contributed to creating this cinematic film.”

Lebo has written books on other iconic films, including “The Godfather” and “Casablanca” and served as a historical consultant to Paramount Pictures for the 50th anniversary of the release of “Citizen Kane.” In addition, he writes about cultural history, science, the humanities, society, and the impact of digital technology. 

The next Speakers Series segment is on Tuesday, March 21, at 7 p.m. and will feature Dr. Ian Jukes, the founder of the InfoSavvy Group, an international educational leadership consulting firm based in Canada. He has been a classroom teacher, teaching every grade from kindergarten to grade 12. He has written or co-written 27 books and education series. His most recent books include: “Literacy is Still Not Enough,” “Learner Voice, Learner Choice,” “LeaderShift 2020,” “A Brief History of the Future of Education,” and the award-winning “Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation.”