‘There’s No Confidence to Equal Ignorance‘: When Youth Trumps Experience

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'I don't know how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher. I just try everything I can think of.’
Charles Foster Kane, ‘Citizen Kane’

In 1939 RKO Pictures contracted 24 year-old Orson Welles to write, produce, direct and perform in two feature films. The deal gave Welles complete creative control, including the unprecedented right of final cut. He had not made a movie before.

The notorious contract was both resented and mocked by Hollywood insiders. However, the studio had not completely taken leave of its senses. Welles had a substantial reputation in the world of theatre and radio, and he’d just created a huge stir with his radio adaptation of ‘The War of the Worlds’.

But he still had a lot to learn.

In the months that followed Welles and screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz drafted a script based on the life of the media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Welles cast actors he knew from his own Mercury Theatre Company. Most of them were new to film, but he also enlisted veteran cinematographers, like Gregg Toland, expert editors and movie craftspeople. He was given a reference book of film techniques, and after dinner every night for about a month he watched John Ford’s ‘Stagecoach’, firing questions at a technician as he did so. Then in June 1940 he began filming ‘Citizen Kane’.


As it turned out, the first day I ever walked onto a set was my first day as a director.’

During the shoot Welles fell in love with the challenges and opportunities of movie making. For him the film studio was 'the greatest electric train set a boy ever had’. And he engaged the cinematographer’s art with wide-eyed enthusiasm.

 

‘If you come up from the bottom you’re taught all the things the cameraman doesn’t want to attempt, for fear he would be criticised for having failed.’

In ‘Citizen Kane’ Welles extensively deployed deep focus shots, whereby the foreground, background and everything in between were in sharp focus. He adopted low camera angles that looked up towards the ceiling (hitherto ceilings were rarely seen in cinema). He used montage editing and long dissolves, overlapping dialogue and multiple voices spliced together. He shunned the traditional linear narrative, and told Kane's story in flashback and from a variety of perspectives. He gave the composer Bernard Herrmann months rather than weeks to write the film's score.

‘I have always been more interested in experiments than accomplishments.’

Some of these techniques Welles had observed in German expressionist cinema. Some he had previously employed himself in the theatre or on the radio. He borrowed, repurposed, invented and imagined as he went along. He had a beginner’s willingness to try new things, to attempt outcomes that weren’t thought possible, to ask questions that hadn’t been asked.

‘Citizen Kane’, was released, after some delay, in May 1941. Though new to cinema, Welles had rewritten its grammar and raised the bar in terms of aesthetics and ambition. ‘Kane’ is considered by many to be the greatest film of all time.

When asked about the movie in the years that followed, Welles was keen to recognise the importance of his youthful naivety.

‘There’s no confidence to equal ignorance. It’s only when you know something about a profession that you’re timid or careful. I thought you could do anything with a camera that the eye could do, or the imagination could do.’

Welles also expressed a pioneer’s passion for the possibilities of cinema.

‘The first thing one must remember about film is that it is a young medium. And it is essential for every responsible artist to cultivate the ground that has been left fallow.‘

These observations should resonate with us in the field of commercial communication.

Ours is a young industry, but sometimes our youthful talent is constrained by conservative management and controlling leadership. It can be sidelined on marginal tasks, harnessed to rigid briefs, relegated to drudgery.

Smart Agencies learn that youthful naivety, enthusiasm and ambition are hugely valuable assets. They should be applied to the toughest tasks, the most important challenges. Novices are not cowed by previous setbacks or bitter experiences. They are not hidebound by convention or best practice. They don’t know what they can’t do.

As the nineteenth century French physiologist Claude Bernard observed:

'It is what we know already that often prevents us from learning.’

Sadly, though much admired by the critics, ‘Citizen Kane’ was not successful at the box office. Hearst took umbrage and forbad his newspapers from covering the movie. And under pressure from Hearst, the studio only gave it a limited release.

Consequently Welles’ Hollywood honeymoon was short-lived. The studios became more cautious. Welles became more cantankerous. Their relationship became more fractious.

‘I started at the top and worked down.’

Of course Welles went on to make some fine pictures. But he was never given the same creative freedom again. And he could never again be so young, naïve and ignorant. 

‘The enemy of society is middle class and the enemy of life is middle age.’
Orson Welles


'Life is too short to worry about unimportant things.
Reach for the sky, touch your star, and then you’ll find your dream.
'Cause dreamin' alone, it's a shame indeed.
But if you got love that's all you need.
So be young, be foolish, but be happy.
Be young, be foolish, but be happy.'

The Tams, 'Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy'
(J R Cobb / Ray Whitley)

No. 199

A Marriage In Six Breakfasts: Orson Welles and The Art of Compression

Emily: ‘What do you do at a newspaper until the middle of the night?’
Kane: ‘Emily, my dear, your only co-respondent is the Inquirer.’
Emily: ‘Sometimes I think I’d prefer a rival of flesh and blood.’
Citizen Kane

In Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane we see the decline of Charles Foster Kane’s marriage to Emily Norton over six breakfasts. In the first breakfast Charles and Emily are amorous and warm. They sit close to each other and their faces are all smiles and suggestion. With each subsequent breakfast the couple are progressively more formal and cold, more distant in tone and space. Their conversation turns to squabbling about their family and Kane’s work. In the final scene the couple don’t speak at all and bury their heads in their newspapers. She is reading the Chronicle, the rival title to Kane’s Inquirer.

In six breakfasts and just over two minutes Welles conveys everything we need to know about this unhappy relationship. It’s so elegantly succinct. It’s an exercise in economy, distillation, compression.

Charles Kane was a newspaperman, but I imagine he’d have made a fine adman too. And he certainly could teach us a few lessons.

Kane (to his Editor): ‘Mr Carter, here’s a three column headline in the Chronicle. Why hasn’t The Inquirer a three column headline?’

Carter: ‘The news wasn’t big enough.’
Kane: ‘Mr Carter, if the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.’
Citizen Kane

In the communication world we all recognise the art of compression. Advertising‘s necessary brevity has made distillation a critical skill. At its best commercial communication can reduce a hugely complex brand to a minute-long film, a single image, a compelling headline. Advertising can be understood as condensed thought.

In my time at BBH I often witnessed John Hegarty encouraging his teams to focus on the essence of the story, the ‘decisive moment’; to edit out unnecessary complexity, executional detail and verbiage. Sometimes he made press ads that looked like posters. Sometimes he would strip away the copy from TV scripts entirely and replace it with music.

Fred and Farid’s 2002 Xbox commercial is perhaps the ultimate example of advertising as condensed thought. It takes us from birth to burial in just one minute. It’s a flight of fantasy that resonates with truth. It finishes with the compelling invitation to ‘Play More.’

Mr Bernstein: ‘Old age. It’s the only disease that you don’t look forward to being cured of.’
Citizen Kane

Compression has many virtues. It forces focus and prioritisation; it enhances understanding; it is economical with people’s time and attention.

As Welles himself states when discussing the theatre, communication that is pared back can also leave room for the audience to fill in the gaps. It is cooperative, suggestive.

‘I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won't contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That's what gives the theatre meaning: when it becomes a social act.’
Orson Welles

The art of compression is of course also critical in the sphere of strategy. Some strategists hide behind the protective cloak of the intricate and arcane. But the best strategists can reduce, refine, distil. They bring simplicity to the sophisticated; comprehension to the complex.

‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.’
Orson Welles

However, the art of compression may be under threat in the world of modern marketing. This era is more long-form and content-driven; more conversational and cross platform; more networked and nuanced.

We should beware: of presuming too much on consumers’ time and attention; of compromising our ability to suggest and co-create; of drowning in our own complexity.

Over recent years it’s become fashionable to predict that advertising may become a redundant form altogether (though ironically the digital economy seems unhealthily dependent on ads). I have always contended that, even if advertising disappeared from the planet, we’d still want to sustain its discipline: the distillation, reduction, compression. We might even produce ads and throw them away, just for the learning we derive from the process…

‘If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.’
Orson Welles

Finally, there’s a more fundamental lesson that brands could learn from Citizen Kane. And it’s not about compression at all. Despite all his professional and material success, Charles Foster Kane was an unhappy man. He was unloved. He didn’t understand that you should not expect people to love you if you can’t love them back.

Jedediah Leland: ‘That’s all he ever wanted out of life…was love. That’s the tragedy of Charles Foster Kane. You see, he just didn’t have any to give.’
Citizen Kane

No. 78

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 7

Girlhood: What’s Your Youth Policy?

Girlhood is a tale of young female street gangs from the Parisian banlieue. It examines the drugs, deprivation, delinquency and diminished choices in the modern city environment. It features streetfights, shoplifting, bullying and prostitution.

Girlhood is certainly a challenging film. But the abiding impression one takes from it is the incandescent beauty of youth. Girlhood’s young stars are funny, graceful, resourceful and strong. Their charisma creates the poignancy that is at the heart of the movie. What a waste…

Many say that ours is a culture that loves youth too much. I don’t think we love it enough.

Of course there’s endless historic evidence of the potential of young people to remake the world around them. Alexander the Great conquered most of the known universe before he was 30; Descartes wrote ‘I think, therefore I am’ when he was 23; Orson Welles co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in Citizen Kane when he was 26. Youth properly directed can be the engine of change and innovation in any field of activity, within any community or business.

In the communications industry we tend to hire young people en masse. We train them as best we can. We give them bike racks, breakfast and Bacchic revels. And then we set them to work on long hours and short deadlines.

But do we properly appreciate our young colleagues’ empathy with other young consumers, with the challenges of urban living, with the changing landscape of technology?

Do we sufficiently value their particular ability to think anew about old problems? Do we trust them with the creative and strategic decisions that matter?

Can we afford to continue losing talent to technology businesses and entrepreneurial enterprises that don’t put an age limit on responsibility?

Does the communications industry need a strategy for youth?

(I should just say, by the way, that, while I am in awe of youth, my generation did have better music…)

 

Photograph 51: Do We Need More Proof-Obsessed Loners?

https://askabiologist.asu.edu

Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler opened in the West End last week. It stars Nicole Kidman as Rosalind Franklin, the British x-ray crystallographer whose 1952 image of a DNA molecule led to the revelation that DNA, ‘the building block of life’, has a double helix structure.

The credit for this breakthrough has largely gone to the Cambridge scientists, Francis Crick and James Watson, who built a model of DNA inspired by Franklin’s photo, and to Maurice Wilkins, who worked with Franklin at King’s College, London. These three were awarded a Nobel Prize in 1962. Franklin, who died from cancer in 1958 at the age of 37 and therefore did not qualify for the Prize, was written out of the story, in no small part because of sexism within the science community. (Thank goodness things have changed since then…)

The play considers the different working methods of the scientists involved. Franklin operated in isolation and was obsessed with original data and experimental proof. By contrast Crick and Watson were team players who dealt in intuition, hypothesis and models.

Photograph 51 implies that science progresses at pace when these two approaches interact: rigorous, data-driven research and bold, imaginative supposition. There’s a suggestion that science could do with a little more of Crick and Watson’s creativity and flair.

I suspect we in the communications industry would also do well to follow this hybrid approach, but that we suffer the opposite dilemma: we have a wealth of intuitive team players; however, we’re not over-supplied with proof-obsessed loners. Perhaps we could do with a few more Rosalind Franklins.

 

World Ballet Day: Where Athleticism Meets Art

1 October is World Ballet Day. Five of the world’s leading ballet companies will unite for a day of live-streamed rehearsals, interviews and insights. If you think ballet is just tutus, tiaras, Nutcrackers and nursery stories, I urge you to reconsider and log-on.

What fascinates me about ballet is that it brings together sporting precision and performance with creative innovation and style. The dancers are exceptional athletes, demonstrating discipline, teamwork and sheer hard graft. They train hard and learn fast, together. But they are also thoughtful, artistic people who co-create, interpret and inspire. They have their own individual aesthetic, personality and flair. It’s an intoxicating cocktail.

Business could learn a lot from ballet.

 

If Only Life and Business Had a Prompter

I attended a play in preview last week. An unfortunate actor had a number of long, elaborate speeches to deliver and, as it was so early in the run, on a handful of occasions he forgot his lines. He looked up severely at the prompter sitting with a text in the front row and said rather forcefully, ‘Yes, please’. Thus prompted, the prompter gave him the next line and the actor was back on track.

It struck me as something of a shame that we don’t have prompters on hand in life and business. I have often been in the middle of what I thought was a compelling exposition, only for words to fail me at the crucial moment. If only I could just look up there and then, turn to one side and intone ,‘Yes, please'…

No. 49