A Trip to the Moon: Move Fast and Make Things

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Georges Melies’ ‘A Trip to the Moon,’(‘Le Voyage dans la Lune’) is celebrated as the first true science-fiction film. Released in 1902, it presented cinema as a medium for fantasy, when hitherto it had been a vehicle for social realism. ‘A Trip to the Moon’ was only 14 minutes long, but this was revolutionary in an era when two minutes was an ordinary running time.  

Melies himself plays a professor who convinces his fellow scientists to join him on an expedition to the moon. They travel in a cannon-propelled capsule, explore the moon's surface, escape from an underground group of lunar locals (Selenites), and return to Paris with a captive in triumph. 

Melies had a background in theatre and magic, and ‘A Trip to the Moon’ boasts impressive stage sets, bizarre costumes, amusing pratfalls and dramatic explosions. He gives us a mushroom-filled grotto, lunar snow and engagingly insect-like aliens. He employs innovative cinematic techniques like superimposition, substitution-splice editing, pseudo-tracking shots and dissolves. We see the earth from the moon, and the stars come alive. We visit the Palace of the Selenites and watch the space capsule crash land into the sea. It’s a glorious flight of fancy. 

But there’s also something troubling about ‘A Trip to the Moon’. Although it’s cheerful and comic in tone, one can’t help noticing the destructive impact that our heroic scientists have in the course of their adventures.

In one iconic scene the moon is represented as a face, and the space capsule lands painfully in its right eye. When they disembark at their destination, the explorers take to slaying the fragile locals and go on to kill their king. And at the end of the film the humans parade their captive Selenite in a somewhat colonial fashion.

So despite the fact that ‘A Trip to the Moon’ is a light-hearted entertainment, it does suggest some serious questions.

Why do explorers and pioneers consistently seem so wilful in their destruction of the new environments and societies that they discover? Why are they always out to conquer and tame, exploit and gain, shackle and own?

These questions could be posed to the world of business too. 

Why is it that innovators and entrepreneurs seem so set on destroying everything that has gone before them? Why do we celebrate disruption as a prerequisite of progress? Why indeed do we applaud Mark Zuckerberg’s famous mantra: ‘move fast and break things’?

The Facebook founder was probably right about the imperative of speed in our accelerated world. But surely in an era of finite resources and fragile ecosystems, devastation and profligacy should not be culturally or commercially acceptable.

As creative professionals our focus should not be on destroying or dismantling; on eradicating the past or eliminating the competition. Rather we should turn our skills to preserving, reducing and replacing; to facilitating, enabling and enhancing; to solving, inspiring, and making. We should regard creative destruction, not as a code of behaviour, but as an oxymoron.

It seems obvious to me that creative industries should primarily concentrate on creating value – for businesses, institutions, consumers and society - and on doing so without damaging cultures, communities and the climate in the process. 

Perhaps our motto should more reasonably be: ‘Move fast and make things.’

 

'In starlit nights I saw you. 
So cruelly you kissed me, 
Your lips a magic world, 
Your sky all hung with jewels. 
The killing moon 
Will come too soon.

Fate 
Up against your will. 
Through the thick and thin, 
He will wait until 
You give yourself to him.'

Echo and the Bunnymen, ‘The Killing Moon’  (I McCulloch / L Pattinson / P De Freitas / W Sergeant)

No. 227

 

 

Bad Timing: It’s Not Enough to Be Right, You Need to Be Right at the Right Time

Film still: Shanghai Express

Film still: Shanghai Express

‘If you’re thinking of reforming me, you might as well save yourself the trouble.’

In the 1932 movie ‘Shanghai Express’ an eccentric crew are thrown together in the First Class carriage of a train travelling through civil war torn China. They include an English missionary, a French veteran, an American gambler, a German opium dealer and a Chinese spy. 

Marlene Dietrich plays the elegant and enigmatic Shanghai Lily. She discovers that a rather reserved British army doctor, Captain Harvey, is a fellow passenger. Five years earlier they were in a relationship, but they separated when she tested his faith in her.

‘I wanted to be certain that you loved me. Instead I lost you.’

Lily has since adopted the life of a courtesan.

'It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.'

It becomes clear that Lily and Harvey still carry a torch for one another. Will they be able to rekindle their romance despite everything that has happened?

Director Josef von Sternberg uses ‘Shanghai Express’ as a vehicle for Dietrich’s extraordinary beauty. He employs a raft of lighting techniques and costume choices to draw our gaze.

We see Dietrich in the dark, in torchlight, emerging from the shadows; Dietrich behind a lace veil, in a feathered cap, her face framed by fur. There’s Dietrich in a long silk dress, in a chain-mesh collar, in a kimono; Dietrich with a blonde bob, backlit. Big eyes, hooded lids, hypnotic gaze. Dietrich walks through steam, peers through glass. She smokes a cigarette. We are fascinated by her angular cheekbones, her elegantly trimmed eyebrows, her sad sombre voice. Dietrich in jewels, in the Captain’s hat, in tears, in prayer. 

As the train makes its way across China the two former lovers confront each other. Harvey professes his enduring commitment to her. Lily is confused.

'When I needed your faith, you withheld it. And now, when I don't need it, and don't deserve it, you give it to me.'

Film still: Shanghai Express

Film still: Shanghai Express

Lily’s frustration will resonate with many people watching. Bad timing has arrested many budding romances before they can blossom. Bad timing can cool passion, frustrate affection, dampen enthusiasm. The moment passes, the opportunity evaporates, circumstances change. If only things had been different…

It’s true of business too.

Looking back over my years in advertising I can recall sound appointments that failed for being premature or belated; promising careers that floundered because engagement was misaligned; robust initiatives that ran aground for being ahead of their time or behind the times. Too late into digital, too early into content, too soon with media planning… 

Arrive before there’s Client appetite or commercial need and you’ll not be properly appreciated. Come too late and you’ll miss the boat. It’s not enough to be right. You need to be right at the right time.

As the Shanghai Express progresses across China, it is hijacked by rebel soldiers. Lily saves her former lover’s life, but he once again misinterprets events. 

Dietrich turns the light out and is alone with a cigarette. 

Finally, to everyone’s relief, Harvey sees sense. He catches up with Lily on a crowded Shanghai Station platform.

‘There’s only one thing I want to tell you… How in the name of Confucius can I kiss you with all these people around?’

'Now what am I supposed to do,
When I want you in my world?
How can I want you for myself,
When I'm already someone’s girl?

I guess I'll see you next lifetime.
No hard feelings.
I guess I'll see you next lifetime.
I'm gonna be there.'

Erykah Badu, 'Next Lifetime'

No. 221

The Longest Kiss: Turning Constraints to Your Advantage


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Cary Grant enters a Rio hotel room with Ingrid Bergman. Bag down, gloves off, hat discarded on the chair. In silence. They walk out to the balcony, embrace and kiss. She sighs and they look into each other’s eyes.

‘It’s nice out here. Let’s not go out for dinner. Let’s stay in.’

Between tender kisses, they discuss the chicken she’s planning to cook for him. They’ll keep the washing-up to a minimum.

Bergman leans on Grant’s shoulder as he takes her back inside to make a phone call. They kiss again, and hold each other tight as he picks up a message from his hotel. He has to leave.

Bergman: ‘This is a very strange love affair.’
Grant: ‘Why?’
Bergman: ‘Maybe the fact that you don't love me.’

They make their way to the door, arm in arm, kiss goodbye and agree to meet later.
He slips away.

This scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1942 movie ‘Notorious’ was celebrated as ‘the longest kiss in the history of the movies’. It lasts just under three minutes, but is not in fact a single kiss. Rather it is a series of kisses interrupted by conversation, movement and action.

It’s a memorable scene because it seems so intimate, natural, real. We believe that Bergman and Grant are genuinely in love. When Hitchcock carefully choreographed the actors, he may well have been seeking to communicate unaffected romantic truth. But he was also keen not to fall foul of the Hays Production Code, which prohibited ‘scenes of passion’, and restricted any screen kiss to no more than three seconds.

Constraints focus the mind, demand our attention. They lay down the gauntlet; prompt our rebellious instincts; challenge us to think laterally, to circumvent the regulations, to sidestep the rules. And sometimes they produce truly memorable responses.

When one reflects on historic cigarette and alcohol advertising, it sometimes seems that they hit the creative heights because of, rather than despite, legal restrictions. Ads for the likes of Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges verged on the surreal. And I well recall a poster for the Winston brand:

We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s a stuffed aardvark.’

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Necessity has been the mother of invention in many great communication campaigns. Sometimes the constraint is legislative. Levi’s ‘Swimmer’ (1992) featured a number of property owners signalling consent because the advertising authorities didn’t want to celebrate trespassing. Sometimes the constraint is practical – you simply don’t have much time or money. Consider most Madness videos. And sometimes the constraint can even be self-imposed. When Justin Moore was creating a six-minute film for Johnnie Walker, ‘The Man Who Walked Around the World’ (2009), he insisted that it should be one continuous shot - no cuts, no editing.

When you see rules, restrictions and regulations, don’t skulk off complaining and feeling sorry for yourself. Embrace the constraints. Take up the challenge. See where the limitations take you. Even consider setting a restriction yourself. You may find that a boring guideline is more inspiring than a blank piece of paper.

As Orson Welles once observed:
'The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.’

Happy Valentine’s Day

No. 216

‘But I Ain’t Lost’: Values Can Help Us Navigate Change

The Misfits (1961 - BFI

The Misfits (1961 - BFI

'One thing about this town, it's always full of interesting strangers.’

The 1961 movie ‘The Misfits’ is a sad tale of lonely hearts, lost souls and the fading West.

Scripted by Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston, it stars Miller’s then wife Marilyn Monroe as a recently divorced woman looking to start a new chapter. In Reno she encounters veteran cowboy Clark Gable and his tow-truck driving sidekick Eli Wallach. For a while they settle in Wallach’s unfinished house on the edge of the Nevada desert.

'That's what I can't get used to. Everything keeps changing.’

Gable has a wistful air. He’s a man out of time. He laments the passing of the old West and struggles to come to terms with modern life. Wallach mourns his wife who died in childbirth a year or so ago. It was for her that he was building the house. Monroe, scarred by previous relationships, seeks emotional truth and independence.

'If I'm going to be alone, I want to be by myself.’

They’re all misfits - trying to deal with the past, to find companionship, to define some relevance and purpose in the midst of progress and change. Having enlisted the help of rodeo rider Montgomery Clift, the men set about rounding up wild horses in the desert - a last taste of freedom and the autonomous life that is fast disappearing.

‘It's better than wages, ain’t it?’
‘Sure, anything's better than wages.’

‘The Misfits’ is a complex movie, a reflection on the rootless and displaced; on people left behind by progress, powerless to control their own lives.

At one stage Gable relates an anecdote which may provide a key to understanding the plot.

'Did you ever hear the story about the city man out in the country? He sees this fella sittin' on his porch. So he says, "Mister, could you tell me how I could get back to town?" The fella says, "No." "Well, could you tell me how to get to the Post Office?" The fella says, "No." "Well, do you know how to get to the Railroad Station?" "No." "Boy," he says, "you sure don't know much, do ya?" The fella says, "No. But I ain't lost.”'

There may be a lesson for us all here.

In times of transformation and upheaval, all around us we see doubts and dilemmas. We chase fads and fashions. We pursue answers - new horizons and fresh certainties. It’s easy to get confused and disorientated.  If we can just retain a robust sense of who we are, an adherence to some core principles, then maybe we’ll not get lost. Values can help us navigate change.

'You know, sometimes when a person don't know what to do, the best thing is to just stand still.’

An air of melancholy hangs over ‘The Misfits’. It was a troubled production. Huston drank and gambled his way through the shoot. Miller had written the screenplay for Monroe, but their relationship deteriorated in the course of filming. He was constantly redrafting the script and her addictions led to delays. Clift too was fragile. Gable, who had clearly been unwell, died of a heart attack a few days after filming ended. He was just short of sixty. Monroe passed away a year and a half later. ‘The Misfits’ was her last film.

Writing about Monroe in his memoir many years later, Miller observed the following:

'Whatever Marilyn was, she was not indifferent; her very pain bespoke life and the wrestling with the angel of death.  She was a living rebuke to anyone who didn’t care.' 

'I watched you suffer a dull aching pain.
Now you've decided to show me the same.
No sweeping exit or offstage lines
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind.
Wild horses couldn't drag me away.
Wild, wild horses couldn't drag me away.'

Wild Horses’, The Rolling Stones (Keith Richards / Mick Jagger)

No. 215

Shot by Both Sides: Protecting the Right to Change One’s Mind

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Now I’m not sure I’d recommend the 1948 movie ‘A Southern Yankee’ to you. It’s a moderate comedy set during the American Civil War that was often on TV when I was a kid.

I remember being particularly amused by one scene, which it transpires was masterminded by the great Buster Keaton. Red Skelton plays a soldier who finds himself serving with both armies in the conflict. At one point, by a stroke of bad luck, he has to make his way between the Northern and Southern forces in the midst of a furious battle. He realises he must select a side, but the moment he does so he’ll be mincemeat.

Red resolves to stitch two uniforms and two flags together, so that he can be Union from one perspective and Confederate from the other. Initially the plan works. When he marches between the opposing battalions, each army cheers as they see him sporting their own uniform and flag.

However, the wind changes, and Red’s ensign reverses. Some soldiers grow suspicious. In the confusion he turns round. Now both armies see him wearing the opposition’s colours. Disaster! Red ends up being shot by both sides.

'Shot by both sides,
On the run to the outside of everything.
Shot by both sides,
They must have come to a secret understanding.’

'Shot By Both Sides', Magazine (Howard Devoto)

Generally speaking, we are sceptical of people who equivocate. They are weak and hesitant, tentative and unreliable. We accuse them of fudging and hedging, sitting on the fence, standing on the sidelines.

Rather we applaud conviction, confidence and consistency. We like people who are single-minded and strong-willed; who hold the line and stay the course.

In creative businesses we have a particular aversion to circumspection. We belittle the cautious and careful as indecisive and irresolute. The legendary art director and designer George Lois, for instance, complained about what he called ‘The Abominable No Man’:

‘Tell the devil’s advocate in the room to go to hell.’

But sometimes new information reframes the dilemma; new data suggest a different direction; new circumstances demand a change of course. There is a point where self-assurance becomes intransigence; where determination to see things through becomes refusal to see things any other way.

It’s never easy to admit we may have been wrong. It can be awkward, humiliating and embarrassing, particularly when we’re confronting serious issues and big decisions. And so we’ll do anything we can to resist it. As the economist JK Galbraith observed:

'Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.'

Great leaders have the ability to see the merit of opposing perspectives and points of view; to weigh up different sides of an argument and take decisive action accordingly. They pursue their chosen course with conviction. But they also have the courage, humility and good sense to adjust their opinions in line with new evidence and information; to evolve their strategy to accommodate new knowledge and understanding. Great leaders know how to change their minds.

As the nineteenth century American philosopher and psychologist, William James wrote:
'If you can change your mind, you can change your life.'

'Aww, she didn't bat an eye
As I packed my bags to leave.
I thought she would start to cry
Or sit around my room and grieve.
But y'all, the girl, she fooled me this time.
She acted like I was the last thing on her mind.
I would like to start all over again.
Baby, can I change my mind,
I just want to change my mind.’

Tyrone Davis, ’Can I Change My Mind’ (Barry George Despenza / Carl Wolfolk)

No. 208

Garbo’s Hat: Recognising People’s Right to Be Wrong

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Greta Garbo was a Hollywood star of the silent era, adored for her luminous on-screen presence, her sophisticated beauty, her worldly-wise personality. With the advent of ‘talkies’ MGM became nervous. What would audiences make of her heavy Swedish accent? They delayed as long as they could. Then in 1930 Garbo played the eponymous heroine of ‘Anna Christie’. She walked into a bar, collapsed into a chair and demanded:

'Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby.’

The studio publicised the movie with posters proclaiming: ‘Garbo talks!’ The public were delighted, and ‘Anna Christie’ was the highest grossing film of the year.

Garbo subsequently performed in a succession of classics, including ‘Grand Hotel’, ‘Queen Christina’, ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘Camille’. She consistently played melancholic and melodramatic heroines. She was compellingly serious, earnest, pensive. But gradually her popularity began to wane, and in 1939 the studio decided to change tack, casting her in an Ernst Lubitsch comedy, ‘Ninotchka’.

Buljanoff: 'How are things in Moscow?'
Ninotchka: 'Very Good. The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.' 

Garbo plays Ninotchka, a Soviet special envoy sent to Paris to organise a sale of royal Russian jewellery. She is sober, stern, judgemental; unimpressed by bourgeois capitalism.

Ninotchka: 'Why should you carry other people's bags?'
Porter: 'Well, that's my business, Madame.'
Ninotchka: 'That's no business. That's social injustice.'
Porter: 'That depends on the tip.'

Wherever Ninotchka goes in Paris, she is taken aback by its indulgent Western ways. All about her seems shallow and superfluous, petty and pointless. She spots a couture hat in a shop window. It looks rather like a lampshade.

Ninotchka: 'What's that?'
Comrade Kopalski: 'It's a hat, Comrade. A woman's hat.'
Ninotchka: 'How can such a civilization survive which permits their women to put things like that on their heads. It won't be long now, Comrades.'

 Ninotchka also encounters the debonair Frenchman, Count Leon (played by Melvyn Douglas). She recognizes that he is rather charismatic, but dismisses him as entirely frivolous.

 'Now, don't misunderstand me. I do not hold your frivolity against you. As basic material, you may not be bad; but you are the unfortunate product of a doomed culture. I feel very sorry for you.'

Gradually, however, Ninotchka is seduced by the charms of Paris and the Count. And soon she cannot resist the hat she recently found so contemptible.

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‘Ninotchka’ is a magnificent comedy, bristling with elegant witticisms and sharp social satire. It reminded me that, growing up in the midst of the Cold War, we were often prompted to consider the differences between Soviet and Capitalist societies. 

To teenagers like me Communism certainly had its appeal: the avowed commitment to equality, the intolerance of plutocrats, the celebration of the workers, the military caps with retractable ear-flaps. But we were also, of course, aware of the suppression of individual freedoms, of Stalin’s dark secrets. And there was a nagging sense that Communism was somehow dull, dreary and joyless; that it didn’t accommodate human foibles and foolishness - the insignificance of pop, the frippery of fashion, the triviality of brands and advertising. In short Communism didn’t seem to afford people the right to be wrong. And this seemed somehow very important to me.

If you work in the field of marketing or advertising and were fortunate enough to grow up after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s still perhaps worth reflecting on the differences between Capitalism and Communism. You may conclude like me that ordinary people are capricious, fickle and flighty. They oscillate between profound passions and shallow affections; between passionate commitments and superficial attachments. They can be both serious and silly; consistent and erratic. They can comfortably hold two mutually opposing ideas in their heads at the same time. And that’s what makes us human.

In the critical scene of ‘Ninotchka’ our heroine sits down in a restaurant and orders raw beets and carrots. The owner is unimpressed:

'Madame, this is a restaurant, not a meadow.'

Count Leon does everything he can to entertain her over lunch - all to no avail. Finally he resorts to a joke.

 'A man comes into a restaurant. He sits down at the table. He says, "Waiter, bring me a cup of coffee without cream." Five minutes later the waiter comes back and says, "I'm sorry sir, we have no cream, can it be without milk?"'

Ninotchka is still not amused, but when the Count accidentally tumbles from his chair, she breaks into cascades of joyous laughter. Ninotchka’s defences have been breached by a ludicrous pratfall. And Garbo shows a hitherto concealed gift for comedy.

This time round the promotional posters were headlined: ‘Garbo laughs!’

'By the look in your eye I can tell you're gonna cry. 
Is it over me?
If it is, save your tears for I'm not worth it, you see.
For I'm the kind of guy who is always on the roam,
Wherever I lay my hat, that's my home.’

Marvin Gaye, Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home) (Barrett Strong/ Marvin Gaye/ Norman Whitfield)

No. 205


‘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

'That Ain't My Department, Sir’: Why I Never Attended a Shoot

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'My name is John Ford and I make Westerns.'

In the late 1940s John Ford directed three movies about the US Cavalry of the 1860s and ‘70s, all of them starring John Wayne. Ford created a world of dedication and discipline; of camaraderie and quiet courage on meagre rations and poor pay. There is hard drinking, sweet singing, flawed heroism and quite extraordinary horsemanship. We see tight teams built from diverse talents, tough veterans passing on hard-earned wisdom, raw recruits gaining their yellow stripes, and varying degrees of sympathy for the Native Americans.

‘A good picture is long on action and short on dialogue.’

The ‘Cavalry Trilogy’ was filmed in the majestic setting of Monument Valley and featured regular actors from the John Ford Stock Company. Ford liked to shoot in familiar places with familiar people, away from the interference of studio executives.

‘I cut in the camera. Otherwise, if you give them a lot of film ‘the committee’ takes over.’

In the 1949 trilogy centre-piece, the gloriously Technicolor ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’, Wayne plays seasoned Cavalryman, Captain Nathan Brittles. On the eve of retirement he takes out a last patrol to stop an impending attack from Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors. 

Brittles’ chief scout is Sergeant Tyree (played by Ben Johnson), formerly a Captain in the Confederate cavalry. Tyree is a no-nonsense professional whom Brittles trusts to carry out dangerous duties and give sound advice.

Brittles: ‘Were you ever scared, Tyree?’
Tyree: ‘Yes, sir. Up to and includin' now.’

But Tyree knows the limits of his expertise. He is not given to hopeful speculation or empty conjecture.

'My mother didn't raise any sons to be makin' guesses in front of Yankee captains.'

So when asked by Brittles his opinion on broader strategic matters, Tyree consistently replies:
'That ain't my department, sir.’

I have some sympathy with Tyree. In my twenty-five years as a Planner in an Advertising Agency I never once attended a shoot - neither a big commercial production on a warm Trinidadian beach, nor a humble print affair in a cold studio in West Acton. I didn’t feel it was my department.

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'Never apologize. It's a sign of weakness.’
Captain Brittles

Now I’m well aware that I may have been missing out – on the glamour, the travel, the esprit de corps and the generous catering. I’m conscious that I should probably have witnessed a shoot in the spirit of understanding the process and sharing responsibility for the outcome.


And yet I have no regrets. You see the thing is, as a strategist I wanted to concentrate on what I knew best. I could attend research groups, read reports, write briefs, create decks, present arguments, measure success. And more besides. But I had little to add to the production process. And I had too much respect for my colleagues in the Creative, Management and Production functions to bore them with my half-baked opinions on wardrobe, casting and camera angles. 'That ain't my department, sir.’

Of course, we live in an age of team-working, generalism and multidisciplinary consensus. And yet for the most part, there seem to be too many people, in too many meetings, offering too many points of view, on areas where they have little or no expertise. This way of working slows things down, muddies the argument and adds to cost. It’s inefficient and indecisive. We should respect specialism and knowhow; recognize roles and responsibilities. We should be comfortable missing out when we have little to offer; learn to stay silent when we have nothing to say.  

Inevitably, my observation may seem less relevant now that I am semi-detached from the Agency world. But veterans still have their uses. In ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’ Captain Brittles meets the aged Chief Pony That Walks and urges him to persuade his younger tribesmen to put down their arms.

'Yes, we are too old for war. But old men should stop wars.’

No. 197

Grand Hotel: Why Not Put All Your Eggs in One Basket?

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'Grand Hotel... always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.’

Dr. Otternschlag, ‘Grand Hotel’

The 1932 movie ‘Grand Hotel’ is set in Berlin between the wars. It begins with an overhead shot of switchboard operators busily connecting calls. We cut to a series of hotel staff and guests on the phone: a Head Porter is worried about his wife who is giving birth at a local clinic; an industrialist plans a merger which he needs to go through to keep his business afloat; a maid announces that her Prima Ballerina mistress will not dance today as she is tired and overwrought; an aristocrat short of money is plotting; an ordinary fellow has only a few weeks to live.

And so we are introduced with elegant brevity to a range of personal stories that will intertwine and evolve as the plot unfolds.

It had been the convention for Hollywood studios to release films that featured just one or two stars. They wanted to prompt audiences to pay separate admission to see their favourite actors appearing across a range of titles.

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With ‘Grand Hotel’ MGM chief Irving Thalberg determined to feature five A-list stars in one movie: Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, the brothers John and Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery.

Inevitably the production attracted a great deal of publicity. MGM promoted it as ‘the greatest cast ever assembled’ and gave it a spectacular Hollywood premiere.

With its phenomenal line-up, lavish setting and romantic narrative, ‘Grand Hotel’ resonated with audiences that were reeling from the onset of the Depression. The movie gained notoriety for featuring Greta Garbo’s melancholy line,‘I want to be alone.’ And it quickly attracted parodies. It became one of the highest grossing films in studio history.

‘Grand Hotel’ was the first all-star movie vehicle. And it established a model for gilt-edged ensemble casting that was followed right up to the modern era by the likes of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, ‘Gosford Park’ and ‘Oceans Eleven’.

In business we are accustomed to the principle of spreading risk; of distributing exposure across a range of categories and markets. But sometimes it pays to consolidate our efforts.

 

The nineteenth century tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt initially acquired his wealth in steamboats. But when he saw the rise of the train, he divested from shipping and bet his whole fortune on the railroad. He became the richest man in America. John Rockefeller built Standard Oil by processing petroleum for kerosene used in lamps. When electricity began to eclipse kerosene in the domestic lighting sector, he could have diversified into the new technology. Instead Rockefeller concentrated his efforts on refining oil for gasoline in the emergent car market.

Sometimes the opportunity is such that it merits focus and weight, our full and undivided attention. 

Many years ago we were pitching for the US region of a business that we serviced in the rest of the world. Our competitors had been whispering in the Clients’ ears that awarding the whole global account to BBH would compromise them. Better, it was suggested, to keep an Agency roster and play suppliers off against one another. ‘You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket.’

Nigel Bogle began the pitch by recognizing that the ‘eggs in one basket’ concern had been playing on the Clients’ minds. He addressed the issue head-on: 

‘I’ve reflected on this, and I can’t think of anyone that doesn’t keep all their eggs in one basket.’

Sometimes it pays to consolidate and concentrate; to focus on the biggest opportunity; to put all your best eggs in the one most promising basket.

By the end of ‘Grand Hotel’ Otto Kringelein, the ordinary fellow with a terminal illness, has had a fine old time drinking, gambling and carousing in its opulent halls. He concludes with a toast:

'To life! To the magnificent, dangerous, brief, brief, wonderful life...and the courage to live it!  Baron, I've only lived since last night, but that little while seems longer than all the time that's gone before.'

No 196

Anatomy of a Rumour: How Do We Protect Truth in an Environment that Favours Falsehood?

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‘A lie can be halfway round the world while truth is putting on its shoes.’
Attributed to Mark Twain and Winston Churchill among others…

In the splendid 1959 courtroom drama ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ James Stewart plays a lawyer defending an army lieutenant charged with murder. When cross-examining a medical expert, Stewart asks a question that impugns the integrity of the prosecuting officers. He knows this is improper, admits it and withdraws the remark.

The lieutenant is confused, and asks Stewart: ‘How can a jury disregard what it's already heard?’

Stewart shakes his head and replies: ‘They can't, lieutenant. They can’t.’

This is a relatively benign use of a tactic that is not uncommon in the fields of law, journalism and politics: alluding to something that may not be relevant, provable or even true, and trusting that people will remember.

In his 1972 magazine series, ‘Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail’, Hunter S Thompson related a sinister tale of Lyndon Johnson canvassing in Texas:

'The race was close and Johnson was getting worried. Finally he told his campaign manager to start a massive rumour campaign about his opponent’s life-long habit of enjoying carnal knowledge of his barnyard sows.

‘Christ, we can’t get away with calling him a pig-f****r,’ the campaign manager protested. ‘Nobody’s going to believe a thing like that.’

‘I know,’ Johnson replied. ‘But let’s make the sonofab****h deny it.’'

We can all recall stories, gossip and rumours that attach themselves to modern politicians and celebrities. Hearsay and innuendo, suggestions of scandal, tend to endure, despite their being unsubstantiated and unproven. We can’t un-hear what we have heard; un-see what we have seen; un-think what we have thought.

Of course, this is nothing new. We’re familiar with the cancerous effect of Iago’s lies in Shakespeare’s Othello.

‘I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear.’

In 1710 the essayist Jonathan Swift wrote:

‘If a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect.’

The problem is that the more scurrilous, extraordinary and unlikely a story is, the more it lends itself to re-telling; the more we want to share it, regardless of whether we know it to be true. A lie is generally more compelling than the truth. It disperses by chain reaction, with incredible velocity. Indeed, as Vladimir Lenin said:
‘A lie told often enough becomes the truth.'

Sadly the social media age seems to have amplified and accelerated this phenomenon. The dice are increasingly loaded in favour of half-truths and misrepresentation. Lies are faster, more nimble, more addictive than ever before. And we are all complicit. We like to gossip, to spread the news, to pass on a story. We freely re-tweet, share and endorse. We may occasionally pause to question sources, or reflect on impacts. But we often unwittingly participate in the distribution of falsehood.

‘I can prove it’s rumour. I can’t prove it’s fact.’
Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York and now President Donald Trump’s lawyer

And so inevitably we arrive at the era of fake news, alternative facts and ‘would’ meaning ‘wouldn’t’. And our heads are endlessly spinning because, as Rudy Giuliani recently observed, ‘Truth isn’t truth.’

The Ancient Cretan philosopher Epimenides once stated that all Cretans are liars. Was he lying or telling the truth? This is the Liar’s Paradox, and it feels sometimes that we all now inhabit one gigantic, all-consuming Liar’s Paradox. We’re trying to navigate a maze of untruth. Fiction and fabrication tie us in knots, confuse and confound us. They sow doubt and erode trust. They gnaw away at the ties that bind us. We become suspicious, paranoid. We don’t know who to believe.

'I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you.'
Friedrich Nietzsche

So what can we do?

'Trust, but verify’
President Ronald Reagan

Of course, we need Governments and the digital titans to play their part and embrace this challenge of our times. We need a New Deal for Publishing, something that recognizes the realities of contemporary platforms and behaviours.

Brands too have a part to play. They need to rekindle their age-old association with trust and reliability; become once again a source of credible claims and dependable commitments.

But perhaps more broadly we need a new ethical code more suited to the modern age. We need to adapt our behaviour at work and in life: to place a greater premium on facts; to demand verification and substantiation; to support institutions and publications that stand up for truth. We should be subscribing to reputable news platforms. (Maybe we could even buy a newspaper!)

We should also consider moderating our natural propensity to spread rumours; curtailing our inclination to share and pass on. We can no longer excuse slander and defamation as idle chat or locker room banter. We can no longer defend falsehood in the name free speech. Gossip must become less socially acceptable.

Ultimately we may need to take a stand. As George Orwell is reputed to have said:

'In a time of universal deceit — telling the truth is a revolutionary act.’

No. 194