Cleo’s Conundrum: ‘I Always Think Everyone's Looking at Me, But I Only Look at Myself’ 

'The tool of every self-portrait is the mirror. You see yourself in it. Turn it the other way, and you see the world.'
Director Agnes Varda

In the 1962 film ‘Cleo de 5 a 7’ Corinne Marchand plays the eponymous heroine, a successful Parisian pop singer who fears that she has cancer. The movie follows her movements on the first day of summer, from 5-00 to 6-30, as she waits to hear the results of her tests.

'Ugliness is a kind of death. As long as I'm beautiful, I'm even more alive than the others.’

When we first encounter Cleo she comes across as somewhat superstitious, self-absorbed and trivial. She visits a tarot reader, bursts into tears in a café, and consoles herself with a visit to the hat shop. She revels in attention and recognition, and is constantly seeking her own reflection in mirrors.

‘Everything suits me. Trying things on gives me a thrill.’

However, we soon realise that Cleo’s identity is in part a product of the company she keeps. Her indulgent maid-companion avoids taxis with unlucky numbers and warns against wearing new clothes on Tuesdays. Her businessman lover only has time to pop in and shower her with hollow compliments. Her musician friends faun on her and compose frivolous songs for her with titles like ‘The Tease’ and ‘The Liar’. But they don’t think she quite has the voice for serious material.

They all treat Cleo like a child, privately regarding her as a hypochondriac drama queen. She is unable to have a proper conversation about her health concerns with any of them.

'Everybody spoils me. Nobody loves me.’

Finally Cleo can take no more. She discards her wig, changes into a simple black dress, and dons the inappropriate hat she purchased earlier. She walks out onto the Paris streets alone.

Cleo visits an old friend, Dorothee, an artist’s model who is hard up but happy. Taking a trip around town together, she is at last able to talk seriously about her fears. Cleo drops Dorothee home in a taxi. As her friend disappears up the steps, Cleo asks the cabby to slow down so that she can savour the moment. She seems to be undergoing some kind of awakening. She is more curious about the world around her, more alert to the people she passes on the street. She stops looking in mirrors.

Director Agnes Varda, who died in March of this year, explained the theme of ‘Cleo de 5 a 7’:

‘When the film starts, she’s just there to be looked at. When she takes off her wig and puts on her black dress and goes out, she’s the one who starts to look. Looking at others is the first step of feminism—not being selfish, not being mirror-oriented. Looking at other people. Discovering what they do to make a living. Or how they behave. Cleo, in the shock of being afraid of death, starts to see things differently.’
(Interviewed in Cleo, 6.1)

I was particularly taken with Cleo’s articulation of her dilemma. At a critical moment in the film, standing in front of a mirror, she declares:

‘I always think everyone's looking at me, but I only look at myself.’

This seems a thoroughly modern concern. This is us: our vanity, our solipsism, this narcissistic age. We are more interested in being known than knowing; in being understood than understanding. We think everyone’s looking at us, but we only look at ourselves.

Like Cleo, we should realise that the first step to a happy life, and indeed a successful career, is to remove our ego-tinted spectacles, to see the world as others see it. We need to cultivate abstraction.

Easier said than done perhaps.

At the Parc Montsouris Cleo meets Antoine, a soldier on leave from the Algerian war. He senses that she is troubled.

'You seem to be waiting for something, rather than someone.'

Antoine is thoughtful, talkative, funny and wise. Gradually he charms Cleo and they enjoy an open, honest conversation about love, the war and her worries. He escorts her to the hospital, taking her by the hand.

Antoine: 'I'm sorry I'm leaving. I'd like to be with you.'
Cleo: 'You are. I think my fear is gone. I think I'm happy.’

 
‘With all the doors flung open,
The wind rushing through.
I’m like an empty house
Without you.

Like a deserted isle,
Covered by the sea.
My sands slip away
Without you.

Beauty wasted,
Naked in the cold of winter.
Just a yearning body
Without you.’

‘Sans Toi’, Corinne Marchand (M Legrand, A Varda)

In memory of Agnes Varda and Michel Legrand, both of whom passed away in 2019.

No. 242

 

 

Interesting v Important: How to Deceive Sherlock Holmes

Basil Rathbone (left) as Sherlock Holmes, with Ida Lupino and Nigel Bruce c/o  The Arts Desk

Basil Rathbone (left) as Sherlock Holmes, with Ida Lupino and Nigel Bruce c/o The Arts Desk

‘My whole success depends upon a peculiarity of Holmes’ brain – its perpetual restlessness, its constant struggle to escape boredom.’
Professor Moriarty, ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’

Of course, the definitive screen interpretation of Sherlock Holmes was provided by Basil Rathbone, who starred as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s private detective in a series of fourteen films between 1939 and 1946.

Tall, thin, angular and aristocratic, with an aquiline nose, Rathbone was once described as 'two profiles pasted together.' For the role of Holmes he donned a tweed deerstalker hat and Inverness cape, smoked a calabash pipe and pursued a cold deductive logic.

Holmes was assisted by his trusty companion, Watson - brilliantly played by Nigel Bruce as a bumbling, pompous but well-meaning fool. Together they navigated perplexing puzzles, pedestrian policing, suspects with dubious motives and nefarious villains. It was a world of red herrings, MacGuffins, false endings and parallel intertwined plots.

1939’s ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ begins with Holmes’ arch-enemy Professor Moriarty escaping a court conviction. Moriarty, sharing a taxi back from the trial with a frustrated Holmes, vows to commit a sensational crime, and to discredit Holmes in the process.

'I'm going to break you, Holmes. I'm going to bring off right under your nose the most incredible crime of the century, and you'll never suspect it until it's too late. That will be the end of you, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.' 

Subsequently we learn that Moriarty plans to distract Holmes from a really serious felony by setting him a more intricate and intriguing puzzle.

‘He’s like a spoiled child who picks watches to pieces, but loses interest in one toy as soon as he’s given another. So I’m presenting the ingenious but fickle Mr Holmes with two toys… I’ll give him a toy to delight his heart, so full of bizarre complications that he’ll forget all about the first toy.’

And so we embark on a plot that involves a damsel in distress, a chinchilla charm and a cryptic drawing of a man with an albatross round his neck. There’s also a club-footed criminal leaving marks in the ground and a murderous flute-playing gaucho on the prowl.

While Holmes concerns himself with solving this absorbing riddle, he disregards a routine request to protect the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London.

This storyline resonated with me. Many’s the time in business that we find ourselves chasing the small but seductive, in preference to the boring but important. We readily tire of the familiar and frustrating aspects of incumbent accounts, the tedious day-to-day annoyances. We find ourselves instinctively drawn to the shiny and new, the challenging and thought provoking; to the prospect of developing fresh solutions and pioneering relationships. We channel time and resource into the thrilling pitch and the cool account, while leaving the big corporate Clients unloved and under-resourced. We prioritise the interesting ahead of the important.

220px-The_Adventures_of_Sherlock_Holmes_-_1939-_Poster.png

Of course, creative opportunities can translate into profile-building campaigns and successful brands. ‘Great oaks from mighty acorns grow.’ But there is a balance to be struck. Smart Agency leaders know how to direct the enthusiasms of their teams across a variety of tasks, satisfying their natural appetite for stimulation and provocation, while at the same time addressing the commercial imperative. Indeed the truest test of a great Agency is its ability to find creative and compelling solutions to big, intractable corporate problems.

‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ concludes with a victorious Holmes saying ‘Elementary, my dear Watson.’ It was the first use of a phrase that did not appear in Conan Doyle’s original canon of Holmes stories.

‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ was the second Rathbone-Bruce movie produced by 20th Century Fox, and more were planned. However, with the onset of the Second World War, the studio became concerned that dramas set in the Victorian era would be less relevant. Surely thrillers featuring foreign agents and spies would make for better box office. And so they determined to shelve any future Holmes pictures.

Universal Studios took a different view. They stepped in, negotiated the rights with the Conan Doyle Estate, signed contracts with Rathbone and Bruce, and updated the stories to contemporary settings. This enabled Sherlock Holmes to take on the Nazis and the studio to make twelve more films.

‘Elementary, my dear Watson.’


'My mind's distracted and diffused.
My thoughts are many miles away.
They lie with you when you're asleep,
And kiss you when you start your day.’

Simon & Garfunkel,'Kathy’s Song' (P Simon)

 

No. 238

 

 

‘Do It First, Do It Yourself, and Keep on Doing It’: A Leadership Lesson from Scarface

Scarface

Scarface

‘Anything he starts, we’ll finish.’
Tony ‘Scarface’ Camonte

The 1932 gangster classic ‘Scarface’ stars Paul Muni as Tony ‘Scarface’ Camonte.

Though poorly educated, Camonte is charismatic, industrious and dedicated. He works his way up through the ranks of the Chicago mob during the Prohibition era, extorting money from saloons and terrorizing bar owners. He has a passion for violence, success and power, ruthlessly pursuing his objectives with little regard for the law or human life. His progress is achieved by savage assaults, brutal murders, drive-by shootings and the liberal use of pineapple bombs.

Mid-way through the drama Camonte celebrates the arrival on his turf of the Tommy Gun, sometimes nicknamed ’the Chicago typewriter.’

'There's only one thing that gets orders and gives orders. And this is it… It's a typewriter. I'm gonna write my name all over this town with it, in big letters!’

Director Howard Hawks and scriptwriter Ben Hecht were clearly both fascinated and repelled by the amorality of the mob. Camonte is no two-dimensional villain. He has charm and style. He commands loyalty from his colleagues and is protective of his family. With growing success, he develops a taste for fine living and takes a shine to his employer’s girlfriend, Poppy. She, however, is initially sceptical of both his advances and his expensive tailoring.

Poppy: 'Kind of gaudy, isn't it?'
Tony Camonte: 'Ain't it though? Glad you like it.’

For all his obvious shortcomings, I was quite struck by Camonte’s personal business mantra:

'Listen, Little Boy, in this business there's only one law you gotta follow to keep out of trouble: Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it.'

Camonte is a driven man. His gangster bosses, with time and achievement, get complacent and comfortable, and set limits to their ambition. But, regardless of his wealth and accomplishments, Camonte stays actively involved in the brutality and bloodshed. He maintains an insatiable appetite for more. 

We’re all nowadays familiar with the commercial imperative of speed and agility; with the contemporary benefits of first mover advantage. But how committed are we to the concept of sustaining direct personal involvement as we progress through the ranks? How much do we subscribe to Camonte’s dictum to ‘do it yourself and keep on doing it’?

In my own experience people often see promotion as a licence to take their foot off the gas, to step back and empower. They have earned the right to withdraw from the front line; to marshal resources from 50,000 feet; to develop long-term plans and strategic visions; to mentor and train. They regard leadership as a hands-off task.

Of course, we need our most senior and experienced minds to be thinking about the future. And a primary responsibility of leadership is to equip teams with capabilities and confidence so that that they can do the job themselves. But at the same time, if you want to retain a cutting edge, to stay abreast of change, to remain relevant, you have to sustain active involvement with Clients, consumers, brands and business. However tempting it is to coach from the sidelines, you have to stay match-fit.

I once approached my boss Simon Sherwood with a proposal to take a broader, more strategic role in the Agency. I’d had my fill of troublesome Clients and tiresome pitches. I wanted to apply myself to more cerebral activity.

Simon, sitting at a desk that was empty but for a small stack of yachting magazines, leaned back in his Eames aluminium chair and regarded me with cool-eyed detachment:

‘Always remember, Jim, if you’re not facing income, you’re entirely expendable.’

I gave up on my proposal and returned to my desk.

 

'Can't fight corruption with con tricks.
They use the law to commit crime.
And I dread to think what the future will bring
When we're living in gangster time.
Don't call me Scarface.’

The Specials, ‘Gangsters' (Crispin Macmichael Sandys Hunt)

 

No. 236

 

 

A Trip to the Moon: Move Fast and Make Things

Screenshot 2019-05-02 at 07.11.59.png

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


Screen Shot 2019-02-13 at 14.31.29.png


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.’

Screen Shot 2019-02-13 at 15.03.29.png

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

Screen Shot 2018-11-14 at 11.14.34.png


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