kottke.org posts about media

Orson Welles, media theoristMay 06 2011

It's the 70th anniversary of Orson Welles's masterpiece Citizen Kane:

Audacity and genius his trademark, and with a third medium to conquer and transform, Welles didn't think small. With the Mercury players in tow, he enlisted veteran satirist and screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. Together they crafted a story that began with the death of an enigmatic protagonist, and explored his life through flashbacks told from multiple points of view. As questions are answered, questions are raised. The script ultimately compares a man's life to a jigsaw puzzle missing pieces, and thus impossible to solve. The writers very loosely based the title character of Charles Foster Kane on William Randolph Hearst, thus incurring the newspaper titan's wrath. Welles, Mercury, RKO, and the studio heads endured journalistic scandalmongering, and the film eventually earned a blacklist. Welles would later remark, "If Hearst isn't rightfully careful, I'm going to make a film that's really based on his life."

By coincidence, as related by Welles in his autobiography, he once found himself alone in an elevator with Hearst. It was the night of Citizen Kane's San Francisco premiere, and Welles invited him to the opening. "He didn't answer. And as he was getting off at his floor, I said, 'Charles Foster Kane would have accepted.'"

Everybody talks about the movie's formal innovations, but I wish the content would get more love. As A.O. Scott says, "Citizen Kane shows Welles to be a master of genre. It's a newspaper comedy, a domestic melodrama, a gothic romance, and a historical epic." Pauline Kael said Kane was "more fun than any great movie I can think of."

Citizen Kane is The Beatles of movies, not just because of its universal influence and acclaim, or because it really does live up to the historical hype, but because on top of its arty aspirations, what it really wants to do is entertain the hell out of you.

Also, if you're watching it carefully, the movie's self-reflexiveness hides and reveals a devastating history of media. You've got CFK, accidental heir to a fortune based on "oil wells, gold mines, shipping, and real estate," who trades it all for a communications empire: newspapers, radio stations, paper mills, opera houses, and grocery stores, only to be pushed to the margins after a failed political run in favor of the next generation: magazines and movies, the trade of the newsreel producers who try to track down the labyrinthine origin of "Rosebud."

The whole movie's about trying to invent something from nothing, about pretenses to real value, and how that whole house of cards tumbles apart. Eventually you've just got a giant room, where you can't tell the art from the jigsaw puzzles, the childhood heirlooms from the tchotchke snowglobes. Everything propping up value disintegrates. (That's what Kane figures out at the end, by the way, not that he misses his sled or his mom.)

As Borges wrote, it's a metaphysical detective story that leads us to a labyrinth with no center. All that's left is paper, just kindling for the fire.

Management DifferencesJan 17 2008

Two major media companies issued statements about workplace values in the last 24 hours or so. From New York Times owner Arthur Sulzberger's in-house "diversity and inclusion" reminder email this morning: "Our Company is committed to diversity and inclusion, and our goal is to provide a stimulating, supportive environment where employees can thrive and grow, sharing their many experiences, attitudes, cultures and viewpoints." Okay, fine!

But here's from new Tribune Company owner Sam Zell: "Discrimination based on gender, age, race, religion, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, or any other characteristic not related to performance, ability or attitude, protected by federal or state law, or not protected (such as inability to tell a joke, the occasional poor wardrobe choice or bad hair day), is strictly prohibited.... Working at Tribune means accepting that sometimes you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use. You might experience an attitude that you don't share." Wow. (PDF download, via LA Observed.)

And there's also this in the new Tribune manual: "Under Rule #1, you may want to think twice before you enter into an intimate relationship with a co-worker. When you start, it might seem like a good idea. It's when you stop, or the wrong people find out (and they will) that you could discover that perhaps it wasn't." That is THE BEST ADVICE EVER. Does Sam Zell live... in the real world? Also in the new Tribune Manual: "It's good judgment not to put in writing what you don't want printed on the front page of a newspaper. Or posted on a web site. Or heard on the news." This thing reads like it came out of some wacky internet startup. (Disclosure: I'm taking money from both companies. Uh, for now!)

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