W. Joseph Campbell

‘Kane’ at 70: ‘More relevant than ever’?

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments on September 10, 2011 at 9:53 am

In the year of its 70th anniversary, Orson Welles’ cinematic masterpiece Citizen Kane “is more relevant than ever,” says a polished, thoughtful essay posted yesterday at TechCentral, a South African site devoted to technology news and reviews.

Orson Welles in 'Kane'

In pressing the point about Kane’s relevance, the essay argues:

“Newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane, sitting in his already-crumbling but unfinished Xanadu, is Colonel Gaddafi railing at the Libyan rebels from his exile or a doddering Rupert Murdoch stumbling over his words in front of the commission investigating the News of the World scandal.”

Those are telling observations, particularly the reference to the 80-year-old Murdoch and his excruciating, hapless performance before a Parliamentary commission hearing in July in London.

“Today,” the TechCentral essay adds, “you’ll see Citizen Kane’s influence in the strangest places,” including parodies in The Simpsons” television show.

As superb and influential as it was, Kane took liberties and in doing so helped popularize a powerful media-driven myth.

The movie was released in 1941 and was based loosely on the life and times of American media magnate William Randolph Hearst.

A rollicking scene early in Kane offers clear evidence that Hearst was the movie’s principal inspiration; the scene paraphrased Hearst’s purported vow, which he supposedly cabled to an artist in Cuba months before the Spanish-American War:

You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, that scene in Kane “firmly and finally pressed Hearst’s purported vow to ‘furnish the war’ into the public’s consciousness.”

I also point out in Getting It Wrong that the anecdote about Hearst’s vow “is almost too good not to be true” and note that the “furnish the war” line “has made its way into countless textbooks of journalism.

“It [also] has figured in innumerable discussions about Hearst and about the news media and war. It has been repeated over the years by no small number of journalists, scholars, and critics of the news media such as Ben Bagdikian, Helen Thomas, Nicholas Lemann, and the late David Halberstam.”

Interestingly, “furnish the war” endures despite a near-total absence of supporting documentation. It lives on even though cable containing Hearst’s purported vow has never turned up.

It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.

It lives on despite of what I call “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency”: It would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule — was the very reason Hearst sent the artist, Frederic Remington, to Cuba in the first place.

And Remington’s trip to Cuba came in January 1897 — more than 15 months before the start of the Spanish-American War.

Kane is no faithful portrait of Hearst.

As David Nasaw pointed out in The Chief, his admirably even-handed biographyof Hearst:

“Welles’ Kane is a cartoon-like caricature of a man who is hollowed out on the inside, forlorn, defeated, solitary because he cannot command the total obedience … of those around him. Hearst, to the contrary, never regarded himself as a failure, never recognized defeat, never stopped loving Marion [his mistress] or his wife.

“He did not, at the end of his life, run away from the world to entomb himself in a vast, gloomy, art-choked hermitage,” as portrayed in Citizen Kane.

WJC

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