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Scoring Citizen Trump

Still from “Citizen Kane.”

Jerry Springer: The Opera closed a week ago on Broadway after a three-month run. Given the show’s crazed, megalomaniacal, helmet-haired title character, and its diverse tableaux that range from Jesus-on-the-cross to tap-dancing Klansmen and other surrealities, its demise is somewhat surprising. (Luckily, the original British production broadcast in 2005 by the BBC can be enjoyed in its entirety here. The opera’s New York producers might have hoped for an unlimited extension, at least through the duration of Trump Time, since the entertainment seems to tap into the zeitgeist that brought us the marquee mayhem-maker now in the Oval Office. If Springer had become thetheatre ticket in New York, one could even have imagined a cameo by the insatiable camera hound Trump himself, an appearance like that he made at the 2006 Emmy Awards. Here’s how the then (and still) reality t.v. star described that dismal routine in “his” 2008 book Think Big: Make It Happen in Business and Life:

“This was not really my thing. I am no Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, or Elton John … I could easily have said, ‘No’ … I did it though, and as a result I won the talent category for the night beating out five other big movie star types, including the wonderful William Shatner. I would not have had this wonderful experience if I had not been flexible.”

The faintest whiff of modesty in Trump’s comparison of himself to his favorite big-time singers is unexpected, the inability to say “No” to the limelight is not, even when those beams cast a mocking glare on him, however oblivious to the scorn he remains.

The silencing of Springer on the Great White Way makes one realize anew how mirthless and music-less the show down in the White House is.

As a way of looking into, and listening to, this void I watched Citizen Kane on Tuesday. The parallels to Trump are prescient.

The movie is a not-even-thinly-veiled biopic of WilliamRandolph Hearst, his name converted (with the identical scansion) to Charles Foster Kane. The title character (played by Orson Welles, the self-proclaimed mastermind and auteur of the film: the main title reads Citizen Kane by Orson Welles) is a not reality t.v. kingpin but a maker of reality—like Hearst, a media tycoon who accumulates a chain of newspapers and radio stations.

Kane is the originator of fake news, but of the right kind, he thinks, to stoke his political ambitions. Sure that he’ll be elected governor of New York, Kane campaigns on a reformist platform (draining the swamp), but his bid is snuffed out by his corrupt opponent, who proves even more adept at spinning stories when it counts. Kane’s political bid is thus derailed when his meetings with a much younger would-be singer are exposed in the headlines of all non-Kane newspapers as love-nest trysts. A global groper, Trump’s political goal of the presidency has been achieved for the moment, but he may still be brought down by his rampant libido.

Citizen Kane begins and ends by allowing the audience (the American “people” so often referred to condescendingly by Kane) to peer through the fence of the mogul’s estate with its “No Trespassing” sign. The camera slowly lifts its gaze accompanied by the shimmer of cymbal and the barely perceptible quaking of timpani—a kind of sonic mist for the stentorian trombone chords that conjure death. Eventually we make out the silhouette of fog-shrouded castle on the hill—Xanadu, Kane’s pleasure palace built by him at vast expense as a refuge from the fake-newsmakers.

Welles and his credited co-writer Herman Mankiewicz placed the estate not on the California Coast, the site of Hearst’s San Simeon, but rather on an unlikely, man-made mountain in Florida. Xanadu is a medieval Mar-a-Lago, a place not of marble and gold Jacuzzis, tasteless ballrooms, and water-sucking golf courses, but of monumental inglenook fireplaces, forbidding oaken tables moored in a cavernous halls in a chateau surrounded by animal parks and thousands of buffering acres of estate lands.

After penetrating the heavily fortified perimeter, our view approaches the ramparts. The music rises, too, the trombones giving way to restive, muted trumpets. Behind a mullioned window we see the light suddenly go out. The music ceases with it. After a long second, both return, the brass resuming its baleful dance of death, but now with a distant, uncanny tinkling somewhere in the sonority. We find ourselves in a snowstorm—impossible in Florida, even for climate-deniers like Trump.  This weather pattern reveals itself to be taking place inside a snow globe held by the dying Kane as a memento of his youthful removal—practically an abduction—from his Colorado home and family.

From that violent separation to his dying breath, Kane just wanted to be loved by mommy—just like Trump, one suspects, of whose mother we never hear a peep in the news, fake or otherwise, and whose photograph never graced his desk in Trump Tower, but now apparently does in the Oval Office.

Continuing our inexorable zooming in towards the anti-hero of the film, we find ourselves in the closest close-up in movie history: Kane’s lips fill the screen as he utters his celebrated dying word: “Rosebud.”  The snow globe falls from his hand and rolls down the steps leading to his bed, then shatters to a low dissonant growl of those opening trombones. In this sequence the visual and musical are inseparable—an orchestrated cinema of atmosphere and silence.

The composer of this three-minute meditation on, and enactment of, mortality is the immortal Bernard Hermann. What he produced for Welles’ film is arguably the greatest film score ever conceived.  Hermann garnered two Academy Award nominations for best score in 1941, but it was the other one—The Devil and Daniel Webster (renamed after release as the very Trumpian All That Money Can Buy), in which a sleigh also figures—that won the Oscar.

It is the huge stylistic range and specificity that make of Hermann’s score the achievement it is. The scope of his omnivorous genius is heard in condensed form directly after the opening sequence, in the film-that-introduces the film—“News on the March.” Hermann’s underscoring nimbly moves from the militaristic snap of the introduction to the wistful arabesques evoking Xanadu to the biblical orientalism of Kane’s Noah-like gathering of animals from around the world—and that’s just the start of this made-up newsreel.

In the main narrative that follows when the “real” story gets going, if in serpentine fashion, Hermann’s range is magisterial: from the raucous music hall number staged in the offices of Kane’s flagship paper The Inquirer to the epic pomp of the tragic aria from an imaginary opera Salammbo that Kane makes his second wife perform in a theatre built him only to be greeted with derision. Hermann moves virtuosically from Gone with the Wind grandeur to Plainsman bravado, from Max Steiner’s mickey-mousing to full-blown Verdian tragedy—and almost everything in between.

The self-destructive narcissism of Kane, however more appealing than that of Trump, is all the more devastating because of Hermann’s musical shaping of the narrative, and its tonalities of ambition and regret.  It was to Welles’ credit—and to the triumph of his film—that he gave to Hermann the space and the challenge to fill it with such diverse, evocative, gripping music.

Who will attempt to score the tawdry drama of Trump, now or in its aftermath?

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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