Sunday, June 2, 2013

Film as Message

Movies have always been seen as escape. Fred and Ginger danced us through breadlines and the Dustbowl. From Oz to far-away galaxies we have gone to the big screen to slip out of this world for a few hours.

If you want to send a message, Samuel Goldwyn famously proclaimed, call Western Union. I would argue that images carry content, more than the stuff of dreams. There is often a sub-text of what is there and what isn't, that contains the presumptions we hardly question and values to which we aspire, from Lucy’s antics to Tracy’s rock-solid decency, to Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo’s right to cross the street; from James Dean’s smolder to Brando’s mumble to the anchorman’s shout in Network that he’s not going to take it anymore. 

We were saturated with depictions of blacks as either sainted maids or satanic pimps. Intellectuals were ineffectual egg-heads. Women had to choose between a career or the kitchen. Vigilante justice has always been the preferred method for fighting evil.

Sixty years ago, in the McCarthy days, several great films were made responding one way or the other to the Hollywood Blacklist. All were high drama with memorable performances written, directed or produced by figures directly involved in the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
High Noon, told in real time, was written by Carl Foreman and produced by Stanley Kramer. It starred Gary Cooper as the sheriff, abandoned by the town-folks, confronting the thugs riding into town to exact revenge. Foreman had been an unfriendly witness before the committee. It was his way of calling out those who turned away from standing up to the witch hunt. Kramer was a liberal film-maker who went on to produce several movies including Judgment at Nuremberg and The Defiant Ones.

Gary Cooper testified as a friendly witness before the Committee but did not offer any names. He later came out against the blacklist. High Noon won four Academy Awards and is number 27 on the American Film Institute’s list of great American films. It has elicited a wide response from notable people. John Wayne hated it because it wasn’t his idea of how a sheriff should act, getting help from his Quaker wife. In fact as a rebuke to High Noon he made Rio Bravo with a real man (like himself) as sheriff, not some weakling like Sheriff Cooper who asked for help from his fellow citizens. Cooper was also a Conservative. Ironically when he won the Oscar that year it was John Wayne who accepted for him.

In 1971 Marian Morrison (AKA John Wayne) got a few opinions off his chest in a Playboy interview. He said, I believe in white supremacy until blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don't believe in giving authority and positions of leadership to irresponsible people. As for American Indians he offered this great insight… they were selfishly keeping all that land for themselves.

Surprisingly, Ronald Reagan praised High Noon. Dwight Eisenhower loved it and played it frequently at the White House and Bill Clinton screened it 17 times. In their infinite wrong-headedness the USSR condemned it as a glorification of the individual while the American Left hailed it for rendering a crisis of conscience for the sheriff and the suggestion that it takes a village to confront wrongdoing.

Another highly acclaimed film made two years later was On the Waterfront written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan both of whom testified before the House Committee, named names and ruined careers. The theme was the struggle over being a snitch and revealing union corruption to the court. Brando could have been a contendah but was an informer instead. It was set up as justification for their role as informants and a plea for exoneration. Whether Kazan and Schulberg really believed the leftists posed a threat or they were just out to save their own skin in Hollywood is up for speculation.
In any case movies are often embedded with ideology which passes un-noted and may not even be deliberate. Every story has implicit within, a set of precepts and choices which point to a reinforcement of received values or present a challenge.

It occurs to me that my references above are rather dated. Much has changed and much hasn’t. Certainly independent films have found an audience. We are enjoying a golden age of documentaries. And there is a new consciousness around race and gender. While the roles for women reflect more options I don't see the feminine principle entering into full play. Instead we get female characters asserting themselves with masculine aggression. Perhaps empathy and forgiveness have no place in a society riddled with fear, loathing and a bent toward the punitive.
Media in general pleads the case that it merely gives what the public demands. They absolve themselves from any part in creating that demand. It should come as no surprise that cinema is an extension of America’s position as a superpower. Just as I grew up thinking that most people wore tuxedos today’s films reflect our leisure and affluence largely ignoring low-wage jobs and long hours.  We police the world, blow up bad guys and get the girl. If you don’t believe it just go to the movies.

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