Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Political Cinema

Returning after another hiatus, during which I finished the ninth Cyrus Skeen detective novel (The Circles of Odin), I decided not to try and recap all the bad news about Islam, Obama, Europe, and the decrepit state of the economy and of the government that came our way over the last two months, but instead to pen a spate of TV/movie reviews. These, too, however, are mostly bad news.

Keeper of the Flame

The only semi-bright spot in the reviews is one about Keeper of the Flame, a film I had for years wanted to see. I was intrigued by the title. I finally made the time to watch it on Amazon Instant Video.  The Amazon Books entry on the novel by I.A.R. Wylie on which the film was based, features a book cover and a still from the movie, with stars Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. But because that listing does not allow one to “open the book to look inside,” I had no idea at the time if the cover hid the original novel, or if the book was a novelization of the film.

An Internet search for Wylie and the book turned up this explanation by an anonymous enthusiast on the Neglected Books site. It answered my question:

This Popular Library edition of I. A. R. Wylie’s 1942 novel, Keeper of the Flame, dates from the early 1960s. There are some remarkable titles to be found among the best-sellers, bodice-rippers, and dreck that Popular Library released in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I wrote about a few of them about a year ago in the post, Digging into the Popular Library at the Montana Valley Book Store.”

This is a particularly odd example. MGM purchased the film rights to Keeper of the Flame when the book was still unpublished. It was then published by Random House before the film was released, but subsequent runs featured a dust jacket with a still shot from the movie.

Aside from the unusual story, Keeper of the Flame–both the novel and the film–are far more interesting seen in the context of their external connections and references. One watches the film looking for hints of the budding attraction between Hepburn and Tracy. One reads the novel in light of the figures such as Charles Lindburgh {sic} and Father Coughlin who inspired popular movements in America in the 1930s and 1940s–movements we now see as having a darker side.

Having written recently about Wylie’s memoir, My Life with George, I was impressed by two aspects of the book. First, it’s hard not to think that Wylie wrote it for the screen: there are at least a dozen scenes that play out exactly as filmed, and the whole sequence of the narrative matches that of the film so tightly it could have been a novelization after the fact. Second, despite the many superficial and clichéd characterizations, it’s obvious that Wylie was a very world-smart woman: if she played down her intelligence, it was because she’d had, by the 1940s, also thirty years’ experience of making a living with her writing.

To judge by Amazon’s book information, Grosset and Dunlap, not Random House, published Wylie’s book in 1942 before the film was released.

The article has a link to a review of one of Wylie’s other books (also by anonymous), My Life with George.

And what is Keeper of the Flame (the film) about?

Spencer Tracy plays Steven 'Stevie' O'Malley, a war correspondent who returns to the States to seek out the widow of Robert Forrest (a character who never appears in the film), an apparently charismatic war hero (WWI) who had risen as a powerful political force. Katherine Hepburn plays Christine Forrest, Forrest’s widow. O’Malley, who admires Forrest and what he ostensively stood for, wants to write a “true” biography of Robert Forrest, and requests the help of his widow. Inexplicably, she is reluctant to help O’Malley perpetuate the memory of her late husband.

Forrest was killed in an accident when his car drove off a collapsed bridge during a thunder storm. O’Malley begins to suspect that Forrest’s death was indeed caused by the collapsed bridge – and that no one tried to warn him about the bridge. I won't say much more about the plot. This is a well-made film, directed by George Cukor, boasting a top cast, and even if it was wartime propaganda (released by MGM in March 1943), it is well worth watching. It’s rentable on Amazon Instant Videos. There are parallels in the overall theme that mesh with today’s fascination with Barack Obama and how he has remained untouchable by the news media and the Left. Obama succeeded where Forrest did not.

However, the most important aspect of Keeper of the Flame was then and still is its political message: Some heroes become fascists. They advocate “Americanisms” which aren’t really “Americanisms” but instead are crypto-values disguising the tenets of fascism, which are anti-democratic, anti-religion, anti-liberty, and even racist. Although many of the pro-democracy and pro-liberty sentiments expressed in the film are banal and clichéd, and on close examination, specious, I found it curious that CommunismCommunism didn’t come in for the same criticism. It seemed that no one in Hollywood realized that one can be enslaved or murdered by a hammer and sickle as effectively and permanently as by a swastika.

That was because Soviet Russia was an alleged ally, and orders came down from the Roosevelt administration that Hollywood was to refrain from any criticism of Communism and “Uncle” Josef Stalin, even though it was known that the Soviet Union was as much a totalitarian hellhole as was Nazi Germany. Hollywood obeyed. It was okay to excoriate Hitler and Nazism (and even American heroes; many reader comments on the IMDB site voiced the suspicion that Keeper of the Flame was a roman à clef about Charles Lindberg, who was pro-Nazi), but not Stalin and his dictatorship.

For a compelling and an encyclopedic-documented exposé of the political atmosphere during WWII as relates to Hollywood and its self-censorship concerning the Soviet Union, see Diana West’s American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation’s Character, which discusses, among other things (especially Soviet spies, American and Soviet), how FDR was basically Stalin’s policy poodle when it came to fighting the war and painting an uncritical, benevolent face of Stalin and CommunismCommunism (for American “morale” reasons). See also her column about Senator Joseph McCarthy, and M. Stanton Evans’s Breitbart article on how anyone questioning the copasetic relationship between FDR and Stalin was and still is mercilessly slandered, libeled, and misrepresented.

Mad Men

On someone’s recommendation, I began watching Mad Men on Netflix when it debuted years ago. Season Seven, the very last season, has already debuted this month. But as time went by – and I watched the series only because of the ballyhoo surrounding it, so I figured it was a culturally significant series to watch – my yawns grew longer and louder. I always found the character of Don Draper, the chief “mad man,” played by John Hamm (whom I guess would be regarded as a “hunk” to most women) not so much a mysterious character, as an ambiguous, amorphous, and extraordinarily shallow one. He was so dull and pedestrian that even, from the standpoint of disinterested prurience, his many graphically-portrayed episodes of promiscuity and philandering were yawners. His character was so bland that when he was angry and threw things around, one couldn’t get excited.

Hamm’s Don Draper invites one to redefine “average.” His life and even his name were frauds, he was not particularly brilliant in devising advertising campaigns, his manner and motives were inscrutable, and he was so unexceptional a character that he never even left a bad taste in my mouth.  He left no taste at all.  One couldn’t hate him. How can one hate a nonentity?

I stuck with the series, expecting the character to grow, but he remained stunted in a milieu of glamorous pragmatism. None of the other recurring characters in the series (and there are about three dozen) elicited the least sympathy or empathy in me. I think I watched the series from a sense of nostalgia for the 1960’s, when the government and the Left had not yet clamped down on smoking, drinking, “truth in advertising,” and unapologetically looking at women as sex objects – among other things the government now regulates or has something to say about. I also worked in New York City in the time in which the series is set, and for not a few advertising agencies, and recognized the landmarks and clothing and the hectic nature of the business.

Mad Men is naturalism taken to its basic, unembellished level. Purportedly, this was how life was back in the 1960s on Madison Avenue. And…? If this was a “slice of life,” who would want it?

House of Cards

President Barack Obama and former president Bill Clinton have weighed in on the credibility of the Kevin Spacey House of Cards. Their statements about the American TV political series dramatizing the climb to power and the presidency by an amoral creature through murder, stealth, sacrificing others, and verisimilitude are not surprising, because both Obama and Clinton achieved power by the same means. Well, perhaps not by murder, but by employing a fleet of buses under which to throw their many victims, including the American people. 

About half a century ago, President John F. Kennedy, not a man I admire by any means, confessed he liked Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, popular adventure literature that dramatized good vs. evil. Well into the 21st century a sitting president and a former president have expressed admiration for evil and its triumph. To date, that is the thematic essence of House of Cards.

Britain’s Daily Mail on April 3rd reported on the twelve-second “selfie” (and that’s all one could call it):

President Barack Obama took a break from being the real president on April Fools' Day to impersonate a fictional one, House of Cards' conniving Frank Underwood.  'Hello everybody. This is not Frank Underwood,' the president said after turning his head Underwood, who is played by Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey and frequently speaks Shakespearean-style monologues to the audience. 'This is Barack Obama. Happy April Fools' Day. Frank learned it from me,' he said.

He has previously admitted to watching the Netflix show, though he says that life in Washington is not as dramatic as portrayed by Kevin Spacey and others. 'I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,' he said in 2013.  The short clip in front of a portrait of Abraham Lincoln begins with a statement of the time and date, a commonly used scene entry device in House of Cards.

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton confessed to Charlie Rose to being a House of Cards “binger,” watching continuous episodes of it for days. The New York Daily News reported in August 2013:

The former President told "Cards" star Kevin Spacey, "I love that show. It's so good," the actor revealed in a Charlie Rose interview that aired on Bloomberg this week.

"We watched it over three days it was so good," he told Spacey about not having the forbearance to spread out his viewing.

I’ve reviewed the Spacey House of Cards on Rule of Reason here, here, here, and here.

I concluded House of Cards: A Post-Mortem in February 2014  with:

Ayn Rand, the novelist/philosopher, could solve such as paradox as the self-denigrating nature of "House of Cards" and note that:

“To the extent to which a man is rational, life is the premise directing his actions. To the extent to which he is irrational, the premise directing his actions is death.”*

The whole of Frank Underwood's character is devoted to the irrational, and the irrationality he practices necessitates inflicting pain to acquire political power. He doesn’t actually want to live; but neither does he want anyone else to survive his death-wish, either.

That is nihilism.

While the finale of Season 3 of House of Cards ended with an anti-climax – Claire, Underwood’s wife, played by Robin Wright, has announced that she’s leaving him just when he needs her to secure election, thus guaranteeing losing the election – Kevin Spacey has claimed that the series will run for twelve seasons.

The actor, who plays vice president-elect Frank Underwood going into the show’s second series, once joked that the Netflix original production could go on for a mega 37 series – but has since had a bit of a change of heart. Quizzed on how long he thinks the show could go on for, he told Digital Spy: ’12 years, 12 seasons.’

That’s as bad and discouraging as predicting twelve more years of Barack Obama.

*The Virtue of Selfishness, by Ayn Rand. 1964. New York: Signet. P. 25.

1 comment:

Edward Cline said...

I might have added or prefaced the column mentioning that in 1919, Lenin stated: “You are known among us as a protector of the arts so you must remember that, of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important." (From the collected works of Lenin.