‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ and ‘Downsizing’ speak to each other and to us 60 years apart
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Media wonks like me are always looking for anniversary tie-ins between something from the past and something happening right now. Being a film buff to boot, I like finding movies from, say, Hollywood’s Golden Age, that have some thematic, visual or authorial resonance with contemporary movies. An obvious one that will be even more noticeable later this year has to do with Jack Arnold’s “The Incredible Shrinking Man” from 1957 and Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” premiering later this year. That makes 60 years between films that have something to say to each other as well as about their respective times through the conceit of human miniaturization.
Making comparisons is always precarious but, as Payne would say, we’re only talking movies here, so relax. Besides, it’s irresistible discussing two films about small human beings even though each project’s storyline, approach, resources and era of filmmaking is radically different from the other.
Another problem with doing a comparison in this case is that “Shrinking Man” is widely available for review while “Downsizing” hasn’t even been completed yet. But I have the script to go on as well as interviews I’ve done with Payne and a good chunk of his creative team.
In the earlier film the protagonist is miniaturized by accident or fate or phenomenon and his reduction is gradual and out of his control. In the later film the protagonist’s downsizing is a choice that happens immediately upon demand. And where the 1957 film’s hero is the lone person affected by this strange and frightening event, the hero of the 2017 film is one of an entire community or population experiencing miniaturization.
For all the films’ differences, there are also some key similarities. Let’s start with fact that each has an Everyman protagonist who ends up scaled down by mechanisms that speak to the anxieties of their times. “Shrinking Man’s” Scott Carey, played by Grant Williams, is caught in a strange fog and dust out on the ocean. Given that the film is set in and was released in the first full decade of the nuclear age, the inevitable implication is that Scott’s fallen victim to radioactive fallout. Relatively little was known then about the effects of radioactivity and that’s why science fiction stories ran wild with conjectures of mutations that made things grow abnormally large. Well, here, writer Richard Matheson imagines the reverse result.
As Scott’s diminutiveness advances, he is framed against the plastic suburban world of his home that increasingly becomes a foreboding, overwhelming prison of things that heretofore were neutral when he dominated but are now threats in his fragile new state. At one stage in his downsizing the family cat becomes a terrifying predator he must run from to escape. Later, when’s he’s even smaller, he gets stranded in the basement, where everything is an epic, life or death challenge – from navigating steps looming as cliffs he must scale to getting swept away in a water heater spill that for him is the equivalent of being caught in a flood to a spider that’s no longer just a household pest but a frightening monster he must battle for hi slife. In a world where everything has spiraled out of scale, he’s a vulnerable creature subject to objects and forces he once mastered but that are now beyond his control.
Throughout the shrinking phenomenon Scott’s normal sized wife remains faithful until the differential makes things impossible to carry on anything resembling a normal relationship. He loses her and every outward artifice of his life. Stripped of all that he once used to define himself by, Scott is eventually only left with his mind, his heart and his soul. Faced with the inevitability of being reduced to a molecule, then an atom, then an electron and eventually to the smallest life particles, he enters the vast unknown of an infinite universe. It is at once sad, as he is alone, and inspiring, as he’s become fully, intimately integrated with the matter of nature itself. By the conclusion he has moved from fearful, angry, desperate and despairing to surrender. No longer resistant, he gives himself over to a new reality in which he is the first human traveler. It is among the most profound, spiritual endings in cinema history.
Without giving away too much, Payne’s “Downsizing” has its protagonist Paul choose to be miniaturized in a near future world where looming climate change catastrophe has motivated scientists to develop a means by which humans are reduced to four inches. Every day people’s motivation to take this drastic action is variously noble, practical, desperate and exploitive. The environmentally conscious are willing to sacrifice their normal lives and everything in them in order to reduce their carbon and resource footprint and thus help save the planet. On the other end of the spectrum are the hustlers, hucksters, opportunists and traffickers who see a new world of suckers to con or to conduct illegal business with. In between these extremes is Paul, played by Matt Damon, who is convinced to sign up for downsizing transformation by his wife, played by Kristen Wiig. Paul is the classic go along to get along type who doesn’t like making waves or going out on a limb. Yet he agrees to give up everything he knows to be miniaturized because he and his mate will take this leap of faith into the unknown together. Besides, there’ll be doing their part to conserve resources in the hope that enough people will do the same to stem the catastrophic, apocalyptic end of life as we know it. It’s the most dramatic decision and act of his life because once the process is complete, there is no turning or going back. It is irreversible.
Then there is the huge new industry sprung up overnight to support and outfit this pioneering alternative lifestyle. The consumerist culture of escapist cruises and retirement resorts finds new expression in the small world and its geodesic domed communities. The way people live in this manufactured, improvised reality mirrors the normal world and thus there’s a class system of haves and have-nots, desirables and undesirables, predators and preyed upon.
When the couple go in for the procedure, they are led to separate labs. Paul goes through the process only to discover his wife had last minute second-thoughts and opted to not go through with it, after all. Thus, he’s abandoned to face the small world alone. There he falls into something of a shell shock routine until he beings meeting people and seeing things he never would have met or seen before. This includes Euro-trash wheeler-dealer Goran, who can get anything for a price, and Vietnamese-American activist, Gong Jiang, who fights the injustice that confines a marginalized segment of the small world to ghettos. Paul is befriended by Goran, who wants nothing more than to corrupt the circumspect newcomer, but this good-hearted grifter settles for opening his innocent acolyte’s eyes to the illicit commerce and trade this new world order offers. He can also get Paul places he couldn’t get alone. Circumstances bring Paul and Gong together and he is at first put off by her fierce, single-minded focus but grows to admire her passion and to love her not just as a symbol of right but as a fully dimensional woman.
It is through these opposites of Gong and Goran that Paul goes on his greater adventure both within the social-political maelstrom of the downsized community and amidst the end-of-world crisis hanging over everybody, big and small alike. Indeed, he finds himself at the right place and at the right time to witness and participate in an epoch of global dimensions. His diminutive size makes him a candidate to join a group of pioneers whose mission is nothing less than securing the future of human civilization. Thus, by the end, “Downsizing” takes a spiritual turn not unlike “Shrinking” and suggests notions of man’s place in the universe, on Planet Earth and in eternity.
Both films speak eloquently to the nature of man and the nature of existence itself and what it means to be human. At the end of these respective stories, Scott and Paul prepare to embark on journeys that will take them into ever new realms of unknowns. The conclusions suggest that it’s not the end for these characters or for their fellow human beings, but rather the beginning. In the earlier film there is an underlying social consciousness that questions what have we wrought in the nuclear age in terms of our health and future. There’s also the strong suggestion that in smashing the atom and releasing its energy we have reconnected with the very essence of mankind’s beginnings and our elemental lineage with the stars. In the later film the social consciousness stream focuses on what man has done to spoil the Earth and the desperate measures taken to salvage a future for man to continue living on it. In that respect and others, these films speak across generations to each other and to us.
Before I bid peace out, a few notes about the creators of these two films:
The late Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay for “The Incredible Shrinking Man” by adapting his own novel (called “The Shrinking Man”). Matheson was a prolific and much honored author novels, short stories and screenplays for film and television and much of his best known work is in the horror, fantasy, science fiction categories. Among other things, he wrote several films for Roger Corman, including adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe works, a handful of the best episodes of the original Twilight Zone series (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and my all-time favorite “Little Girl Lost”) and the made for TV movie “Duel” which made its very young director, He adapted his short story “Steel” into a Twilight Zone by the same title and decades later the story was made into the film “Real Steel” starring Hugh Jackman. Omaha’s own Mauro Fiore was the cinematographer on that 2011 adaptation. Steven Speilberg, a hot commodity in Hollywood. He also wrote a well-regarded episode of the original “Star Trek” series – “The Enemy Within.” His novel “I Am Legend” was adapted into the films “The Omega Man” and “I Am Legend.” He also worked closely with director Dan Curtis on some fine TV movies, including “The Night Stalker,” “The Night Strangler,” “Dead of Night” and a great adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” starring Jack Palance. He also wrote for Western series and, well, if you look at his IMDB credits or go to his Wikepedia page you will see just what a titan he was among American popular writers.
The director of “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” the late Jack Arnold, was a good not great filmmaker who made some interesting movies in addition to this one, including “It Came from Outer Space,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Man in the Shadow” and the made for TV “Marilyn: The Untold Story.” Most of his directing credits were for epdisodic TV shows from the 1960s through the mid-1980s.
Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor are one of Hollywood’s great writing teams. “Downsizing” represents their second original script (their first was “Citizen Ruth”) and their adaptations have included “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways.” Payne directed each of these projects and two more features that Taylor did not contribute to – “The Descendants” and “Nebraska.” “Downsizing” represents their first foray into science fiction but the script doesn’t read so much as a sci-fi picture as it does an epic yet intimate human story that straddles, like all their work, comedy and drama. Lots of big ideas are explored and expressed in the story.
Where Matheson didn’t have the advantage of a director with great sophistication in Arnold, who was a studio journeyman, Payne is a world-class Indiwood filmmaker who has total creative control over his work. And where “Shrinking Man” was limited by a smallish budget and limited visual effects, though the effects are quite good not only for that time but even by today’s standards, “Downsizing” is a big budge project employing state of the art CGI and other technologies that should make human miniaturization look far more real than ever imagined before.
“The Incredible Shrinking Man”
“The Incredible Shrinking Man” is a 1957 American black-and-white science fiction film from Universal-International, produced by Albert Zugsmith, directed by Jack Arnold, that starred Grant Williams and Randy Stuart. Wikipedia
Initial release: February 22, 1957
Director: Jack Arnold
Story by: Richard Matheson
Producer: Albert Zugsmith
_ _ _
First reviews should appear by the end of May 2017
“Downsizing” is a 2017 American comedy from Paramount Pictures, produced by Jim Burke, directed by Alexander Payne, that stars Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Sudeikis and Bruce Willis.
Initial release: December 23, 2017
Director: Alexander Payne
‘King of Comedy’ a dark reflection of our times
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro enjoy one of the great cinema muse relationships in movie history. Few American directors have found an actor who so thoroughly inhabits their screen worlds as De Niro does his old friend’s. The pair are best known for their collaborations on:
“Mean Streets” “
“New York, New York”
Powerful films all. But, as you’ll read, I’m making the case for Scorsese’s least known and seen film with De Niro, “The King of Comedy,” as a woefully under-appreciated work that ranks right up there with their best teamings.
Cases can be made for five of the other six pictures they did together to be considered in the Top 100 American movies of all-time: In an unusually strong decade for film, “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” are certainly among the very best of that ’70s bumper crop of New Hollywood films. The first is an alternately gritty, trippy look at the small-time mob subculture that goes much deeper than crime movies of the past ever dared. The second is a cautionary tale fever dream that anticipates the cult of celebrity around violence. Though an acquired taste because of its uncompromising fatalistic uneasy rumination on love, “New York, New York” is a lush, inspired melding of intense psychological drama, magic realism and classic MGM musical. “Raging Bull” is often cited as THE film of the ’80s for its artful, brutal take on boxer Jake Lamotta and “Goodfellas” expanded on what Coppola did with the mob in the first two “Gpdfather” films by exploring in more detail the lives of men and women bound up in that life they call “our thing.”
Just as De Niro came to the fore as an actor who penetrates characters in unusually deep, perceptive ways, Scorsese does the same as a storyteller working on the periphery of human conduct. Extremes of emotions and situations are their metier. Their mutual penchant for digging down into edgy material make them perfect collaborators. “The King of Comedy” is a dark film whose intense, deadpan approach to disturbing incidents makes it read as a straight drama much of the time. But it’s really a satire bordering on farce and theater of the absurd about obsession with fame and media. De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, an emotionally stunted wannabe comic and talk show host who’s prepared to go to any lengths to make his show biz fantasies reality. His intrusive, hostile pursuit of affirmation and opportunity from fictional talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) grows ever more dangerous and aggressive and eventually turns criminal. The character of Pupkin is often compared to Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” and there are definite similarities. Both are isolated loners living in their own heads. Viewing himself as a kind of avenging angel, the loser Travis fixates on cleaning the streets of the human trash he sees around him and rescuing the child prostitute played by Jodi Foster. After growing up ridiculed and bullied, chasing autographs from celebrities, Rupert sees himself as entitled to what his fixation, Jerry Langford, has and he hatches a plot with a fellow nut case (played by Sandra Bernhard) to kidnap Jerry. Rupert’s ransom: doing a standup routine on Jerry’s show to be aired nationwide.
“King of Comedy” depicts the extremes, dangers and blurring of lines that make the object of celebrity media worship a target of an unstable mind. De Niro delivers a pitch perfect, tour de force performance as a vainglorious neurotic whose love for Jerry masks an ever bigger hate.
The film is filled with awkward, all-too-real situations that make us uncomfortable because we can identify with Pupkin’s desperate need to be liked, to be respected, to be taken seriously. The character is full of contradictions and De Niro strikes an incredible balance of grotesquerie, sweetness, delusion and determination..As Rupert, De Niro is pathetic, inspiring, scary, funny, needy and strong.
It had been awhile since I’d seen the film before catching it for free on YouTube the other night and I must say it holds up very well, and perhaps resonates even more with these times than with the time it was made and released (1983). After all, in an era when America’s elected a bombastic, egomaniacal reality TV star and grifter as president, is it such a stretch to think that someone could extort and kidnap their way onto late night television? “Triumph of the Will” (1935), “State of the Union” (1948), “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) “Medium Cool” (1969), “Network” (1976) and “Wag the Dog” (1997)show, decade by decade, the unholy alliance we’ve made with mass media’s ability to manipulate, seduce, exploit and distort. Likewise, “The King of Comedy” (1983) shows just how far some among us are prepared to go for attention, power, fame.
Watch the movie at this link–
Now, more than three decades since the film’s release, De Niro currently stars as an old, belligerent standup in “The Comedian,” a film that Scorsese was originally going to direct but didn’t. I haven’t seen it and so I can only go by the reviews I’ve read, but it appears to be a real misfire. I will hold judgment until I see it for myself, and I want to because I’m eager to compare and contrast what De Niro did with the standup he portrays in “King” to the comic he plays in the new film.
After recently watching “The Graduate” and now “The King of Comedy,” I was reminded of what brilliant chameleons Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro were early in their film careers. They very much followed what Marlon Brando did during his first decade and a half in Hollywood by submerging themselves in very different characters from film to film to film. Their collections ofcharacterizations may be the most diverse in American film history. These kinds of actors are rare. The closest equivalents to them we have in contemporary cinema may be Daniel Day Lewis and Johnny Depp.
But I digress. Be sure to check out “The King of Comedy” and let me know what you think of its ballsy, over-the-top, sometimes surreal yet always thoroughly grounded take on the implications of seeking celebrity as its own reward and the thin line between harmless flights of fancy and deranged compulsion. In its view, the American Dream and the American Nightmare are two sides of the same obsession. Be careful what you ask for it seems to be saying. And don’t look now, but that schmuck and impossibly irritating, shallow moron may just be the next Big Thing in entertainmet, media or some other sphere of public inflience. There’s something Trumpian about the whole thing and its media is the message theme.
Forty-five years later and ‘The Godfather’ still haunts us
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Forty-five years ago “The Godfather” first hit screens and it immediately became embedded in American pop culture consciousness. Its enduring impact has defined the parameters of an entire genre, the mob movie, with its satisfying blend of old and new filmmaking. It’s also come to be regarded as the apogee of the New Hollywood even though it was very much made in the old studio system manner. The difference being that Coppola was in the vanguard of the brash New Hollywood directors. He would go on to direct in many different styles, but with “The Godfather” he chose a formalistic, though decidely not formulaic, approach in keeping with the work of old masters like William Wyler and Elia Kazan but also reflective of the New Waves in cinema from around the world.
I actually think his “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now” are better films than “The Godfather” and “The Godfather II” because he had even more creative control on them and didn’t have the studios breathing down his neck the way he did on the first “Godfather” film.
But there is no doubt that with “The Godfather” and its sequel he and his creative collaborators gave us indelible images. enduring lines, memorable characters, impressive set pieces and total immersion in a shadowy world hitherto unknown to us.
I think it’s safe to say that while any number of filmmakers could have made a passable adaptation of the Maria Puzo novel then, only Francis Ford Coppola could have given it such a rich, deeply textured look and feel. He found a way into telling this intimate exploration of a crime family pursing its own version of the American Dream that was at once completely specific to the characters but also totally universal. Their personal, familial journey as mobsters, though foreign to us, became our shared journey because the layered details of their daily lives, aspirations and struggles mirrored in many ways our own.
In many ways “The Godfather” saga is the classic tale of The Other, in this case an immigrant patriarch who uses his guile and force of personality to find extra legal ways of serving the interests of his people, his family and the public.
Coppola was ideally suited to make the project more than just another genre movie or mere surface depiction of a colorful subculture because he straddled multiple worlds that gave him great insights into theater, literature, cinema, culture, history, this nation and the Italian-American experience. Growing up in 1940s-1950s New York, Coppola was both fully integrated into the mainstream as a second generation Italian-American and apart from it in an era when ethnic identity was a huge thing.
The filmmaker’s most essential skill is as a writer and with “The Godfather” he took material that in lesser hands could have been reduced to stereotypes and elevated it to mythic, Shakespearean dimensions without ever sacrificing reality. That’s a difficult feat. He did the same with “Patton,” the 1970 film he wrote but that Franklin Schaffner helmed.
Of course, what Coppola does in the sequel to “The Godfather” is truly extraordinary because he goes deeper, more epic yet and still never loses the personal stories and characterizations that anchor the whole thing. In “The Godfather II,” which is partly also a prequel, he establishes the incidents, rhythms and motivations that made Don Corleone who he was when we meet him in the first film. Of course, Coppola subsequently reedited “Godfather I and II” to create a seamless, single narrative that covers the genesis and arc of the Corleone empire in America and its roots in Italy.
“Godfather III” does not work nearly as well as the first two films and seems a forced or contrived rather than organic continuation and culmination of the saga.
The best directors will tell you that casting, next to the script and the editing process, is the most important part of filmmaking and with the first two “Godfather” films, which are hard to separate because they are so intertwined, Coppola mixed and matched a great stew of Method and non-Method actors to create a great ensemble.
The depth of acting talent and pitch perfect performances are staggering: Brando, Pacino, Caan, Cazale, Duvall, Conte, Hayden, Keaton, Castellano, Marley, Lettieri, Vigoda, Shire, Spradlin, Rocco, De Niro. Strasberg, Kirby, “Godfather I and II” arguably the best cast films of all time, from top to bottom. One of the best portrayals is by an actor none of us have ever heard of – Gastone Moschin. He memorably plays the infamous Fanucci in Part II. And there are many other Italian and American actors whose names are obscure but whose work in those films is brilliant. Coppola is a great director of actors and he beautifully blends and modulates these performances by very different players.
Coppola’s great way into the story was making it a dark rumination on the American Dream. He saw the dramatic potential of examining the mafia as a culture and community that can exist outside the law by exploiting the fear, avarice and greed of people and working within the corruption of the system to gain power and influence. Personally, I’ve always thought of the films as variations of vampire tales because these dark, brooding characters operate within a very old, secret, closed society full of ritual. They also prey on the weak and do their most ignominious work at night, under the cover of darkness. drawing the blood of the innocent and not so innocent alike. While these mob creatures do not literally feast on blood, they do extract blood money and they do willfully spill blood, even from colleagues, friends and family. No one is safe while they inhabit the streets. Alongside the danger they present, there is also something seductive, even romantic about mobsters operating outside the law/ And there is also the allure of the power they have and the fear they incite.
“The Godfather” set the standard for crime films from there on out. It’s been imitated but never equaled by those who’ve tried. Sergio Leone took his own singular approach to the subject matter in “Once Upon a Time in America” and may have actually surpassed what Coppola did. Michael Mann came close in “Heat.” But Coppola got there first and 45 years since the release of “The Godfather” it has not only stood the test of time but perhaps even become more admired than before, if that’s even possible. That film and its sequel continue to haunt us because they speak so truthfully, powerfully and personally to the family-societal-cultural-political dynamics they navigate. For all their venal acts, we care about the characters because they follow a code and we can see ourselves in them. We are equally repelled and attracted to them because they embody the very worst and best in us. And for those reasons these films will always be among the most watched and admired of all time.
‘The Graduate’ revisited
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
This is the 50th anniversary for a much beloved yet peculiar film,“The Graduate” (1967), that landed as a sensation in its time, became an adored artifact of the 1960s but has steadily lost some of its stature and allure over the proceeding half-century. I watched it again the other night and while it’s a film I’ve always admired and I still enjoy I can see now that it’s a strange thing to have resonated so deeply in any era, even in its own breaking-the-rules time.
I mean, the new college graduate protagonist Benjamin Braddock sleeps with the mother of a childhood friend and then falls in love with the daughter and interrupts her marriage to run off with her. It’s a preposterous plot line but it works, which is to say we go along with it, because the film is basically a farcical, satirical indictment of the establishment and an embrace of youthful rebellion and following your heart. The performances by a very fine cast mostly hold up. the writing perhaps less so and the direction is, well, needlessly showy. Mike Nichols was a Broadway wunderkind and a fresh force in cinema who helped push American filmmaking more in the direction of the various European New Wave movements with rapid cutting, restless camera, nonlinear structure and frank exposition. He veered dangerously close to going over the top with it all in his first three features – “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?,” “The Graduate” and “Catch 22” – I suspect because he was enthralled with the new freedom cinema offered and was just insecure enough not to trust the material to hold our attention without using various tricks. His much later work (“Working Girl,” “Charlie Wilson’s War”) is far more traditional, visually and technically speaking, but far more satisfying, too.
The best thing about the movie is Dustin Hoffman’s performance. It’s a tour de force that sneaks up on you. He is so present and in the moment in every shot and scene and so real and truthful to the buttoned-down character he plays that it seems like he’s doing nothing when in fact he’s doing everything an actor’s called to do. Much of his characterization is done without words. Indeed, his performance reminds me of those of the great silent film comedians like Chaplin and Keaton, only he’s less busy and big.
My take on “The Graduate” today is that if not for Simon and Garfunkel’s music, the film wouldn’t work nearly as well as a ’60s counterculture piece. Indeed, other than the music there’s virtually nothing in the film that either overtly or even obliquely refers to the very decade it purportedly speaks to. There’s no mention of civil rights or the war in Vietnam or the burgeoning feminist movement or the end of Camelot or the culture wars ushered in by rock ‘n’ roll, drugs and free love. There’s no reference to politics either. Admittedly, Ben is from a privileged white suburbia world where some of those currents and issues would not be discussed or experienced. But even in those circles things would not have been so sterile or blind or one-dimensional that some of these things didn’t come up or resonate or cause a conflict. The generation gap the film depicts is so generic that it would be easy to forget what decade the film is set in except for that music.
On the other hand, the film is far superior to the vast majority of comedies made in that era, especially the lame youth films of that decade. Even though the men who wrote (Buck Henry and Calder Wilingham) and directed (Nichols) “The Graduate” were much older than the generation they were obviously siding with – even Hoffman was far older than the character he played – they managed to catch a certain ironical spirit of the time that really was a carryover from the 1950s as much as it was a purely ’60s sensibility.
Where the film is perhaps most interesting is in striking an odd but somehow effective balance of the romanticism, even idealism and anger of the ’60s tinged with the cynicism that the ’70s would more fully usher in. The end of the film echoes the beginning in that Ben is searching for his path in life. At the start, he’s alone as he tries finding his way. At the end, he’s with a girl, but still very much alone and adrift. Sure, he’s defied the cookie-cutter, plastic life of his parents and their friends but at a price. He’s lost his naiveté but gained a heavy does of reality that will, as we’ve come to know, likely find him following many of the very Establishment precepts he rejected as a young man.
Looked at today, the movie seems to have some mixed or superficial messages: the hot passions of life are all very ephemeral but desirable; going after what you want is a messy buisness but it’s worth it; conformity equals comfort if not contentment so why settle for less? It kind of sounds like the very things “The Graduate” supposedly rejected. Ben, in middle age, probably ended up in a similar circusmstace as his parents and their freinds, not that you could have convinced him of it at the time. And so it goes…
Cautionary tales of cinema, culture war and Donald Trump
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
As a film buff and cultural journalist I naturally look for connections between cinema and social-political currents. There’s been much written about the parallels between a certain 1950s film’s fictional themes and today’s real-life the rise of Donald Trump to the seat of American power. I refer to Elia Kazan’s scathing 1957 “A Face in the Crowd” written by Budd Schulberg (the two previously teamed for “On the Waterfront”) that imagines a narcissist reprobate named Lonesome Rhodes, magnificently played by Andy Griffith, seducing segments of the nation through his insistent, cloying presence in the media and coming to a position of high influence. Only in “A Face in the Crowd” this egoist is exposed for the fraud and monster he is by those closest to him. But nothing dramatic like that happened in the case of Trump. So far. Instead of being called out and brought down, Trump rode waves of racism, classism, isolationism and xenophobia to win his party’s nomination and eventually the presidency. I mean, plenty of people outside the Trump camp pointed out reasons why he is unfit for the job but those cautionary notes about his character were variously ignored, dismissed, discounted and countered by Trumpsters who would stop at nothing to see their champion of alternative facts gain the Oval Office. What the Kazan-Schulberg film failed to anticipate is that unlike in the 1950s, when there were very limited primary means of people getting information – print, radio and TV – the number of news, information and opinion channels has exponentially increased. Where Rhodes used radio and especially TV to fool people into loving him and then became the victim of that same medium, Trump largely bypassed traditional media and used social media to directly appeal to his base and thus build a movement unaffected by the three major networks or PBS or CNN. We are far past the time when an Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite or Ted Koppel or some other trusted media news figure can make a difference by taking an editorial stand. There are far too many clamoring voices for any one pundit to count in the culture war being fought.
Then there’s the old but new phenomenon of some of the electorate and public turning a blind eye and ear to data, reason, even common sense out of sheer naked allegiance to ideas based in fear, not fact, and without the discernment to separate real news from false news or irrefutable facts from alternative facts.
Is there someone brave enough in the Trump inner circle to go rouge and reveal whatever may be the darkest, damning secrets and lies behind what we already know about his house of cards private business empire, his shady dealings, his fascist leanings? Or will it take someone in a prosecutorial or oversight role looking from the outside in to let in the light and awaken the sleeping masses of his supporters?
Two earlier films starring the same actor, one based on a famous novel. “All the King’s Men” and the other based on a hit play, “Born Yesterday,” have Broderick Crawford portray bellicose men whose blind ambition and power corrupts them absolutely. Whatever populist ideals they once espoused and perhaps even believed have been corroded by rank avarice. There are some obvious overtones with Trump in these characters and stories.
But the more I think about it, the film that most particularly speaks to the venal way Trump operates is “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), whose J.J. Hunsecker is the true antecedent of The Donald. The character of Hunsecker was patterned after such predatory real-life columnists as Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons who could make or break careers with their alternately golden and poison pens.
Alexander Mackendrick directed the black and white classic that he co-wrote with Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets. In the figure of Hunsecker, brilliantly played by Burt Lancaster, they imagine a vain, mean-spirited big city newspaper columnist who wields inordinate influence through his opinions, many of which are thinly veiled innuendoes, attacks and disparagements. Hunsecker cows people by threat, coercion, vendetta and the force of a bullying, overbearing personalty and a dark, sinister character that can neither tolerate the light of scrutiny nor the flame of truth. Hunsecker is at the center of his own world that he expects to orbit around him to pay him fealty. He’s also more than ready to do verbal battle with and to threaten acton against anyone he views as an opponent or obstacle. As far as Hunsecker’s concerned, your either with him or against him. There’s no middle ground. Hunsecker sees only black and white and he’s predisposed to see the worst and weaknesses in people because that’s what he preys upon in order to exert influence and to extort favors.
A figure like Hunsecker can only survive by appealing to the lowest common denominator, i.e. an uneducated population’s fears and resentments, and by parlaying the weird cult of celebrity and authority that attends anyone in the public eye. A Hunsecker can only rule if he’s aided and abetted by toadies, stooges and functionaries who gladly put aside morals and scruples to further his ends and their own agendas. And a Hunsecker is only as powerful as the public’s gullibility allows.
Does this sound like anyone who’s recently maneuvered his way into the halls of power in our present day real world?
The difference being that Hunsecker, just like his real-life inspirations, never got this much power. The closest that an American political reactionary got to this much power in the last century was Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who was nothing more than a gangster and opportunist posing as a public servant. McCarthy was undone in large part by how poorly he came off on television. Trump plays poorly in the media to those predisposed to dislike him but he apparently comes off well to those inclined to support him, which may speak to both the idealogical divide and the weird space occupied by reality TV figures and their followings. If Trump could get this far with so little to offer other than his huge personal bankroll and eventual big GOP dollars, then who’s to say someone even more outlandish or dangerous than Trump might not rally enough support to follow in his footsteps?
In these reactionary times amid decentralized new media and dumbed-down public education, the once unthinkable notion of a Trump coming to power in America has happened. What comes next may be even scarier.