Thursday, November 3, 2016

Naive Idealism -- Part 11 of the State of the Classic Film Fan

It’s the idealism.  It’s the idealism (sometimes dismissed as propaganda, sometimes spurned as naiveté) that is most powerful about classic films and cannot be duplicated today.

We are in a more cynical age, where we mistrust idealism.  We also resent even the merest suggestion that a film might be preaching to us.  We don’t mind being preached to by hypocritical politicians, by hypocritical television advertisers who think they are telling us what we want to know or confirming our worse fears to induce us to buy their products, and by actual preachers whose personal wealth puts them in the camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle category.

But if a movie tries to make us rally around a simple concept of decency, honor, and patriotism – by suggesting that we are all decent, honorable, and patriotic – the modern audience that does not like classic films hoots in derision (or worse).

“One might suspect their morality,” says the haughty Nazi officer of the compromised crowd of partygoers at the German embassy in Watch on the Rhine (1943).

I love that movie, loved it since I was a teenager, and marveled at its message of idealism in action.  “So the time has come,” Paul Lukas, the professional antifascist says, “This time it is of the utmost importance.”

So it is.  We finally vote this coming Tuesday.  This nation has not been in such crisis in decades, or in such danger since 9/11.  Some weeks ago, we discussed several movies in a series about fascism as represented in classic films: The Mortal Storm (1940),  Address Unknown (1944),  Storm Warning (1951),  Keeper of the Flame (1942), and Seven Days in May (1964).

Eight years ago, I wrote another pre-election day post, a two-part series on Gentleman’s Agreement (1949), part 1 here and part 2 here.  In this passage from that series, I remarked on the surprising nastiness of the 2008 campaign year:

How interesting that today much of the former open vehemence of prejudice has shifted from the now socially unacceptable derision against race or religion to the more socially acceptable ridicule of political affiliation.

“Conservative” and “liberal” are used today like dirty words, accusing labels, where the opposing political party, or politician, or even individual voter, is vilified with a degree of condescension, arrogance, and meanness that would appall most of us were it applied against a person’s race or religion.
 It is no longer enough to simply disagree.  We must condemn. 

How naïve those words sound today, like those old movies that espoused idealism.  Our level of political and social discourse has sunk far lower; open bigotry is accepted by society and unquestioned in the media.  I could not imagine then that the fascists who reviled, taunted, and condemned Barak Obama for his paternal African American heritage would continue to do so for his entire two-term presidency, unchallenged by a media that reveled in any controversy fired by lies.  I certainly did not imagine that an evil, idiotic piece of filth like Donald Trump would ever become his party’s nominee for the highest political office in this country and the leader of the (formerly known as) free world. 

This is the 11th part of our year-long monthly series on the state of the classic film fan.  In my first post in January, I specifically referred to Donald Trump, in affirming our American idealism as such that he could not possibly be elected president.  From that post in January:

Today, we address the juxtaposition of classic films on the turbulent world in which we live today.  Are they merely an escape from a louder, cruder world?  Or, do they provide us with mental and emotional sustenance to cope with our modern, angry society?  Probably both, but that depends on the classic film fan.

So we find ourselves, we classic film fans, at a crossroads.  Are our old movies a model, or an escape?  In my youth, they were a model; for I had nothing to escape from that I was aware.  Now, in middle age, I don’t know.  My earlier confidence that Trump was not a threat to the vigor of our democracy was clearly foolish.  I did not imagine that so large a number of people in this country could be so devoid of intelligence or integrity to support him; nor a media so lazy, greedy and corrupt that it failed its duties as the Fourth Estate; nor a Republican party so eager to roll over and play dead. 

Frank Capra’s Prelude to War, the first in his World War II Why We Fight series would, understandably, be labeled as propaganda today, but it was a powerful teaching tool that easily instructed a populace about to face the greatest evil of modern times on why it would have to risk death doing so.  The film quoted politicians, scripture, the words of Confucius, and from the Koran, and talked about Americans as a diverse society free and strong because of its diversity.  It just assumed its audience agreed.  Such “propaganda” dragged conservative isolationists to the table, and to the fascists among us – certain Jew-haters and industrialists – it made them shut up.

Their brand of wickedness was no longer fashionable. 

How did it get to be fashionable again, and make idealism passé?

I love the old movies that lead off with a paragraph scrolling before the first scene.  We don’t have that anymore; nobody likes wordiness, or the feeling that they are being preached to.  Watch on the Rhine begins with these words:

In the first week of April 1940 there were few men in the world who could have believed that in less than three months, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland and France would fall to the German invaders.

But there were some men, ordinary men, not prophets, who knew this mighty tragedy was on the way.  They had fought it from the beginning and they understood it.

We are most deeply in their debt…

Such unabashed idealism, so unashamedly taking sides against fascism, without reserve.  Of course, the movie, unlike the play on which it was based, was produced during wartime, so it took little courage to point out our enemies for what they were, though Warner Bros. had a better track record on that that the other studios.

Another movie, Meet John Doe (1941), which we covered here, was even more courageous for picking out a fascist villain that was purely American: a businessman who wanted to take political control for personal gain.  Sound familiar?  James Gleason, in a wonderful scene of slightly drunken disgust, implores the very naïve Gary Cooper to open those beautiful eyes of his and see what is painfully apparent:

You’re mixed up with a skunk.  A no-good dangerous skunk…

I get mad for a lot of other guys besides myself.  I get mad for a guy named Washington, and a guy named Jefferson, and Lincoln.  Lighthouses, John, lighthouses in a foggy world…”

The fascist businessman is…

“…trying to worm his way into the White House, so he could put the screws in, so he could turn out the lights in those lighthouses…”

Leave it to Frank Capra to have the guts to risk calling the common folk a bunch of saps, and then raising them to herculean majesty when they see their error, and put the brakes on evil.  The little guys convince Gary Cooper to carry Barbara Stanwyck off the snowy rooftop and back to safety and a new fight, as James Gleason, cynical and yet idealistic, and thoroughly righteous member of the Fourth Estate taunts the businessman fascist,

“There ya are Norton, the people.  Try and lick that!”  And the movie ends with ringing of church bells and the triumphant swell of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

No, that sort of thing wouldn’t happen today in a movie.  We’re too smug. 

I wonder what the demographic is among political affiliations among classic film fans?  From what I have observed on blogs and social media, old movie buffs are a wonderfully diverse group, where both liberal and conservative voters are equally drawn to classic films and can unite in our appreciation of their artistry and value to our culture. 

“But I do not believe for a moment that he will be elected president.”

That was my comment in January.  I did not think that by November I would be so ashamed of my country for laughing at a vulgar joke, for allowing a faction of stupid bigots to forsake common sense and common decency in order to vent their vileness.

In my complaint that modern critics found Gentleman’s Agreement too preachy:

Casablanca is also dated and preachy, but its bad guys were the Nazis, so we don’t mind speeches against them.  In Gentleman’s Agreement, we are the bad guys, or we could be if we’re not careful.  That’s the difference.

Now I wonder if there isn’t a very large segment of our population—Trump supporters—that would, if they were shown Casablanca for the first time, cheer for the Nazis?

We’ll see on Tuesday.  As Paul Lukas, the professional antifascist, says in Watch on the Rhine when he fears the greedy George Coulouris will sell him to the Nazis for a price,

“We will wait, and we will see.”

If the outcome is bleak, will classic films continue to inspire courage and decency, or just serve as an escape from a society decomposing?

I suppose I am waiting naively, idealistically, for the happy ending, the ringing of bells, and the soaring strain of Beethoven's Ninth in the background.  But it will never come again.

Past posts in this series here:

Part 1 of the year-long series on the current state of the classic film buff is here: A Classic Film Manifesto. 

Part 2 is here: Cliff Aliperti’s new book on Helen Twelvetrees.

Part 3 is here: An interview with Kay Noske of Movie Star Makeover.

Part 4 is here: Evolution of the Classic Film Fan.

Part 5 is here: Gathering of the Clan at Classic Film Festivals.

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.


John/24Frames said...

Frank Capra was right. The common folks are a bunch of saps. So many have bought into Trump’s phony rhetoric that America is going down the tubes and he is the only one who can save it. Trump does what’s good for Trump. As for the media, they have been complicit in the rise of Trump. They used him as entertainment and sound bites, rarely attacking or questioning his morals and integrity. All he has done is complain about the media and how unfair they are to him. In fact, they have been easy on him.

Great post!!!

Caftan Woman said...

I have tears in my eyes.

Joel Bocko said...

I enjoyed reading this and much of it resonated for me. I was particularly struck by your invocation of Casablanca - I feel similarly about that film, that while it's celebrated for gauzy romanticism, with critics often viewing the wartime patriotism as decoration, in fact its idealistic (which is not to say naive, imo) politics are unashamedly front and center. I think that's hugely important.

While there are many reasons older films tend to be more openly idealistic, more fearless in their confrontation with power, I also think one is particularly important. Prior to the blacklist, there was a vocal, confident, and resolutely populist left active both in Hollywood and pop culture at large. Even the center of the time was substantially further left, at least economically, than it is today - with a president who spoke unapologetically on behalf of the have-nots while explicitly embracing the hatred of his elite enemies. More importantly, he was surrounded by strong movements able to push him further toward their causes. (I recently watched Thom Andersen's documentary Red Hollywood, about how leftism manifested itself directly in the films of the time; I highly recommend checking it out, if you haven't already!)

At least since the late seventies, but in some ways even earlier (the sixties, for all their activism, lacked the broadbased populism of the thirties), cynicism - often passing as "realism" - has trumped idealism in the pop culture, reflecting the culture at large. Increasingly I think this began with the repression of the left under a Cold War guise following World War II an we've been feeling the echoes ever since.

The hatred, fear, and cowardly hypocrisy have always been there, as these old films show. What's different now isn't their presence, and I'm not sure it's even how explicit their growth has been with Trump shocking as it can be. What's different, I suspect, is the lack of a strong populist critique - or rather the marginalization or denigration of that critique in the media when it appears. Exactly as you say here: the dismissal of idealism as naïveté, a self-doubt which comes to afflict all of us as it trickles down from above.

They say youth is for idealism, maturity for disillusionment, but I have experienced the opposite in many ways. I was in my twenties during the Bush years, and there seemed to be no hope for resistance - what feeble protest there was seemed ineffective and, I'm sorry to say, I viewed much of it with disproportionate condescension though at least they were trying. The euphoria of Obama's election (I took a day off from work for an overnight bus ride to the capital to witness his inauguration) was short-lived for me, thanks to the relentlessness of the completely nonsensical right-wing attacks you mention here, but also by how traditional the administration ended up being in its outlooks and prerogatives.


Joel Bocko said...

(continued - part 2)

However, as I approach my mid-thirties, I feel more optimistic about politics than I ever have before, despite the nervousness of the present moment. I am emboldened by the strides that a confident critique of power and hopeful vision for change have made in recent years, going back to Occupy Wall Street, through Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15, breaking into mainstream electoral politics this spring with the movement that coalesced around Bernie Sanders (while he obviously lost, I never ever would have expected a relatively obscure old socialist from Vermont to receive a fraction of 43% of the vote; it was eye-opening as to how much of an eagerness there is out there to challenge the establishment).

I certainly haven't seen this reinvigorated idealism - or the hardheaded activism necessary to realize it - reflected yet in the pop culture, at least not the old forms like movies. And while that energy is there in new media it hasn't yet coalesced into something as formidable or iconic at least in terms of reflection as much as information. So meanwhile I suppose it's up to the rest of us, the consumers of culture who have - in the age of the internet, if not already before - become creators as well, to talk about these things and push forward a counternarrative.

Anyway, thanks again for writing this. It articulated and evoked a lot for me, especially as I've been pondering my own statement I want to make about politics, culture, and the election on my own site next week, and also wondering how and if it tied in with what I do most of the time on that site - writing about older media.

Sorry for the long comment - I think this ended up kind of being a draft my later piece, and it wandered pretty far from the original topic! - but hopefully it can add to the conversation you started here with your readers.

Joel Bocko said...

(One further note: though I talk about the presence of the left in Hollywood, obviously Capra was no leftist! And yet a distinctly non-right-wing populism invigorates all his movies; It's a Wonderful Life in particular feels like an allegorical epitaph for the New Deal era. Aside from any personal factors, I wonder to what extent the presence of that left impacted those who weren't in its circle, who even disagreed vociferously with many aspects yet felt its tidal pull even as we feel the tidal pull of the right today.)

Sue Bursztynski said...

Cheer up! There's a reason why films like Casablanca and Gentleman's Agreement are still classics. They deserve it.

I live on the other side of the world and we are discussing it even here, because when the US sneezes the rest of us get a cold. If the US drops a bomb because "why else do we have them?" we too will suffer. So it is indeed our business who wins. And even here, the online newspapers have Trumpists arguing about the bias against him when clearly the man puts his foot in his mouth every time he opens his mouth, and doesn't need to have a bias against him - he does it to himself.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

John, CW, Joel, and Sue -- thank so much for commenting and offering your feelings and insights. That's what makes blogging so wonderful -- your comments.

Joel, I enjoyed your thoughts very much, and it seems we think along the same lines on these issues. I'm glad you're feeling more optimistic as regards politics. There are a few members of Congress who do impress me - - and President Obama remains my favorite prez since I became old enough to vote. I remember the euphoria of that first inaugural. As for Frank Capra -- he amazes me. That odd combination of a conservative Republican with "New Deal" as you say, leanings. He was a conundrum. Thanks again for practicing your upcoming blog post here. It was terrific.

Yvette said...

Just catching up on this now, Jacqueline - I know, I know, I'm always a day late. But I've just been too upset to trust my own thoughts and judgement lately.

Those wonderful idealists in films from the past - who would listen to them now? Everything has been twisted around.

When the press is complicit, it's pretty hard to get at the truth of things - or at least, for the truth to find its way out through the morass not only of sloppy, self-serving reporting, but through the headlines of fake news which permeate (and continue to permeate) many websites. The hatred and viciousness directed at President Obama, not to mention, Hillary Clinton, is something I hope I never have to live through again. For me, it got so bad that I actually have pretty much severed a friendship of 35 years - not sure how that's going to end up, but right now, I've simply had enough of people making up their own facts and spreading hate even if that is what they will argue they are NOT doing. Enough.

I cried the other day when I saw a photo of President Obama and thought, suddenly, he's not going to be in the White House much longer. And look who's going to take his place. I can hardly fathom it. There's not much going on these days that makes any sense.

Is idealism dead? It sure looks like it. A country of idealists could not have elected Donald Trump. (Though, having Hillary Clinton score big on the popular vote must give us pause to think that maybe all is not completely lost with the American experiment.)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I can only commiserate with you, Yvette. There are many friendships and families that have broken up over this. I have to place my hope in your last sentence. Maybe all is not lost for us, though it certainly does look bleak. All we can do is soldier on, as so many of our predecessors did under unhappy circumstances.

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