Double-Edged Swords

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Not long ago, I caught a glimpse of something I thought might be another possible function of the ekphrasis, as this device is called. It was toward the end of Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock (recently released on video), in which Bill Murray plays an aging vaudevillian with anticommunist leadings. He's a ventriloquist who doesn't know that vaudeville is over. Late in the movie, before a bored audience in a half-empty theater, he gives an impromptu farewell performance in which he and his dummy purport to have a political falling out. The dummy admits to having progressive sympathies; Murray professes surprise (In my own hand a revolutionary!). The dummy appeals to the audience (Ladies and gentlemen, this man exploits my labor for his own profits). Murray tries reason (You're a dummy, he points out), but the puppet gets the upper hand:

    Dummies?this is what he calls us, Brothers and Sisters. If it is dummies we are then I say dummies rise up! Rise up to the proletarian call of dummies everywhere...

    The scene ends with the puppet singing the first verse of "The Internationale" and Murray walking offstage without him.

    It can't be easy to sing "The Internationale" without moving your lips. For that matter, it can't be easy to seem to be singing "The Internationale" without moving your lips. I don't know (and neither of the people I asked who were connected to the production could tell me) whether Murray was actually doing his own voice-projection stunts in the picture or it just looked a whole hell of a lot as though he was. In any case, it's a phenomenal image of dizzying implications, like the scene itself. You can't tell who is supposed to be feeding lines to whom, or get a purchase on Murray's character's real viewpoint, or even describe what Murray himself is doing. (Seeming to not seem to be doing something? Professing to appear not to espouse something?) "Who's the dummy now?" runs an earlier line in Murray's regular routine. The answer is everybody. Everybody's a puppet. All the voices are real. Both things are true.

    My inability to account for this scene to a friend?to do it justice, explaining all that I thought was going on in it?made me wonder if it might not be one of the purposes of that ancient literary device, the patently unrealizable realistic image, to remind us that there are some truths that are too complex to be stated, that can only be captured by being dramatized, embodied in a figure who (because of what we know or what came before) presents a convergence of apparently conflicting or contradictory experiences. This ventriloquist managed to express something truly ineffable about the intellectual paralysis of partisan politics in this country.

    Something of that very paralysis was evident in the critical response to Robbins' film. It was variously dismissed and ignored when released in theaters, except where it was excoriated by professional intellectuals who (like Murray in that scene, weeping his heart's blood, making a fool of himself over things his audience couldn't have cared less about) seemed interested in Robbins' account of the Cradle Will Rock affair only insofar as it allowed them an opportunity to rehearse (yet again) questions of who had or had not been a fellow traveler or a friendly witness. Which was too bad. There was a fair amount that was silly in the movie?good actors doing bad foreign accents and wonderful actors forced to play real-life personages they had no business playing?but it had an unlooked-for integrity. Robbins neither glorified the people involved in the historical events he was chronicling nor exaggerated the importance of the events themselves, which is what most accounts of the events surrounding the opening of Marc Blitzstein's labor opera usually do. He just seemed to want to capture something about the spirit of a time.

    The story of how the very young Orson Welles and John Houseman turned what may or may not have been an act of government censorship into a history-making piece of pro-union and pro-art propaganda is something an actor could really only see in one way. It's the only way one would wish to see that story dramatized (what else would be the point?). Whether the incident really involved censorship is open to interpretation. It's possible to come away from Houseman's own account of the business with the impression that he and Welles knew perfectly well that the show, which they were producing under the auspices of the WPA's Federal Theater Project, wasn't being censored?that they knew that the directive that had come down from the WPA's chief administrator, Harry Hopkins, delaying the opening of any new gallery exhibit or theatrical production for a period of two weeks, was exactly what it purported to be, a routine response to congressional budget cuts, and that Welles and Houseman were a couple of brilliant opportunists who knew a terrific agitprop op when they saw one.

    The trouble with the American left has always been its inability to keep more than one idea in mind at a time. In this it resembles the American right. Robbins' film follows most of Welles' biographers in suggesting that The Government was knuckling under to the interests of Big Steel, whose factories and automobile plants were beset with violence and labor agitation that year. The truth may be more complicated. This was 1937, and the WPA wasn't so popular anymore?the arts projects especially?and Congress was getting ready to plow the whole thing under, as everybody well knew. The arts projects were a hotbed of radicalism. Congress was responding to right-wing pressure. Welles and Houseman were opportunists. The FTP was going to be shut down. Strikers were getting shot in the back. The Cradle Will Rock was a perfectly awful show. All of those things are true.

    Another thing that reminded me of the ekphrasis recently was a snippet of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance I saw late one night when I was mulling over this whole movie-epic thing that Ridley Scott's Gladiator seems to have brought on. I'd forgotten about Griffith and his biblical and historical extravaganzas, so when I saw Turner Classic Movies was showing Intolerance, I decided to stay up and see at least the beginning. What struck me during a particular scene in the Babylonian section?an aerial shot of bodies wriggling frantically before this huge gate?was its utter pointlessness from any but a purely technical standpoint. Its beauty lay in the mere fact of motion and the idea that no one had ever been able to film a shot like it before. It was the ekphrasis realized, the static picture come to life. I had a sudden glimpse of how exciting that must have been.

    Since Gladiator opened, the retrospective cable stations TCM and American Movie Classics have been most obliging about running old examples of the genre. Last week AMC showed The Fall of the Roman Empire, and a few weeks before one of them showed Spartacus a couple of times. That movie was supposed to be the last great expression of the plight of the American left. The two gladiators unwillingly matched in a battle to the death was Howard Fast's metaphor for the predicament that McCarthyism had placed us all in: kill or be killed, destroy or be destroyed. Fast himself had actually been an unfriendly witness in the late 40s and gone to jail in 1950 for refusing to hand over the names of associates who, years before, had worked with him aiding refugees from Franco's Spain.

    After seeing Ridley Scott's Gladiator, I went so far as to read Fast's novel. Like everyone else, I was curious as to why the summer's first action picture seemed so unembarrassing?almost hip, for a gladiator movie. Also, I'd noticed that the paired-combatants image got comparatively little play in the new movie and wanted to know if it had been Fast's invention. It wasn't. But neither, apparently, is the scene the 1960 movie epic is most famous for, in which Laurence Olivier promises the rebels that they will be spared crucifixion provided that they identify their leader, and all of them, one by one, step forward and claim to be Spartacus. It was an inversion of naming names, but it appears nowhere in the novel. Perhaps Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted writer who adapted the book for producer Kirk Douglas, got the idea for the moving sequence from Billy Wilder, who had used it in Stalag 17 (1953).

    Vincent LoBrutto, biographer of the film's unwilling director Stanley Kubrick, reports that Fast himself wanted to adapt his novel but turned in a screenplay that Douglas and Kubrick found unworkable ("lacking in the dramatic power that Douglas saw in the book"). Maybe it was unworkable. Maybe Fast was a perfectly terrible screenwriter. But maybe he wasn't. Maybe Fast's script only seemed undramatic because it preserved his original conception, which was to tell the story of the slave rebellion without ever having Spartacus appear as a character. Fast's novel begins where the movie ends (the rebellion has already been put down), and it mostly follows a group of wealthy travelers on a journey between Rome and Capua. Fast cheats a bit toward the end, but the first three quarters or so of the book consist entirely of conversations about Spartacus among people who never saw him, prompted by the sight of the crucifixes that line the Appian Way.

    Not every image is well served by being embodied. Spartacus isn't great writing by any means; it's genre fiction?agitprop and proud of it?but it's a hell of a lot more sophisticated than the movie Kirk Douglas insisted on making. Fast wasn't trying to dramatize an historical incident, he was trying to suggest something about the revolutionary spirit. (Can't we please talk about something other than Spartacus, people in the book keep saying, and the answer turns out to be no.) Fast seems to have realized that to represent a mythic figure in any more concrete way would have been to open the door to vulgarity. Douglas, who wanted an heroic role to play, preferably one with social importance, missed this.

    What a dilemma the film must have posed to the intellectual left: that great rhetoric on the one hand, and on the other the mortifying spectacle of all those guys rushing around in loincloths and rubber pants. If Ridley Scott's movie seems less tasteless, more knowing, that's only partly the lack of shiny torsos and overdetermined music. More likely, it's because it isn't really a gladiator movie at all, but a backstage musical, a genre that?as people keep pointing out?disappeared along about the same time as the sword-and-sandal epic. Essentially, Gladiator echoes the plot of all those Depression-era movies (like 42nd Street and the Golddigger series) that were about getting off the breadline by becoming a star. Their subtext, the American ideal that Hollywood wanted to express at the time, was that if you were truly special and talented (and willing to work hard) you would prevail. A Chorus Line changed all that. Where the goal of heroines in the 1930s musicals had been to get out of the chorus, Michael Bennett's concept musical was about a star who wanted to get back into the chorus. Her style was too distinctive and she couldn't get work anymore. She just wanted a job.

    A Chorus Line virtually killed off the backstage musical by turning the genre's ethos on its head. It's interesting, then, that Gladiator seems to take such an interest in relegitimizing the show-business work ethic. Win the crowd, people keep telling each other. Rome is the mob. The beating heart of Rome is the sand of the Colosseum. The picture only really comes to life in that scene in which the late Oliver Reed begins waxing eloquent about performing at the Colosseum. The thrill of it all! You're starting to get misty-eyed along with him until you realize he's talking about the Roman equivalent of snuff movies.

    Except that he isn't: he's talking about acting. What's interesting about Gladiator is that it's the first Hollywood epic to confront the basic hypocrisy inherent in the intellectual extravaganza. Naively, the genre always strove to marry spectacle with high moral purpose. But that can't be done. You can't wow people with your extravagance and glorify American imperialism or Christianity at the same time. You can't glorify anything at the same that you're trying to wow people with your extravagance. You can only glorify yourself.

    At least Gladiator knows this. At least it's honest about who and what it's glorifying. It is, after all, a post-Chorus Line backstage musical. The figure that Russell Crowe most closely resembles isn't Ruby Keeler, the hoofer-turned-star, but Warner Baxter, the director/producer. From the beginning Crowe is presented as a director: he choreographs war ("At my signal, unleash hell!"); the very battles he fights are half about spectacle, and in the Colosseum he turns his men into a team of synchronized dancers. It's Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg that this movie glorifies. All that talk about winning the crowd, and making the mob love you: they mean us.

    So how come it doesn't seem smug? Why isn't it obscene? It may actually be the much-despised computer-imaging sequences that save the picture: all those beautiful shots of a blue-black pseudo-Rome. For one thing, they are beautiful. They're also stylized: they never for a moment seem intended to be realistic. The mob scenes in the Colosseum were created by using the same image of a few people moving their arms repeated over and over, which explains the balletic quality of those shots. (They're also art-directed so as to resemble all those paintings by Poussin?something about a particular orangey shade of red.) It's as though the self-conscious echo of reality in the constructed images adds an echo to what the movie is really saying, that the only real power worth having is the power to entertain: But this is only a movie.