Before considering the movie Panic in the Year Zero, some general remarks about nuclear-war movies are in order.
In case of nuclear attack:
1. Bend over.
2. Put your head between your legs.
3. And kiss your ass goodbye.
Before considering the movie Panic in the Year Zero, some general remarks about nuclear-war movies are in order.
In case of nuclear attack:
1. Bend over.
2. Put your head between your legs.
3. And kiss your ass goodbye.
When I was five years old, my parents had to work. So, during the day, they put me in what then was called a nursery, but which today would be called a daycare center. One day, all the children were gathered together into a room where a young woman told us a story. It was about a little girl who wouldn’t eat her dinner. As a result, something bad happened to this little girl, though I forget exactly what. I was as gullible as a five-year-old child could be, and so I took this story to heart.
Then it was time for lunch. On the plate that was set before me was a lump of something called fishcake. If its appearance was unappetizing, its taste was even more so. The scales fell from my eyes. The young woman had told us that story so that we would not be like that little girl, but would eat this lunch as we were supposed to. We were being manipulated by that story, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t eat the fishcake either. Nothing bad happened to me.
I had a similar feeling the first time I saw The Caine Mutiny as a child. There was something about it I didn’t like, as if the story was an attempt to manipulate me. I saw it again just recently, and I had the same feeling.
But first we need to put our minds back into the past. The story is set during World War II; the novel which was the basis for this movie was written in 1950; and the movie itself was produced in 1954. As a result, in both the novel and the movie, the word “war” had positive connotations. Most people would rate World War II as one of the best wars America ever fought. The stirring, patriotic music that plays during the credits of this movie was undoubtedly heard by the audience back then without the slightest sense of irony. Since then, wars have lost much of their glory.
When this movie begins, a ceremony is taking place in which men “from all walks of life” have been made ensigns in the United States Navy after three months of training. One of these ensigns is Willie Keith, played by Robert Francis, an actor you have probably never heard of, in part because he died young, but mostly because he is nondescript. When the story is over, he will be in the final scene as well. He functions as someone the audience is invited to identify with, someone who is almost as much a spectator to the events in this movie as the audience is.
He has a romantic relationship with May Wynn, played by an actress of such little distinction that she changed her name to that of the character she played in this movie, as if that would help her with her career. In other words, she is a minor actress, a suitable movie mate for Robert Francis. In this way, there is no danger that they will distract from the main part of the movie, where major actors play a role. Many critics have dismissed Willie’s relationship with May as just the obligatory love interest. However, it is more than that, because it forms the basis for a domestic mutiny. Willie is under the thumb of his domineering mother, whom he dare not disobey any more than he would disobey a commanding officer. The maternal jealousy on the part of his mother is something with which May must contend, which will not be easy, since she is a singer in a nightclub.
Once again, we must put our minds back into the past. Back then, women that sang in nightclubs in the movies were morally suspect. They were not above having sex before marriage. And even if they didn’t, they seemed too worldly wise to be respectable, much more so than their more innocent counterparts, who still lived at home with their parents, or at least had a nice job like that of a school teacher. That is why, in Imitation ofLife (1959), Annie (Juanita Moore) is devastated when she finds out that her daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) is singing in a nightclub, or why Mildred (Joan Crawford) is heartbroken in Mildred Pierce (1945) when she finds out that her daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) is singing in the nightclub owned by Wally (Jack Carson). In other words, May is someone that Willie’s mother would not approve of.
In any event, although May is at the ceremony where Willie becomes an ensign, he does not introduce her to his mother, telling May later that the time was not right. He ends up breaking his date with May because his mother had other plans for him, but finally shows up at her nightclub while she is in the middle of a number. After she finishes, Willie gets her to sit down with him, and they quarrel about his mother and her hold on him. Finally, he tells her he has only forty-eight hours before he ships out, and he suggests that instead of going to some club for entertainment, they could just…. At this point, she puts her fingers against his lips to keep him from saying it, that he wants to spend the next two days having sex with her. Having thus been propositioned, she responds, “Will you marry me?” He tries to make excuses, protesting that he loves her, saying if only there were more time. She replies, “I forgot who I was. Just another nightclub singer for a big weekend.” She gets up and leaves in a huff. We are inclined to regard him as a cad, but it’s not that. He just can’t break away from his mother. Two days later, his mother sees him off at the dock. He tells her not to cry. Being a widow, she says, “I can’t help it. You’re all I have left.” A mother’s hold on her son always becomes stronger when his father dies. He kisses her on the cheek and says, “Goodbye, sweetheart.”
When he has his first look at the USS Caine, a minesweeper, it is the worst looking excuse for a ship ever seen, full of scroungy-looking sailors, all sloppily dressed. Willie is then introduced to Lieutenant Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray). He takes Willie’s orders, remarking with sarcasm, “They transform ex-civilians into men without minds.” This is a harbinger of what is to come, when the question will arise as to whether a bad order should be followed mindlessly.
He continues to make such derogatory remarks about the Caine in particular, and the Navy in general. At this point, we might wonder what a man with that attitude is doing in the Navy as an officer. Not that I take exception to his attitude. It’s just that we wonder, what is he doing here? But again, we must place ourselves in the past. Had he not taken that same three months of training Keith did to become an ensign when the war started, he would have been drafted and had to serve in the army. Rather than suffer that fate, he probably figured that he would do better in the Navy. And he does do better, for on the Caine he has time to work on his novel.
This is the guy I immediately identified with. But before the movie is out, Tom will be the villain of the piece. Not the kind of villain that you have to admire for being shrewd and brave, like Sergeant Markoff in Beau Geste (1939), for example, but one who turns out to be a trouble-maker and a coward. All this comes later, of course, but this is where it ties in with my fishcake story. This movie is trying to manipulate me into not being like Tom. It’s not going to work.
Tom introduces Willie to Executive Officer Steve Maryk (Van Johnson), who in turn takes him to meet the captain, Commander DeVriess. If the seamen were sloppily dressed, at least they were dressed. DeVriess is sitting there naked except for a towel. He is rude to Keith, making snide remarks about his Princeton education. This reminds me of Crimson Tide (1995), another mutiny movie, where Gene Hackman makes snide remarks about Denzel Washington’s Harvard education. Does the Navy have something against an Ivy League education? In any event, I guess one of the fringe benefits of being a commanding officer is that you get to belittle your subordinates, and they have to just stand there and take it. It must be a bully’s paradise.
Owing to connections through his Uncle Lloyd, Willie has a chance to transfer to a better assignment as part of the admiral’s staff. But Devriess intimidates him, making him feel as though he would be worthy of contempt if he accepted it. So, Willie says he’ll stay on the Caine, something Tom says he’ll come to regret. But Devriess himself has been wanting off the Caine for two years, and when he finally gets the chance to transfer to another ship, his ass is gone.
He is replaced by Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg (Humphrey Bogart). Queeg is a by-the-book officer, and he sets about making the Caine shipshape, requiring the crew to dress appropriately. However, he is so much of a martinet that when he issues a bad order, the men are afraid to question it or take initiative themselves to prevent a bad result. Then he insists that the bad result was not his fault, but just an accident. In particular, Queeg becomes so upset that a sailor does not have his shirttail tucked in that he neglects the fact that the ship is sailing in a circle as a result of his last order. When a man at the helm tries to warn him, Queeg yells at him for interrupting him, and then goes back to reprimanding Willie for allowing the sailor to leave his shirttail out. As a result, the ship cuts the tow line, and the target is set adrift. To retrieve it would result in the Caine getting back to port last, and that would look bad. So, Queeg begins insisting that the tow line broke on account of a bad cable. Then he starts being nice to everyone, hoping they will be sympathetic and overlook what happened. But that lasts only a few minutes. He soon starts being unlikable again.
The ship is ordered to return to San Francisco. This time Willie introduces May to his mother, both of whom are at the dock. Then he and May go to Yosemite. If I have correctly decoded the signifiers that were needed when movies were made under the guidance of the Production Code, then they had sex. The next morning, he asks her to marry him. But she suspects he is proposing only because it’s the “decent thing to do.” Fearing his mother’s disapproval, which she says will result in an unhappy marriage, she says “No.”
When Willie returns to the ship, Queeg calls the officers together, saying that “certain misleading reports were sent to the Force Commander.” As he says this, the camera focuses on Tom, who has an insolent look on his face. He presumably sent in a report about the tow-line incident, telling what really happened.
Queeg announces they have been ordered to take part in an invasion, escorting marines until they are close to shore. But during the invasion, Queeg gets scared, ordering the ship to turn around sooner than it should, abandoning those marines. He orders a yellow dye marker thrown overboard as they retreat as a way of telling the marines they can follow it as a safe path to shore, even though that path has not been cleared of mines.
As a result, someone later comes up with a song, “Yellowstain Blues,” referring to the color of the dye and the fact that Queeg figuratively wet his pants. While they are singing the song, Willie worries that Queeg might hear them. Tom dismisses his concerns, saying, “It’s about time you got over being impressed by people in authority like parents and ship’s captains.” In so doing, he makes the link between the two mutinies to come, the one against Queeg, and the other on Willie’s part against his mother. Willie says, sarcastically, “Thanks Dad.” And this recalls the fact that if Willie’s father were still alive, his mother would not be so possessive, and his father would put a check on her maternal jealousy in any event. It’s sort of the flipside of the Oedipus complex. Freud said that a man has an unconscious desire to kill his father and marry his mother. But if this is true, it also holds that as long as the father is alive, he retains possession of the mother, leaving the son free to find his own woman.
In any event, Queeg calls the officers together. As happened with the incident involving the tow line, Queeg starts appealing to their sympathy and understanding regarding his recent act of cowardice, saying they all need to work together, for the sake of the “family.” After he leaves, Steve says he liked the speech, but Tom is unimpressed. He argues that Queeg is mentally unbalanced and paranoid, mentioning, among other things, the two steel balls Queeg rolls around in his hand whenever he becomes agitated. Steve orders Tom never to speak of this again.
But in the very next scene, we see Steve reading a book entitled Mental Disorders. The seed has been planted. He then begins to keep a medical log, recording events that are indicative of mental illness. These events culminate in the Case of the Missing Strawberries. Queeg becomes obsessed with finding out who ate some strawberries without authorization. He becomes convinced that someone made a copy of the key that would have allowed for such pilferage. He turns the ship upside down trying to find the key, which will tell him who the culprit is. Of course, there is no such key.
Steve is finally convinced. He and Tom and Willie sail over to the admiral’s ship to report the situation. However, Tom begins to realize that it would be a mistake to say anything. They will only be causing trouble for themselves. He says they need to forget the whole thing. Willie asks him if he’s scared. Tom admits it, saying, “I’m too smart to be brave.” Steve gives up as a result. They return to the Caine just as a storm is coming up.
It turns out to be a typhoon. The safe thing to do is head into the wind, but the last orders they had from the fleet before they lost communication were to head away from the wind. Steve says they don’t know what the fleet’s orders are now. Queeg insists that they continue to follow the last orders and head away from the wind. This too is like the situation in Crimson Tide, where a break in communications sets up the question, should we follow the last order received, or should we use our best judgment under the circumstances? And, of course, both situations are like that in the poem “Casabianca,” in which a boy on a ship is given orders by his father to stay at his post. Unbeknownst to him, his father is subsequently killed. As the ship goes up in flames, while the rest of the crew abandons it, the boy remains at his post in the face of certain death, calling to his father to tell him what to do. The ship is completely destroyed in a huge explosion when the fire reaches the magazine. The last two lines of the poem are the following: “But the noblest thing which perished there / Was that young, faithful heart!” The moral is that it is better to die obeying an order than to survive by disobeying it, even if that order was no longer appropriate, given the change in circumstances. Interestingly, the boy’s father is also the commanding officer of the ship, making the connection between parental and military authority that is also being suggested by this movie.
In the end, Steve relieves Queeg of his command, thereby committing mutiny. He turns the ship into the wind, and the ship survives the storm.
When they get back to San Francisco, Willie gets a call from May. Although they have broken up, she is worried because Ensign Harding called her and said Willie was in trouble. Ensign Harding was able to leave the Caine before the typhoon hit because his wife had become seriously ill. May asks Willie if his mother is there with him. He tells her she isn’t. She had to go to New York to be with Uncle Lloyd, who is sick. He tells May he loves her and wants to marry her, but she still refuses.
Now we must ask the question, why was this business about a sick Uncle Lloyd written into the script? Apparently, it serves the function of separating Willie from his mother without his having to openly break with her of his own free will. It would be like Queeg having to leave the Caine before the typhoon hit because Mrs. Queeg had become seriously ill, just like what happened to Ensign Harding. Then there would have been no mutiny. But in this case, the domestic mutiny is avoided in a way that the mutiny on the Caine was not. We know that this is the first step toward getting Willie and May married, but it won’t be because Willie finally had the moral courage to choose May over his mother, but because fortuitous circumstances did the work for him.
Anyway, a Lieutenant Barney Greenwald (José Ferrer), a lawyer, talks to Steve, Willie, and Tom to see whether he will defend them in a court-martial. He tells them he thinks what they did stinks, and that they might all be hanged. Tom suggests they get another lawyer, but Greenwald says that eight other lawyers have already turned the job down, so there’s no one else. That’s weird. Even Charles Manson could get a lawyer. Well, I wouldn’t know personally, but I guess that’s just one more difference between being a civilian and being in the military.
Tom backs Steve’s position that Queeg was paranoid and went to pieces at a critical moment. Greenwald brings his attention to the fact that even though Tom did not take part in the mutiny, he counseled Steve that Queeg was mentally unfit, and so he can be found as guilty as Steve and Willie. Tom becomes uncomfortable and leaves the room. Later, on the witness stand, he gives weaselly answers, denying that he ever suggested that Queeg was mentally unfit.
It is unlikely, however, that it would have helped Steve had Tom told the truth. All he would have done was incriminate himself along with Steve. The only thing that saves Steve is Queeg’s testimony. Little by little, Queeg becomes rattled under cross-examination. Finally, when he starts talking about the missing strawberries and the imaginary key, while rolling those two steel balls in his hands, it becomes clear to the court-martial that he is indeed delusional and paranoid. As a result, Steve is acquitted, which means Willie is in the clear as well.
The officers throw a party to celebrate. Tom walks into the room. When Steve says he’s surprised he had the courage to show up, Tom says he didn’t have the courage not to. Then Greenwald arrives, drunk. He says he feels guilty for what he did, since Queeg was defending this country while Greenwald was studying law, Tom was a writing a novel, and Willie was “tearing up the playing fields of Princeton.” Boy, these guys in the Navy really seem to resent an Ivy League education.
At least, they seem to in this movie. For all I know, the United States Navy might be perfectly happy to have officers that have graduated from an Ivy League University. But in the movie, this resentment is an expression of anti-intellectualism, which despises men like Willie, on account of his education, and Tom, on account of his ability to write a novel. They are regarded as elitists who think they are smarter than their superior officers, giving them the right to disobey bad orders.
In the novel, while Greenwald says he is a Jew, and that it was men like Queeg that kept his mother from being melted down into a bar of soap. This is ironic, since a lot of German soldiers were tried as war criminals precisely because they did obey orders. Anyway, this is a non sequitur. Queeg’s service prior to the Caine has nothing to do with whether he had become mentally unbalanced.
But Greenwald continues. It turns out that everything would have been all right if everyone had been nice to Queeg. But they didn’t all rally round when Queeg gave that speech about the need for understanding and family feeling after he ordered the ship to abandon the marines during the invasion. That’s what drove him over the edge. They were mean to him. Then Greenwald throws some champagne, which is yellow, in Tom’s face, saying he is the bad guy, because he was the trouble-maker who instigated the whole thing.
Because Greenwald speaks with an authoritative voice, and because he gets the last word on this matter, then according to movie logic, that means he is right. But there’s just one problem with that. We saw what happened on the Caine, and Queeg was nutty as a fruitcake. But a fruitcake is one thing, and a fishcake is something else. I’m not swallowing what this movie has served up.
The movie ends with a copout regarding Willie and May too. After the trial, he calls her, and for some reason not given, she now agrees to marry him. He says they will get married first, and tell his mother afterwards. Why wait until afterwards? Is he still afraid of his mother? In any event, we never get to hear the conversation in which Willie tells his mother he has married a nightclub singer. And so, for all that talk about how the marriage will not work because his mother will never approve, we are supposed to forget about that. I guess the idea is that if a man has the courage to participate in a mutiny, he should have the courage to stand up to his mother, even if the movie did not have the courage to show him doing so.
If a man is a genius, a certain amount of unlikable personality traits will be tolerated. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, is often portrayed as austere and aloof. While he is not rude to others, he can be insensitive. In The Sign of the Four, Dr. John Watson, fed up with Holmes’ superior manner, decides to put him to the test, handing him his watch, sure that Holmes will not be able to glean anything from it. After Holmes deduces that Watson inherited the watch from his elder brother, who had inherited it from their father, he shrugs off the fact that there is not much to work with, concluding:
“He was a man of untidy habits,—very untidy and careless. He was left with good prospects, but he threw away his chances, lived for some time in poverty with occasional short intervals of prosperity, and finally, taking to drink, he died. That is all I can gather.”
Watson is taken aback by this unfeeling description of his brother. Holmes apologizes:
“My dear doctor,” said he, kindly, “pray accept my apologies. Viewing the matter as an abstract problem, I had forgotten how personal and painful a thing it might be to you….”
The apology Holmes offers shows that he is not completely without feeling. It’s just that when engaged in a problem requiring the concentration of his intellect, he can sometimes be oblivious to the feelings of others. In fairness, however, Holmes never gets his feelings hurt by the remarks of others, so the possibility of hurting others sometimes has to be brought to his attention. This is one of the shortcomings of the Golden Rule. Doing unto others as you would have others do unto you can lead to just such a situation, where you hurt someone’s feelings because your own feelings would not have been hurt had you been in his place.
It makes sense, furthermore, that Holmes is celibate. In real life, geniuses fall in love, just like everyone else. But in creating this character, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew that Holmes’ intellect, in order to be regarded as preternatural, must be such as to exclude all tender feeling. The only woman that ever really impressed Holmes was Irene Adler in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and that was only because she proved to be his equal in one of his cases. At the end of The Sign of the Four, Watson tells Holmes he is going to marry Miss Morstan. Holmes explains why he has a dim view the matter:
But love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment.”
The eponymous character in the television show House (2004-2012) is essentially a Sherlock Holmes character in the medical field. He cares nothing about the patients he treats as human beings, but only as the embodiment of medical problems that may challenge his intellect.
Cultural changes, however, required a couple of modifications. Holmes used cocaine to relieve his boredom, which was fine for when The Sign of the Four was written, inasmuch as this drug was more acceptable in the late nineteenth century than it is now. Today, we typically dislike characters in a movie that snort cocaine, although Scarface (1983) is an exception. But even the title character of that movie had to die in the end. The use of opioids, on the other hand, is more likely to elicit our sympathy than our disgust. Therefore, House is addicted to Vicodin.
A second change concerns sex. We could readily believe that Holmes was celibate in the nineteenth century, but such abstinence is not acceptable today, where the audience will insist on a character’s sexuality whether it is depicted or not. Therefore, the next best thing to celibacy for House is his employment of prostitutes, with whom he wants no conversation, just physical sex. But it has the same effect as celibacy for Holmes, where having a superior intellect seems to come at the cost of being unable, or unwilling, to love someone.
One reason we like stories with such characters is that we vicariously enjoy their arrogance, since we ourselves often chafe at having to be so darn humble and polite. In The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger) is a genius who does not suffer fools gladly, but we suffer him gladly because he is so brilliant. His foil is Captain Frank Towns (Jimmy Stewart). Stewart’s screen persona is that of a man with common sense. As a rule, when Stewart gives a speech in a movie, he’s right. So, it comes as something of a shock in this movie when, following one of those common-sense pronouncements for which Stewart is famous, Dorfmann, just barely able to keep his exasperation in check, has to explain to Towns that he is wrong. This happens again and again. At the end of the movie, Towns is finally allowed to redeem himself, where his experience as a pilot completes Dorfmann’s expertise in the principles of flight. As for Dorfmann, as he attempts to build a smaller airplane out in the desert out of the parts of the original plane that crashed, he regards people as merely objects that may be of practical value in his project or a hindrance to it. At one point, he shows some kindness to one of the passengers who has become weak, so he is redeemed in that regard, at least to that small extent.
The theme common to these stories would seem to be that having a superior intellect precludes the possibility of also being kind, compassionate, and lovable. From a strictly logical point of view, there would seem to be no reason for intelligence and a pleasant disposition to be mutually exclusive, that if you have the one, you cannot have the other. Surely there are geniuses that are kind and loving, just as there are simpletons that are mean and cruel. But as a practical matter, the one does often seem to come at the expense of the other. It may be that a superior intellect has a natural tendency to make someone arrogant, impatient with the dimwitted fools with whom he must deal.
In any event, there are novels and movies that complement the ones above, in which someone with a mental defect of some sort is more compassionate and lovable than ordinary people, as if an impairment of the intellect is conducive to a pleasant disposition. In Regarding Henry (1991), the title character (Harrison Ford) is a partner in a law firm. When the movie opens, we see snow falling hard in front of a courthouse in New York City, and it looks really cold, cold as the heart of this protagonist. He is in a courtroom defending a hospital that is being sued for malpractice. In summing up for the jury, he talks about feelings, about sympathy and understanding, about human nature. But, he concludes, almost reluctantly, that the plaintiff is the one that is really at fault, not the hospital. Back at the office, after having won the case, he mocks the defendant, belying all those fine phrases he uttered in the courtroom. (We later find out the hospital was at fault.) In general, Henry is arrogant, ruthless, and demanding, as unpleasant at home as he is at work. Then he gets shot in the head during a holdup, and after a little therapy, becomes a really sweet, loving family man who realizes that when he was a lawyer, he did things that were immoral.
This is not realistic. My guess is that if brain damage caused a personality change, it would more likely be for the worse. The story of Phineas P. Gage leaps to the mind. In the nineteenth century, Gage was a railroad construction foreman. An accidental explosion drove a tamping rod through his head, taking out a fair amount of brain matter in doing so. Somehow, he survived. But whereas he was likable before the accident, he became irritable and difficult to get along with afterwards. Therefore, a more likely outcome would be that a man like Henry would still be the same obnoxious person he was before, only worse, for now he would be even less inhibited in his ill treatment of others. He would never again be able to fake sincerity when summing up before a jury. But stranger things have happened, so I suppose the combination of a bullet in the head and lack of oxygen could destroy the part of the brain that makes a man a jerk.
Our ability to suspend disbelief is not helped by the fact that the matter of their finances is never really addressed. Henry’s daughter Rachel asks her mother Sarah (Annette Bening) if they are going to be poor, for which Sarah has no good answer. The advice she gets from a friend is not to tell anyone about the dire nature of their finances, but to go out with some friends and spend lots of money, as if keeping up appearances is the solution to Sarah’s problems. That strikes me as a formula for disaster. Sarah does have a job, they do find a less expensive place to live, and they eventually pull Rachel out of a private school, although the movie would have us believe that it is for emotional reasons rather than financial ones. In short, we do not have enough specifics to draw any definite conclusions about their finances, but I would have expected more drastic cutbacks in expenditures than that. And it would seem that Sarah will need new friends, a little lower down in the socio-economic scale. So, when Henry resigns from his law firm, the sense of financial doom is still hanging over them, even if the movie appears to be in denial about that. The point is that our credulity is already strained by the premise that an obnoxious man would be transformed by brain damage into a wonderful person. But a functioning brain is necessary for paying the bills, and the additional unreality of their financial situation pushes our ability to suspend disbelief just a bit too far. The story is unworthy of its moral, which is that the heart is more important than the head.
Another movie in which brain damage of a sort paves the way for a pleasant personality is A Chump at Oxford (1939). Through plot complications that need not be detailed here, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy end up enrolled at Oxford, where they are harassed by other students that are hazing them. Stanley is recognized by their valet as Lord Paddington, the greatest scholar and athlete the university ever had. However, the valet goes on to say, one day a window fell on Paddington’s head, causing him to lose his memory and wander away. Stanley and Ollie dismiss the story as impossible.
While trying to cope with the other students, Stanley sticks his head out the window, the same one as before. It falls and hits him in the head, returning his memory, intellect, and athletic ability. He makes short work of the bothersome students.
Eventually, Stanley, now Lord Paddington, condescends to let Ollie be his valet, though he verbally abuses him, and so much so that Ollie is ready to quit. But as fate would have it, Paddington looks out the window again. It falls on him, thereby returning him to the lovable Stanley. Ollie is delighted to have him back, even though it would likely not be long before there will be another fine mess that Stanley gets Ollie into.
This is a simple story about the head and the heart, in which the latter is more important. Better to have Stanley, who is dull-witted but good natured, than to have Lord Paddington, who is superior in intellect, but is rude and arrogant, even if damage to the brain is necessary to bring it about.
Another movie that champions the heart over the head is Harvey (1950). James Stewart plays Elwood P. Dowd, who claims to have an invisible giant rabbit named Harvey as a companion, for which reason his sister tries to have him committed to an insane asylum. In addition to appearing to be crazy, Elwood comes across as simpleminded. However, he is always nice to people. Once again, we have the connection between a mental defect of some sort as a condition for a pleasant disposition. We get the sense that Elwood has not always been like this. At one point, while talking to the head of the insane asylum, he says:
Years ago, my mother used to say to me…, “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh, so smart or oh, so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.
There is a drug that can be administered to people with Elwood’s problem, Formula 977. However, according to the cab driver, while it will cure Elwood of his madness, making him a normal human being again, he will no longer be the nice, polite person he is now, but will become irritable and rude, just like everyone else.
Once again, the idea seems to be that intelligence precludes a pleasant disposition, that the more you have of the one, the less you have of the other. The title character of Forest Gump (1994) also exemplifies this principle, for he is a really nice guy, but slow-witted.
One of my favorite words on this question of the head and the heart comes at the end of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Unlike the movie versions of this novel, which end optimistically, holding out the hope that the Time Traveller, upon returning to the future, will be able to rebuild civilization with the aid of three books he takes back with him; the novel itself is pessimistic, holding a low regard for the accomplishments of human intelligence. After the Time Traveller has left once again, never to return, the author reflects on the story he has just been told, dispelling the folly of optimism, of the belief in progress:
He, I know—for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made—thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilisation only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end. If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so. But to me the future is still black and blank—is a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of his story. And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers—shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle—to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.
These stories where a loss of intelligence results in kindness and compassion should not be construed as saying that the former must be destroyed in order that the latter may flourish. That simply would not be true. Rather, the loss of intellect is a dramatic device by which we can see which of the two is more important. Perhaps it was Arthur Schopenhauer who said it best in The World as Will and Representation (translated by E.F.J. Payne):
Brilliant qualities of the mind earn admiration, not affection; that is reserved for moral qualities, qualities of character. Everyone will much rather choose as his friend the honest, the kind-hearted, and even the complaisant, easy-going person who readily concurs, than one who is merely witty or clever…. The known goodness of a character makes us patient and accommodating to weaknesses of understanding as well as to the obtuseness and childishness of old age…. For just as torches and fireworks become pale and insignificant in the presence of the sun, so intellect, even genius, and beauty likewise, are outshone and eclipsed by goodness of heart. Where such goodness appears in a high degree, it can compensate for the lack of those qualities to such an extent that we are ashamed of having regretted their absence. Even the most limited understanding and grotesque ugliness, whenever extraordinary goodness of heart has proclaimed itself as their accompaniment, become transfigured, as it were, enwrapped in rays of a beauty of a more exalted kind, since now a wisdom speaks out of them in whose presence all other wisdom must be reduced to silence.
The Music Man is a musical about a traveling salesman, “Professor” Harold Hill (Robert Preston), who is also a con artist. According to his nemesis, Charlie Cowell, an anvil salesman, Hill’s latest swindle is to sell small towns on the idea of a boys’ band. After collecting money for the musical instruments and for the uniforms, he leaves without fulfilling his promise to teach the boys how to play because he doesn’t know one note from another. In so doing, he ruins things for legitimate salesmen like Cowell, who get chased out of town by citizens ready to literally tar and feather them and run them out on a rail.
But, Cowell goes on to say, just as the train that he and other salesmen are on crosses the state line, Hill wouldn’t have the nerve to try to pull that stuff in Iowa on account of the surly, no-nonsense people that Hawkeyes are known be. Unbeknownst to him, Hill is also on the train, and he cannot resist the challenge, so he disembarks before Cowell and the other salesmen can put their hands on him.
Hill’s first encounters with the citizens of River City make it clear to him that this will be a tough sell, so he needs to create a problem that he can then promise to alleviate by means of a boys’ band. When he hears that a pool table is being added to the billiard parlor, he creates a distinction between billiards, which improves the mind and builds character, and pool, which encourages sloth and introduces young men to the ways of sin. A boys’ band, he promises the townsfolk, will keep their sons away from the pool table.
Hill learns that a big obstacle to his plan will be the town librarian, a maiden who gives piano lessons, wears glasses, and will see right through him. Hill realizes he will have to make love to her to keep her from spoiling his plans, which he will be more than happy to do when he finds out how beautiful she is. Said librarian is Marian (Shirley Jones), the only person in town of any appreciable intellect. She has somewhat scandalized the town because it is falsely rumored she had an affair with “Old Miser Madison,” an unappreciated philanthropist, who gave the town their library, but who left the books to Marian for their safekeeping. Many of these books are regarded as being of a salacious nature, though we recognize them as classics.
Marian lives with her mother and her brother, Winthrop (Ron Howard), who is unhappy and withdrawn because he has a lisp. Her mother is exasperated with Marian’s high standards regarding men, which may result in Marian’s becoming an old maid. Marian, on the other hand, simply wants a man who will love her and not merely be interested in possessing her sexually.
Marian finds proof in a reference book that Hill is a fraud just as the musical instruments arrive in town. She is about to expose him, but then she sees how happy Winthrop is, and how he is no longer afraid to express himself on account of his lisp. She tears the incriminating page out of the book and keeps it to herself. Moreover, she realizes that everyone in town has become happier on account of Hill’s presence, leading her to start falling in love with him.
Hill and Marian make up a sexually dangerous couple, dangerous in the sense that we fear that he will take advantage of her. As Cowell says to Marian later in the movie, “That guy’s got a different girl in every county in Illinois, and he’s taken it away from every one of them.” The pronoun “it” in that sentence has no antecedent, but we may assume it to be their virginity. Hill and Marian stand in contrast to a sexually safe couple, Tommy and Zaneeta. Zaneeta is the daughter of Mayor Shinn (Paul Ford), who doesn’t want his daughter having anything to do with the likes of Tommy. But we know that there is no danger that Tommy would seduce Zaneeta and then abandon her. Instead, we figure they will end up happily married.
Hill’s only instruction to the boys with their new instruments is what he calls the “think system.” He tells them to think Beethoven’s Minuet in G. Eventually, the uniforms arrive, money is collected, and it is time for him to abscond, but not before collecting what he calls his “commission,” which involves some dalliance with Marian. He gets her to meet him at the footbridge, a rendezvous for young lovers, a bridge where young girls cross over to the other side, as it were. They start kissing. But then he finds out that she knows he is a fraud, yet she doesn’t care, owing to the happiness he has brought her and others. She pulls the incriminating page out of her bosom and hands it to him, saying, “I give it to you with all my heart.” Soon after, they learn that Cowell has informed the townsfolk that they have been bamboozled. As a result, they are now looking for Hill to tar and feather him. Marian tries to get him to run, assuring him that she understands and that it is all right.
I believe we are supposed to use our imagination here. It would be no big deal for a traveling salesman to kiss a woman a couple of times and then leave town. In other words, it was not merely the page kept in her bosom that Marian gave to Hill, but herself as well. Only when understood in that way is her telling Hill it is all right for him to leave her of any significance. Furthermore, the way the scene is filmed is also suggestive of this interpretation. As Hill and Marian kiss while standing on the middle of the footbridge, and it is a kiss of sensual longing, we see their reflection in the stream below. Something drops onto the stream, distorting the image to the point that it is just a blur. This is reminiscent of the fireplace trope, in which the camera pans away from the kissing couple and focuses on the fire, allowing us to imagine that they are having sex. When the image becomes clear again, their expressions have changed, and they seem to be in the afterglow of sex, as reality slowly begins to set in once more. Now aware of the cool night air, she asks Hill to walk her home so she can put something on to keep her warm.
The fact that Marian let Hill “kiss” her while knowing he is a fraud causes him to fall in love with her, which in turn keeps him from leaving town before the mob can get to him. The townsfolk are about to tar and feather him, but they think better of it when they slowly realize, as Marian has, that Hill has brought them a lot of happiness. Still, he did cheat them out of the money paid for musical instruments and uniforms.
But then the boys’ band appears in their cheap uniforms. They manage to play a rather sad version of the Minuet in G. One by one, however, the parents of the boys get excited by the fact that their sons are actually playing in a band. In their imagination, the boys become accomplished musicians outfitted in brilliantly colored uniforms, led in a parade by Hill, arm in arm with Marian.
At this point we might note that it is not only the dreams of the people of River City that come true regarding the boys’ band, but the dream that Hill has had as well, for earlier in the movie we see him fantasizing about actually being a band leader, and then feeling disappointed that he is not.
What exactly is this movie telling us? That by being the victim of a fraud we can find happiness? There is no question but that people sometimes think they have found happiness while they are being swindled, only to be brought to grief when later they discover they have been lied to. The misery they experience then makes a mockery of their false happiness, which they would have been far better off without. Winthrop’s tears when he finds out the truth are a gesture in that direction, but Marian is able to persuade him and everyone else that they are better off for what Hill has done.
Or is this movie telling us that as long as we realize we are being victimized, that makes it all right? Finally, if both the con artist and his mark have the same wish, which is that the promises of the con man actually be fulfilled, will that make those promises come true? Is that the key to happiness?
Perhaps my saying that the movie is “telling us” something is inapt. Rather, we might better ask ourselves why this story appeals to us. Why do we enjoy the fantasy that by succumbing to a fraud we can find love and happiness? The movie could not successfully tell us this or anything else were we not already receptive to it.
While I was mulling this over, I kept getting the feeling that the movie reminded me of something. Finally, The Rainmaker (1956) popped into my head. It has the same formula, so let’s review it first, before trying to understand the message that these two movies have in common. The con artist in this movie is Bill Starbuck (Burt Lancaster). His thing is to get farmers to give him money to make it rain. But just as Harold Hill could not read a note of music, Starbuck has never been able to make it rain. Hill had to manufacture a problem to be solved, the morally corrupting influence of pool, whereas the problem in The Rainmaker is real, a drought.
Corresponding to Marian is Lizzie (Katherine Hepburn), a woman who is in danger of becoming a spinster. According to her father and two brothers, she is too intelligent for her own good, which was pretty much the same attitude Marian’s mother had toward Marian. The idea is that a man doesn’t like it when he meets a woman that is smarter than he is. That’s probably true. I don’t know what I’d do if it ever happened to me. In any event, in addition to being a major reason for still being unmarried, the intelligence of these two women is essential for our believing that they knowingly allow themselves to be taken in by the con.
Lizzie’s older brother Noah (Lloyd Bridges) corresponds to Charlie Cowell. He is the one who knows Starbuck is a swindler and is the one most against him. Her younger brother Jim (Earl Holliman) believes Starbuck can make it rain, and he even helps out by beating a drum. He and his sweetheart, Snookie Maguire, constitute the sexually safe couple corresponding to Tommy and Zaneeta in The Music Man, as opposed to the sexually dangerous couple, Lizzie and Starbuck.
Starbuck gets Lizzie’s father to pay him to make it rain, while allowing him to sleep in the barn for the time being. While Starbuck works his gizmos, Lizzie’s father and brothers try to get Deputy File (Wendell Corey) to come to dinner, but he cynically says he does not want to get married. Lizzie is humiliated when she finds out, and in her frustration turns to Starbuck. Like Marian, she knows Starbuck is a fraud, but he makes her happy by seducing her.
In the end, Lizzie’s father and Jim realize that Noah was right, that Starbuck is a fraud, but because of the happiness he brought Lizzie, they do not want to press charges, and even Noah goes along with that in the end. Starbuck gives them their money back and leaves. But no sooner does he get about a mile out of town than it starts to rain. Just as the boys’ band is actually able to put on a great performance at the end of The Music Man after the townsfolk are willing to let Hill go, so too does it start to rain in this movie after Lizzie’s family is willing to let Starbuck go. Just as Hill wished he actually were a band leader, so too has Starbuck wished all along that he could actually make it rain. Filled with jubilation, he returns, collects the money, and asks Lizzie to come with him. At the same time, Deputy File realizes he loves Lizzie and asks her to stay. She accepts, realizing that Starbuck was just for a night, not for a lifetime. This is, perhaps, the main difference between the two movies: Hill and Marian are together at the end of The Music Man; Starbuck and Lizzie are not together at the end of The Rainmaker.
Now let us try to answer the question raised previously: What are these two movies trying to tell us? That we should allow ourselves to be victims of a fraud because it will make us happy? That when we know the swindler for what he is, and when he knows that we know, his flim-flam will be transformed into reality, and his dishonorable intentions will turn into true love? This cannot be the message of these two movies because it is all too obvious that it just isn’t so.
Furthermore, if that were the message, the sexually safe couples in these two movies would serve no function. Both movies were made before the sexual revolution, a time in which couples were supposed to wait until they got married before having sex. Furthermore, both movies were set at an earlier period than when they were made, 1912 for The Music Man and in the 1930s for The Rainmaker, in which we may imagine that the prohibition against fornication, especially for women, was even stronger. In The Music Man, the safe couple in question are so innocent that it would never occur to us that they would actually have sex, but in The Rainmaker, the required sexual restraint is made explicit when Jim tells how he almost had sex with Snookie, but then stopped because he realized that would be wrong. Therefore, we are supposed to regard what happens with the dangerous couples as being exceptional and not behavior that should be emulated. And Lizzie’s subsequent rejection of Starbuck’s offer for her to come with him in favor of staying put and marrying Deputy File underscores that point.
Though we pay scant attention to the subplot of the sexually safe couples in these two movies, yet they allow us to indulge the fantasy of giving in to a seduction, first in the form of the sexually dangerous couple, and then in the form of the promises of a swindler in general, by reassuring us that prudence and the moral order still prevail. Unleavened by the sexually safe couples, these stories might have been taken to suggest that we abandon all reason and live in fool’s paradise. This we would be unable to go along with, and the fantasy would be spoiled.
I saw Carousel (1956) about thirty years ago, and I was surprised to see that it sentimentalized wife beating and child abuse. Recently, I discovered that Carousel was actually a softened version of the original play Liliom, first seen in Hungary in 1909. From what I have been able to gather, it was a failure, but this play was nothing if not resilient: it kept being staged, made into several movies, adapted for radio, turned into the musical Carousel, first on stage and then the movie, made into a ballet, produced for television in different countries, and still thrives to this day.
To try to get a better understanding of the appeal of this story, I decided to watch the 1930 version in which the title character was played by Charles Farrell. The movie begins with a prologue, which reads:
This play is the love story of Julie, a serving-maid, and Liliom, a merry-go-round barker. Liliom gropes and struggles through life and death, and even beyond death, ever seeking escape from himself, while Julie’s love for him endures always.
That is to say, Liliom is a tormented soul. It’s a good thing the movie included this prologue, because without it, we would think that Liliom was just a louse and a layabout without ever realizing his existential significance. At several points in the movie, he refers to himself as an “artist,” probably because artists are often depicted in film as having tormented souls. And it is good we are informed of that too, because we sure don’t see him painting any pictures.
As we go through the movie, we find out at various points that Liliom has beaten at least one woman in his past, is a gigolo, seduces women with promises of marriage, only to take their money and abandon them later, and doesn’t like to work, so he lies around sleeping it off while he and Julie are supported by her aunt. But all these faults are supposed to be just part of Liliom’s charm, whose good looks make him a romantic figure.
Julie’s friend Marie has a suitor named Wolf, and they eventually get married. We are supposed to think of Wolf in a negative light, as someone who is funny-looking and a bit stodgy. And there is a carpenter that is in love with Julie. Every week he comes by and asks her out, and every week she says no. At the end of the movie, eleven years later, he is still coming by once a week, and Julie is still saying no. Admittedly, a man would have to be pretty pathetic to do that. But that’s the point. The idea is that being married to either of these two men would be a boring, dreary business. You see, they do not have Liliom’s charm (if you can call it that) or good looks.
When Liliom and Julie first meet, he loses his job, because the owner of the carousel is jealous, and Julie loses her job, because she deliberately stays out late. That’s why they end up living with her aunt. Julie has a pretty face, and that’s about it. She never really wants to do anything, and she never has much to say. She just sits there and waits for Liliom to seduce her and get her pregnant. The carpenter doesn’t know how lucky he is.
When Liliom realizes that Julie is pregnant, he decides he needs money. But he doesn’t want to work for a living, so he and his friend decide to rob a man carrying a huge payroll. But the man turns out to be too much for them, and rather be arrested by the police, Liliom stabs himself and dies.
Like so many movies that portray the afterlife, modern technology is involved, much in the way Satan used cannons in Milton’s Paradise Lost. In this case, it is trains. I guess trains were a big deal in the early twentieth century when the play was written. And as is usual, we never see God, only some administrator, in this case the Chief Magistrate. For reasons that make no sense whatever, an exception is made in Liliom’s case about returning to Earth for a second chance. Perhaps it’s because he is charming (if you can call it that) and good looking. But first, he will spend ten years in Hell, and then he will be allowed to go back to Earth to try to do something good, to make up for hitting Julie when they argued.
When the ten years is up, he goes down to Earth. He talks to his daughter. When she refuses to cooperate in his effort to make amends, he slaps her. Liliom finds himself back on the train that takes people to Heaven or Hell, and presumably it’s the latter for him. Liliom says he failed, but the Chief Magistrate says he did not. They listen in on Julie and his daughter, who agree that sometimes a slap feels like a kiss, that even if a man “beats you and beats you and beats you,” it doesn’t hurt a bit. The Chief Magistrate says that Julie’s forgiving, undying love for Liliom is touching, even mysterious.
Presumably, this movie and the play it was based on were made at a time in which women were so dependent on men economically that they often had to endure the misery of a bad marriage rather than try to make it on their own, especially with children depending on them. That is, movies like this tried to make women feel better about the way their husbands beat them and the children, to help them believe that deep down these men really loved them, and so that made it all right.
But those days are long gone. Women have options today, and there is no longer any need to romanticize wife beating and child abuse as expressions of love. And yet, this story remains popular. It beats me.
The Ledge is a good example of what happens when a story is made to fit the Procrustean bed of a preconceived philosophical dilemma. Actually, make that a preconceived sophomoric philosophical dilemma. The result is that characters in this movie find themselves in situations that would never really happen, and even if they did, they do things that no one would ever do, and even if someone was dumb enough to do these things, we wouldn’t care, because no one cares what happens to people that stupid.
The movie has two plots, and the principal characters of each intersect on the ledge of a skyscraper, where one man, Gavin, is about to jump, and another man, Hollis, is a detective trying to talk him out of it. The movie begins with the Hollis-plot. Hollis goes to a fertility clinic to donate some sperm, whereupon he finds out that he is sterile owing to a genetic defect, and has been so all his life. This means that the two children his wife had were not his. As we find out through subsequent scenes interspersed with the Gavin-plot, Hollis and his wife were wondering why they could not have children. So, they went to a fertility clinic to be tested. His wife Angela went by herself to get the results, at which point she found out that Hollis was sterile.
Get ready for some unbelievable stupidity. First, Angela did not tell Hollis, because she was afraid she would lose him. In other words, we are to believe that she thought that once he found out that he was sterile, he would no longer love her. All I can say is that any man who would stop loving his wife because he found out that he was sterile is a husband worth being rid of. But the whole thing is preposterous. Couples go to fertility clinics all the time, and when one of them turns out to be infertile, they have all sorts of choices available to them, such as adoption, surrogate mothers, or in vitro fertilization, but divorce is not usually one of them.
Second, if you can get past that, here is another stupidity. Angela decided to have children anyway, and to make sure they looked like Hollis, she decided that Hollis’s brother should be the father. So, she had Hollis’s brother go to the fertility clinic to be tested to see if he has the same genetic defect, right? And when it turned out that he was fertile, she had him donate sperm so that she could be artificially inseminated, right? Wrong! She had an adulterous affair with Hollis’s brother until she got pregnant. And that worked out so well that when she was ready to have a second child, she started having sex with him again.
All right, let’s move on to the Gavin-plot. Gavin hires Shana at the hotel he manages. She and her husband Joe just happen to live on the same floor of a nearby apartment. Joe is a Christian fundamentalist to an absurd degree, whereas Gavin is an atheist. Joe finds out that Gavin and Shana are having an affair. He calls Gavin on the phone and tells him that either Gavin or Shana must die for having committed adultery. If Gavin does not jump off the ledge of the skyscraper by noon, Joe will shoot Shana. Joe says he has the courage to die for his beliefs. This test will determine whether Gavin has the courage to die for his beliefs. Actually, if he jumps, Gavin will not be dying for his beliefs, but to save the life of the woman he loves. But by this point, the whole idea is so dumb that we don’t really care. Anyway, at noon Gavin leaps to his death, and that is so dumb we don’t really care either. After all, any normal person would have simply called the police and told them what the situation was.
There is a subplot about Gavin’s roommate Chris. Gavin took pity on Chris and let him move in with him when he lost his job on account of being HIV positive. Chris has a lover whom he wishes to marry, but the rabbi won’t perform the ceremony. Therefore, religion, be it Christianity or Judaism, is shown to be bad. Atheism, on the other hand, is shown to be good. There is a ludicrous scene where a maid in the hotel finds out her father died and becomes hysterical, and Gavin gets down on his knees and pretends to pray to God to save her father. That is so we will think him magnanimous. And when Gavin leaps to his death to save the woman he loves, knowing there is no afterlife, that is supposed to prove just how noble he is.
To an atheist like me, you might think that The Ledge would be refreshing, considering all the movies that have portrayed atheists in a bad light. But the movie was too lopsided and simplistic to be of any value, either intellectually or aesthetically.
After it is all over, Hollis goes home, intent on reconciling with his wife and accepting her children as his. Angela wants to say grace, but Hollis says, “No, not tonight.” The idea is that he’s had all the religion he can stand for one day. However, they will presumably say grace in the future. As to whether they will be having Hollis’s brother over for dinner any time soon, I cannot say.
Sometimes the remake of a movie is set in the year in which it is made, which requires an updating of the story, as when the 1932 version of Scarface was remade in 1983. But it is an entirely different matter when the remake has the same setting as the original, and yet the story has been significantly altered. In that case, the change must be largely attributed to the change in attitude toward the events of that time and place. This is the case with The Quiet American. The matter is further complicated when the remake is truer to the novel than was the original. And cutting across all this is the fact that the novel, written by Graham Greene, who was English, was not well-received here in America, owing to its negative portrayal of the title character.
The 1958 version of this novel is set in Vietnam in the early 1950s, when it was still a French colony, and when it was the French who were fighting the communists. Thomas Fowler (Michael Redgrave) is a middle-aged British journalist stationed in Saigon. His lives with Phuong, a much younger Vietnamese woman. Fowler doesn’t believe in anything. He has no political affiliation, he doesn’t care which side wins the ongoing war, and he doesn’t believe in God.
When the movie opens, he is brought to a police station and interrogated by Inspector Vigot regarding a young man who is referred to in the movie only as an “American,” sometimes as the “young American,” and, of course, sometimes as the “quiet American” (Audie Murphy). Even at a restaurant where everyone is being introduced, he remains unnamed. He is an idealist. He speaks of the Third Force, in addition to the French and the communists. It represents the idea of the Vietnamese deciding for themselves how they want to live.
When Fowler, Phuong, and the American first meet, they go to a restaurant where men entering without a lady must accept a dinner-and-dancing companion supplied by the restaurant. The American doesn’t want to have such a companion, whom he regards as a prostitute. It is explained to him that these women are not prostitutes. In fact, Phuong used to be work at the restaurant as a companion when Fowler first met her. When the American asks what happens to these young women when they are too old for the job of companion, he is told that they end up being prostitutes.
Because prostitution is a kind of doom hanging over young women who do not marry, the fact that Phuong is only Fowler’s mistress means that she may eventually be back where she was, or worse. Fowler cannot marry her, because he is already married. He is separated from his wife, whom he no longer loves, but she will not give him a divorce on account of her religion, referred to as “High Church” and “Episcopalian.” When Phuong’s sister, Miss Hei, sees Phuong and the American dancing, she sees this as a chance to get Phuong married. Inasmuch as the American has fallen in love with Phuong at first sight and, as we later find out, wants to marry her, Fowler begins to feel threatened.
The American avoids Phuong until he has a chance to tell Fowler that he loves her, so as not to be sneaky about it. He would leave her alone if they were married, but as she is only living with Fowler, he believes that makes a difference, especially since he agrees with Phuong’s sister that Phuong needs the security of marriage. As the American puts it, “We both have her interests at heart.” To this Fowler replies: “I’m fed to the teeth with your brothers-under-the-skin dribble about cellophane-wrapped security for the atomic future. I don’t care that about Phuong’s interest. You can have her interest. I want her. I want her with me. I’d rather ruin her and be with her than worry about her interest.”
In other words, the American cares about Phuong and wants what is best for her, even saying at one point that he wishes Fowler could marry her. That is, he would be willing to give her up knowing that she would be taken care of. Fowler, on the other hand, has the exact opposite attitude. His love for her, if you can call it that, is of the most selfish kind. The remark that he would be willing to ruin her is no mere hyperbole, for that is likely to be her fate if she stays with him.
This fits with the stereotype of the atheist: someone who is selfish and amoral. Also part of the stereotype of an atheist is that of being unpleasant. Fowler is churlish and rude, unlike the American, who is easygoing and forgiving. Some might argue that while this attitude toward atheists was prevalent in the late 1950s when this movie was made, this is much less so today. However, as we shall see, the remake is confirmation that this attitude still prevails.
Right after the confrontation, a cable arrives for Fowler telling him that the newspaper he works for is promoting him to foreign editor, which means he will be working in London. That, in turn, means the end of his relationship with Phuong. He does not tell her, however, intending to maintain their relationship right up until the time he has to leave her, even though, as we can figure out for ourselves, if he were to be honest with her and break off the relationship immediately, she might be able to marry the American. But, as noted above, he doesn’t care about that. In fact, he even remarks to the American that these Vietnamese people have no concept of the future, because they just live from day to day. In other words, if Phuong has no concept of the future, then Fowler doesn’t have to worry about her future either. It is a ridiculous rationalization. Furthermore, it is a demeaning, racist remark, suggesting that the Vietnamese are no better than animals in this regard. And, as if this attitude were actually worthy of the time it takes to refute it, we might note that Phuong’s sister had enough of a concept of the future to worry about what would happen to Phuong in the years to come should she fail to find a husband.
Fowler writes to his wife, telling her of his situation, and asks for a divorce. Phuong notes that he never asked his wife for a divorce before. When he tells her he will have to return to England, she offers to return with him as his mistress, but he rebuffs the offer, saying she would be uncomfortable there not being married to him. But we know that he cares nothing about her interests. He is the one who would be uncomfortable. When he finally gets a reply from his wife saying no to a divorce, he lies to Phuong, telling her his wife has agreed. He does this merely to put off the day when he will lose her.
A communist leader convinces Fowler that the plastics that the American has brought into the country are being used for explosives on the part of an independent general and his army who are not on either side, giving the expression “Third Way” an ominous meaning. Fowler never cared about the war before, but now the thought that the American is contributing to the carnage in some way changes everything. Now he becomes conveniently outraged and willingly enters into a conspiracy against him. He seems completely unaware that it is his own selfish motives that make him willing to act against the American. He sort of convinces himself that this conspiracy might not end in the American’s death, but we know that deep down he knows better. This is ironic, because earlier in the movie, the American saved his life instead of leaving him to die.
Fowler agrees to get the American to meet him for dinner at a certain time so that the communists will know when they can find him on the street. Fowler then gives the American the opportunity of not meeting him for dinner, but the American says he will be there. This allows Fowler to tell himself he gave the American his chance, and that it is all in God’s hands now.
God? That’s right. Just as Fowler conveniently started caring about all the people dying in the war when he was told that the American was involved in it, so too does this atheist now allow himself to suppose that there is a God who will intervene if that is his will: “There was no harm in giving him that one chance. But what was I hoping for? Did I, of all people, hope for some kind of miracle? A method of discussion arranged by Mr. Heng which would not be simply death. It was no longer my decision. I had handed it over to that somebody in whom I didn’t believe. You can intervene if you want to. In so many ways: a telegram on his desk; his dog can become ill; the minister can want to see him; his work, whatever it is, can take up the time.”
This is a new one. By the late 1950s, we were used to seeing atheists in the movies finally admit that there is a God after all, usually because they were in the equivalent of a foxhole, but seeing an atheist somewhat disingenuously say to himself that God can save the American if he wants, thereby absolving himself of any guilt, is not exactly the kind of capitulation that movies commonly depicted.
Anyway, God does not intervene. The communists abduct the American and kill him. Furthermore, it turns out that the communists have played on Fowler’s ignorance, getting him to confuse ordinary plastic material, which the American was bringing into the country to make noisemakers for the coming Chinese New Year, with plastic explosives, which the American has nothing to do with. And they played on his fear of losing Phuong to the American. The reason the communists kill the American is to kill the idea of a Third Force that he brought with him, the simple idea that the Vietnamese people should be able to decide how they want to live.
Inspector Vigot arrests everyone who was involved in the murder except Fowler, even though he has figured out Fowler’s complicity and his motives. He hands Fowler a cable, in which his wife says she agrees to a divorce. Elated, he rushes to the restaurant where Phuong works once more as a dinner-and-dance companion to tell her they can now get married. But she knows what he did and what kind of man he is, not anything like the American who truly loved her. She refuses to have anything to do with him, preferring instead to accept the fate that awaits the women who work at that restaurant.
Now that Fowler no longer needs to pretend to himself that God might intervene to prevent the American from being killed, his atheism returns. He says, “I wish someone existed to whom I could say I’m sorry.” Vigot offers to drive him to the cathedral, but Fowler just turns and walks away.
As noted above, Fowler’s acknowledgement that there might be a God was disingenuous and self-serving. And it was dropped as soon as it no longer served that function. In other words, this may be the first movie in which the protagonist is still an atheist at the end. There had been movies before where the atheist was still an atheist by the end of the movie, provided he was a minor character. In Angel and the Badman (1947), the doctor remains an atheist, although his dogmatic certainty has been replaced by doubt and bewilderment at what he cannot explain. And in Strange Cargo (1940), the atheist is a villain who seems headed for eternal damnation.
In short, this movie is transitional. Whereas before 1958, if the protagonist was an atheist when the movie started, he had to acknowledge the existence of God by the movie’s end. Beginning with this movie, he could merely suffer the fate previously reserved for minor characters who were atheists: beset by doubts or meeting a bad end. We are not sure if Fowler’s doubts were genuine, but he definitely is unhappy right up to the end.
The 2002 remake is set in the same place and in the same year, but it was made decades after the end of the Vietnam War that was fought by the United States, whereas the original was produced before that war started. As a result, a twenty-first century perspective naturally finds its way into the story, which is something of a paradox since the remake is more faithful to the novel than was the original. In the 2002 version, the quiet American has a name, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), as in the novel. No longer a man who just wants to help the Vietnamese find a way to govern themselves, free of the French and the communists, the quiet American is now a CIA agent, as in the novel. And his plastic material is not harmless, but is actually used to make the bombs that kill and maim innocent civilians, as in the novel. And so, the generic American who in his own small way tried to make this a better world, with whom the audience of 1958 would have wanted to identify, has become a specific kind of American, one that most of us would disown, as in the novel. In this remake, Pyle represents those other Americans, the ones that got us into a war that, in the opinion of this movie, was as immoral as he was. Once the quiet American has become the bad guy, Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) becomes the good guy by default. He is still a little on the selfish side, but in the end, he and Phuong are together and will live happily ever after, as in the novel.
But in one way, the 1958 version was more faithful to the novel than the 2002 remake. All the stuff about Fowler’s atheism was in the novel, whereas it has been completely purged from the remake. In order for Fowler to be an atheist in the 1958 version, he had to be a louse who ends up alone and miserable. But in order for the 2002 version to make Fowler the good guy and for it to end happily for him, it was necessary to omit all that stuff about his not believing in God.
In short, while a change in how we feel about American involvement in Vietnam may have been responsible for most of the differences between the two versions of the novel, there is one difference that arises from an attitude that has not changed, and that is the prejudice against atheists.
It is only natural to want nice things, and provided a man comes by them honestly, people will approve of his efforts to obtain them. (I am using the masculine gender here merely for ease of expression.) If he works hard to make more money so that he can own his own home, that is just part of the American dream. To that end, he may pursue an education in hopes of finding employment for which he will be well paid. In so doing, his socio-economic status will be enhanced, for that is largely a function of income and education level.
But getting into the upper class is another thing entirely, for achieving that depends largely on being accepted into it by those that already belong, something that is not readily forthcoming for someone trying to ascend from the lower ranks, whom the elite are likely to regard as an upstart. Nor will his efforts to rise to the upper echelons of society be met with approval by those in his own class, whom he obviously deems not good enough for his association.
Given this disapproval coming from both classes, we might expect one of two outcomes in which the protagonist in a story is a social climber: either he will be punished and come to an unhappy end, or he will learn to accept his place in the world, finding contentment thereby. More often than not, however, this proves not be the case when the protagonist is a woman. Or rather, she is punished in the middle of the movie, but ultimately rewarded, in which case social climbing is not repudiated, but rather is seen to have paid off.
Two movies that exemplify this principle are Alice Adams (1935) and Stella Dallas (1937). These movies have many things in common. For one thing, they were both made around the same time. For another, their titles refer to their respective female protagonists. Both were remakes of silent films, Alice Adams (1923) and Stella Dallas (1925). Both were based on novels written just after World War I, 1921 and 1923 respectively. But most importantly, both are thematically related in the way the women in these movies, both coming from working-class families, are motivated by a desire to become upper class by marrying into it. In each case, there is a mother who wants this for her daughter: the daughter being the protagonist in the former; the mother, in the latter.
The title character of Alice Adams, played by Katherine Hepburn, is a young woman who lives in a small town named South Renford. At first, it appears to be the strangest small town you ever saw, because everyone seems to be rich except the Adams family. Alice gets invited to dances and parties for the upper class, but she cannot afford to dress the way they do. The upper-class men never ask her out, so she has to coerce her brother Virgil to escort her. At the dance, the men prefer to dance with women of their own class, and as her brother deserts her, she is left alone and comes across as a wallflower. In other words, we never see other young women of working-class background for her to be friends with, and we never see working-class men asking her out for a date. What an odd town.
Of course, we know that this cannot be. No town is like that. In fact, there are bound to be far more working-class families than rich ones: young women of her own class to be friends with; young men of her own class to fall in love with. Now, in one sense, we do see a few people that are working class aside from those in the Adams family, miscellaneous shopkeepers and workmen for instance. And there is Virgil, who prefers working-class companions to those Alice wants to socialize with. However, all those of his class we see him with are black: we see him shooting craps with black servants, and at the dance, he greets the black bandleader, who in turn is happy to see him. It is left to us to infer, I suppose, that they know each other from a nightclub where black musicians provide entertainment for white working-class patrons, whom we never actually see. In any event, we may assume that Alice never goes to that nightclub, where she might meet people in her own class. In fact, she is mortified when Virgil says “Hi” to the bandleader.
This association between Alice’s brother and African Americans is presumably twofold. First, we do not expect Alice to socialize with black women or to date black men. So, the more we think of the working class in South Renford as being composed of African Americans, the more we are induced to forget about her having any chances of finding love and friendship within that class. Second, given the attitudes toward African Americans in 1935, the more the working class is associated with them, the more undesirable that class seems to be.
In any event, Alice is a big phony. And yet, we know we are supposed to feel sorry for her. To a certain extent we do. We all know how young people desperately want things that really do not matter, and it is painful to watch her suffer so from pretending to be something she is not, especially when we also know that she could be happy if she just let all that go. In fact, that is why we never see young women of her own class inviting her to parties or young men of her own class asking her out. If we did, and she snubbed them, we would have no sympathy for her. But by making it look as though she lives in a town where there are no opportunities for her in her own class, absurd as that is, we are more forgiving of her pretensions.
At the dance, Alice meets Arthur (Fred MacMurray), who seems to be quite taken with her, but she is just as much of a phony with him as with everyone else. It is hard to understand what he sees in her. Later in the movie, Alice invites Arthur to have dinner at her house, for which purpose Malena (Hattie McDaniel) is hired, another black representative of the working class in South Renford.
But while we are trying to overlook Alice’s affectations as the folly of youth, we discover that her mother, apparently in her fifties, is just as foolish as Alice in such matters. Instead of encouraging Alice to stay within her class, she berates her husband for not making more money so that Alice can continue to socialize with the town’s upper crust. So much for the wisdom that supposedly comes with age.
Alice’s father is recovering from a long illness. His boss, Mr. Lamb, continues to pay him a salary and holds his job open for him, and her father wants to go back to work there when he gets better. But Alice’s mother pushes him to go into business by starting a glue factory, based on a formula that actually seems to belong to his boss, inasmuch as Alice’s father discovered it on company time.
What we are hoping for is that Alice will realize how wrongheaded she has been. Instead, the movie justifies her. Virgil gets into a jam and steals $150 from Mr. Lamb, whom he also works for, probably to pay off a gambling debt to some of those black servants he was shooting craps with. In other words, we can no longer admire Virgil for being content to fraternize with those in his class, thereby making it seem right for Alice to avoid such people as unworthy.
Anyway, with Alice’s father stealing the glue formula and Alice’s brother stealing the money, Mr. Lamb shows up at the Adams house to let them have a piece of his mind. It all looks pretty grim. But Alice tells him that it is all her and her mother’s fault for pushing her father to make more money. Mr. Lamb is magnanimous, willing to let Alice’s father have his job back when he gets well, willing to give them time to pay back the $150, and willing to let Alice’s father share in the profits from the glue formula. But we should note that while Alice explains why her mother pushed her father to start a glue factory, which is so that she could have social status and be happy, she gives no indication that her desire to hobnob with rich society was an unworthy goal.
Ultimately, she has learned nothing. We had hoped that she would quit being a phony, make friends with women in her own class, and fall in love with a man who is also from a working-class background. But no. The movie rewards her vanity by having Arthur fall in love with her and want to marry her. Because he is one of the elite, and presumably has plenty of money, she will get what she always wanted, inclusion in the upper class of South Renford. Now she can be the real thing.
We see two principles at work here that make Alice’s desire to be upper class somewhat palatable: there don’t seem to be any opportunities for her in her own class, for it appears to be practically nonexistent; and through her brother’s example, her own class is portrayed as something any reasonable person would wish to get away from. Together, they allow Alice’s punishment to be mild and temporary, while bringing her love and happiness in the end.
Barbara Stanwyck plays the title character of Stella Dallas. This movie is a little more realistic in that we are aware of the fact that there are plenty of working-class folks in Stella’s town of Millhampton, Massachusetts, many of whom work in a mill, including her father and her brother. We see mill hands saying hello to Stella as they walk by, but she is indifferent in her response to them. Like Alice’s brother, Stella’s brother is content to be working class, but Stella has set her sights on Stephen Dallas. We learn from a brief glance at a newspaper clipping that Stephen was a man who came from an upper-class family. His once-millionaire father ended up penniless and committed suicide, leaving his son nothing. Stephen had hoped to marry Helen Morrison, his childhood sweetheart, but given his sudden misfortune, he simply disappeared, leaving a note saying that he was going to try to make a new life, which he apparently succeeded in doing, inasmuch as he has become the advertising manager at the mill. As a result of his disappearance, however, Helen has since married another man.
All this information is given to us in a matter of seconds, but let’s think about it for a little longer than that. By having Stephen simply disappear, the movie avoids putting Helen in a bad light. We are allowed to think that she would have married Stephen anyway. After all, with his Harvard education, he could have supported her with a decent middle-class job like the one he got at the mill. Through his action, he is basically saying that he regarded himself as being unworthy of her, which is a kind of reverse snobbery. As a result, we are not surprised that when Stella manages to get him to marry her, he will come to think of her as unworthy of him.
But that’s only after they get married. While they are just dating, Stella tells Stephen that she wants to improve herself, to do everything “well-bred and refined.” “And Dull,” Stephen replies. “Stay as you are. Don’t pretend. Anyway, it isn’t really well-bred to act the way you aren’t.” Of course, when people say, “Just be yourself,” they usually have no idea what they are encouraging. They want you to be the person they imagine you to be, not the person you really are, which you have been at great pains to conceal, and rightly so.
Anyway, when they get married, that changes everything. Stella quits trying to improve herself, and Stephen becomes embarrassed by the way her working-class background keeps surfacing. She wears costume jewelry, and she uses bad grammar—Stephen pulls a long face when she says “further” when she should have said “farther.” After she has a baby, she is not weak and bedridden the way any decent, upper-class woman would be, but rather her quick recovery is downright shameless and low class. Stephen is appalled.
The night they get back from the hospital, she discovers an invitation to go to a dance at the River Club, a club for the elite that Stella has long wanted to belong to, and she prevails upon Stephen to attend. At the dance, she meets Ed Munn (Alan Hale), a racetrack tout, popular with the upper class on account of the tips he provides them. Ed and Stella really hit it off, because he is the sort of man Stella should have married. He introduces her to some of the richest people in town.
After the dance, Stephen tells her he has been promoted to a position in New York, and that she will have to try extra hard to behave appropriately when they get there. Needless to say, that ticks her off. She tells Stephen that she wants to stay in Millhampton, now that she has finally become a part of that town’s high society. This leads to their separation, during which time she continues her friendship with Ed, which is completely innocent, but which makes Stephen suspicious and scandalizes Millhampton society. As a result, Stella’s daughter Laurel is ostracized, as when the upper-class mothers of the children invited to her birthday party suddenly send excuses for being unable to attend. Stephen becomes reacquainted with the now-widowed Helen and they start seeing each other regularly, but because they do so with decorum and refinement, no one in New York holds that against them.
Of course, if Laurel were to make working-class friends, there wouldn’t be a problem, although Stella would undoubtedly discourage that. In any event, we are not supposed to think about that, just as we were not supposed to think about the opportunities for love and friendship in the working-class milieu for Alice Adams. Because Laurel’s social opportunities in Millhampton have supposedly been foreclosed, once we suppress all thought of her opportunities among the working class, Laurel ends up spending a lot of time with her father in New York. In so doing, she acquires the polish her mother lacks. And she makes a lot of upper-class friends. Meanwhile, Stella has become so garish and loud in manner and dress that she is a parody of a floozy, and Ed has become a drunken slob, the result, apparently, of his unrequited love for Stella. In other words, we are presented with a picture of the working class that is so tawdry and repulsive that no one born into it could reasonably be expected to be content to remain there.
Both principles that worked to justify Alice’s desire to be admitted into the upper class are at work here too, only they apply to Stella’s daughter: social opportunities among the working class appear to be nonexistent, and being working class is depicted as so awful that we cringe at the idea of Laurel being trapped in it.
Stella finally realizes what upper-class people really think of her. She gives Stephen a divorce so he can marry Helen, and so that Laurel can live with them and have all the advantages of an upper-class life. Laurel remains faithful to her mother, but Stella pretends to reject her so that she will live with her father, telling Laurel that she and Ed are going to get married and live in South America, and that she doesn’t want to be bothered with her anymore. Eventually, Laurel marries a rich young man, as Stella watches outside in the rain, after which she walks away, knowing that they will live happily ever after, because it is on account of her sacrifice that her daughter will now be upper class. It is this sacrifice on the part of a mother for her daughter that is the central idea of Stella Dallas, but that sacrifice makes sense only if being a member of the upper class is such a wonderful thing that it justifies the estrangement of mother and daughter, who will never see each other again.
The moral of these two movies, then, is that if you are a working-class woman and you try to become a member of the upper class, people will spot you as a phony, and you will be humiliated. But if you persevere and manage to pull it off by marrying up, it will bring love and happiness, as it does to Alice directly, with the connivance of her mother, and to Stella vicariously, through her daughter Laurel.
But don’t try this if you are a man. Men that are social climbers, especially those that marry up, are seldom vouchsafed such happy endings. In From the Terrace (1960), Paul Newman’s character marries up, but he then comes to realize that there are more important things in life than being upper class, allowing him to find happiness by marrying for love. The title character of Barry Lyndon (1975), however, never renounces his social-climbing ambitions, and for him things end badly. But Lyndon is only miserable. In A Place in the Sun (1951), Montgomery Clift’s character tries to marry up and gets the death penalty.
If Slumdog Millionaire were generally disliked, I would never bother to write a review about such a ridiculous movie. But as it was praised by critics, won many awards, including the Academy Awards Best Picture, and was incredibly successful at the box office, I find myself stunned. Sure, I could dismiss the whole thing as being a matter of taste, about which there can be no dispute, but that still leaves me wondering, “Why is my taste so different from everyone else?”
Let us sort out a few of the elements. First, I do not know what India is really like in general, but that which is presented to us in this movie is horrible. Overall, my life has been pretty good, living in middle-class America and being in good health, but if there were such a thing as reincarnation, and if I were given a chance to come back in a new life, I think I would pass, preferring oblivion instead. In the movies, people always comes back in good health as white, middle-class Americans, but I would be afraid that I would end up in some country like Syria, suffering the ravages of war, or some famine-stricken or plague-ridden country in Africa, or end up as an untouchable in Calcutta, scrounging around for my breakfast in a garbage dump. In other words, if the India in this movie were typical of existence on this planet in general, then I would never want to be reborn. This is especially so when one considers that most of the suffering in this movie is not the result of war, famine, or plague, but of cruelty. Nevertheless, the tone of this movie is, beyond all reason, life-affirming.
Second, the movie centers around a quiz show, the equivalent of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? I have never cared for quiz shows. I have never bought a lottery ticket. And, in general, I have never dreamed of getting rich in one big, lucky stroke. I suspect that the people who buy lottery tickets and watch game shows are probably the same people that loved this movie. In other words, Slumdog Millionaire plays into the fantasy shared by so many that no matter how bad things may be, there is always the hope, taken very seriously by such people, that one day they may hit it big. Never having indulged in such a fantasy, however, this movie was simply not believable to me, not even qua fantasy.
With quiz shows like Jeopardy! the successful contestants are those with prodigious memories for facts, figures, names, dates, and places. But the quiz show Jamal participates in is multiple choice, which means that, as Jamal himself notes at one point, you don’t have to be a genius to answer those questions. In fact, pure luck might get you by. Most of the time he is able to answer the question correctly because some horrible thing was going on in his life at the moment he happened upon the information that allows him to answer the question, such as his seeing a statue of a god just after his mother got her brains bashed in. But if he is asked a question for which there was no corresponding traumatic event in his life, he is in trouble. So, when he is asked about India’s emblem, whether it says that it is truth, lies, fashion, or money that triumphs, he has not the slightest idea what the answer to that question could possibly be. The policeman who is torturing him into confessing that he is cheating says that his five-year-old daughter could answer that question. Quite right, because nothing more than common sense is needed. In fact, Jamal does seem to be something of a mouth-breather.
But this plays right into the above-mentioned fantasy. Most of us know we could never win at Jeopardy!, but since we could do even better than Jamal at that point, we can easily imagine winning such a game show, especially if we are lucky enough to be asked questions about trivia that happens to come to our attention when something awful happens to us like jumping into a cesspool of human dung.
The final question is the name of the third musketeer in the novel by Dumas. We all know the answer to that question, especially when prompted by the multiple-choice format, so now we can really fantasize about how we might win such a contest. He does not know the answer, but that’s all right, because he just guesses that it is Aramis. Why is he so lucky at this point? Because Latika was Jamal and his brother’s “third musketeer.” How could he lose?
On the night he wins the twenty million rupees, Latika is freed from the gangster who has been beating her and raping her for years, so now Jamal and Latika can live happily ever after on his millions. And so, as the musical finale takes place, as uplifting as the ending of The Music Man or Grease, my only thought was that they are going to get married and start having babies, oblivious to nightmare world that has characterized their lives up to that point.
The only way this movie makes any sense to me is if the whole thing is Jamal’s hallucination while being tortured in a police station for stealing a bicycle.
In the movie Philadelphia, Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is a lawyer with a prestigious law firm. In the opening scene, he successfully defends a client against what he calls a “nuisance suit,” as “an example of rapacious litigation.” And so, if you did not know anything about this movie beforehand, you would correctly suspect that before the show is over, he will be bringing suit against someone himself. And when he does, the lawyer whom he accused of bringing a frivolous lawsuit against his client, ambulance chaser Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), ends up being his attorney. In particular, the partners of the law firm he worked for say that they fired Beckett for incompetence, but Beckett claims they fired him because he had AIDS, which he concealed from the partners in addition to concealing the fact that he was gay. Beckett explains during the trial that he decided not to tell the partners he was gay when he heard them telling crude jokes about homosexuals. Those who produced this movie made sure that the jokes were not funny, lest we get confused and start sympathizing with the partners. Actually, the movie never makes it clear exactly what happened regarding Beckett’s firing. Beckett believes that someone figured out he had AIDS and sabotaged his work in order to justify dismissing him for incompetence, but we never find out for sure.
This movie is contemporaneously set in the early 1990s. It was a transitional period. During the 1980s, when AIDS was first identified, there was no treatment. I remember seeing a lot of people whose bodies were ravaged by that disease. The sight of them filled one with pity and dread (we see examples of such at the clinic where Beckett goes to have his blood monitored). The dread was especially acute, because at the time, no one knew how contagious it was or what the vectors of transmission were. Was it airborne? Could it be transmitted by mosquitoes? We knew that blood and semen could transmit the disease, but we also wondered about saliva and sweat. By the 1990s, however, research had pretty much established that AIDS was caused by HIV and that blood transfusions, dirty needles used by drug addicts, and unprotected sex, especially between two men, were the primary methods of transmission. Today, we seldom hear the word AIDS. Instead, we speak mostly of HIV, because treatment has advanced to the point that we no longer see those pitiful victims that looked like the walking dead.
And so, the aversion to touching or being around AIDS victims, a perfectly rational fear in the early 1980s, came to be regarded as manifestations of ignorance and bigotry by the 1990s. If someone was known to have AIDS, it became almost obligatory to hug him, as a way of demonstrating that one was enlightened on the subject. And so, throughout this movie, we see Beckett being hugged on numerous occasions, more than you would normally see in a movie. And we see other people trying to put distance between themselves and Beckett, whom we are supposed to regard as wrongheaded, if not morally bankrupt.
Before taking Beckett’s case, Miller asks a doctor about AIDS. When the doctor assures him that HIV cannot be spread by casual contact, Miller is skeptical, pointing out that we are still learning new things about the disease every day. Actually, this is a good point, though the movie allows it to die with this scene. If even today someone did not want to hug someone with AIDS, just in case doctors turn out to be wrong, I would not blame him. But the movie would.
In fact, the movie is completely one-sided in this matter. Beckett is almost righteous in his disregard for people’s fears. There is a scene in a library where a librarian, realizing he has AIDS, suggests that he move to a private room to continue his research, but Beckett refuses. People in the immediate vicinity begin moving away. In another scene, when he tells his family about his plans to sue, he is holding a baby, feeding it with a bottle. The mother offers to take the baby back, and we suspect she is nervous but too polite to insist. Beckett seems oblivious to the possibility that she might be worried and continues to feed the baby.
Even if the people in the library and the mother of the baby are being foolish in their fears, that does not mean that Beckett is in the right to refuse to accommodate them. For example, my mother was a little superstitious, and she used to think it was bad luck to put money on the table. As a result, I never put money on the table in her presence, even if she was visiting me in my apartment and it was my table. Despite the fact that she was the one who was foolish and I was the one who was rational, it would have been rude of me to plop some money down on the table. By the same token, no matter how irrational people’s fears of contracting AIDS through casual contact may be, Beckett should have been sensitive to those fears and allowed people the distance they needed to feel comfortable. But this movie does not recognize any such obligation on Beckett’s part.
The issue of the case was whether the law firm illegally fired Beckett because he had AIDS or was fired because of incompetence, which would have been legal. Therefore, the question of how he contracted the disease was irrelevant. Nevertheless, we are not surprised that the question arises as to Beckett’s behavior, whether he contracted AIDS through reckless actions on his part. A woman who had once worked for the partner who first noticed Beckett’s lesion is brought on the stand to testify on the part of the plaintiff (Beckett). She had had AIDS too, but she told her employers. The point is that the partner would have realized what the lesion meant from his experience with her, in which case knowledge that Beckett had the disease by at least one of the partners would be established, a necessary condition of proving that that was the real reason for Beckett’s firing.
Under cross examination, it turns out that she contracted the disease when she was given a transfusion after giving birth. In other words, she got AIDS through no fault of her own. That the occasion was when she had a baby even associates the event with motherhood. You couldn’t want a more saintly innocent victim than that. So, we know what is coming: the old blame-the-victim strategy. Sure enough, when Beckett gets on the stand, he is asked about whether he had ever been to the Stallion Showcase Cinema, a gay pornographic movie theater where men in the audience sometimes have sex with each other. Beckett admits to having been to the theater three times in 1984 or 1985, and that he had sex with a man in the theater one time. He also admits that he knew about AIDS at the time and that his actions could have endangered Miguel Alvarez (Antonio Banderas), the man he was living with at the time and still is. The point of the defense is that Beckett is not an innocent victim, but someone who contracted the disease in rather seedy circumstances in full knowledge of the danger to himself and his lover.
Of course, the attitude of the movie is that it is wrong to blame the victim, but let us note that the movie also lacks the courage of its convictions. It establishes that Beckett was and still is in a monogamous relationship, as it were, and that he just had a moral lapse one night. In other words, the movie did not have the courage to make Beckett a man given to promiscuity, a “degenerate” who had had anonymous sex on innumerable occasions in movie theaters and restrooms for over a decade. That would really have tested us. Instead, the movie is saying that it is wrong to blame the victim, especially when the victim, while not being totally innocent like the woman who had a transfusion, is almost innocent.
After much testimony from various witnesses, the case is turned over to the jury for deliberations, if you can call it that. All we hear is one man, presumably the foreman, telling the other jurors that the case for the defense does not make sense. That’s it. No one has a dissenting view. In fact, no one else says anything, except to mumble agreement. The closest thing we get to a dissent is when the jurors are being asked one by one how they stand on the issue, and juror number ten says, “I disagree.” This is not supposed to be a jury movie, of course, like Twelve Angry Men (1957), where an Ed Begley character could express bigotry toward homosexuals or where a Lee J. Cobb character could reveal that his prejudice stemmed from the fact that his son was gay, before finally coming around to the proper verdict. But surely they could have done better than what we got in this movie. Alternatively, if time simply did not permit, it would have better to leave out the jury-deliberation scene altogether. Needless to say, the jury finds in favor of the plaintiff, as if any other verdict in this movie was remotely possible.
Midway through the trial, Miller comes over to Beckett’s place to go over the testimony Beckett will be giving on Monday. Instead, Beckett wants to talk about the opera music that he has playing. Like most people, including me, Miller does not much care for opera. Beckett explains what the opera is about and what emotions are being expressed through the singing. The intensity of his performance is bizarre. I don’t know. Maybe if you are dying from a dreadful disease, you can get a little more worked up about things than the one normally would, but it all seems to be a bit much. While his overwrought description of the aria was going on, I could not help but think of the movie Pretty Woman (1990). In that movie, Julia Roberts plays a streetwalker who ends up being the girlfriend of a corporate raider played by Richard Gere. He takes her to see an opera, presumably the first one she has ever been to, and we see her crying during a particularly moving scene. In other words, in both movies, a major character practices a form of sex that many regard as deviant and likely to spread disease. And in both movies, these characters are deeply moved by an opera, as if to say they have such great souls that they can appreciate art in its highest form with a passion that we philistines can scarcely imagine. It just wouldn’t have been the same if Beckett had been listening to N.W.A., explaining to his lawyer with great emotion, “And here is the part where he gets his sawed off shotgun and they have to haul off all the bodies.”