Wednesday, March 8, 2017

What We've Got Here is Failure to Communicate...: Excerpt from The Johnson Era in Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors

Vice President Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office on November 22, 1963

Back in 1994, when I was just beginning a free-lance career, I had an idea for a book about American movies. That year, I'd seen Ivan Reitman's sentimental comedy Dave, starring Kevin Kline as a conservative President who falls into a coma and is replaced by a look-a-like (also played by Kline) so the public won't be sent into a panic. Of course, the new President is more liberal and ultimately alters the policies of the true President. To my mind, it was as if we were watching George H. Bush morph into Bill Clinton. From that comedy came the idea for Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

I wanted Reflections to examine how key American movies from the Kennedy era onward had soaked up the political and cultural ideals of the time in which they were made. By delving into the American experience from Kennedy to Clinton, I thought the book could capture, through a number of films, how the dashed hopes of the sixties were reflected back in the resurgence of liberal idealism in the Clinton nineties. After drawing up an outline, I sent the proposal off to publishers who all sent it back, saying that it would never sell. One Canadian press almost squeaked it through, but their marketing division headed them off at the pass. From there, I went on to co-write a book (with Critics at Large colleague and friend Susan Green) on the TV show, Law & Order, and later my own books about Frank ZappaRandy Newman, the album Trout Mask Replica and The Beatles. All the while, though, I kept updating Reflections, seeing my idea change in the wake of Monica Lewinsky, Clinton's impeachment, the 2000 election of Bush, 9/11, and finally the rise of Barack Obama. For the past number of years, Reflections has also been a hugely successful lecture series.The following is an excerpt from the chapter on the key films of the Lyndon Johnson years, 1963-1968.  


At the 1964 Democratic National Convention that August in Atlantic City, the nomination of President Lyndon Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey to the party ticket was merely a formality. On the last day of the event, however, former Attorney General Robert Kennedy came onstage to introduce a short film made in tribute to his late brother. While the legacy of JFK filled the Boardwalk Hall, LBJ seethed at seeing his bid for a Great Society now being eclipsed by the grief and nostalgia the country still felt towards the former president who was gunned down a year earlier in Dallas. It didn't help either that as soon as Robert Kennedy appeared on the convention stage, the delegates erupted into an uninterrupted applause. It lasted nearly twenty minutes and left the sibling of the fallen leader almost in tears. When Robert Kennedy spoke about JFK's vision of the country, he also decided to quote significantly from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: "When he shall die, take him and cut him out into the stars, and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun." In that brief moment, there was no question in LBJ's mind that the country remained "in love with night" and that he was "the garish sun." The bigger irony, though, was the positioning of John Kennedy as the dashed liberal hope of the Party, especially when it was Johnson who would live up to that liberal banner by creating legislation that upheld Medicare, civil rights, aid to the arts, public broadcasting, urban and rural development, and his War on Poverty. But there was something of an unspoken need to position Kennedy to the left, even if in his short term as president he was more of a hawk. It wasn't so much a national conspiracy that made this transformation possible as it was an unconscious need to avoid a more troubling consideration.

When Lee Harvey Oswald fired the bullets that killed JFK, he had recently returned from the Soviet Union where he had defected a few years earlier. Given that the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 almost brought the world to nuclear calamity, the idea of an American assassin who had lived in Russia and then returned home to kill the sitting president was not just a faint echo of The Manchurian Candidate, it also raised the possibility that he could be a Soviet spy. If he was an agent, the inevitability of a world war so soon after the Cuban episode was considerable. In shifting the perceptions of Kennedy in the media more to the left, it allowed Americans the belief that his murder may have emerged out America itself, out of the unconscious of the racist South, the rage of millionaire oil men, the intelligence community, the Mafia – or even Lyndon Johnson (as Oliver Stone would assert years later in his ponderously ridiculous 1991 polemic, JFK). Oswald was soon characterized as a patsy of internal sinister forces rather than a possible enemy spy on a mission. Now it's highly doubtful that Oswald was a Soviet spy – given all we know about him today – but no one then wanted to seriously contemplate that possibility given the states at risk if he was. So Kennedy was quickly lionized in death as a sainted liberal, while Johnson was perceived as the pretender to his throne. LBJ's brief tenure as president became less about his domestic dreams and more about his escalating a war in Southeast Asia that was destroying the hopes those policies promised. With the Vietnam War draining funds and morale at home, Johnson was becoming the great betrayer (especially to the Civil Rights movement who saw the dreams of the recently signed Civil Rights Act squandered). To some, he was even a modern day Macbeth satirized by playwright Barbara Garson in her 1967 work, MacBird!, where she claimed that his usurping the fallen crown of Kennedy was one of his lesser crimes. 

George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove.

The movies of the Johnson era were even less kind to the sitting president, not only because you could feel the growing violence at home in key American films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Night of the Living Dead (1968), but because you could hear Johnson's "voice" in the drawl of a number of characters who implicitly characterized his "authoritarian" persona. In Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), a popular black comedy that lampooned the fears of the Cold War by having an insane Brigadier General launch a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, you didn't see Lyndon Johnson in Peter Sellers' sitting president (who was more a spitting image of a stoic Adlai Stevenson), but instead as George C. Scott's General Buck Turgidson, a barnyard psychopath gleefully telling the president that a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union would be in America's strategic favour (even if America got its "hair mussed" with collateral damage). The manner in which audiences accepted the picture's notion of our military leaders as insane zealots leading us to Armageddon was clearly an after effect of Kennedy's assassination where the mood of the country grew considerably darker.

Just contrast Kubrick's picture with John Frankenheimer's Seven Days in May, released in February 1964, a month after Dr. Strangelove. It was about an air force general (Burt Lancaster) who organizes a military coup against the president (Fredric March) because he signed a peace treaty with the Soviet Union. But the mood of that picture, despite its rather stolid direction, was an oasis of sanity next to Dr. Strangelove. Seven Days in May dealt with the fragile state of American democracy with the certainty that there was still a Constitution that mattered, and that it would save the republic. Dr. Strangelove shrewdly played to our growing cynicism that there was no republic left to save. Death and destruction was inevitable in the Johnson era so let's just – as the title suggests – grow to love the bomb. Kubrick brought a nihilistic charge to the picture which allowed us to laugh at what we believed to be true rather than what was true. Dr. Strangelove also had an eerie relationship to the Kennedy assassination. The picture was originally scheduled to be test screened on November 22, 1963, the day of JFK's murder, but was cancelled due to the tragedy. Furthermore, certain scenes in the movie were either changed or dropped before it was rescheduled. Slim Pickens, who would happily ride the bomb to glory in the end, had a line which said, "a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff," and the location had to be changed to "Vegas." There was also a pie-fight scene that was cut because when the president gets struck in the face, Turgidson says, "Gentlemen, Our gallant young president has been struck down in his prime!" If that line had stayed in the picture the association of Turgidson with Johnson might have been even more obvious since Johnson pretty much said the same thing to Congress in a speech four days after the assassination. But it didn't matter what was cut. Audiences were already primed to perceive the new president as an authoritarian borne out of the ashes of the dream of Camelot.

Burt Lancaster and Fredric March in Seven Days in May.

When Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night was released, in the summer of 1967, it was clearly a drama spawned by the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act a year later. Based on John Ball's 1965 novel of the same name, In the Heat of the Night was a murder mystery set in Mississippi where Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a black homicide detective from Philadelphia, becomes involved in a murder investigation when he assists a racist Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) in finding the killer (after Tibbs is initially accused of the crime). Naturally, both men have to come to terms with their animosity towards each other in order to solve the case. Jewison was somewhat upset then to discover that many audience members thought they were watching a comedy, but in a sense they actually were. Despite the edgy material, and the power of having Sidney Poitier slap a white man after first being struck, the dynamic pairing of both men resembled a cartoon version of Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Johnson working together. When you watch such solemn dramatizations of King and Johnson today, such as Selma and All the Way, you can better appreciate the comic tension in Jewison's film which slyly suggests the troubled relationship between the two men. Steiger has the more flamboyant part, though, where the audience gets to see the sheriff get his comeuppance, while Poitier is too hemmed in by his integrity to be funny (except in one early scene on the phone to his boss where he tries to convince him that he's not prejudiced when he doesn't want to work with the white sheriff). It didn't seem to matter whether Johnson was from Texas and the Police Chief was from Mississippi. Filmgoers couldn't miss the lingering reflection of LBJ in Steiger's uncouth behaviour.

In the Heat of the Night with Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. 

Next to Steiger, though, Strother Martin's cornpone authoritarian in Stuart Rosenberg's Cool Hand Luke (1967) acts as if he's Norman Vincent Peale. Set in the early Fifties, Cool Hand Luke is about Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman), a rebel without much of a cause except for cutting the heads off of parking meters, which lands him in a Southern chain gang prison that's run by a stern warden known only as The Captain (Strother Martin). The Captain, who always feels that he's punishing you for your own good, pontificates at great length about self-improvement while doing the bidding of the Walking Boss (Morgan Woodward), the "man with no eyes" whose lids are always shaded by his mirrored sunglasses. The Captain may be completely baffled by the nature of Luke's crime, but he's even more bamboozled that Luke rose up the ranks in the armed service only to come out the way he went in: buck private. Although the story is set after the Second World War, there's no question that Cool Hand Luke feels more contemporary to Vietnam and the damaged soldiers who would later come staggering home. The heroes of World War Two pictures, whether they were John Wayne or Audie Murphy, always had a country to come home to. In Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman plays a hero with nowhere to go, as if the country that spawned him had disappeared a long time ago. When Luke escapes from prison on numerous occasions, it isn't as if he's heading into an America that provides purpose and sanctuary. He runs simply for the sake of sticking it to the authorities and giving strength to the spiritually beaten men he bunks with. Luke may sing a song called "Plastic Jesus" after his mother dies, but in the terms of this drama, he's supposed to be a real Jesus whose only destination is crucifixion. Newman is playing the American idealist as Christ figure, a man betrayed by his disciples who feed off of him, and who is ultimately destroyed by an authority figure who talks rule of law but only delivers punishment. "What we've got here is failure to communicate," The Captain says in the lingo of the Sixties, rather than the Fifties, after beating Luke for talking back to him. The audience can easily intuit that this line belongs to Johnson, a leader making excuses for a war the country will never win, and for a nation now horribly divided and angry. When Luke finally gets to deliver that same line back to The Captain – mockingly – before the man with no eyes guns him down, Cool Hand Luke is shown not to be about a hero who triumphs over a brutal system. It's about a disenfranchised hero whose only freedom is death because the country he was brought up in no longer is able to listen.

Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke.

Although historians today rightfully claim that Johnson's presidency was the peak of modern liberalism after FDR's New Deal era, the stain of the Vietnam War, racial unrest, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968 turned his term in office into a tragic drama. At the time, many didn't see those tragic components, but instead perceived his policies as acts of betrayal. Johnson had inherited the office from an idealized president who had been murdered and he couldn't escape the long shadow this haunting event cast. The many caricatured voices of Johnson inhabiting the roles played by George C. Scott, Rod Steiger and Strother Martin would give way in 1968, though, to a film where Johnson's voice wouldn't be heard, but the sum of his era would be. Peter Yates's police thriller, Bullitt, starred Steve McQueen as a rebel San Francisco detective Frank Bullitt (based on Inspector Dave Toschi who would later in the next decade become famous chasing the Zodiac serial killer). He's asked by a blatantly careerist DA (Robert Vaughn) to protect a witness against the Mob. When that witness is murdered due to a possible leak of his whereabouts, Bullitt goes up against the DA and his own department to find the truth. While the film is a pretty routine drama with a barely functioning plot (and is mostly remembered for its electrifying car chase up and down the steep hills of the city), Bullitt was selected in 2007 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." What may have singled out Bullitt for such significant attention was a quality found in a scene late in the film that breaks from the routine action and addresses something from both inside and outside the bounds of the story.

Riding to a crime scene in a car driven by his girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset), when there's no police vehicle available, Bullitt inadvertently draws her into the violence of what he faces daily. As they make their way back to the city, they pull off to the side of the road in a moment that stops the plot, but advances its underlying themes. Cathy asks her lover how he can face the ugliness of his work without being changed for the worst by what he sees. As if he's reflecting on his job for the first time, Bullitt calmly tells her that this is where his work takes him. But she is unsatisfied with his answer and probes further where they will be in time. "Time starts now," he tells her with an assurance that things will get better. By the time the mystery is solved and more blood is spilled, however, the final image is of Bullitt in his apartment and he's not so sure that time will be kind to them. While Cathy sleeps, he is facing himself in the mirror and looking for hopeful signs that he might not be turning into a zombie who can never come back.

Robert Vaughn and Steve McQueen in Bullitt.

Steve McQueen is the right actor for the role of Frank Bullitt since his expressions are those of a self-effacing hero whose noble acts are always guarded by a slightly pained mask of tentativeness. At the end of Bullitt, McQueen's detective hero stands for a country that's becoming inured by the daily urban violence, the body bags seen on the nightly news returning from Vietnam, and the anti-war sentiment tearing the country apart. As for becoming a zombie, Frank Bullitt would soon morph into Harry Callaghan (Clint Eastwood) in Dirty Harry, a character also based on Dave Toschi. In 1972, this rebel cop who rails against a liberal establishment is perfectly content being numb and an instrument of self-righteous indignation. As the Johnson era gave way to the uncertainty of Frank Bullitt figuring out what time will bring, Harry Callaghan ushered in an era where the only certainty was law and order – and his credo would be invoked by a government that would soon come to violate both.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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