Sunday, June 12, 2016

If History Has Taught Us Anything....Excerpt from the Introduction to Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part II.

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 as not to send the public 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 in one movie. 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 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 publisher 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, plus later do my own books about Frank Zappa, Randy Newman, the album Trout Mask Replica and The Beatles. All the while, 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. Here is an excerpt from the book's introduction.

- Kevin Courrier.

American films in the last fifty-odd years have come to soak up the political and cultural ideals of the time in which they were made and they often reflected a turbulent quest to define a nation. From the dashed optimism of the Kennedy era through to the renewed idealism that led Barack Obama to the White House, American movies, good and bad, were tissue samples of their age. Many of these pictures – from The Manchurian Candidate (1962) to The Butler (2013) – helped create a hall of mirrors that resembled the climatic shootout in Orson Welles's The Lady From Shanghai (1947) where you had to shatter a lot of glass to see what was going on. The construction of a hall of mirrors, however, isn't usually a conscious act although sometimes there is intent. You can see a deliberate version of one in Live Free or Die Hard (2007), the fourth installment of the Die Hard action franchise starring Bruce Willis as the terrorist fighting New York cop, John McClane, when he goes up against a group of cyber-insurgents who have hacked into the government's computers. To announce their desire to start a "fire sale," they launch an attack designed to target the nation's reliance on computer controls. To convey this, they edited together a video montage made up of segments of Presidential speeches from Roosevelt to Bush to put their message across. In creating a hall of mirrors effect, where various Presidents end up unwittingly uttering threats to the nation rather than the assurances their original speeches intended, the terrorists simply pull off a clever gag. ("I tried to find more Nixon," says one key hacker with an air of disappointment.) Their distortion of history turns into an obvious stunt, and one that we can see right through. It doesn't make a rent in our consciousness. We are still assured, despite the terrorists' initial control over American cyberspace, that John McClane will come to the rescue to get control back. But there are other hall of mirrors moments that aren't assuring, or designed as stunts, and instead seem embroidered into the fabric of a narrative that creeps out of its corners to spook us.

One of those startling moments happens in a scene late in The Godfather, Part II (1974) set in Lake Tahoe during the fall of 1960. Mafia chieftain Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has finally consolidated the power he inherited from his late father, Vito (Marlon Brando), previously in The Godfather (1972). But as the leaves begin to tumble quietly from their trees in the darkened chill air, Michael discovers that he has one enemy left and he's gathered his men to discuss the strategy needed to eliminate him. "Our friend and business partner Hyman Roth is in the news," he announces to his stepbrother Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) as he hands him the day's newspaper. Roth (Lee Strasberg), loosely based on the famous Jewish gangster, Meyer Lansky, had been part of a scheme to buy into the casinos in Cuba until Fidel Castro's revolution neatly overturned their plans. But Roth had also arranged through the co-operation of Michael's older brother, Fredo (John Cazale), to have Michael killed so that he could take over the operation. Michael is now plotting his revenge. As Tom and Michael's bodyguard, Al Neri (Richard Bright), discuss Roth's vain attempts to seek shelter in Israel and Panama which lead to his ultimate arrival in Miami, the Don instructs them that he wants Roth killed when he lands. "Mike, that's impossible," Tom implores. "They'll turn him directly over to Internal Revenue, Customs and half the FBI." While biting hungrily into an orange, Michael begs to differ. "It's not impossible. Nothing's impossible," he responds. "It'll be like trying to kill the President," Hagen insists. "There's no way we can get to him." At which point, Michael turns to his adopted brother with a sense of surprise. Given the success with which corruption and murder has paved a path to power for the Corleone family, Michael can't believe Tom Hagen still thinks the institutions of American power could stop them. So Michael turns philosophical. "If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it's that you can kill anyone." The room is suddenly quiet as if the air had just been sucked out. Hagen slowly looks away while soaking up the implications of Michael's history lesson. Al Neri meanwhile picks up the thread floating in the dead air and carries on. "Difficult. Not impossible," he remarks with confidence. "Good," Michael answers with the assurance that Neri is on the same wavelength as him. Murder and the changing of the guard, for Michael Corleone, go naturally hand in hand in the pursuit of power.

Given that The Godfather, Part II was released in 1974, it would be easy to view this scene as a metaphor for Nixon and his henchmen deep in their bunker expediently working their way out of the Watergate scandal which was unfolding as the movie was being made. But most people don't read Richard Nixon into this scene even though he would resign from office the summer before The Godfather, Part II made its way into theaters at Christmas. For one thing, Nixon didn't have anyone killed. For another, Michael might as well have been talking about Julius Caesar. But what viewers hear in Michael's remarks instead – even some forty years later – is the assassination of JFK. In literal terms, of course, the association makes no sense. If Michael's comment is taking place in 1960, John Kennedy hasn't yet been elected. (Hyman Roth even tells the press at Miami's airport that he's come back to vote in the Presidential election because he couldn't get an absentee ballot.) But audiences refuse to read the movie in literal terms. They may be viewing a film made in 1974, and reacting to a scene set in 1960, but they are thinking of 1963. That's a true hall of mirrors. The bigger question, though, is why do they make this connection?

The Corleone Clan.

While the first two Godfather films are both considered the greatest American gangster films ever made, they also provide a portrait of a nation corrupted by the ambition of those who came here initially with the intention of joining it. At one time, the gangster may have been the outsider who rejected the notion of America, but in The Godfather, the gangster has become a shadow version of America. The Godfather is no longer about the gangster as the independent man of action once seen in the Prohibition era. That character stole money from a bank when he needed it, had a drink in his speakeasy when he wanted it, and killed competitors in a whim when his power was threatened. What we see in The Godfather is the family unit of the American ideal with all its attending neurosis – from sibling rivalry to paternal envy – forcing upon its children a smothering conformity rather than encouraging an instinct to rebel and providing a passport to self-hood. Yet there is more to this story, too, because many viewers of The Godfather didn't cheer the picture's dark vision of the nation it depicted. Rather they identified with the family on the screen who was corrupting it. When Pauline Kael reviewed The Godfather, Part II in the New Yorker, she remarked on the curious response to its predecessor. "The Godfather developed a romantic identification with the Corleones; [audiences] longed for a feeling of protection that Don Vito conferred on his loving family," she wrote. But she couldn't pinpoint where that romantic identification came from. (She could only say correctly that, after seeing Part II, "you'd have to have an insensitivity bordering on moral idiocy to think that the Corleones live a wonderful life, which you'd like to be a part of.") Critic David Thomson also tried to account for the appeal of the Corleones to movie audiences in his essay, "The Discreet Charm of The Godfather," from his book, Overexposures, where he described the fate of the Corleone family – and Michael in particular – as "the tragedy of a man who had become malignant trying to preserve his royal line." Seeing the films more in the era of their making, Thomson remarked that "every execution and betrayal is justified by [Michael's] Nixonian urge to keep the thing together." He identifies the audience appeal for The Godfather as a consciously designed romance by its director. "The amalgamated work is dark proof of the attractiveness of the villain in the American movie, so long as he's photographed in repose and seen to think before he destroys, and so long as sincerity persuades him to trample on principle." But that view doesn't explain why there was audience excitement generated towards Paul Muni's (or Al Pacino's later) performance as Scarface who is hardly a gangster in repose and who thinks before he destroys. James Cagney in The Public Enemy wasn't much of a thinker either. The audience identification with the Corleones instead might come from the same place they associated Michael Corleone's notion of what history teaches us: the failed idealism of the Kennedy era.

Mario Puzo's novel of The Godfather was a melodramatic potboiler, a trash bin of gossip, innuendo and tabloid headlines. But, as Kael would point out, there was a "Promethean spark" in that trash. For not only was The Godfather a shadow version of America, it was a dark mirror held up to the Kennedy mystique, a Camelot that people still pined for. But the Kennedy era wasn't an honest picture of Camelot, it was a dream held in the imagination of the public. Reality was much different. And yet, to compare families, similarities suddenly emerge. Joe Kennedy, the patriarch of the family, had made his family fortune bootlegging during Prohibition. Vito Corleone oversaw an olive oil business founded on gambling and bootlegging in the same period. Joe Kennedy had aspirations for his sons including having his eldest, Joe Jr., one day be President. But Joe was killed in a war mission flying overseas. Vito's boy, Sonny (James Caan), was killed by a rival family so that he'd never come to succeed his father. Jack Kennedy followed in line as the reluctant candidate to fulfill his father's Presidential expectations. Micheal became the reluctant son to inherit his father's power. Both stories have their Frank Sinatra figures and a place for Cuba to fit in. While the Corleones take over Vegas casinos, Kennedy ends up in one to pick up Judith Campbell Exner as his mistress – one he shares with Mafia leaders Sam Giancana and John Roselli. And if there is still any doubt about the Kennedy association in Michael's remarks in Part II, just consider how Coppola stages the murder of Hyman Roth. As Roth is flanked by two marshals on either side, Rocco Lampone (Tom Rosqui) steps into him with a snub-nosed revolver and shoots him just as Jack Ruby (who was once a mobster in Chicago) eliminated Lee Harvey Oswald on national TV.

The Kennedy clan.

The romantic idealization of the Corleones in The Godfather grew out of unresolved grief over the dashed hopes in 1963 which left in its wake more assassinations, a protracted war in Southeast Asia and a deeply divisive country. But the events of 1963 would also create ripples in a pond across the decades where each Presidential era seemed to look back to the Sixties in order to either fulfill those dreams, reject them, or make them disappear. As a result, you could turn to almost any American film and recognize the political period that spawned it. Seven Days in May (1963) exalted the values of the Kennedy presidency, just as The Manchurian Candidate foreshadowed the tragedy of Dallas. In the Heat of the Night (1966) reflected the racially troubled Johnson era as equally as the police thriller Bullitt (1968) brought out our ambivalence about Vietnam and the growing culture of violence. The subject of violence itself was articulated quite eloquently and controversially in a variety of genre films, from the Depression-era gangster picture Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to Sam Peckinpah's bloody western The Wild Bunch (1969). The Seventies' paranoia of the Nixon years, a hangover from the Sixties, gave us an anti-hero for the 'Silent Majority' with Clint Eastwood's vigilante detective in Dirty Harry (1972) as well as one for frustrated liberals in its counter-culture counterpart, Billy Jack (1971). The holistic Carter period tried to put salve on the country's wounds over the failure of Vietnam and Nixon's resignation after Watergate. That salve was applied with the homespun nostalgia of Bound for Glory (1976), which mythologized the populism of Woody Guthrie, and Coming Home (1978), which coated the Vietnam War in liberal sentimentality. But it was the groundbreaking Star Wars (1977) that took viewers back nostalgically to a presumed innocent age. Drawing on the gloried past of Hollywood movie-making, Star Wars asked Americans to forget about the demons of Vietnam and Watergate. In providing a comforting creed for seeking salvation – that is, believing in the Force – Star Wars laid the seeds for the arrival of Ronald Reagan and his Morning in America.

Star Wars (1977)

American movies in the Reagan years not only produced retrograde aspects of American life, they changed the expectations of moviegoers as well. Where the films of the Seventies consistently confronted audiences with critiques of the national trauma, the popular movies of the Reagan period were evasive and produced instead a willful form of amnesia towards the past. By the Eighties, audiences sought out the predictable rather than the surprise and shock of the new. The Vietnam War could also be miraculously won in Rambo: First Blood (1982) and Missing in Action (1984). Popular dramas like On Golden Pond (1981), An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), A Place in the Heart (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985) and Fatal Attraction (1987) asserted a more traditional morality when it came to family values and sex. Even as the Eighties still produced daring and original work, movies that honestly confronted the big sleep of Reaganism, they were barely noticed if not produced and abandoned like orphans. Brian de Palma's satirical thriller, Dressed to Kill (1981), which put us directly in touch with our sexual fears, drew hostile criticism from certain feminist groups who found it misogynistic. His political thriller Blow Out (1982), which unfolded like a time capsule that contained echoes of JFK's assassination, the Abraham Zapruder film that captured it, G. Gordon Liddy's 'dirty tricks' that helped Nixon cover up Watergate, and the tragedy of Edward Kennedy's plight at Chappaquiddick, was completely ignored.

The George H. W. Bush era, with its 'kinder, gentler' aura, ushered in movies that simply placated the Reagan period's bathos. When the first Gulf War was being fought in 1991, we kept hearing about 'smart bombs' and 'strategic hits' that minimized the violence of what was actually taking place. So it should be no surprise that Hollywood produced something like The Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), a piece of 'tech noir,' that puts forth the bogus notion that the Schwarzenegger cyborg (who was a killing machine in the first film) is now a protector of the family he originally set out to eliminate. Instead of being licensed to kill this time, he shoots off the kneecaps of his enemies, which is perhaps what's meant by 'kinder, gentler.' This kind of ginger breading can also be seen in Field of Dreams (1989), where a New Age farmer (Kevin Costner), who was once a Sixties activist, seeks to reconcile his feelings towards his conservative late father. The farmer achieves this dubious task by building a baseball diamond on his debt-ridden farm in order to bring back all the dead players from the scandal-ridden 1919 Chicago White Sox. These players, who helped throw the World Series, get to come out of exile to once again touch the green grass of the country's national game. (Who cares about how this baseball diamond will help ease the economic woes of this idealistic farmer? Who is supposed to notice that the movie never once recognizes the guilt of these ball players?) Furthermore, a black novelist (James Earl Jones) talks worshipfully about baseball being the one great constant in American life, when in reality his race was denied entrance into that great constant for close to half a century.

Field of Dreams (1989)

The idea of reconciling the counter-culture past to the conservative present didn't stop with Field of Dreams. Forrest Gump (1994), though made early in Clinton era, was a picture that took thirty of the most tumultuous years in American life and told us that it was better to be simple than to be smart. The picture rewrites the past in order to create comfort in the present. Forrest transforms the culture because of his decency rather than his guile. He's a feather who floats through history rather than a participant in it. In the terms of the picture, if you do get involved – as Elvis Presley, John Kennedy, John Lennon, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy did – you face death as a price. We pay dearly for our participation in democracy, so Forrest influences the culture more as an outsider. By staying on the periphery, he stays alive (unlike his childhood sweetheart, Jenny, who falls victim to the 'decadence' of American culture). The film makes Forrest's passivity seem noble and life affirming while it buries the contentious, painful and hopeful aspects of the previous thirty years of American life.

If the Bush era was about burying the tumult of the past, the Clinton era tried to replay the Camelot idealism of the Kennedy presidency. For instance, in a movie like Ivan Reitman's Dave (1993), Kevin Kline has two roles. At first he plays a President not unlike George Bush, but when he has a heart attack, his advisor (Frank Langella) gets a double to take his place in order to secure the government's power. This stand-in (also played by Kline) is more like Clinton. He starts to change the country, but not through direct political action. Instead he appeals to the American public's desire for decency. (He even rekindles the President's marriage by having the First Lady fall in love with him.) In the political thriller In the Line of Fire (1993), Clint Eastwood is an aging secret service agent who failed to properly protect John Kennedy in Dallas back in 1963. When an assassin (John Malkovich) threatens the life of the current President, Eastwood attempts to redeem himself by preventing another horror repeating itself. The film pits a liberal secret service agent (played by the man who once was the vigilante cop Harry Callaghan) against a renegade government assassin who is the ghost of past evil deeds. Yet we don't get any idea of what this current President stands for in order to fully understand why he's become the target of the assassin's wrath. In the Line of Fire is an apolitical political thriller, but raising the ghost of John Kennedy is an interesting touch because the Clinton era summoned the Kennedy era as if it were trying to reclaim its lost hopes. Yet where Kennedy defined that period, Clinton can only invoke nostalgia for it, just as In the Line of Fire ultimately does as well. In the Line of Fire has no political context; it simply conjures up a past without defining the present. The Clinton era may have produced movies tidily scrubbed of political relevance, but by the end of his presidency, he became personally identified with two political movies. Wag the Dog (1997) was a timely satire in which the media diverts attention from a President's sex scandal to a fictitious war. Primary Colors (1998) was based on a novel about the Clinton campaign and raised pertinent questions about how Clinton’s liberal idealism became expedient in his quest for the Presidency. Because both movies dealt with Clinton’s sex scandals, Wag the Dog and Primary Colors foreshadowed his impeachment.

Primary Colors (1998)

The George W. Bush era arrived in the wake of 9/11 after many action thrillers (such as The Siege in 1988) had seemed to anticipate the horrors of that day. The post 9/11 years, at least initially, provided curiously more nuanced action dramas of the kind that raised questions about America's role in the world (We Were Soldiers, 2002, Tears of the Sun, 2003), just as Spike Lee's The 25th Hour (2002) captured something of the aftermath of the attacks. But a culture of fear and loathing was just around the corner as the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Michael Moore's fallacious polemic Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Mel Gibson's sado-masochistic religious pageant, The Passion of the Christ (2004), seemed to zealously act out much of the polarized hysteria (from both the left and the right) in post 9/11 political discourse. The audacious satire Team America: World Police (2004), like The Manchurian Candidate, leveled both political extremes by providing a suitable mirror to all the ideological rigidity.

When Barack Obama was elected as the first black President of the United States in November 2008, it was a momentous event in American history. And it ignited a fever of idealism not felt since 1960 when John Kennedy first declared the coming of a New Frontier. At that time, JFK's inaugural address provided a promise that the country would begin to live up to its most cherished dreams – the quest for equality that lay in its founding documents. Movies like Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married (2008) seemed to reflect that pining flame with anticipation for a different spirit of discovery in the country. Those hopes have waned somewhat since. Obama's election victory, arriving after almost four decades of racial segregation, war, assassinations, government corruption and terrorism, was experienced as both euphoric and an impossibly earned reward after years of bitter struggle and loss. Given that climate, it seemed only natural to believe that the movies of the Obama era would be in large supply and perhaps be even richer in content and feeling than those in any other Presidential period before him. But those pictures just didn't materialize. And, in part, it was because Obama, the avatar of another New Frontier, couldn't be found.

If supporters have experienced his presidency since 2008 as cautious and ineffective, his enemies continue to exploit that rift by making him seem a non-entity (as Clint Eastwood did at the last Republican Convention by treating him as an empty chair), a fraud (as Donald Trump implied by demanding his birth certificate), or America's greatest threat (as the Tea Party and people on the conspiracy fringe of the right and left have claimed). In this climate, Obama emerges not as a world leader but as a trapped and inert statesman because, despite what his presidency represents, racism clearly hasn't gone away. The tragic currency of assassinations, embroidered throughout American history, has not really changed either. We're all too keenly aware of what happens to those who become lightning rods for great social change. American idealists seek community, but they also draw out the isolated loner who feels neither a need for community or to be a part of history. He chooses instead to destroy those who offer it to him. Given the danger zone Obama operates in today, he understands fully that if anything were to happen to him due to any bold move he made in public policy, the country would dissolve in violence and chaos.

White House Down (2013)

There’s no question about the mirror Roland Emmerich's White House Down (2013), about an assault on a black President by a right-wing paramilitary group staging a violent coup, held up to the state of the union. The parallels with Obama and his political crucible were unmistakable. (It could be titled Obama's Revenge.) But its allusions to the current president are all on the surface. The state of the country – even the world – is also arbitrary next to the thrill of seeing capitol buildings come crashing down while a beleaguered war hero shows a cerebral head of state what it takes to save his Presidency. The Obama of White House Down ends up a nowhere man with no distinct presence in the country that elected him. The President doesn't get to stand up for his principles and then have them vindicated by those who support him. He becomes the master in his own home only when he can master a machine gun and take out homegrown terrorists while wearing his Air Jordans.

Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors begins its story, of course, in the Kennedy era, a period now considered a landmark age of political activism when television brought the image to politics. The subsequent tragedy of Kennedy's assassination, covered extensively on television, drew a very long shadow over the country and the visual representation of it in movies. The following decades reeled as much from that moment as they would later from the deaths of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Without those pivotal events, we certainly wouldn't have witnessed such incendiary political conspiracy films as The Parallax View (1974), Winter Kills (1976), or Oliver Stone's JFK (1992), which, smartly or poorly, played upon the visual memories we had of those events. Reflections goes on to probe how, in each ensuing presidential era, American idealism became a virtual ping pong ball lobbed between liberal and conservative values – both claiming to represent the authentic vision of the country. Since American movies often echo the secret aspirations, dashed expectations and deeply divisive elements of the country, they still shape – and reflect – much of American public thinking and discourse. And, in this vast house of glass, we remain peering at the distorted reflections they continue to hold. 

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial 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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