Sunday, November 29, 2009

Survivors Of The Blacklist, part 2

I know I said I'd have this up yesterday, but I was sidelined by a fever and all the usual pleasantness that comes with it. If you missed the first half of this post, it's over this way.

There was also a portion of the discussion set aside for questions from the audience. Before you ask, no, I didn't contribute anything -- for one thing, I was in the back of a dark corner to the side of the main theater seating with no chance of being seen, and for another, I would have been much too nervous anyway! However, I did learn a lot from the questions that were asked.

One person asked about blacklisting in the TV industry. Joe Gilford pointed out that his parents were both blacklisted from television, as were a great many others, and that TV blacklisting went on longer and was possibly even nastier than its counterpart in the film industry. Victor Navasky theorized that because television was in its infancy at this time, the effects of the blacklist and the paranoia about what could and could not be said might even be at the root of current standards of decency with regards to what can't be said or shown on TV.

Someone else asked about the aftereffects of the blacklist and whether it still, in a sense, exists today, pointing out that Elia Kazan had been given an honorary Oscar for his body of work, while John Garfield has received no such recognition. In response, Lee Grant read a moving statement from John Garfield's daughter Julie, who had originally intended to be included in the panel but was unable to make it. Julie Garfield wrote about how her father's blacklisting tore apart their lives -- CBS cancelled a deal he'd had with them, ending his career; their home phone lines were tapped; and finally, the FBI tried to make him sign an affidavit accusing his own wife of Communist ties. The harassment ended only when Garfield died of a heart attack at age 39.

The next question took the evening in an unexpected direction. The widow of Budd Schulberg was in the audience, and stood up to defend her late husband's decision to voluntarily name names before HUAC. She asked the panel to consider his rationale, as he had explained it to her, which was that he had been kicked out of the Communist party for wanting to be a writer first and a political activist second; he had also become extremely distressed at the treatment of writers in Stalin's Russia, and, she said, supported the blacklist as a means of fighting what he called the "death list" in the Soviet Union. She was obviously very emotional and seemed to have a hard time making her point, understandably as she only lost her husband a few months ago, but I have to admit that at first I thought her remarks were inappropriate, given that they were directed towards people who had to live with the consequences of the decision that her husband and so many others made to cooperate with HUAC. However, this turned out to be one of the most thought-provoking moments in a night that was riddled with them.

It wasn't the panel's answers to her question that intrigued me; they seemed to be unanimous in their disagreement, as would be expected. However, Lee Grant stopped to commend the woman for having the courage to speak her piece in a room full of people who likely held the opposite point of view, and I found that very insightful. It's so tempting, when looking at any event in history, to treat it like a classical Hollywood film; there's black and there's white, there are good guys and bad guys, and everything's wrapped up neatly at the end. Obviously nothing in real life happens this way. Yes, perhaps it's possible to look back and say who did the right thing and who did not, but isn't investigating why people made the choices they did just as important as recalling what they were? There are no heroes and villains; there are only human people reacting to the circumstances in which they find themselves, and I think those of us who have only textbooks to teach us about these pieces of history can very quickly lose sight of that fact.

I'm finishing this post about two days after I started it, and it's not officially Thanksgiving anymore. However, I'd still like to end on a note of gratitude, because as a student I feel incredibly privileged to have been able to attend this event. The opportunity to hear such a momentous event, not only in film history but in American history, discussed openly by people who lived it is a rare and very valuable one. I learned a great deal, and I sincerely appreciate the efforts put in by everyone responsible for making this event happen.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Survivors Of The Blacklist, part 1

Note: I had to cut this post into two parts, due to the sheer size of it. I think this subject warrants the length; I'll have the second half up tomorrow.

I find it appropriate that I'm writing this post an hour into Thanksgiving. Of all the things I'm grateful for this year, the most recent is the opportunity I had Tuesday night to attend Survivors Of The Blacklist: A Panel Discussion at the Theater at St. Clement's. Thanks to Kate Gabrielle, without whom I would never have known about this event, and to my Wednesday professors, who either cancelled class or were understanding about the high absence rates typical of Turkey Day Eve, I was able to make the trek to New York City and take advantage of this rare (and free!) opportunity.

The panel was presented by Kurt Peterson and Edmund Gaynes along with the Peccadillo Theater Company, as a tie-in to their current production, Zero Hour, a play about Zero Mostel's struggles with the blacklist and the House Un-American Activities Committee. After opening remarks by Congressman Jerrold Nadler, we were treated to a preview of this play, with TCM's Robert Osborne playing the voice-over role of the HUAC interrogator as playwright and actor Jim Brochu took the stage alone as Zero in a flashback scene in which Zero recalls his testimony, his refusal to name names, and the lives of friends that were destroyed by the blacklist. It was a very powerful scene, nonetheless infused with Zero's sense of comedic wit, and I would enthusiastically recommend anyone in the New York area to see the play if you can.

That led into the main event, which of course was the discussion. Robert Osborne was the moderator, and the panel consisted of Cliff Carpenter, actor; Jean Rouverol, actor and author of a book about the blacklist years; Victor Navasky, publisher, journalist, and author of a book about the blacklist; Lee Grant, actor and director; Jules Feiffer, playwright and cartoonist; Christopher Trumbo, writer and son of Dalton Trumbo; Kate Lardner, author and daughter of Ring Lardner, Jr.; and Joe Gilford, playwright and son of Jack Gilford and Madeline Lee.

One of the first questions posed by Robert Osborne was why the men who ran the studios weren't blacklisted; it was only the "talent," the actors, directors, and writers who were targeted, rather than the moguls who employed them. The simplest response that the panel gave was that those men weren't members of the Communist party. Jack Warner and others were apparently called to testify, but were quickly cleared of any possible connections. Later, when 19 people including the group who came to be known as the Unfriendly 10, or Hollywood 10, were subpoenaed, the studio higher-ups met at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and announced a new policy wherein no one who had ever been connected with the Communist party would be employed by the studios. Thus, the blacklist was born. The reason that Hollywood was specifically targeted by HUAC was because movies were such a large part of American culture, and therefore a means of swaying the American public opinion.

Robert Osborne also asked how the blacklist affected the children of the writers and actors who were suddenly ostracized. Joe Gilford brought up how proud he was of his parents for fighting what they saw as an unconstitutional act by the government; he also said that he'd envied kids who had "normal" lives, but also never really knew an alternative to a childhood under the blacklist. Because Ring Lardner and Dalton Trumbo went to jail, Kate Lardner and Christopher Trumbo's lives were more disrupted by the blacklist; both mentioned moving around as a result. Finances were often a struggle for all of them, as their parents were obviously unable to work.

Cliff Carpenter was asked specifically how the blacklist affected him, and he responded with a deadpan "Not pleasantly." This drew laughter from the audience, but the rest of his answer was a very emotional recounting of his experiences. He said that at the time, CBS had two lawyers who were in charge of blacklisting employees who had been accused of having connections to Communism. He went to them in an effort to stand up for the Bill of Rights, insisting that he had never knowingly belonged to any organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the government but that the probes being conducted by the government were unconstitutional; he was told that this was not the answer they had wanted to hear, and sent home to give the matter some thought. Later, he was told that the only way he could have his own name removed from the blacklist would be to provide the names of other people to go on it. His refusal to do so cost him his career, yet even in hindsight Carpenter remained adamant that it was the only choice he could make, and that he would do it all over again if he had to.

Jean Rouveral said that she, too, would make the same choices over again. Her husband, Hugo Butler, was more targeted by HUAC than she was, and the couple left the country for about 15 years, which the spent primarily in Mexico. They were in good company; Dalton Trumbo and his family also spent time south of the border, as did other victims of the blacklist and their families. She emphasized the sense of community among the blacklistees in Mexico, a sentiment that was echoed by much of the panel, although Kate Lardner warned against casting the time in too idealistic a light. Although those who were blacklisted tried to make the best of their situations, it was still a very dark time as people struggled to support their families while being prevented from doing the work that they loved.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Poem 8

Emlen Etting was an artist and experimental filmmaker who explored film as a medium for moving art, rather than narrative structure. Born into Philadelphia's high society, he grew up between the United States and Europe, and as a young man studied in Paris under the painter André Lhote. According to a biography written by my professor, With The Rich And Mighty by Dr. Kenneth Kaleta, Etting's education and social circle allowed him access to a variety of artists in Philadelphia and elsewhere; this background strongly influenced his films, particularly his earliest film, Poem 8.

As its title suggests, Poem 8 is an attempt to visually render the language of poetry. It accomplishes this partly by emphasizing motion. The film opens with a young woman dancing in a field, who represents poetic grace and rhythm. It then travels via train tracks to the bustling city. This is the first of several times that a method of transportation comes into play; other sequences feature travel by ship or by foot.

Once the camera leaves the woman in the field, it becomes another character with hands and feet visible inside the frame. The man through whose eyes the audience looks encounters women who are more cultured than the dancer, and whose routines more closely resemble those of the women in Etting's social class. They are not ungraceful, but the lack the fluid motion of the dancer in the field. In a more abstract sequence, Etting's hands are seen crushing a globe; I took this as representing the destruction of the world at the hands of those who have financial power but not artistic vision.

At the end of the film, we return to the woman in the field. She is dancing again, but this time she appears naked under a thin sheet that clings to her as she moves. This is the part of the film that I found most interesting, because it is reminiscent of the "wet drapery" effect seen in classical Greek and Roman sculpture. The sheet billowing around the dancer as she moves cinematically captures the fluidity of poetry, while at the same time the allusion to classical art brings to mind Etting's education as an artist. The use of four different mediums (film, dance, poetry, sculpture) in one image is very telling of Etting's long and dynamic career.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Don't you be the one to burst the bubble...

It must be true that history repeats itself, or else time-travel exists outside the realm of science fiction. How else could I see a movie from half a century ago and mistake it for a biting social commentary on today's culture?

Picture this: Ditzy blonde is determined to get her name out there, not because she's done anything to make her worth knowing about, but simply because she craves fame for fame's sake. Pretty soon her name and face are everywhere, from TV shows to product endorsements. I could easily be talking about Paris Hilton, but in fact I'm thinking about Gladys Glover, the main character in George Cukor's It Should Happen To You.

Like a lot of today's reality stars, Gladys starts from scratch to promote herself. It isn't quite as easy for her, however. In a time before YouTube and MTV, Gladys has to be a bit more resourceful, spending her life savings to get a billboard in New York City's Columbus Circle painted with her name on it. Her new boyfriend, independent filmmaker Pete Shepherd, looks on with much disdain for the whole project; for the record, I'm on his side, but the film does a good job of presenting both characters' points of view.

The billboard creates buzz around Gladys' name, resulting in appearances on television. "Man and Wife," one of the first shows Gladys scores a spot on, is what initially led me to make the comparison to reality TV, though I think the similarities extend to all of them. The shows Gladys appears on are shown to be obviously staged, but audiences were just as gullible back then as they are now, apparently.

Gladys follows the typical path of more successful flash-in-the-pan celebrities. Fresh from making the rounds on TV, she begins endorsing products left and right. Advertisers spin her as the "average American girl," although she is clearly anything but. She becomes famous for being famous, in a cycle that perpetuates itself until finally she comes to realize the emptiness of it all and concludes that it's better to be known for something on one block than to be known for nothing throughout the world. One can only hope modern society will eventually come to the same realization.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

I'm the only cause I'm interested in...

I feel a little bit redundant, writing out a blog entry on Casablanca. Of all the gin joints movies in all the towns in all the world, I feel like nearly everyone, even non-classic film fans, has seen this one. What can there possibly be left to say about it?

As it turns out, quite a lot. Watching it in class this semester was far from my first time seeing the film, but it was my first time thinking about it in the context of wartime Hollywood. This movie, in many ways, is a product of World War II.

In 1942, when Casablanca was made, Hollywood was feeling the effects of wartime rationing just as acutely as the rest of the country. Electricity was in particularly short supply. As blackouts and brownouts rolled throughout the region, directors had to be exceptionally creative. The tight restrictions on lighting resulted in the innovative use of darkness and shadows seen throughout the film. An example from early in the movie is when Rick takes money from the safe; he is off screen, and all the audience sees is his shadow on the wall reflecting the action. What light they did have available is used very carefully; for instance, it is often reflected in Ingrid Bergman's eyes, making them shine to play up her character as the vivacious beauty for whom both Rick and Victor Lazlo would sacrifice their freedom.

For all the material restrictions that came during the second World War, many existing creative restrictions began to ease. This was in large part due to the creation of the Office Of War Information, which strictly regulated any films that depicted either the homefront or the warfront. In conflicts between the Hays Office and the OWI, the OWI always won. Many previously censorable details -- Renaud accepts sexual favors in exchange for visas, there is rampant corruption among officials, Rick and Sam have an interracial friendship, and Rick and Ilsa admit to an affair, to name a few -- got by the Production Code because they served the war effort, which was seen as the greater good. The character of Rick himself can even be seen as allegorical to the U.S. involvement in the war, going from isolationism to interventionism once the stakes are high enough.

Although Casablanca is best remembered as a simple but well-crafted love story between three people, I find it even more compelling when looked at through the lens of history. The story of how the picture we all know and love came into existence is almost as interesting as the movie itself.

Friday, November 13, 2009

With the rich and mighty, always a little patience...

The Philadelphia Story is one of the few films I own on DVD, so I've seen it quite a few times. As with most good movies, though, every time I watch it I notice something new or interpret something differently. The intricate plot and array of interesting characters hold up well over repeating viewings. This was definitely the case when I watched it earlier this semester in The Movie Industry.

Though The Philadelphia Story is a comedy, it touches on some very serious themes. Questions about the nature of femininity are prevalent throughout the film. Tracy is a modern and independent woman; too independent, according to some of the men in her life. Her father, Seth Lord, outrageously blames her for his affair, claiming that if she had been a better daughter he wouldn't need to look elsewhere for a young woman's affection to make him feel young. He calls her a "goddess," stating that she wants nothing more than to be placed on a pedestal and worshipped. George, her fiancé, also misapprehends her this way, but unlike Seth he has no problem with Tracy's allegedly goddess-like persona. Tracy herself is more alarmed by the label; at one point she explains, "I don't want to be worshipped, I want to be loved." It seems only her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, is capable of seeing through her stand-offish persona to tell the difference between the two.

The other major theme of the movie is class differences. Most of the major characters -- that is, Tracy, her family, and Dexter -- were born into Philadelphia's high society, a subject that was of particular interest in my South Jersey college classroom. They are sharply contrasted with the nouveau-riche George as well as the working-class tabloid reporters, Mike and Liz.

My professor paid particular attention to the difference between the poor, who create art, and the rich, who patronize the artists. Mike is a writer; he works for the tabloid solely as a means of supporting itself, as he could not do with his fiction, but nevertheless he is paid to write in some form or another. Liz is a photographer. Both of these professions are inherently creative. The two characters who lack money are also portrayed as the only two who have artistic talent; the other characters contribute to the arts by funding that talent, not by producing any works themselves.

Of course, the film plays with class stereotypes as well, such as when Tracy calls Mike a "snob," as well as their drunken flirtation the night of Tracy's wedding, culminating in Mike's offer to marry her in George's place. In the end, however, everyone ends up with members of their own class: Tracy with Dexter, Seth with Margaret, Mike with Liz... and George off by himself, because the moral of the story is that nobody likes new money.