YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

October 6, 2013

The wild ones: Brando, Pacino, romantic rebels

Brando_-_The_Wild_OneIn prior blogs, I have tried to understand the appeal of such film masterpieces as The Godfather series. This blog will go beyond what I have written previously.

[Written in late August 2013:] Speaking of angst, on the flight home I watched all of The Godfather  (175 minutes). Like zillions of others, I thought it was a powerful and well-made movie; I have done zero research on it yet, but here are some guesses ahead of my future study. First, it was obviously Coppola’s FU to the Hollywood system. The first villain, though not identified as Jewish, was vulgar (rather like Citizen Kane/Cain). His name was Woltz (sounds German, could be German-Jewish). The corruption of Hollywood stands for a society that is utterly bought and sold by criminal elements: politicians, law enforcement, newspapers, everybody that shapes public opinion or protects us from the bad guys: (more Citizen Kane). The transformation of war hero, Ivy-educated Michael from “civilian” to his father’s successor as head of the family “business” could signify that brutalization of the young that is said by many historians to have followed the Great War. Note that conflicts between gang bosses are always referred to as wars, not disputes between criminals. In the world we see depicted everybody is guilty, except for the women, who are merely hysterical when they are not putting up with spousal abuse or neglect. They are both protected from the world of men, or are contented to be Sicilian breeders and feeders. Finally, I noted the importance of neighborhood, religion, family and ethnicity to Southern Italian immigrants. The Godfather series came out during the height of the social policy transition from an emphasis on class, to an emphasis on the durability of ethnic ties over class ties. The Corleone family has not assimilated, and doesn’t care. They hew to the colorful ways of 19th and 20th century urban ethnics with their scofflaw patronage systems, or in the case of the Corleones, Sicilian peasants and the patriarchal system. In comes localism, radical historicism, and multiculturalism. In other mass media offerings, the demonic is celebrated, in dangerous neo-Romantic fashion, see https://clarespark.com/2013/03/30/philip-roth-the-following-and-identification-with-the-aggressor/.

[This was a sentence from Hunting Captain Ahab (my book on the 1920s Melville revival), quoting a progressive American Rabbi:] Lee Levinger’s “exceptional individual,” the “genius or social discoverer” was linked to the “criminal or social rebel.” Mad and tragic misfits–like stubborn, hypersensitive, primitivistic Jews regressively merged with their “alters” or “other”– refused the “tolerant” “social self.”

In a Facebook comment yesterday, I expressed my discomfort with the Godfather series, arguing that it was typical counter-cultural in its intention and result. A few howls went up, as many view the first two in the series as masterpieces of movie-making. They are surely skillfully made, but I will continue to analyze them as morally suspect, even dangerously so.

First, are they artifacts of the counter-culture (including the Left)? In the days when I was on the radio or in graduate school at UCLA, I met countless leftists, some of considerable fame and reputation. Many of them urged me to prove my bona fides by engaging in some criminal act. One street theater fellow even urged me to steal something from a wealthy art-collector’s home. Another (in academe) attempted to borrow money from me (illegal), or to engage in an action that would help a red buddy to evade taxation. Being a first child, I am very disposed to following the rules, and such approaches were anathema. I always viewed my younger sister as the rebel in the family (which she was), which is typical first child behavior on my part. I was the Apollonian, she was the Dionysian.)

I left the Left because when the chips were down, these supposed freedom fighters did not support me when I was purged as program director by a Stalinist manager (who actually forged a document to “prove” that I had been warned as Pacifica procedures directed), and then the mostly Trotskyists or anti-Stalinist leftists for whom I went out on a limb, neither anticipated my imminent firing (which I did), nor did they go beyond letter-writing to the President of the Pacifica Foundation, a prominent Berkeley radical New Leftist, who ended up upholding “at will” firings–so much for solidarity with the labor movement and its allies. In retrospect, the leftist commitments of my “friends” did not amount to much. They were perhaps primitive rebels, of the type described by communist historian Eric Hobsbawm in one of his shorter books (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_bandit).

Then, after having received the doctorate in history, I was shopping my book ms. around. Verso books solicited the book ms., one of their editors told visiting academics that my book was to be published, but when I refused to drop the chapter on Tory resistance to the rising (crypto-Jewish) Whig bourgeoisie, I was warned to look elsewhere. Again, some prominent Left friends who had been published by Verso, sympathized with my “shabby treatment” but did nothing to defend my interests in getting the book published. Bucknell UP did the same song and dance; I must tone down the politics, or else. It was the Melville descendant, Paul Metcalf, whose close friend was on the board of Kent State UP, who took interest in my work and brought the ms. to the attention of Kent State UP, who not only published it with enthusiasm, but gave me no page limit, allowed extra photos, then entered it into every conceivable book award. These were mostly women younger than I, and exceedingly supportive.

Excuse this digression: the point is that these “leftists” or “counter-culture” types mentioned while I was still on the radio or in grad school, were all talk and no action. I was being the good lefty, encouraging the labor movement, while they were protecting their air time and such power as they imagined they had.

the-godfather-part-ii-poster

Back to the appeal of The Godfather series, or for that matter, of Al Pacino in the remake of Scarface. I have written before about ritual rebellion and the primitivist gesture.  (See https://clarespark.com/2011/05/12/the-great-common-goes-to-the-white-house/, retitled “ Rappers, Primitivism, and Ritual Rebellion”). No one would argue that The Godfather series (especially the first and second installments) are not virtuoso movie-making. Some aesthetes would argue that art and propaganda are not to be intermingled. I cannot agree with that judgment. Every art work is a cultural artifact and is positioned within the larger conflicts of the time.

Who does not want respect? Who does not want the family to be cohesive and protective of each member? How many of us get such respect or loyalty, in the family or out of it? How many of us crave the safety of the imagined family? The museums are chock full of jewelry or weaponry of bygone days, and they attract that infantile part of us that loves glitter, simplicity, and “honor”—no matter how bogus, no matter how far we fall back into a re-imagined early childhood.

Movies will do that to us, whether they serve as catharsis of violent impulses, or identification with heroes or antiheroes. Primitivism is a poor substitute for concerted political action grounded in the universalist ethics embodied in the laws that civilized people make. Enjoy the barbaric yawps if you like, but don’t pretend that they are a substitute for advanced morality. Above all, take note that these gangster sons in the Coppola movies never have to suffer through individuation. They neither “kill” the father, nor forge a separate identity from the Stern Patriarch. That’s where the wild things are.

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August 22, 2013

The Godfather, Jamie Wyeth Gorgon, culture wars and rustic chivalry

Jamie Wyeth unsettles Dr. Taussig

Jamie Wyeth unsettles Dr. Taussig

I was gone for a week, and ONLY 52 viewers (outside of regulars who come to the home page) came to my last blog (https://clarespark.com/2013/08/13/victor-hugos-93-and-condorcet/), which quoted from Victor Hugo’s 93. I haven’t had numbers that low since I started the website. What was unattractive about this contrast of Terror and Mercy? Was a preference for absolute standards in morality the problem? Be warned, as a historian, I understand that morality is culture-specific, though the Enlightenment popularized the notion of universalist ethics as first advanced by the early French Revolution, and before the Reign of Terror. The Enlightenment philosophes were looking to a future where all people would live in republics and abide by the rule of law.

While gone I had three or four interesting encounters with popular and high culture.

First, the New York Times article about the controversy regarding Jamie Wyeth’s long-hidden painting of a famous female doctor. See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/18/arts/design/a-showing-for-jamie-wyeths-portrait-of-a-cardiac-pioneer.html?pagewanted=all. Helen Brooke Taussig was the subject, but when her portrait was unveiled in May 1964, male doctors/colleagues freaked out. Look at the portrait yourselves and leave comments if you care to. (Jamie Wyeth preceded by famous painters and illustrators N. C. Wyeth, grandfather, and Andrew Wyeth, father and realist painter.)

Second, I have been reading both academic and coffee table studies (written by professors here and in Germany) of the history of the movies. Before that I read a recent biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, and to leave him out of the story where dopy Jewish moguls (all by themselves) are said to have caused mass degeneracy and a misreading of history in our most popular art form, and without mentioning either Joe Kennedy, Will Hays, Joseph Breen, and the Catholic Legion of Decency, is yet another depressing episode in the cultural history we teach to our eager beaver tech-savvy children who adore images and are virtually on their own in finding out how stories and images can shape their emotions and politics. What the “history of the movies” reveals, for these liberal writers, is the inevitability of radical subjectivism, mystery, and the unknowability of even the most famous, documented lives. A running theme in many of these film histories:  McCarthyism caused brain drain in Hollywood, so the 1950s were beneath contempt, except for Vertigo (Hitchcock learned from the German refugees) and On the Waterfront (“cold war liberalism,” thumbs down on snitch Elia Kazan).

The recent film histories, obviously directed to an upper-class readership, are glitzy, often lavishly illustrated, sensitive in a superficial English major way, and hardly do justice to individual artifacts. If these English professors or culture studies specialists ever turned in such hasty plot summaries to a graduate seminar, they would possible be thrown out of school. As for film noir, blame it on the German refugees and their immersion in German Expressionism and post Great War angst, which, though partly true, does not fully explain disillusion and cultural pessimism (See https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/, retitled Film Noir, decoded.)

Speaking of angst, on the flight home I watched all of The Godfather  (175 minutes). Like zillions of others, I thought it was a powerful and well-made movie; I have done zero research on it yet, but here are some guesses ahead of my future study. First, it was obviously Coppola’s FU to the Hollywood system. The first villain, though not identified as Jewish, was vulgar (rather like Citizen Kane/Cain). His name was Woltz (sounds German, could be German-Jewish). The corruption of Hollywood stands for a society that is utterly bought and sold by criminal elements: politicians, law enforcement, newspapers, everybody that shapes public opinion or protects us from the bad guys: (more Citizen Kane). The transformation of war hero, Ivy-educated Michael from “civilian” to his father’s successor as head of the family “business” could signify that brutalization of the young that is said by many historians to have followed the Great War. Note that conflicts between gang bosses are always referred to as wars, not disputes between criminals. In the world we see depicted everybody is guilty, except for the women, who are merely hysterical when they are not putting up with spousal abuse or neglect. They are both protected from the world of men, or are contented to be Sicilian breeders and feeders. Finally, I noted the importance of neighborhood, religion, family and ethnicity to Southern Italian immigrants. The Godfather series came out during the height of the social policy transition from an emphasis on class, to an emphasis on the durability of ethnic ties over class ties. The Corleone family has not assimilated, and doesn’t care. They hew to the colorful ways of 19th and 20th century urban ethnics with their scofflaw patronage systems, or in the case of the Corleones, Sicilian peasants and the patriarchal system. In comes localism, radical historicism, and multiculturalism. In other mass media offerings, the demonic is celebrated, in dangerous neo-Romantic fashion, see https://clarespark.com/2013/03/30/philip-roth-the-following-and-identification-with-the-aggressor/.

Third, I found a copy of a documentary study and chronology of the Culture Wars, that covers the censorship of artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, and focuses primarily on events during the Reagan administration and the first years of Bush 41. The introduction that I raced through made the claim that the artist freedom jeopardized by right-wing kvetching about tax dollars going to the National Endowment for the Arts, was tied to working class benefits. It does have a useful chronology of government funding of the arts since the Kennedy administration, and it is something to look into. How “high art” that many Americans see as handmaidens to the wealthy became a matter of interest to the labor movement and other ‘slobs’ defies comprehension. Artist Richard Bolton explains away this seeming  contradiction, “It is more than passing interest that ‘populist’ conservatives, while rejecting ‘high culture’ in the name of the masses, also detest the popular culture–television, music, and film—commonly shared by these same masses. And in matters of policy, conservative activists and officials  have consistently opposed government programs that would benefit the typical worker….” (Culture Wars, ed. Richard Bolton, p.5) Bolton goes on to describe statist interventions against the market that ostensibly benefit the working class. In other words, Bolton’s ‘populist’ conservatives are hypocrites. Mapplethorpe and Serrano et al are the true populists.

But there was solidarity of a sort evident in the movie The Big Chill that I watched on my way back East. This cloying cluster of U. of Michigan graduates, ex-radicals who have gone bourgeois in their forties and feel guilty about it, is hardly worth mentioning, though it was interesting to see how major movie stars looked when much younger. The one Jewish character was something of a geek (played by Jeff Goldblum) whose attempts to fit in were ludicrous.

Give me Cavalleria Rusticana transferred to post WW2 America any day over 60s-70s nostalgia felt by successful hippies.  Or perhaps The Big Chill was a less obvious form of rustic chivalry as the Glenn Close character makes a gift of her husband (Kevin Kline) for a night to fertilize the egg of her chum (played by Mary Kay Place). After all, the story was set in the South.

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