Heroes And Villains
Finally got a chance to watch Trumbo last night. The Loved One, as usual, was responsible for the choice — it came in the mail from Netflix. She’s a sucker for “message” movies. She loves the screen version of To Kill a Mockingbird so much she went out and bought the DVD.
I mention this only to illustrate how much she digs the flick. Her library of DVDs can be archived in a shoebox with room left over for the pair of shoes that came in it.
I’m nutty for message movies as well. Problem is, most movies that carry a message today hit you so hard over the head with a hammer — a sledge hammer, for chrissakes — that by the end you’re unconscious and, therefore, unable to see and hear what in the hell ever the message was in the first place. This even though the overwhelming odds are the message for any particular contemporary movie is let’s-start-being-nicer-to-our-darker-skinned-brothers-and-sisters.
Don’t get me wrong: Trumbo carried its own hammers. Message movies by definition must. The good ones, though, use the tools gently, subtly, so much so, in fact, that you hardly even feel the clunk on your head. That was Trumbo.
It’s been a long, long time since I cried while watching a movie. I have a whole line-up of movies that squeeze the water out of me. The end shot in City Lights, the “La Marseillaise” scene in Casablanca, the part in Spartacus where Kirk Douglas as the title character rides off with Jean Simmons’ Varinia against a glorious sunset. And it’s not just that current movies fail to move me to tears. I’ve been on Sertraline (generic for Zoloft) for going on 15 years now. Zoloft and its knock-offs put the damper on a lot of things and crying is one of them. We needn’t explore all the other urges the drug suppresses, although I’m sure you can guess at least one.
Anyway, I’m weaning myself off Sertraline these days and so I was ready for a good bawl. I got one in Trumbo. Bryan Cranston as the title character is sitting at a fancy movie theater with all of Hollywood royalty surrounding him for the opening night of — coincidentally enough — Spartacus. There, big as a Hollywood blockbuster, is the line, “Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo.” The words are reflected off Trumbo’s glasses. Behind the specs, we see Trumbo himself crying.
I cried along with him.
Trumbo, see, had been working in secret for years during the Hollywood blacklist era. Hyenas like Joe McCarthy, Dick Nixon, Hedda Hopper, and John Wayne made big headlines for themselves protecting the rest of us from silly men and women who’d flirted with communism during the pre-World War II years. Only their “protection” entailed the firing and jailing of plenty of talented artists who wouldn’t play footsie with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Trumbo was one of them.
[BTW: Those Hollywood types who actively opposed the communist witch hunt formed a group called the Committee for the First Amendment. While the anti-communists featured bores like Robert Taylor, Adolph Menjou, and others, the Committee for the First Amendment boasted a membership list including the likes of Danny Kaye, John Garfield, Gene Kelly, John Huston, Ira Gershwin, Lauren Bacall, and Humphrey Bogart, cool dudes and dames all.]
Finally, after a decade or so of writing screenplays under assumed names, McCarthyism and the blacklist fell out of favor and Trumbo was able to see his byline up on the screen. It’s the second plot point in the film and signals the downward arc of the story. Cue the sobbing.
All is well so far. The end credits of the movie — Trumbo, not Spartacus — were played against historical photos of the era, including that famous pic of Nixon examining some microfilm rescued from a pumpkin.
Nixon (R) With HUAC Investigator Robert Stripling
Dick made his bones crying commie. Later, of course, he became our holy land’s most famous political villain. If Nixon did it, conventional wisdom goes, it had to be bad. Naturally, any nostalgic look back at the red-baiting, career-killing, demagogic witch hunt days must include a shot of him, conjuring up character assassinations against innocent folks.
By contrast, Nixon’s most despised enemies, the Kennedys always must be portrayed as heroes, knights of Camelot saving the nation from…, well, whatever.
Except one Kennedy put Nixon to shame as a commie hunter. One of the clan worked hand in hand for more than half a year with Joe McCarthy and his despicable hatchet man, Roy Cohn, rounding up commies, reds, pinkos, and anybody who spoke lightly of Social Security or labor unions.
That was Bobby, the most liberal Kennedy of all — at least acc’d’g to the mythology that has grown around him since his death in 1968.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. Bobby was indeed the bleedingest of hearts by the time he was killed. But he had to go through the psyche-shattering grief of losing his brother to an assassin’s bullet and a subsequent nervous breakdown to become a nice guy.
As assistant counsel to McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Bobby worked long into the night six and seven days a week, looking for reds under every bed. He was, at the time, as rabidly anti-communist as anyone, McCarthy and Nixon included. Maybe even more so.
Of course, no picture of Bobby conferring with McCarthy or Cohn ran underneath Trumbo‘s closing credits.
Bobby (L) With McCarthy
Nixon? Sure. Nixon always was the bad guy; Bobby the good. It never was otherwise.
Only it was.
Real human beings are a lot more complicated than heroes and villains.
Hell, Why Not?
July 7th Birthdays
Camillo Golgi — Italian physician and researcher, he discovered the Golgi Apparatus, a vital structure within the animal and human cell.
I mention him here as an excuse to tell this story: My old pal Eric from back in my Chi. days was one of the more eccentric characters I’ve ever known. He lived in an old dentist’s office at the corner of Chicago and Ashland avenues. He slept in the dentist’s chair. His entire wardrobe consisted of jumpsuits he’d found at Goodwill and other resale shops and several pairs of Aqua Socks. That’s all he wore, summer or winter and in between. He invented a scheme called the Freedom Mobile. The idea was he’d hire a very dark-skinned black man with long dreadlocks to drive around suburbs noted for racially profiling black and Latino drivers. Eric would follow close behind in another car. In his car, he’d have a tiny pin-hole camera attached to the dashboard so that when the black driver was pulled over, presumably only to be harassed, Eric would take photos of the incident. [Mind you, this was in the days immediately preceding the advent of cell phone cameras. So Eric really was a mad innovator.] Anyway, the black man then would call the newspapers and television stations, make a racial profiling complaint against whatever village he’d been stopped in, the village would make a settlement offer, and both Eric and the driver would then live off the proceeds for a year or so. Alright, so that’s Eric.
Eric had a beautiful, tall, blonde, willowy girlfriend named Pam. Pam was deeply in love with him but occasionally his eccentricities became too much for her to bear and she’d break up with him until, some weeks or months later, they’d fall back into each others’ arms. This went on for years until Pam moved to New Orleans, mainly, it was whispered, to put at least a thousand miles between herself and Eric.
Once, during one of their break-ups, Pam started dating a good-looking doctor. Eric told her he didn’t trust the doctor.
“Why not? she asked.
“First of all, I don’t even think he’s a doctor,” Eric said.
Lo and behold, one summer night Pam was sitting with the doctor, sipping martinis outside the Matchbox bar (which, BTW, was where I met The [Future] Loved One.) Eric came by and spied Pam and her date. He marched up to the two of them and stood there, awaiting an introduction.
“Peter,” Pam said, “this is Eric.” The two gave each other that typical guy nod indicating neither was terribly interested in initiating a deep and warm friendship.
“What do you do?” Peter asked.
“A lot of things,” Eric said. “Pam tells me you’re a doctor.”
“So, tell me this — what is a Golgi Apparatus?”
Pam choked on her martini. I tried my best to stifle my laughter (I’d been watching the exchange from the next table.)
Peter, to his credit, outed with a detailed definition of the structure, explaining where exactly it resides in the cell and what precisely its function is.
Eric listened politely and when Peter was finished, nodded as if to approve. He turned to Pam and said, simply, “Okay.”
With that he shook Peter’s hand and left.
I miss Eric.