Monday, November 30, 2009
Hollywood as History:
The View from the Left
If you're curious about the singer, she's Hazel Dickens.
MOOVIES. Mrs. CP and I saw two good movies in the exhausted aftermath of the family Thanksgiving feast, faultlessly cooked and hosted as usual by the pint-sized Irish dynamo of a wife, mother, and peacock-proud grandmother of five in this household who is already amped up for Christmas. (Thanks to all who wished us a Happy Thanksgiving. We had exactly that. And we hope all of you did, too.)
Back to the movies, though. This post is in the mode of "we sort of understand where you're coming from, BUT..." a fine holiday-ish sentiment toward lefties that still merits some skepticism on a rainy Monday after Thanksgiving weekend.
We were absorbed and moved by Matewan, an account of an early (c. 1920) milestone in the unionization of coal miners Mrs. CP confided she had always wanted to see. I agreed because Chris Cooper is one of my favorite actors, not a star but absolutely one of the heirs of the Jimmy Stewart legacy, an actor who never chews scenery but simply lets you watch him thinking. The entire movie is an exercise in one-sided manipulation of your emotions, but sometimes your sense of simple justice enables you to consent in such manipulation. I mean, don't we all agree that West Virginia coal miners were abused by the coal companies? Of course we do. So we tolerate the cartoonish characterizations of good guys and bad guys, and we -- despite our urban, suburban, or comfortable rural experience -- are quick to identify with the hard-scrabble deprivations of Americans today's Democratic oligarchy expresses routine contempt for: Bible-quoting illiterates who apply the same level of logic to economics as they do to the Creation.
Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the movie. Cooper was as subtly magnetic as he was in Sea Biscuit, the raw, unflinching cinematography was worthy of Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and the cast was not the usual panoply of too-goodlooking actors substituting for real people that undermines most socially conscious films. We had the legitimate dramatic suspense of trying to decide which character would be the obligatory sacrificial Christ figure -- the saintly union organizer, the wise beyond his years 15-year-old coal miner/preacher, or his long-suffering (also saintly) mother. The answer was dramatically inevitable and therefore emotionally satisfying, especially given that it was portended ahead of time by a dimestore plot detour that threatened for a precious 25 minutes to reduce the whole movie to a TV potboiler.
Unless that's all it was, really, the whole time. Or, more accurately, an anti-potboiler that sought to prove its seriousness by evoking without delivering on its references to more expressly 'Hollywood' movies.
The boy preacher was dangled before us throughout as an obvious candidate for innocent death who turned out to be the aged, retroactively wiser narrator -- a la The(anti)Road Warrior.
The racial subplot starring James Earl Jones offered a tantalizing To Kill a Mockingbird possibility of a black man ensnared by his own sterling ideals into a lynching situation. But there's no Gregory Peck here. Only West Virginia hicks. In this case, unemployed union hillbillies who psychically divined the truth and defused the fascist plot in the nick of time. (Which they always do, even now, except when Sarah Palin or the ABCs are involved...)
The climax was the most (anti)Hollywood of all -- a deliberate, visual allusion to the advancing, murderous deputies of Pale Rider, only -- shock and awe of contextual irony -- this isn't the movies (except that it really is), and Clint Eastwood's 'Preacher' won't be showing up to save the day. Just as God is rudely shoved to the side by Preacher Boy in his funeral oration (above) and multiple other scenes. As with its Hollywood references, this is a movie that wants to have its cake and eat it too. Christianity is good when it is an attribute of abused workers versus evil coal company capitalists. Christianity is ridiculed whenever its mercy and forgiveness are placed in the context of the short hard lives of miners whose faith continually sets them up for more exploitation by corporate pharisees. There's a scene, for example, in which the boy preacher turns a gospel parable upside down by declaring that Jesus would have changed his tune if he had only known about labor unions. Israelites under Roman rule obviously experienced none of the privations of Appalachian coal miners.
And then, with ultimate dramatic hypocrisy, the conclusion of the movie identifies the dead (fictional) Communist union organizer hero with the Christian principle of nonviolence, as if, somehow, despite the facts, the ferociously violent and racist John L. Lewis administration of the United Mine Workers Union can somehow be associated with the passive civil disobedience of Ghandi and Martin Luther King. Except that the actual Christianity part is full of shit because the capitalists will shoot you dead without a second thought.
At imdb.com, they love this movie. Read the user comments. One guy even claims to use it as a history lesson for his college students:
I use it in my US History classes
Author: Gerald O'Connor from Sacramento CA
Even with the fictionalized elements, there's not a better film about a historical event than Matewan. I've read many of the comments here, and I concur with those who find this a minor masterpiece. Not only does it tell a fascinating post-WWI story, but my students learn about the labor movement, the problems confronting immigrants, and race relations all in one package. I usually set it up with some information about the time period and location, the unique backstory about the Hatfields and McCoys, and the music...
Only problem is, the history is incorrect, even according to habitually left-leaning Wikipedia. The Matewan Massacre wasn't an assault by a coal company on coal miners. It was an assault by coal miners on coal company enforcers:
The Battle of Matewan took place on May 19, 1920 in the small coal town of Matewan, West Virginia when a contingent of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency arrived on the no. 29 morning train in order to evict families that had been living at the Stone Mountain Coal Camp just on the outskirts of town. The detectives carried out several evictions before they ate dinner at the Urias Hotel and, upon finishing, they walked to the train depot to catch the five o'clock train back to Bluefield, West Virginia. This is when Matewan Chief of Police Sid Hatfield decided that enough was enough, and intervened on behalf of the evicted families. Hatfield, was a native of the Tug River Valley and was an adamant supporter of the miners' futile attempts to organize the UMWA in the saturated southern coalfields of West Virginia. While the detectives made their way to the train depot, the were intercepted by Hatfield, who claimed to have arrest warrants from the Mingo County sheriff. Detective Albert Felts then produced his own warrant for Sid Hatfield's arrest. Upon inspection Matewan mayor Cabell Testerman claimed it was a fraudulent. Unbeknownst to the detectives, they had been surrounded by armed miners, who watched intently from the windows, doorways, and roofs of the businesses that lined Mate Street. Stories vary as to who actually fired the first shot; only unconfirmed rumors exist. Thus, on the porch of the Chambers Hardware Store, began clash that became known as the Matewan Massacre or The Battle of Matewan. The ensuing gun battle left 7 detectives and 4 townspeople dead, including Felts and Testerman. [boldface added]
The dead did not include any union organizers, saintly or otherwise. In fact, the only organizer on the scene was "Mother Jones," who appears not to have been injured in the event at all and died in her nineties, with no bullet holes to speak of.
Not saying the miners didn't have their grievances. All I'm saying is that what happened wasn't Hollywood pure. It was more like High Plains Drifter than Pale Rider. All I'm saying. What do you tell your history class when you show this kind of historical fiction? Is it like Rather's Bush memoes -- fake but accurate? I'd love to know.
Which leads me to my second movie, Cinderella Man. The first time I saw it, years ago, I didn't like it. The second, third, and fourth time I liked it more. Initially, I objected to the dominance of the thematic message, that life in the Depression was some kind of quantum superposition of proletarian solidarity and implicit adoration of FDR's aristocratic stooping to help the common man. Yeah, I liked it that Braddock was from Jersey and came back from nowhere to win the heavyweight title, but it rankled that I had never heard anything much good or bad about Max Baer and suddenly here he was, the Mike Tyson sadist of the Thirties. Also, it's almost unheard of that a heavyweight title changes hands without a knockout, and I was suspicious of Ron Howard's cinematography depicting a brutal Rocky-esque title fight without even one knockdown. On subsequent viewings I guess I was charmed by Renee Zellweger. Her performance rang true to me. I could understand a Jersey girl's love of her husband to the point that she was willing to give up a big financial payday to keep her husband alive. And I DO admire James J. Braddock. But as a man, not as a champion like Marciano or Ali. Something about the fight scenes just seems wrong.
Maybe I wouldn't have looked it up without the precedent of Matewan, but I did look it up. And what I found is... interesting. Nothing bad about Braddock. But something good about Max Baer (which kind of rings true to everyone who found his son, Max Baer, Jr., charming in the Beverly Hillbillies):
In June 1933, Baer fought and defeated (by a technical knock out) the German heavyweight Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium. Baer's trunks displayed an embroidered Star of David, which Max swore to wear in every bout thereafter. He dominated the rugged fighter from Germany into the tenth round when the referee stopped the match. Because Baer defeated Schmeling, German dictator Adolf Hitler's favorite, and because Baer had a half-Jewish father, he became popular among Jews, those who identified with Jews, and those who despised the Nazis.
So now I'm wondering. Really wondering. About several things. (Including all those scenes in the Catholic church with praying parishioners glued to the radio on Braddock's behalf...) Things that resonate all the way back even to Matewan. When the history is complicated, wouldn't a good movie encompass the complications as well as the bumper sticker propaganda that's easiest to convey? And if you're laying a claim to artistic integrity and moral purity of purpose, wouldn't you do your best not to tell an actual lie about people who are now dead and can't defend themselves when you go out of your way to defame their memory? Unless you're just making a cynical buck?
I'll close with a small quest I pursued. I tried to find YouTube of Ron Howard's version of the Braddock-Baer fight. I couldn't find much. I began to suspect he was trying NOT to tell a lie, because the footage I found and remembered was so artfully angled, partially to conceal that Russell Cowe is about 5'7" (which is why there are no level shots of the fight in the movie at all) and partially to conceal the fact that neither actor was really a prizefighter. But then I found two helpful sources on YouTube. I found footage of the actual fight, which was far duller than Ron Howard's cinematic version, verifiication that Baer spent too much time clowning and not enough time actual fighting -- early Ali? More importantly, the actual footage showed a Star of David on Baer's trunks.
Then I found, in the Cinderella Man trailer, a full body shot of 'Max Baer' advancing from his corner.
No Star of David on his trunks. Fancy that.
I give credit to Ron Howard for depicting the fact that Max Baer graciously conceded Braddock's victory after their fight. I concede that Ron Howard didn't identify Max Baer as a Jew or Jewish advocate. But I can't forgive him for committing an act of libel against someone who, in some other movie, would be a moral hero. At most, Baer was one-quarter Jewish. He stood up, long before it was cool, in exactly the right context, for a group most of the world overlooked. In payment, he is depicted in a movie meant to celebrate the myth of the New Deal as exactly the kind of monstrous killer the Nazis (and contemporary Columbia students) have made the Jews out to be.
I can't wait to hear about the professors who are using Cinderella Man to teach their marxist students about the Great Depression.
Thing is, Mrs. CP and I both, as I said, enjoyed both these movies. They bring tears to the eye. But they're not history or anything like it. They're at best a glimpse of the world the way lefties see the world. One can sympathize, one can even begin to understand, BUT...
We still need Clint Eastwood more than we need dopey pacifist utopians.
Still two kinds of people. Those with loaded guns --
and those whose ideals keep digging the hole deeper.
Just to be clear. I mean, do we have to be nervously anticipating a Ron Howard baseball movie where Hank Greenberg is the bestial villain? If so, count me out.