Asleep in Hollywood

My wife and I watched Casablanca at the movie theater in San Jose's Santana Row Wednesday night; there was a pretty good-sized crowd in the theater joining us. (We saw the revival of West Side Story at the same theater a couple of weeks ago; Homer Simpson could have counted the audience on his fingers.)

In 1992, as part of the film’s 50th anniversary, Roger Ebert, who passed away yesterday, penned a beautifully written take on Casablanca, in which he wrote, “There are greater movies. More profound movies. Movies of greater artistic vision or artistic originality or political significance. There are other titles we would put above it on our lists of the best films of all time.” Nonetheless, for Ebert,  “It is The Movie:”

Movies are, in a sense, immortal. It is likely that people will be watching "Casablanca" centuries from now (and how wonderful it would be if we could see movies from centuries ago). In another sense, however, movies are fragile. They live on long flexible strips of celluloid, which fade, and tear, and collect scratches everytime they travel through a movie projector. And sometimes films burn, or disintegrate into dust.

There’s another element about moviemaking that’s fragile as well: the culture that makes them. Casablanca was filmed in the summer of 1942, when World War II could have gone either way; the meat grinder battle of Stalingrad, which in retrospect sealed the Nazis’ fate, didn’t begin until after filming was complete.

The Hollywood culture that made Casablanca would age rather poorly and exhaust themselves in another kind of battle; in his 2009 interview with Peter Robinson, the late Andrew Breitbart chided the aging conservative executives who created the industry for handing it over to the cultural left without a fight in the late 1960s, as the book and accompanying documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls explores:

30 years prior though, in May of 1939 even before WWII had officially begun in Europe, a tough and confident Warner Brothers released Confessions of a Nazi Spy, starring WB vet and Edward G. Robinson, and “considered the first anti-Nazi film produced by a major studio,” according to Turner Classic Movies. In 1942, the studio made Casablanca.

Warner Brothers is now but one cog in a conglomerate whose TV news network looks at dictators ranging from Saddam Hussein to Fidel Castro to Kim-Jong Il, repeatedly shrugs its shoulders and says, “meh.” (When it’s not openly embracing them.) Time, the pioneering news magazine that’s now just another component of that conglomerate was founded 90 years ago with the goal (in addition to turning a profit, of course) of allowing small town Americans to better themselves by having a concise update on the week’s events. (The magazine's name was chosen by founder Henry Luce because it implied both the timeliness of its contents, and the ability to save its readers’ time.)  Since Luce’s retirement and death in the mid-1960s, his would-be successors at the magazine have consistently looked at its original core readers as The Other, this strange group of unknown readers out there somewhere in the hinterlands.

In the film Casablanca, the back story for Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine character implies that like many Americans, he was broke at the start of the Depression, took to a variety of unsavory socialist jobs afterwards, before hiding out in Casablanca and starting his saloon. With America on the eve of World War II -- significantly, there's a close-up insert shot of a credit voucher Rick signs early in the film, which is dated December 2, 1941, only a few days before Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor -- he emerges from his moral stupor to fight totalitarianism, beginning with this utterance to Sam, his faithful piano player:

Rick: If it's December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?

Sam: What? My watch stopped.

Rick: I'd bet they're asleep in New York. I'd bet they're asleep all over America.

Hollywood went back to sleep long ago. Today, Robert Redford, who at the peak of his career, had the matinee idol box office clout of Humphrey Bogart, and is still capable of having his pet projects green-lit and funded, is making films in praise of a very different wartime American than Bogie’s Rick. The same theater in San Jose that showed Casablanca this week, will be showing Redford's pro-Weathermen The Company You Keep beginning the end of this coming week. I'm glad there's a week and a half space between the two films; too close would risk cultural whiplash.

At Commentary, Jonathan S. Tobin explores “Robert Redford’s War on History.” As we mentioned over the weekend, in its review of The Company You Keep, Time magazine -- again, a very different incarnation of Time than its pro-American founder created 90 years ago -- praised Redford’s film by noting that “The Company You Keep is streaked with melancholy: a disappointment that the second American Revolution never came…” While Tobin doesn’t quote that line directly, he has a spot-on response:

The notion that America was on the verge of a revolution in the late ’60s and early ’70s was the sort of patently absurd idea that only intellectuals and those so choked with hatred for their country could buy. It led inevitably to violence and murder and, like the rest of the far left’s ideas that seemingly died with the Berlin Wall, lives on only in the imaginations of campus radicals and the fever swamps of the far left. Although that era has been hopelessly romanticized by a country that has amnesia about everything about the time except its music, fortunately most Americans today see left-wing terrorism as ancient and deservedly forgotten history.

But not Hollywood, or at least the portion of it in which Robert Redford and his colleagues on the new film The Company You Keep which takes up the theme of a ’60s radical still on the lam 30 years after his crimes. The willingness of Redford to promote the fraudulent premise that these radicals were true patriots rather than murderous thugs cannot be excused by artistic license. Nor should it go unanswered. To claim, as he did on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program today, that the tale of the Weathermen trying to evade justice is a new version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, isn’t merely a movie absurdity. It is the worst sort of historical revisionism that ought to bring down on the former heartthrob’s head the sort of opprobrium that was once reserved for Jane Fonda.

The film is loosely based on the events of the real life 1981 Brinks robbery in Nyack, N.Y. in which a gang of radicals who had been previously involved in Weathermen bombings murdered two police officers and a security guard while stealing $1.6 million to fund their activities. Michelle Malkin’s takedown of the film is a must read, as is our John Podhoretz’s column in today’s New York Post about Kathy Boudin, the getaway driver in the Brinks case. As John writes, Boudin was eventually caught and served 22 years in jail before being sprung after some artful lies about her violent career to a credulous parole board. But after her release, she has become, like Bill Ayers, another former Weathermen who was friendly with Barack Obama before he became a presidential candidate, a petted idol of the academic world. As John writes, Columbia University’s decision to name the unrepentant killer an adjunct professor of social work is nothing less than a disgrace.

What makes Casablanca work oddly has very little to do with what is directly in front of the camera -- the film’s exteriors were shot on the Warner Brothers’ back lot; like most Golden Era Hollywood films set in exotic foreign locales, they of course bear little resemblance to the real thing. And the whole “Letters of Transit” business was a MacGuffin that simply kept the plot moving forward. According to the IMDB, they didn’t exist in Vichy-controlled French territories.

The part of the film that's real are the emotions of the crew behind the cameras, and the actors in front of them (including many of the film's supporting players, who were recent European emigres themselves. Casablanca's director was Michael Curtiz, a Hungarian Jewish emigre who arrived in the States in 1926). It's all inside, all internal. This is a film with a soul; and the idea of a soul is an increasingly antiquated one in nihilistic Hollywood.

World War II isn't immune to modern Hollywood nihilism; in 1996, Mirimax released The English Patient, starring Ralph Fiennes as a character named Laslzo, but with a very different morality -- or in this case, the lack thereof -- than Paul Henreid's morally confident Victor Laszlo. As John Nolte wrote in 2010 at Big Hollywood:

This film's appalling philosophy all comes together in the final act after Laszlo and Katharine's wicked ways come home to roost and they find themselves stranded deep in the desert. He can walk the three days out but her ankle is broken. Having to leave her behind with only a few days' supply of water and food, her mortality clock is ticking and after a series of complications back in civilization, our "hero" deliberately sells out the British -- the West -- to the Germans in order to secure the plane necessary to save Katharine. He gives the Nazis (the Nazis!) crucial maps. Afterwards, when he's informed that this act likely caused the death of thousands of Allied soldiers and civilians, Laszlo's reply is like something you would normally hear from a James Bond villain...

"Thousands of people die. They were just different people."

....except that rather than be chilled and repulsed by this response, we're supposed to put finger to chin and bask in the poetic profundity of it all.

And it gets worse.

Laszlo doesn't make it in time and Katharine's found dead but not before writing out the film's theme in her journal, this bon mot of leftist narcissism and nihilism:

“We are the real countries. Not the boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men.”

"For those of you who haven't seen 'The English Patient,' just imagine what Satan would've done with 'Casablanca,'" Nolte added.

A decade later, George Clooney starred in a curio of film called The Good German, a bad American bomb directed by Steven Soderbergh, which attempted to meld the black and white, stage-bound look of the WWII-era Hollywood movies with a contemporary leftwing worldview (to the point where Clooney plays a WWII-era correspondent from the New Republic(!), astonishingly enough.) But that loses sight of the whole point of 1940s moviemaking. The crude machine-era technology that produced them is child’s play compared with today’s world of CGI, digital cinematography, green screens and virtual sets, computer-based editing, and Dolby Surround Sound.

It’s the worldview, the attitudes of the people who made those movies that turned out to be fragile, burning into the ground or disintegrating into dust, to paraphrase Ebert’s take on Casablanca at the start of this post; a hardening of the attitudes that would later impact not just Ebert, but many of his fellow Democrats as they began to increasingly tilt left.

But does it work as a movie? Elsewhere at PJM, Rick Richman reviews Redford's new film:

The investigating reporter discovers a secret beyond Redford’s identity, and the characters suggest that the highest form of journalism hides what it finds for the right people. When Redford played Bob Woodward there was a different message: fitting, as these days Woodward is persona non grata on the Left.

Times change, presidents change, and apparently media integrity must adjust accordingly.

Which brings us back to Robert Redford’s own career arc -- and Ebert's as well, come to think of it.