“They were the two most divinely usual people in the history of movies,” Miss Croce writes—that divinely being one of her very rare false notes. Their dancing, she says, “had none of the excesses, nothing of the sweet tooth of its period.” Precisely. Their style was so personal that it was clearly a work of art; but it was also a style that played at not being a style at all, and thus became a continuing myth of ease and natural grace. Their dances, as Miss Croce says, were their love scenes, and they made no declarations other than those. They danced out a dream that was both tough and tender, they created a world in which talent and skill were all the eloquence you needed. As Miss Croce reminds us, when Fred falls for Ginger by looking at a flip-book of her dancing, he has not just fallen in love with a girl, he has fallen in love with a girl who dances like that.
By implication, then, Arlene Croce shows us how individual talents and public longings can meet up in a myth, and how movies can matter to us. But to get beyond implication, we need some kind of hypothesis about the relation between the movies and the public longings they incorporate, some sense of the social function of movie mythologies.
Pauline Kael gives us a clue when she writes that a star is created when a starring role provides “a realistic base for contradictory elements.” Welles as Charles Foster Kane incarnates the contradictions spelled out by Herman Mankiewicz. But there is more than this. Citizen Kane is about contradiction itself, defining Kane as an American only to define an American as a creature of conflicting impulses, perpetually at liberty because no one knows what to make of him, ultimately ruined because he himself can’t pull those opposing urges together.
“It’s become a very clear picture,” Mankiewicz wrote in a speech that didn’t survive into the final film. “He was the most honest man who ever lived, with a streak of crookedness a yard wide. He was a liberal and a reactionary. He was a loving husband—and both his wives left him. He had a gift for friendship such as few men have—and he broke his oldest friend’s heart like you’d throw away a cigarette you were through with….” In the film Kane is described as a communist by some, as a fascist by others. A title card then tells us that Kane himself thinks he is only one thing: an American. Kane is accused of having his newspapers attack companies in which he himself holds large amounts of stock. He admits this, says Kane is a scoundrel who should be boycotted, and offers a thousand dollars in support of such a boycott. On the other hand, as the publisher of a newspaper, it is his duty, he says, to protect the people of the city from “money-mad pirates”—like Kane in his alternative avatar.
In one of the movie’s most famous sequences, Kane comes across his old friend Leland asleep across his hostile notice of the opera début of Kane’s protégée. Kane finishes the notice in accord with Leland’s obvious intentions, then fires Leland for writing a bad notice. We can see this as a triumph for Kane’s tolerance, or as merely an attempt to buy Leland off, to convince him, as Leland himself puts it, that he is an honest man. We have to recognize a certain amount of charm and generosity in the gesture in any case, since Welles plays it that way. But there is childishness beneath it all, a belief that truth and integrity will be upheld if you support both sides of everything, that radical contradictions can be lived with as long as you let both competing teams run free. If Kane ceased to inhabit these contradictions, he would cease, in the movie’s terms, to be an American. Kane, the movie suggests, is not merely a man like the rest of us (Americans are not merely people like the rest of us), who often want to have our cake and eat it. Having his cake and eating it is a passion and a neurosis with Kane; it is his life.
The greatness of the movie, it seems to me, lies in its failure to focus this theme as well as it tries to, in its failure to present us with a coherent view of Kane. Kane, like his model Hearst, was too horrible to be admired and too attractive to be rejected, a genuine, full-scale, mythological American, a mass of self-love and self-hatred, of benevolence and barbarism. Kane is so baffling to us because we are baffled by our own attitudes toward him, and while the movie is orderly enough to let us see the man, it is also disorderly enough to be true to our bafflement, faithful to our puzzled, foiled understanding of his life. In the light of all this, of the film’s splendid, disquieting lack of an angle on Kane, the neatness of the Rosebud ending, the finally discovered suggestion that all Kane really needed was motherly love, strikes me as a wonderfully sharp, savage joke on us all, Welles and Mankiewicz included, no doubt.
I should say at once that I don’t think Americans are really any more caught up in contradictions than anyone else. But they do seem to like to see themselves that way, and Citizen Kane catches and inflames this liking. The larger point, though, is that we can read Citizen Kane as merely doing very plainly and very forcefully, almost schematically, what all movies that matter to us do in one form or another. What it does is dramatize contradictions which are scattered about in the national life, which bother us enough for us to want them acknowledged, but which really are irreducible contradictions, and therefore can be acknowledged only in play, only as shadows. This is more or less how Lévi-Strauss defines the function of myth in primitive societies: the reconciliation of the irreconcilable within a fictional narrative. The reconciliation takes place in fiction because it can’t take place in reality.
One needs to add, for an advanced society, more adept at self-deception, that even a full acknowledgment that there is a contradiction can hardly take place in reality. We work out in movies (and in jokes and plays and novels and television shows and nightclub acts and elsewhere) threats which beckon to us from just off the edges of our consciousness, which haunt us without ever quite appearing in daylight. I would want to say too, going beyond Lévi-Strauss in this, or perhaps stepping back from his position, that it is not at all necessary for the narrative to reconcile its irreconcilable elements at the level of the story. It is enough that those elements should live together for the space of the tale, and thereby prove that the contradiction, while possibly tragic and destructive, is not totally and terminally debilitating. Life goes on in the story, and the story, by sympathetic magic, may induce life to go on outside it.
A simple example. Westerns regularly set a homeless, wandering hero against a sheeplike community which needs his help: the lonely aristocrat confronts the huddled mob. The aristocrat gives the mob a lecture about how they should try to get along without heroes like himself and should gang up and get the bad guys, not just sit around waiting for Randolph Scott to ride in. The films are officially democratic, but secretly elitist, since we are all with the hero rather than with the cowardly townsfolk. Or rather we are on both sides, but more on one than on the other. We have spent two hours in the cinema thinking about democracy and the individual without even being aware that we were thinking at all, and one of the contradictions of our culture has been tired out and laid to rest, temporarily, by the exercise.
But if most films are myths in Lévi-Strauss’s sense, not all myths are alike in their treatment of contradictions. Citizen Kane lays them bare, leaves them dangling, and thereby corresponds very closely to a definition Richard Chase once gave of American, as distinct from European, fiction. Fred Astaire, on the other hand, transcends all those paradoxes about his style seeming not to be a style in the same way that a good poet can always get a poem out of not being able to write—he is thus an artist in a perfectly simple, old-fashioned, “European” sense. But there are films which neither transcend nor expose contradictions but exploit them sentimentally, turn untidy bewilderment into comforting, even inspiring disaster. What we ask of such films is not that they should take us out of our confused lives but that they should, obliquely, lend our confusion a bit of dignity and grandeur.
Casablanca, for example, beneath its topical allusions and its wry repartee, is a movie about the ambivalent charms of being alone. If you’re alone you’re not loved; if you’re loved you’re ensnared. The film allows Bogart to end up loved and alone, or at least discreetly partnered by Claude Rains instead of engulfed in the love of Ingrid Bergman. Yet he is letting her go for her sake, and for the sake of the free world. Like Kane, only far more successfully, he has his cake and eats it.
I must emphasize that this is not a psychological reading of Casablanca, a guess at why the Bogart character does what he does. I think he does what he does for heroic, sentimental, and entirely admirable reasons. But the mythology shows him, and us, winning on all fronts, and some of the topical remarks in the movie reinforce this reading in a curious way. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” Bogart says more than once, bitterly. Claude Rains tells him that that is a “wise foreign policy,” and later comments that Bogart is “completely neutral about everything.” Sidney Greenstreet drives home the point by jokingly saying that isolationism is no longer a practical policy—he is referring to his own deals in Casablanca, not to the war. The year is 1941 in the movie, 1943 in the cinema. The effect of all this is not to give political overtones to a romantic movie but to give political isolationism a strong romantic and personal flavor. We might listen to some of the echoes, political and otherwise, of a phrase of our own like “I don’t want to get involved”—it is the private corollary to Jefferson’s thesis about foreign entanglements. The myth in Casablanca concerns getting involved without getting involved.
The myth in Gone With The Wind, as Gavin Lambert suggests, concerns survival; or more precisely, the price of survival; or more precisely still, survival while paying something less than the full price for it. The film celebrates the victory of the ruthless, irrepressible lovers of life (Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh) over the genteel bearers of the old civilized values (Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland). But the cost of this victory is beautifully masked by an abundance of sympathy for the losers, embodiments of the Gallant South after all, and by the dramatic sufferings of the winners, who lose their child and each other. Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh thus win and lose in a way that satisfies every greedy moral instinct we have, because they engage and then placate an abiding American worry, a contradiction that appears again and again in American movies, although it is not often as grandly drawn as it is in Gone With The Wind. It is a worry about selfishness, which we try to think of as a vice but which we all know to be a major American virtue.
Would we then condone anything done in the name of self? Of course not, but we have a terrible time drawing the line. There are countless movies, starring Bogart or Robert Mitchum or William Holden or Alan Ladd, in which the hero’s selfishness is felt to be unanswerably attractive. The movies deal with this, usually, by a twist in the plot which lets these egoists in for a spot of selfless, redeeming heroism—or by having them, as in Gone With The Wind, appear to expiate their selfishness by suffering a lot. Yet the attraction of their original position, of their defense of their prime duty to themselves, remains long after the rest of the movie has slipped from the mind. Selfishness in American movies is as baffling as Charles Foster Kane, and for much the same reasons. Indeed Kane’s selfishness is part of his charm and part of the problem. But where Citizen Kane won’t let us rest even when we feel sorry for Kane, Gone With The Wind asks us to settle back and savor the joys of doublethink, continuing primly to believe that selfishness doesn’t pay, as we sit and watch the payments come rolling in.
“A country that no longer had any legends, the poet says, is doomed to die of cold. That is possible. But a people that had no myths would already be dead.” Thus Georges Dumézil, the great comparative mythologist. A myth is the working out of contemporary preoccupations in a story. We live among myths, and to some extent by our myths. A legend is a myth which has faded, it is the working out of yesterday’s worries, now seen to belong to yesterday, now taken up as a harmless fiction. It is the narrative form of nostalgia. So we look back at old movies, and nostalgia’s paradox takes another turn. These films are gone; not gone; and they allow us to contemplate problems we used to have as if we still had them. They were good old problems, we fondly think. They were problems with familiar faces. They don’t make them like that any more.