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Dancing on the Titanic

The All-American Boy

directed by Charles Eastman

Mean Streets

directed by Martin Scorsese

Ciao Manhattan

directed by John Palmer, by David Weisman

I.F. Stone’s Weekly

directed by Jerry Bruck Jr.

Executive Action

directed by David Miller

Serpico

directed by Sidney Lumet

It’s always been difficult coming to terms with whatever is happening in America. If Goethe could herald us as “eternally new,” a century later Gertrude Stein would call her country “the oldest in the world.” And of course we seem fated to be a little bit—or a whole lot—of both. As soon as we grow accustomed to a recognizable scene, a tidy concept—Tocqueville’s “individualism” or Taylor’s “scientific management”—a gale wind of late news suddenly fragments the images, and we’re fumbling in the dust, starting the laborious construction once more. A year ago at the Inaugural Ball who would have thought that Pat and Dick waltzing to the sedate strains of Guy Lombardo were secretly dancing on the Titanic?

The scores of commentators dourly telling us just the other day what the President and his family represented to most Americans—law and order and respectability and enough crises to prove that the man in the White House has what “it takes”—are now assuring us that the Coriolanus of Madison Avenue has come a cropper, that an era almost as stultifyingly enduring as the President’s favorite adjective on TV—“permanent peace,” “permanent stability”—has been swept away, that the spectacle of a public figure behaving as bemused and belligerent as the land over which he rules—or doesn’t rule—is all that’s left.

Following so farcical a defeat we confront perhaps an American nightmare: watching the reproachful memorial newsreels of President Kennedy speaking during the early Sixties in Executive Action, we recall a distant American dream: “I don’t want historians to say that these were the years when the tide ran out for the United States.” From Camelot to Watergate, from wispy myth to woozy allegory—but though the scenery changes apparently the route is the same.

Besides Executive Action, an assortment of movies—one a documentary honoring the career of I.F. Stone, the others fictions in varying degrees and intensities—add further glimpses, further reverberations. These films, aside from Mean Streets and Ciao Manhattan, are hardly worth much as art, merely examples, I suppose, of an “evening’s entertainment,” including the pleasant documentary made by the young Jerry Bruck, probably an evening’s entertainment for those who might like to feel the sap is rising in the Movement again. But they do record certain disasters, one being, naturally enough, the debasement of the language.

Here, of course, Stone would have to be the exception, since surely his language is honesty and simplicity themselves, a stark and affecting belief in the power of the word to act as an almighty shit detector. And yet the language of Stone, like his owlish face and wonderfully owlish talents for hunting in the wilds of Washington, would seem—at the present moment anyway—almost an anachronism. It is too linear, too unsubliminal, too sane. If one really wants to be in touch with the edgy or empty vernacular sweeping the country, whether the irate or the euphemistically genteel—Lady Bird Johnson recently reporting on the mood of most Americans found them to be “full of concern, but not despair”—one had better listen to the other films, all more or less under the rackety aura of media-intoxication or media-events.

In The All-American Boy, for instance, most of the members of the Wasp world of Charles Eastman’s small-town Middle America often speak like a parody of the worst moments of the situation comedies they must be watching nightly on TV. In the dreary diagrammatic fable Dalton Trumbo and David Miller have concocted, Executive Action, the multimillionaire right-wing conspirators plotting the assassinations of Kennedy in Dallas sound like market research men in Rockefeller Plaza contemplating a saturation campaign to sell the latest mouthwash. In Mean Streets, on the other hand, a bristling, scarifying melodrama about the Mafia and Little Italy, the language, predictably, is far more mercurial—“Fuck” every other minute. But though there’s vitality here, especially as contrasted with the precardiac folksiness of the Wasp world, the dialogue, like the frequently funny, vivid characterizations, seems, at times, oddly boisterous and racy in the manner of a cabaret act, as if the witticisms Sinatra and Dean Martin used to exchange among themselves on TV spectaculars have something to do with the brutality of the underworld in America. (Dean: Where’s my drink? Frank: In your hand. Dean: Oh, is that my hand?)

Only in Ciao Manhattan, a devastating, if flawed, chronicle à clef about the short, sad, raucous life led by the late Edie Sedgwick, its star, a whirl-wind tour of a jelly-headed nymph sprouting at the Warhol loft, Park Avenue salons, East Village discothèques, and then returning in ruination and hysteria to the swimming pools of California that spawned her, do we have an entertainment that largely escapes the universalizing influence of the media. I suppose the subject matter of this film is still so spankingly new, so saucy and delirious a study in self-contempt, that family television has as yet been unable to absorb its eruptions. In Ciao Manhattan just about everybody’s stoned on some sort of dope, and the few sober ones who aren’t certainly should be. Here the bizarre tensions underlying the American experience and the American vernacular are exquisitely matched, and arrive at a fitting terminus, a scramble of apocalyptic laughter and satanic derangement, proving true what Barnum decided about us long ago: “Americans dearly love to be humbugged.”

Along with the debasement of language, of course, goes the debasement of values. President Nixon has had a charismatic career as a Miami Beach revivalist shoring up interest in whatever was left of the old verities, the old nostrums. To judge by the heroes and heroines of these and other films, though, he’s hardly been much of a seducer among the young. In The All-American Boy and Mean Streets and Ciao Manhattan, the old garlands, the old mottoes are still around—“shiftlessness doesn’t pay,” “never welsh on a debt,” “the primrose path leads to perdition”—but they’re there, alas, only to be insolently rejected or replaced by the grubby, the horrific. In the pop nihilism of most of the pop culture of the day—what Marshall McLuhan humorously calls the “retribalization” of mass man—we have no tenderness, no grace, no recesses of urbanity, no ennobling illusions, or even, as it turns out, comforting norms.

For Jon Voight, the sullen prize-fighter of The All-American Boy, the norm is just “crap.” The only things he says you can do in his creamy-colored, bucolic, tacky little town of Buddy are “screw, booze, and smash up your car,” a dispirited comment appropriately spoken in a sunny graveyard perched on a grassy knoll that slumps down to one of those phantom highways, the serpents in America’s bosom, and the symbolic tracks over which much of the casual desolation of the Eastman film lugubriously unwinds.

With Harvey Keitel, the guilt-ridden martyr-tough of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, the norm is a battle-ground of shifting loyalties. I thought this volcanic film most engaging when most earnest, Scorsese clearly identifying with the plight of his doomed, divided youth, the dictates of the Church and the embrace of the Mafia tearing him apart. But since it is doubtful whether there has ever been any actual opposition between these two highly conservative social forces, at least in America, the ethical debate that flares fitfully in Mean Streets might best be taken as a figment of Scorsese’s fancy—too much Dostoevsky, probably. Anyway, most of the moral concerns seem to vanish almost completely from the film after the first quarter, thus allowing the real business, the bang-bang choreography, to take over; a strategy equally evident, though far less successfully scored, in the Dealey Plaza brouhaha of Executive Action.

Ciao Manhattan, of course, the most bracing in its acceptance of the prevailing néant and so the least false of these entertainments, makes no pretense to conscience whatever. Here we have no norms, no models, no idols left to fall, only a toneless, endless, all-consuming vanity. Mean Streets may offer its ironic bits of iconography—the photos of the Kennedy brothers and Pope John decorating a Mafia restaurant—but to the druggies of Ciao Manhattan that would be simply ludicrous. For them, no doubt, the Pope must have always been a heavy user and Jack and Bobby loved it.

Like the other films, the Jerry Bruck documentary I.F. Stone’s Weekly also concerns itself with corruption. But how refreshing is this amiable little ramble among Washington iniquity. For though it has shots of discontent on the home front and interpolated footage of women and children stumbling in a daze over the bombstrewn roadways of Vietnam, as well as a retrospective catalogue of Stone blowing the whistle on the Bay of Pigs or the Gulf of Tonkin, there is throughout a resurgent air of buoyancy, of vice routed and virtue triumphant. In fact, the film seems an unexpected and shining example of that rarest of genres right now, a success story, as well it should be: how “Izzy” Stone, against the most grievous odds, survived the cliffhanger era of the cold war (he had been black-balled as a political journalist in the early Fifties) and managed to produce his celebrated Weekly. At the First Avenue Screening Room, where it recently enjoyed a short run, most of the audience sat chuckling agreeably and appreciatively watching this sprightly David combat the Philistines on the Hill, as if in respite from the headlines in the Times which many of them also carried with them into the theater.

Stone, of course, is our reportorial ombudsman: magnificent at plumbing facts and figures, lies and counter-lies (“All governments lie,” he remarks flatly and characteristically), a master at sniping at high-or low-profile skulduggery, at emancipating the unobserved or hidden details that release the latest malefic event emanating from the Pentagon, the Senate, the National Association of Manufacturers, or the White House. But unlike his flashing analyses in print, on camera, oddly enough, he tends to be a bit pat. What happened to the progressive policies of the New Deal, why labor and management and government and the media and the underworld are scrubbing away at each other’s dirty drawers—these depressing aspects of America, past and present, are rendered spottily, if at all. And he’s surely rather sanguine in his avuncular advice to revolutionary youth: Don’t look down on your parents. For why shouldn’t they look down on them, many of whom, including liberals and Democrats for Nixon, gave the President the greatest electoral victory in history.

Following the course of Stone’s career on screen, I really thought less of the derisive air of our own day than of the ingenuousness of the decade in which his career began, the Thirties, as incarnated, at least, in the populist sagas of Frank Capra, notably Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. There’s a fleeting, touching colloquy between Stone and Walter Cronkite at a party just after Stone receives his “first Establishment award” from Long Island University, the sixtyish reporter seeming so boyish, so full of the elixir of crusading journalism, and Cronkite so disconcertingly grim, so much the organization man, that I had a sudden glimpse of vigilant Jimmy Stewart, the incorruptible junior senator from some backwater, speaking to Claude Rains, the revered, thoroughly compromised senior senator with a finger in every pie. After listening to Stone’s admiring comments about the TV documentary “The Selling of the Pentagon,” Cronkite turns away uneasily and says, “Listen. Do you get to New York often? Give me a ring next time. OK? Then we’ll talk.” Here we must surely have an instance of a “professional” giving a wide-eyed “amateur” the brush-off.

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