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 …

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