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.
The moody Adonis that Jon Voight portrays in The All-American Boy also seemed to me to have odd echoes of the Thirties, the Depression hero John Garfield introduced on the screen in Four Daughters and on the stage in Awake and Sing and Golden Boy. This character, though, born of protest and sustained by some sort of Marxist or Odetsian confidence in the creation of a life “not printed on dollar bills,” had a proletarian spunk or political savvy nowhere apparent in the socio-psychodrama of the Eastman film. Instead, what we have, I think, is a feebler, bleaker, more affluent, more ambivalent image, snapshots of a “middle-class white son of a bitch without goals,” a remorseless runaway, a boxer enigmatically content to be a perpetual amateur rather than a roaring pro—the smoldering style of the Thirties Garfield, but without the prevailing grit, the guarded hope.
Loved by everyone and loving no one, Voight’s Vic Bealer enjoys the impunity of his good looks, his stony heart, and his prolonged youth. Even so, he’s alternately spoiled and thwarted by the realists of his world. “Hell, you’re not a kid anymore”—that’s what his elders keep telling him, wanting and expecting him, of course, to remain banally that. In the cramped, cheapening circumstances of Vic’s scene, where he’s been allowed to develop what Marx calls a “specialized dexterity” at the expense of “a world of productive impulses,” he appears to have connections with only two other characters, each as equivocal as himself; one is the girl he knocks up, and the other is his trainer, and he betrays both, leaves both, with a good deal of smarmy self-righteousness. “That old fruit just wanted my ass,” so he remarks of his trainer. “You’re turning Hollywood,” he sneers at the girl, after she marries, cuts a record, and attempts one of those madcap careers as a pop singer in Los Angeles (“In this business if you don’t make it the first time, you just change your name”).
There’s a symptomatic nastiness, often a sheer spitefulness at the heart of the Voight character, not the usual human cussedness but a revanchist sort of immaturity that cannot or will not grow up, what many older people helplessly sense as the essence of the maundering narcissism of most of today’s wayward youth. Eastman, unfortunately, is wary of so threatening a perception. For if the film is satiric, in its deadpan way, about “the manly arts,” it often generates the contrary feeling of a dirge, with pastoral interludes, as if Eastman were trying to invest his hero with the spirit of a frontier loner, a nimbus of unattainable glory that’s vanished with the American past—memories as well, no doubt, of the pugnacious idealism of Garfield who always kept searching for something or someone that would prove to be better than what he had. But Eastman’s lament runs counter to the situations he’s created.
Vic’s brother-in-law tells him: “It’s an illusion that you’re free. Drifting around and nobody’s got a hold on you. That’s not free, that’s caught.” All that, though, seems a dated, pious sort of philosophizing (one of the Lane sisters, or Fay Bainter, to Garfield in Four Daughters), since it is clear that these normal, healthy, crudely workaday folk live vicariously on “the bomber’s” eventual explosion in the ring, a future he sadomasochistically denies them, frustrating their fondest hopes apparently his only aspiration. Moreover, the values of Middle America, which formed Vic—the greed and the fear and that language of exhortative self-interest and moonshine that President Nixon personifies so well—are on film as in life completely played out. Vic Bealer has only his disgust and his distrust, and no thoughts of rebellion, wry or otherwise, simply, here and there, touches of post-beatnik paranoia or anomie, paralleling perhaps Abbie Hoffman’s assumption that gossip rules our lives and we’re all double dealers anyway.
The limits of so self-justificatory an attitude, however, are quickly exhausted. And though Eastman is good at sketching the platitudinizing day-dreaming of his strivers and affirmers, the slangy moronic emptiness of his small-town scene, and though Voight’s gawky performance is often curiously affecting, it, like the film, seems haunted by the sentiments or seriousness of another era, another type. For what in the Seventies could Vic be haunted by? Certainly not the “success” he’ll never be. He spits on success. And though he has a talent for self-dramatization, he has none at all for self-awareness. The trainer, toward the end of the film, calls him a “zombie,” and also a “hustler”—which is about the only prospect Voight’s Vic Bealer has left. Exit The All-American Boy. Re-enter Midnight Cowboy.
The conflict that’s largely lacking in the Eastman film—the belief, that is, that there’s still a difference between triumph and defeat, or that one has to struggle if one wants to survive—is certainly present in Martin Scorsese’s hyperbolic remembrances of nights and days along Hester and Mulberry Streets. Scorsese is a virtuoso of the sharp surface detail, the gaudy tropical temperament of Manhattan’s Little Italy emerging on his frames as some sort of casbah, dense with neighborhood intrigue and kaleidoscopic rituals (the San Gennaro Festival and a party at which a returning Viet vet goes berserk are equally surly and picaresque) and cowering shots of under-world gratuity (a drunk is gunned down while taking a piss in a john).
Yet it’s neither the martial pageantry (reminiscent of Little Ceasar and especially Scarface) nor even the pathetic lunatic camaraderie of Harvey Keitel and his bachelor pals (suggesting a swinging Marty) that makes Mean Streets, at its better moments, emblematic not only of a minority culture but also of some of the incoherent myths and mores of America at large. For Scorsese has cleverly appropriated, I think, in his tale of the delayed puberty rites of two festering, desperate young men pushing thirty, probably the most popular male character types of the old Hollywood genre days, the romantic and the cynic, the affable winner and the breezy loser, and then subverted them, allowed them to run to seed, to become faltering and regressive, eventually lethal: the harried street people of Blake’s world: “the Winner’s Shout, the Loser’s Curse.”
The plot, centering on the clash between fantasy and reality, on the anarchic impulse and intractable authority, offers Keitel’s Charlie, a petty racketeer, caught between two fires, those of eternal damnation represented by the Church (“You can’t fuck around with the infinite”) and the hypocritical punitive code of the Mafia (“Honorable men associate with honorable men”). Full of wobbly illusions (his heroes are Wayne in Back to Bataan and Francis of Assisi) and allusions (references to Rasputin and Blake and the Catholic retreats of adolescence), the conveyor of strengths and convictions he doesn’t possess, alienated from yet woefully attached to the compacts of Little Italy, always seeking refuge there from the larger alienation of the cosmopolitan society around him (the characters talk in Mean Streets of moving “uptown” as if they were moving to another country), a conformist and a poseur, Charlie is, at heart, a ruined altar boy, in bondage to the salvationist dreams of youth, the exculpatory drama of lending a hand, healing others and healing himself, but terrifically fearful of bearing the burden of knowing who he is, where he’s at, or what he’s become—so it is right that his girl, mocking the absurdity of his religious pretensions, tells him, “St. Francis wasn’t a numbers runner.”
However, it’s never his girl he listens to, or even really cares about; the true cunning and pathos of the film revolving instead around Charlie’s complicated relations with his girl’s kooky cousin, the obdurately pathic, shiftless Johnny Boy, riotously and brilliantly performed by Robert De Niro. Johnny Boy is the Redskin to Charlie’s Paleface, the one with a craving for transgression and the other for dispensation, the two personifying deformed examples of American excess and American rectitude, both trapped in the same bind, both sharing similar childhood memories, including the ceremonial one of the action houses around Forty-second Street to which they continue to go the way the heroes of Hemingway go to the bull-fights, and both, like Voight’s Vic Bealer, of course, never wanting to grow up, to fit in.
Here, though, the stakes are for real. And of the two it’s the loony Johnny Boy, a monkey bounding from tree to tree, who’s surprisingly the less deceived by the nature of the engulfment, and the far more despairing. For Johnny Boy’s a madman, but with the prophetic insight of the mad, a collection of deranged, cruel, comical acts (shooting off the tops of tenements to fluster old ladies, brawling or stripping in bars), contemptuously courting extremes, forecasting and provoking doom, his gestures of defiance movingly matched by Charlie’s stoic or angelic attempts at accommodation.
And so we follow the two careening from scrape to scrape, till one by one the escape routes are blocked, they come to a verge, the balance breaks, suddenly they’re outcasts, as the forces of the adult world, which are the forces of money (who’s putting up scratch, who owes scratch) and power (the underworld passion for secrecy and control, the American passion for never losing face), shut tight around them, reality overwhelms fantasy, and the film plunges to the detonations of a thousand gangster films, the familiar denouements they grew up on: wrecked cars, smashed lives, the sound of sirens in the metropolitan night, and Charlie and Johnny Boy covered in blood.
It’s highly deterministic, naturalistic stuff, the sort of Hollywood film thought to be unfashionable but currently thriving. And yet, as full as it is of a crushing, unconsoling force, I thought the relations between the protagonists, after a certain point, symbolically elusive and psychologically flimsy. For one has to wonder finally what we’re really being asked to identify here except perhaps the tawdry, and under the circumstances, rather improbable theme of the victimization of ghetto innocents too foolhardy or too insolent to be properly mindful that the system’s rigged, that thugs rule the world—the premise, as well, of the recently released Serpico.
Like America, I think, Scorsese has been baffled by the boiling, adventitious life around him, the “blind instinct,” the selfishness that Tocqueville saw as democracy’s besetting sin, and like the sentimental stunted Charlie, he’s paled at probing too deeply beneath the muck, at articulating the stupidity, mendacity, and outrage of his scene. One understands, one’s touched by the vacillating religiosity of the fraternal Charlie, but Johnny Boy, though as a theatrical presence as brazen and elemental as the young Raft in Scarface, remains, nevertheless, a blur. Obviously he wants Charlie to face the dragon, wants, probably, the dragon to devour them both, but what’s behind these sacrificial impulses? What’s behind, above all, the goofiness, the mischief? How could so aggravating a nut in so predatory or paternalistic a world, whose natural rhythms seem to be the random momentum of roving patrols or ambush squads whipping down whatever’s popping on their paths, been allowed to circulate so freely and so well and for so long? That he’s the godson of a minor mobster hardly seems a sufficient answer.
What’s more than sufficient, though, as far as the producers of Mean Streets must be concerned, is the gutsy, zesty feel of the film itself, a marvel of one audience-pleaser after another, less the truth of Charlie and Johnny Boy, one suspects, than the verismo of the b.o.: the slaphappy spectacle, for instance, of wops making fun of kikes and fags and niggers, or at least black go-go dancers (Scorsese’s characters using here a dialect variant of melanzana, meaning “eggplant,” apt imagery, no doubt, for spade snatch), the continuation of the currently popular Mafia folklore about serene Dons who have beautiful table manners and speak Tuscan Italian (in Little Italy which should be called Little Sicily), and the four-letter words overflowing with dithyrambic insistence, culminating in the preposterous showdown where Johnny Boy calls his adversary “jerk off” and “scum bag,” and then rushes onward toward the groovy crescendo of “I’m gonna shoot my pistol right up your fuckin’ asshole.” Here the jive mentality of macho culture fittingly enters the realm of sexual farce, though it seems clear that neither Scorsese nor his characters, along with Jimmy Rosselli and the Shirelles on the track, were in the least aware of the nature of the territory traversed.
If in Mean Streets we witness the struggle between fantasy and reality, in the convulsions of Ciao Manhattan fantasy is the only reality left, the last game to play, and the best fantasy is the most catastrophic, the one sure to give you your greatest jollies and your swiftest death. This film, about the drug scene among the demimonde in New York, the first by John Palmer and David Weisman, is astonishingly crosspatch; alternately garrulous, sparse, naïve, sardonic, clumsy, clever, intolerably sad, rawly funny. But these chromatic effects, these virtues and obstacles, give the production its particular flavor of improvised hallucination and amateur bedevilment, feelings further heightened through the suggestion of a historical dimension which neither Mean Streets nor The All-American Boy possesses: the aura of some sort of white-coat futuristic fascism bubbling around its edges, not the fascism of the jackboot but the fascism of shrinks and sanatoria, drugs and doctors, including as well the more sinister incursions of blue-denim henchmen and crackpot billionaires master-minding and watching whatever it is we’re watching in Ciao Manhattan on closed-circuit TV.
Susan, the jet set golden girl that Edie Sedgwick plays—angel’s face, vixen’s legs, breasts like carved ivory (“always showing off her boobs”), talking a mile a minute (“impossible to shut up on speed”), a troubling amalgam of the vulnerable and the hostile—mixes images of the debutante model she had once been with more desolating glimpses of the denuded druggie she’s become, a fitting metaphor, along the lines of the lives of Marilyn and Janis Joplin, of beautiful blighted youth at the edge of the precipice, peering down, ready to drop.
Palmer and Weisman, immersing the spectator headlong into this wild malaise, create an eerie air of ecstatic discombobulation, so that we’re never sure whether the tales that the constantly stoned Edie tells (done mostly as flashbacks) have actually occurred—whether her father pawed her when she was a child, whether she was mesmerized in an abusive affair with Paul America, one of the Warhol stars, whether pushers and hoods, Gracie Square heavies, flibbertigibbets from the Chelsea or the Factory are hounding or devouring her—or whether these are merely supposititious, fables of abandonment, the hysterical transports of a ruined consciousness, as dazed and cruelly haphazard as the shots of the other characters shooting up, both mocking themselves and mocking the audience.
In the past one’s youthful idea of immortality had always been founded on the sense of a journey, a mission. As long as one could feel one had a lot of growing to do, mountains to cross, identities to conquer or identities to assume, one could always imagine one would not die. But nowadays one’s destinations are quickly reached, one’s appetites quickly surfeited, and one’s sensibility, accommodating to the accelerations of the Zeitgeist, fragments in a thousand confusions and diffusions.
Ciao Manhattan, then, dramatizes not so much a cautionary tale of hedonistic satiation, the monotony of revelry—Anouk Aimee in La Dolce Vita, Julie Christie in Darling—as it does the charms of Thanatos, the eclipse of expectation, the defeat of the old order of potentiality: how we traditionally perceive, judge, act, tremble, persevere. Above the orgiastic maelstrom of this frenzied film—with its sly or sloppy employment of cinéma direct or cinéma verité, the commercial and the documentary, cameo appearances by Viva or Christian Marquand or Roger Vadim—there floats a weird strain of farcical fatality, as if the familiar Faustian notion of the will as a self-protective or aggressive drive had been superseded by the emergent sci-fi concept of the will as a means of absolute self-indulgence and self-exploitation to the point of annihilation. Drugs are used here as a form of Russian roulette, incitements to extinction, where even the scenes of sex—all those restless, chattering copulations—though uninhibited, become problematic, a mirage: “I wonder why I don’t want to lay that broad?” wonders someone about Edie.
It is a thoroughly fugitive, indeterminate world, with neither “stages on life’s way” nor mementos of former caprice, none of the dreamy ruthlessness of Sade, the fretful decadence of Huysmans; in the current literature closest perhaps to the novels of William Burroughs, to the sense of a “radioactive cop-rotten planet,” of flights to “the final fix,” but done as a light show or a side show, a demonized circus where a reeling Edie stumbles along like a sleepless tigress, eternally on the prowl, looking for something to kill, which, of course, turns out to be herself, as would happen to her in actual life, Edie dying from speed at twenty-eight, shortly after completing her role in Ciao Manhattan.
It’s true that Palmer and Weisman, implementing songs wryly commenting on the action, include thereby bits of implied down stuff about drugs, but their hearts are clearly not in it, and the indictment seems dubious at best, since no alternative needs or deeds, no slogans or signposts to stability are proposed or evoked, no shots of the family staying together while playing together at the bowling alleys, nor weightier appeals to art or religion, the cult of work or personal relations.
Dramatically, in fact, rather the reverse, for if there’s a guardian of respectability here, that would be the cartoon figure of Edie’s mother, a malign hag who’s made a fortune manufacturing All-American pies with every patriotic ingredient except the stars and stripes; who with her wigs, her Hedda Hopper hats, her inane telephone chatter, and whatever private scenario is percolating in her head (probably imagining herself to be the president of the local PTA rescuing her daughter from “the perils of drug addiction”) emerges as a caricature of every moral or maternal possibility; and, later, when discovering Edie and a hippie drifter making it at the bottom of the empty swimming pool of her California estate, she screeches a tirade against the younger generation which sounds like a travesty of all the revenge fantasies about the counter-culture ever thought up by the subscribers to The Reader’s Digest.
Isabel Jewell, playing the part of the mother, has, in addition, a terrific way of speaking commonplaces that recall Nixon defining the office of the vice-president as “one bucket of spit.” She is, moreover, a further revenant of the Thirties, having once shown as the consumptive whore who, along with everyone else, found romance and redemption at Shangri La, in another of those Frank Capra commemorations of New Deal innocence, Lost Horizon.
In so many of the films of the later Sixties and now of the Seventies, dying young or dying violently seems often the only act worthy of the world we inhabit, of the lives we’re asked to lead. Miami Beach, pleasure ground and cesspool of America, has the highest suicide rate in the country. There not only do many of the young expire at the earliest opportunity, but also, increasingly, more and more of the older folk who can no longer abide the delights of the retirement enclaves to which they’re sent to ponder “the best” that “is yet to be.”
Talleyrand says that a people that has lived too well cannot be ruled well, and Ortega, continuing the thought, observes that the “famous plenitude” of the Western world “is in reality drawing to a close,” that “there are centuries which die of self-congratulation or self-satisfaction through not knowing how to renew their desires,” that unable to grasp the dilemma, seduced by inertia, befogged by pride, they disappear, bereft of even the illusion of a moral tone with which to elevate or sustain themselves.
In America, currently, a similar climate appears to be brewing, as problems darken and solutions grow faint, and we’re soothed by detoxifying projects like ecology or frothy evocations of “integrity” or “probity” or “the revitalization of the country,” or we retreat from tales of doomsday through the pursuit of nostalgia—the shallow domesticity of “The Waltons” on TV, the appeal of the films of Peter Bogdanovich (which are really clonings of the old Hollywood sensibility), the fading of the auteur and the restoration of the star (Streisand and Redford in The Way We Were, McQueen and Hoffman in Papillon)—or we indolently muse over the decline of the hero, the waning of the sense of duty from decade to decade, from the shared moral assumptions behind the portrayals of Muni as the dauntless Zola or Pasteur during the Thirties, to the spartan gallantry of Cooper in High Noon during the Fifties, to, finally, the equivocal presence of Al Pacino as Serpico, the conscience of his generation—with his hair and his beads and his pad in the Village, a sort of Candide of the Mod Squad turning the heat on New York’s Finest, his superiors aghast not so much that the cops are doing what he says they’re doing as that Serpico’s not doing it, for “who can trust a cop who don’t take money?”
Ironically, the impact of the Sidney Lumet film lives or dies not on the stature of its lonely crusader, whose character here must surely seem vaporous—Serpico is afforded scarcely a moment of philosophical reflection or definition—but on the exploitation of everything the star of the Knapp Commission should presumably be opposing: those scenes of sadistic mayhem and verbal abuse, the atmosphere of a garrison state.
February 7, 1974