Friday, 3 August 2012

Cradle Will Rock

Cradle Will Rock was Tim Robbin’s third and last film to date, and it turned out, paradoxically, to be both his best and his worst effort. It was his best because it broke fascinating new ground, which I’ll get to in due course. It was his worst, however, because he simply did not learn the lesson he should have from Dead Man Walking: that he could only improve as a filmmaker by scaling up into more iconic and archetypal human emotions, and abandoning the hysterical attempts at political urgency which had marred Bob Roberts.

If anything, Bob Roberts was more excusable on political grounds. It was, after all, 1992, and with the Reagan/Bush dark ages having dragged on for twelve years, it was perfectly understandable for Leftists, liberals, and anyone with a conscience to be on the verge of snapping. Also, the film’s crudity was substantially leavened by the sheer evil brilliance of Robbin’s own performance as the titlular character. The stupidly manipulative, oh-it’s-all-hopeless-the-system-is-against-us bits were the same sort of thing one always finds in liberal dramaturgies, from The Ox-Bow Incident to The China Syndrome to Redacted. It’s the facilely optimistic belief that things should always turn out happily/peacefully/amicably/etc. in the world, and if they don’t then humanity/society/polity/etc. has grown so depraved as to be beyond redemption and all we can do is cry in anguish. The segments of Bob Roberts that simply savour the spectacle of Robbins, however, implicitly concede just how limited and anti-aesthetic all that is. The sheer nuanced detail of Robbins/Roberts allows us the sardonic pleasure of watching the human comedy play out in all its grimness, as the total cynicism of the evil neo-con yuppie wins out over the doddering, well-meaning, Gore Vidal liberal. It’s depressing, but paradoxically, depressing in an electrifying way, rather than in the simply infantile, whiny way of Ox-Bow/China Syndrome/Redacted-type films.

With Cradle Will Rock, however, the context was different. Clinton had now been in office for seven years, and Hollywood’s treatment of political themes had become identical to his: disingenuously inveighing against liberalism and big government in a cynical play for Middle American votes, or box office dollars as the case may be. This sort of thing reached its apotheosis with Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, in which actual news footage was manipulated to make Clinton a character in the film, James Woods turned in another cartoon villain performance as the evil big-government bureaucrat, and one buffoonish Republican congressman frets over whether the aliens believe in God. These were not propitious times in which to undertake a reappraisal of the Leftist politics of the Federal Theatre, and the only wonder is that the film wasn’t more of a train wreck than it was.

Cradle Will Rock is marred from the very first by the Montaigne-ian aspect of liberalism: the dogmatic refusal to be dogmatic. In this spirit, the relative justice of a totalizing ideology like Communism is not really of concern to Tim Robbins, so much of the fact that it is an all-totalizing ideology, and thus must be critiqued, however much you may agree with its ideas. To actually bring the course of the film into alignment with its ideological sympathy would be too shocking a notion – one might actually have a solid, uplifting work that left viewers feeling galvanized and confident, and that would of course be unacceptably dogmatic. One must, this doggerel goes, leave them feeling frustrated and unsatisfied if a work of art is to have fulfilled its purpose. Cradle Will Rock actually contains a running gag where Hank Azaria’s playwright character is lectured about his work by the ghost of Bertolt Brecht, but Brecht himself would likely be turning in his grave if he could see the point to which Hollywood liberals have mongrelized his ideas.

The result of all this in practice is that one is forced to sit through scene after inept scene in which sympathetic Left-leaning figures are needled and browbeaten, and not allowed by the script to stand up for themselves; ambivalent figures are introduced solely for the purpose of defaming Leftism; and hysterical anti-Leftist figures are coddled by the narrative due to the naïve liberal shibboleth that you have to “show both sides.” This stubborn refusal to distinguish the dynamics of art from those of real-world politics leads to a remarkable cast – including Vanessa Redgrave, Emily Watson, Joan Cusack, Bill Murray, Susan Sarandon, John Turturro, and more – fumbling about with crude dialogue and contributing nothing to the proceedings. If Robbins’s goal had been to make a My Son John-style anti-communist film, these scenes would require only minimal rewrites.

There are two plot strands, however, which intertwine to form the film’s real DNA, and these not only redeem the film from the stupidities outlined above, but elevate it above Robbins’s achievement with Dead Man Walking. It is, after all, no great conceptual challenge to be sombre and serious about such a sombre and serious subject as capital punishment, however much genius is required to actually make the film. To be raucous and anarchic in the face of sombre and serious things, however, is a far greater test of an artist’s skill, and that’s what Robbins achieves in the segments of Cradle Will Rock which deal with Orson Welles and Hallie Flanagan, played by Angus Macfadyen and Cherry Jones, respectively. As played by Macfadyen, this Welles is a thundering, megalomaniacal, drunken, and rapacious iconoclast who nonetheless has the genius to back it all up. In a vacuum, this could render him just another object of sententious “critique,” but is saved from that fate by the way he’s given a comic foil in Cary Elwes’s John Houseman. Between them they generate enough loud, fast-talking, broadly gesticulating comic energy to keep Robbins’s politics at bay, and create a real life of their own for their characters. On paper, a scene of them questioning the seemliness of eating at such an expensive and upscale place as 21 Club could have been as lame as so much else in the film, but is redeemed by some business with Welles’s flask. And a childish ego-contest, shouting “Isn’t!” “Is!” “Isn’t!” “Is!” at each other, manages to be more articulate than anything else in the film.
Cherry Jones’s Hallie Flanagan is the opposite extreme to this. She represents the film’s one sublime stroke of political genius: to simply reverse the usual moralistic denial of politics which one gets from the Right, and award it to the Left. Anyone who has ever read the Chronicles of Narnia stories will have a feel for how appallingly simple it is for arch-Right-wing Tories and born-again evangelicals to deny that there is anything political to them, and declare that they are simply morally innocuous stories for children. They're really about being “nice” and “good,” and all the monstrous misogyny, racism and chauvinism is simply in the minds of Left-wing spoilsports and churls. With brilliant perversity, Cradle Will Rock simply reverses this, and has Flanagan blithely deflecting questions about a children’s play Revolt of the Beavers, declaring that it’s all about a mean and unkind beaver getting his comeuppance, and the themes of insurrection and redistribution of wealth are just illusory projections by Right-wingers. Jones’s performance in these scenes is amazing. She keeps her head very steady and rarely blinks, so that one can’t tell if she is very determinedly sticking to a script, or if she has such wonderful gifts of self-persuasion and tunnel vision that she actually believes what she’s saying.

The film which these segments bring most vividly to mind is Robert Altman’s MASH, which is in itself pretty illustrious company for any film to keep. Cradle Will Rock, however, actually surpasses MASH in the sense that Altman’s film was subversive purely due to its adolescent, insouciant, anarchist sensibility. One could not imagine Pierce, McIntyre, and Forrest having a real discussion of ideas any more than one could imagine them donning uniforms and saluting. It’s this, however, that Robbins more or less accomplishes in Cradle Will Rock. The Welles/Houseman segments match MASH for anarchic glee, but have a real, coherent political line to them rather than just a vague anti-everything absurdism. Moreover, Flanagan compounds this by creating an almost exact Henry Blake analogue. The sort of benignly blank-eyed authority figure, whose verbiage may outweigh their acumen but who thankfully is in your corner, is exactly the sort of character that Roger Bowen (and McLean Stevenson on TV) created, and is always a treat to watch when done right.

Ultimately, Cradle Will Rock can’t be called a success because the central helix of Macfadyen/Elwes/Jones takes up too little of the film’s running time. Too much is wasted on digressions that either don’t work or aren’t followed through. Writing William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies into a film about Orson Welles sounds like a no-brainer, but to introduce them and then make nothing at all of it is just absurd. A scene near the end has Hearst and a steel tycoon Gray Mathers discussing how they can set the course of art in the future by patronage. The scene would function perfectly as a set-up for an allusion to how Welles’s first foray into cinema would humiliatingly deflate Hearst’s pretensions, rising inexorably to the top of the canon in spite of the fact that its signature line, “Rosebud,” was Hearst’s pet name for Marion Davies’s yoni. As it is for this bit, so it is for Cradle Will Rock as a whole – moments of genius, but ultimately a missed opportunity.

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