Monday, January 23, 2017

Pauline Kael on Hollywood Leftism

The initial impetus for digging up this passage from Kael's essay came from a recent Matt Novak post, but as soon as I started rereading the original I realized that it was far more relevant then I remembered.

For a long time, the virulence of the response to “Raising Kane” seemed rather strange, particularly the focus on "defending" Orson Welles. Not only was the essay rather affectionate (albeit irreverent) toward the director, Kael was a long time champion of the Welles' works, often more so than the people who were supposedly offended by her treatment of him. It wasn't until years later that I realized just how many sacred cows she had gone after over her career and, not coincidentally, how valued those cows were by many of her attackers. Case in point, the martyrs of McCarthyism. Like Orwell in 48, Kael in 1971 was (as you can see below) willing to say out loud things that good liberals kept to themselves, particularly when the martyrs and and the liberals in question were Hollywood-based.

If you would have asked me a couple of years ago, I would have told you that, while the American Left had much to answer for in regards to its handling of the Soviet Union (a point many others have made), that was a thing of the past. At least with Stalin, you could do cling to the belief that the eventual goal was compatible with left-wing values. It is difficult to imagine anything that either liberal or leftist can admire about the Russia of Vladimir Putin. Nonetheless, recent events have shown us that accusing politicians and journalists of being inappropriately influenced by Russia will still prompt counter-accusations of “McCarthyism.”

I don't want to get into this debate at the moment or go into the impact it may have had on the election, but this does seem like a good time for some historical perspective.

From “Raising Kane” by Pauline Kael published in The New Yorker, February 20, 1971 and February 27, 1971

        It’s common to blame the McCarthyism of the fifties and the removal of blacklisted writers for the terrible, flat writing in American movies of recent years, but the writers might have recovered from McCarthyism (they might even have stood up to it) if they hadn’t been destroyed as writers long before. The writing that had given American talkies their special flavor died in the war, killed not in battle but in the politics of Stalinist “anti-Fascism.” For the writers, Hollywood was just one big crackup, and for most of them it took a political turn. The lost-in-Hollywood generation of writers, trying to clean themselves of guilt for their wasted years and their irresponsibility as writers, became political in the worst way—became a special breed of anti-Fascists. The talented writers, the major ones as well as the lightweight yet entertaining ones, went down the same drain as the clods—drawn into it, often, by bored wives, less successful brothers. They became na├»vely, hysterically pro-Soviet; they ignored Stalin’s actual policies, because they so badly needed to believe in something. They had been so smart, so gifted, and yet they hadn’t been able to beat Hollywood’s contempt for the writer. (Walter Wagner had put twenty-seven of them to work in groups in succession on the script of Vincent Sheean’s Personal History.) They lived in the city where Irving Thalberg was enshrined; Thalberg, the saint of M-G-M, had rationalized Mayer’s system of putting teams of writers to work simultaneously and in relays on the same project. It had been lunatic before, but Thalberg made it seem mature and responsible to fit writers into an assembly-line method that totally alienated them and took away their last shreds of pride. And most of the Algonquin group had been in Hollywood so long they weren’t even famous anymore.
        Talented people have rarely had the self-control to flourish in the Hollywood atmosphere of big money and conflicting pressures. The talented—especially those who weren’t using their talents to full capacity—have become desperate, impatient, unreliable, self-destructive, and also destructive, and so there has always been some validity in the businessman’s argument that he couldn’t afford to take chances on “geniuses.” Thalberg didn’t play around with a man like Mankiewicz; after throwing him off A Night at the Opera, he didn’t use him again.
        The writers who had become accustomed to being assembly-line workers were ready to believe it when, in the forties, they were told that, like factory workers, they were “part of the team on the assembly line” and needed “that strengthening of the spirit which comes from identity with the labor of others.” Like the producers, the Screen Writers Guild respected discipline and responsibility, but though the businessmen had never been able to organize people of talent—producers like Thalberg just kept discarding them—the union ideologues knew how. The talented rarely become bureaucrats, but the mediocre had put down roots in Hollywood—it doesn’t take long in Los Angeles, the only great city that is purely modern, that hasn’t even an architectural past in the nineteenth century. In the forties, the talented merged with the untalented and became almost indistinguishable from them, and the mediocre have been writing movies ever since. When the good writers tried to regain their self-respect by becoming political activists in the Stalinist style, it was calamitous to talent; the Algonquin group’s own style was lost as their voice blended into the preachy, self-righteous chorus.
        The comedy writers who had laughed at cant now learned to write it and were rehabilitated as useful citizens of the community of mediocrity. It was just what the newly political congratulated themselves on—their constructive, uplifting approach—that killed comedy. When they had written frivolously, knowing that they had no control over how their writing would be used, or buried, or rewritten, they may have failed their own gifts and the dreams of their youth, but the work they turned out had human dimensions; they were working at less than full capacity, but they were still honest entertainers. Their humor was the humor of those trapped by human weakness as well as by “the system,” and this was basic comedy—like the jokes and camaraderie of Army men. But when they became political in that mortally superior way of people who are doing something for themselves but pretending it’s for others, their self-righteousness was insufferable. They may have told lies in the themes and plots of the thirties comedies, but they didn’t take their own lies seriously, they didn’t believe their own lies, the way they did in the forties. In the forties, the Screen Writers Guild and the Hollywood Writers Mobilization (for wartime morale-building) held conferences at which “responsible” writers brought the irresponsibles into line. The irresponsibles were told they were part of an army and must “dedicate their creative abilities to the winning of the war.” And, in case they failed to understand the necessity for didactic, “positive” humor, there were panels and seminars that analyzed jokes and pointed out which ones might do harm. It was explained to the writers that “catch-as-catch-can,” “no-holds-barred” comedy was a thing of the past. “A very funny line may make black-market dealings seem innocent and attractive,” they were told, and “Respect for officers must be maintained at all times, in any scene, in any situation.”
        Show-business people are both giddy and desperately, sincerely intense. When Stalinism was fashionable, movie people became Stalinists, the way they later became witches and warlocks. Apparently, many of the Hollywood Stalinists didn’t realize they were taking any risks; they performed propaganda services for the various shifts in Russia’s foreign policy and, as long as the needs of American and Russian policy coincided, this took the form of super-patriotism. When the war was over and the Cold War began, history left them stranded, and McCarthy moved in on them. The shame of McCarthyism was not only “the shame of America” but the shame of a bunch of newly rich people who were eager to advise the world on moral and political matters and who, faced with a test, informed on their friends—and, as Orson Welles put it, not even to save their lives but to save their swimming pools. One might think that whatever they had gained emotionally from their activity they would have lost when they informed on each other, but it doesn’t seem to have always worked that way. They didn’t change their ideas when they recanted before the House Un-American Activities Committee; they merely gave in and then were restored to themselves. And they often seem to regard it not as their weakness but as their martyrdom. Show-business-Stalinism is basically not political but psychological; it’s a fashionable form of hysteria and guilt that is by now not so much pro-Soviet as just abusively anti-American. America is their image of Hell (once again, because of Vietnam, they’re in a popular position), and they go on being “political” in the same way, holding the same faith, and for the same reasons, as in the late thirties and the forties. The restoration there is fairly general. In Hollywood recently, a man who used to be “involved” told me he wanted to become more active again, and added, “But, you know, I’m scared. The people who are urging me to do more are the same ones who ratted on me last time.”
        Mankiewicz was too well informed politically to become a Communist Partyliner. Because he didn’t support this line, he was—and only in part jokingly—considered a “reactionary” by the activists of the Screen Writers Guild. Yet he went on to write the movie they point to with pride in Hollywood, the movie they all seem to feel demonstrates what can be done and what movies should be doing, and it’s their all-time favorite because they understand it—and correctly—as a leftist film. Its leftism is, however, the leftism of the twenties and early thirties, before the left became moralistic. There were other expressions of the tough spirit of the thirties that came after the thirties were over. There may be a little of it in the newspaper film of the fifties Sweet Smell of Success, but the ambivalence there is harsher, grimmer, more artistically “serious” than it was in the thirties; there’s some in the happy mocker of Hollywood in Singin’ in the Rain, which takes off from Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime, and in the films of Preston Sturges, who alone somehow managed to stay funny and tart. The only writer of this whole group who became a director with an individual style, Sturges kept American comedy alive singlehanded through the mawkish forties. Maybe he was able to because he was a cynic and so politically baroque that he wasn’t torn by doubts and guilts. The political show in Hollywood in the forties was just one more crazy scene to him; he’d grown up rich and eccentric in Europe, the son of that expatriate lady (called Mary in The Loves of Isadora) who gave Isadora Duncan the fatal scarf.
        But Mankiewicz climaxed an era in Kane. He wrote a big movie that is untarnished by sentimentality, and it may be the only big biographical movie ever made in this country of which that can be said. Kane is unsanctimonious; it is without scenes of piety, masochism, or remorse, without “truths”—in that period when the screenwriters were becoming so politically “responsible” that they were using all the primitive devices to sell their messages, and movies once again became full of blind beggars, and omens of doom, and accidental death as punishment for moral and sexual infractions, and, of course, Maria Ouspenskaya seeing into people’s hearts—the crone as guru.


  1. Mark:

    This is interesting but I want to pick on this one bit from Kael's quote: "But when they became political in that mortally superior way of people who are doing something for themselves but pretending it’s for others. . ."

    In what way were those screenwriters "doing something for themselves"? Everything else about Kael's essay suggests that they really _were_ doing the "something"--in this case, writing "uplifting" but low-quality scripts--for others, not for themselves. Say, for example, that a guilt-ridden screenwriter was, for penance, writing boring scripts to keep the Communist Party happy. Bad move, at a personal, professional, and political level. But it's not something they're doing "for themselves"--except in the empty sense that everything we do is for ourselves.

    Kael also seems incoherent in that, on one hand, she blames political attitudes for lowering the quality of screenwriting; but, on the other hand, she says these screenwriters were mediocre anyway.

    1. Andrew:

      Part of the problem here is my excerpting. I cut the preceding paragraph where Kael discusses the style of 30s comedies (Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Mae West) that fell out of favor in the (what we would now call) politically correct 40s. I also left out important context about the writers and other artists in question.

      One of the major threads of “Raising Kane” is the story of the brightest and most celebrated (from the Algonquin Roundtable and the Mercury Players, all the way to William Faulkner) going west in pursuit of easy money. For a while, the party was splendid and the resulting work was great fun and sometimes just great, but… And that's where I picked it up.

      As for the selfishness question, we can go back and forth on the definition, but I think it's reasonable to argue that people who embrace fashionable causes then use them to criticize others and to advertise their own superiority are actually out for themselves (David Brooks prattling on about character and values comes to mind). God knows it has never been difficult to find examples in Hollywood.