Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

(Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment via

Suppose I tell you exactly what's gonna happen to you. You're gonna be back in television. Only it won't be quite the same as it was before. There'll be a reasonable cooling-off period and then somebody will say: "Why don't we try him again in a inexpensive format. People's memories aren't too long."

And you know, in a way, he'll be right. Some of the people will forget, and some of them won't. Oh, you'll have a show. Maybe not the best hour or, you know, top 10. Maybe not even in the top 35. But you'll have a show. It just won't be quite the same as it was before.

Then a couple of new fellas will come along. And pretty soon, a lot of your fans will be flocking around them. And then one day, somebody'll ask: "Whatever happened to, a, whatshisname? You know, the one who was so big. The number-one fella a couple of years ago. He was famous. How can we forget a name like that? Oh by the way, have you seen, a, Barry Mills? I think he's the greatest thing since Will Rogers."

The above monologue (I know, lengthy chunk of text but bear with me) is delivered by Walther Matthau's character Mel Miller, the Vanderbilt-educated TV writer, to the fallen television idol, Arkansas folk-hero turned megalomaniac "Lonesome" Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith in a knockout film debut). Although A Face in the Crowd was released over 50 years ago as a respone to the death of radio in the face of television, Elia Kazan's film couldn't be any more relevant than it is now.

Video killed the radio star, then the Internet brutally had its way with the remains of both, while taking newspapers, magazines and basically any other form of non-wifi friendly mobile media along too. When I interviewed Carlos Cuaron for his directorial feature debut, Rudo Y Cursi, he talked about the idea of this sort of American Idol/ YouTube-driven culture breeds disposable celebrities - they are, as Cuaron put it, garbage.

And while I don't think Kazan or screenwriter Budd Schulberg were as concerned with the disposability of media sensations as they were their social responsibilities (though as witnessed in the Watthau monologue, it certainly comes up), it's impossible for contemporary audiences not to think of today's quick-fix, empty entertainment when watching A Face in the Crowd. Or at least it should be impossible - I'm pretty certain that the people going out of their way to watch Kazan's masterpiece are the sort who would make that connection.

On the surface, the story follows the classic power-corrupts-the mind/soul structure with Rhodes's unlikely rise from an Arkansas jail to the national spotlight. Under the guidance of an unsuspecting Marcia Jefferies (Particia Neal), Rhodes becomes the no-bullshit voice of the people. He's not the brightest bulb in the pack, but he knows it well enough to exploit his shortcomings and spin them to his advantage. Because what he does have is Southern smalltown charm, a bit of cunning and a guitar.

Warner Home Video brought Kazan's film to DVD in 2005, and the timing couldn't have been any more perfect. Especially as Rhodes moves from advertising shill to political lackey for an up-and-coming conservative Senator, the riffs on image control and the television age combined with Lonseome's Southern dimwit appeal ... well it's downright reminiscent of those recently departed storm clouds we know as the Bush Administration.

Rhodes's racket is TV, but the gross manipulation of the American masses -- the "rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers" or "sheep" as he eventually calls them -- is pure modern politics. Granted he's far more articulate than our most recent former president, but Rhodes is that guy you just want to sit down and have a drink with. At least until fame and money becomes too much.

The predictability of Rhodes's demise is an issue Kazan and Schulberg get away with for several reasons, not the least of which is Griffith's shear magneticism in the lead. Griffith manages to play Rhodes somewhere in between a wolf in sheeps' clothing or a sheep in wolves' clothing. Off the camera, he's a needy, womanizing alcoholic brimming with insecurity, apologizing and pleading all the way to the end.

Still, we never question Marcia's fatal attraction to the media nightmare she inadvertantly unleashed. She is the brains behind the operation, the mostly innocent party who controls Rhodes to the best of her ability, until he just about bursts through his britches. Mel -- who Rhodes initially taunts for his Vandy background (the anti-intellectualism is another connection to the Bush era mentality) -- never professes his love for Marcia, though it's painfully clear. He knows he is dealing with a woman who is tied to something more than an idea - he's competing with an entire failed idyll.

Edward R. Murrow's assessment of television at the 1958 RTNDA convention echoes A Face in the Crowd's deadly view of television's effect on the masses: "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful."

And, like any weapon, in the wrong hands it can breed "ignorance, intolerance and indifference" rather than fight against it. The shadows and darkness brooding through Harry Strandling's crisp black and white cinematography also lurk in the hearts of the advertisers, programmers, the star and, yes, even the relative innocents like Marcia. For even after Rhodes stabs her in the back (figuratively), she continues to sit in the sidelines and watch. The show, and Rhodes, just seem to suck people in.

Those who continue to fuel the fire are just as guilty as the firestarters, and maybe that's more my read on things and the current sad state of entertainment than what we actually see in A Face in the Crowd. But in an age of micro-blogging (full disclosure: I have a Twitter page ... doesn't make me proud about it, but what can you do?), recyclable YouTube stars, Celebrity Fit Club and all that other mind-rotting shit, Kazan and Schulberg's lesson on the power of celebrity image is one you can't help expanding on.

Is that what makes A Face in the Crowd great cinema? I'm not sure if I can answer that. The film is beautifully shot, impeccably acted and the story carries you along from beginning to end. Kazan and Schulberg probablly didn't have a clue just how prophetic the film would be, but that's how things usually work out. When George Orwell wrote 1984, he said he wasn't writing about the future - he was writing about the present, and my guess is that's how Schulberg felt when he wrote the short story and then adapted it into A Face in the Crowd.

You could say (and many people have) that On The Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden are all timeless films, if not the indistubatle widely-recognized Kazan masterpieces. But A Face in the Crowd feels made for the here and now, and however inadvertantly, manages to comment on our current social condition more than any of those aforementioned classics.

Does that make it the best film of the bunch? Probably not, but that doesn't make it any less essential.

And now, I defer to YouTube, a weapon I strive to use for good and not for watching Pandas sneeze or whatever.

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