Books postsFriday September 09, 2016
I came across the quote below while doing background for my review of “Jason Bourne” last month. It's a Google Books find: “The CIA in Hollywood: How the Agency Shapes Film and Television” by Tricia Jenkins. It's from her intro, and references an MSNBC article I wrote, “You're Not Reading This: The CIA in Hollywood Movies,” which was tied to the opening of Robert De Niro's “The Good Shepherd”:
Providing an astute summary in 2006, Erik Lundegaard argues that since its inception in 1947, the CIA has rarely been “front and center” in Hollywood films, and when it does appear on-screen, its representatives generally “skulk along the edges and in the shadows.” Yet even in this capacity, the CIA is primarily depicted as keeping tabs on famous citizens (Malcolm X), using innocent people as pawns (Ishtar), hanging its own agents out to dry (Spy Game), assassinating foreign and military leaders (Syriana and Apocalypse Now) and possibly the president of the United States (JFK) (see Table 1.1). “They can be blazingly efficient” or “buffoonishly incompetent,” Lundegaard writes, but either way, “they are always dangerous.”
That was kind of the heyday of my MSNBC time. I think I was allowed 2700 words on that subject. The following year I was cut back to 1500, then 1000. Then I was doing Top 5 pieces. Then they cut freelance altogether. Slow rise, quick death.
I'm glad Ms. Jenkins wrote the book (U Texas). Researching in 2006, I kept thinking, “There needs to be more on this. Someone needs to write a book.” For a time I thought about doing it myself. I still do.
The CIA, which hid from Hollywood for so long, is now doing the J. Edgar Hoover thing. No, not dresses. Since the '90s, they've had marketing people in Hollywood putting a better face on the agency. But it only works so well.
Take this with the usual SPOILER ALERTs, but in the new Netflix series “Stranger Things,” a much recommended amalgamation of the Steven/Stephens (Spielberg/King), a key reveal is that the CIA, or at least a CIA agent who goes off the reservation, 1) kidnaps a girl from her mother; 2) raises her in a lab to spy on the Russians; 3) accidentally contacts an alternate dimension; 4) rips a whole in the fabric of space, creating a portal to this other, decidedly sticky dimension; and, 5) murders civilians willy-nilly to keep all of this secret. So the PR only works so well. Still, the fact that in our entertainment we demonize the agency designed to keep us safe, to me says something pretty positive about our democracy.
When You Wish Upon a Star
I'm reading Neal Gabler's bio of Walt Disney, and it's good if long; portions could've used an editor. But the preface is breezy, a synopsis/analysis on the ying-yang of Disney—his love of nostalgia and the future, for example—and it includes this thought from Gabler:
... the most powerful source of his appeal as well as his greatest legacy may be that Walt Disney, more than any other American artist, defined the terms of wish fulfillment and demonstrated on a grand scale to his fellow Americans, and ultimately to the entire world, how one could be empowered by fantasy—how one could learn, in effect, to live within one’s own illusions and even to transform the world into those illusions.
I think this is true and it's in now way a positive. It's the forerunner to Ronald Reagan and Karl Rove and now Donald J. Trump. How thin is the line between the Big Lie and Hollywood wish fulfillment? Isn't the Big Lie just wish fulfillment? Aren't politicians and moviemakers both giving the people what they want? To get over their troubles? The movies just do it for two hours; the politicians we're stuck with for four years.
The real problem is when people can't distinguish between the two. I think we're in that territory now. I think a portion of the populace has been in that territory all of my life.
Famous Last Words: Fred Quimby
“Walt had gone to see Fred Quimby at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with the hope, at the very least, of getting a competing bid to put pressure on [early Disney distributor Charles] Mintz, but Quimby told him that 'Cartoons [were] on the wane' and said he was not interested.”
-- from Neal Gabler's biography “Walt Disney.” The above meeting took place in Feb. 1928. A few weeks later, Disney did the first sketch on the character below. This is like the Decca exec saying “Guitar groups are on the way out” to the Beatles in 1962. Better.
The Last Word on the Hollywood Blacklist*
Another Lillian Hellman quote from “Scoundrel Time.” She's writing about the moguls, the Eastern European Jewish men who came to power in Hollywood:
Certainly they had force and daring, but by the time of McCarthy they had grown older and wearier. Threats that might once have been laughed about over a gin rummy game now seemed dangerous to their fortunes. Movie producers knew full well that the Communists of Hollywood had never made a single Communist picture, but they were perfectly willing to act as dupes for those who pretended that was a danger.
That's the key, really. There were Communists in Hollywood, and many of them pushed to get their ideas into their screenplays (as every writer does), but they didn't come close to succeeding. You could argue that the most pro-Communist movie during this period was “Mission to Moscow,” directed by a non-communist, written by a non-communist, based on a memoir by a non-communist, and produced at virulently anti-communist Warner Bros. As for communists like John Howard Lawson? He wrote action movies for Humphrey Bogart. The blacklist was paranoia, or a power grab, or a pogrom.
* Not my last word, mind you.
The Bravery of the Staircase
Lillian Hellman stood up to HUAC better than most, and risked a lot (and lost a lot) in doing so. But in her 1976 memoir “Scoundrel Time” she felt she didn't risk/do enough. This is what she wished she'd said to HUAC committee members:
There is no Communist menace in this country and you know it. You have made cowards into liars, an ugly business, and you made me write a letter in which I acknowledged your power. I should have gone into your Committee room, given my name and address, and walked out.
Many people have said they liked what I did, but I don't much, and if I hadn't worried about rats in jail, and such. ... Ah, the bravery you tell yourself was possible when it's all over, the bravery of the staircase.