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On the Waterfront (Old American Films)

I appear to be developing this thing for old American films. I have a real thing for the black and white films of the fifties and sixties, for example.

I am, by no means, an expert of the era, and I'm not going to go round and claim to be. I figure that time has stripped back some of the shit that was made during the era and left me with a cleaner bubble to tour, though no doubt a lot of good stuff has been lost, too, of course. Yet still, as much as I dislike blanket statements about the state of film and literature, modern American films are really not doing it for me of late. I suppose that's to be expected when one of the most 'important' directors of the last twenty years has turned out to be the pro-war and racist Steven Spielberg, whose films insult me on such a deep, deep level that no detour in a paragraph to point this out is too far for me to go. The danger, however, when I do this, is that I will dissolve into a long rant about how much of a negative influence he has been on American film that, really, I simply won't talk about a film I like. So I will stop. Right now. But if someone makes a Steven Spielberg is a Pro-War Racist and Fuck Him and His Shitty Films t-shirt, consider me down for one. If it's worth saying, it's worth saying on a t-shirt.

Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront, however, was a film that was released in 1954, and should you not have seen it, no doubt you will have seen the scene where Marlon Brando, playing ex-boxer Terry Malloy, is sitting in a cab with his brother, Charlie (Rod Steiger), and says, "I could've had class. I could've been a contender. I could've been somebody."

It's a good line, though somewhat diluted by its repetition throughout pop culture, and some people might be surprised to learn that it is said as Charlie takes Terry to a meeting with the corrupt union bosses, where they plan to kill him. Charlie is trying, in that moment, to convince his brother not to speak out against the corruption and, with his confusion and anguish finally gaining voice, Terry asks him why he didn't look out for him more, why he didn't protect him, and why he didn't act like more of a brother. In response to this moment, Charlie does, indeed, perform his brotherly duty, and the rest of the film's narrative happens in response to this one action.

I guess I have jumped around on explaining the film, but I figure, really, most people are familiar with it. If you're not, the premise is that, Terry, a washed up boxer with a relationship with the union, arranges a meeting between a Joey Doyle and union boss, Johnny Friendly, which results in Doyle being thrown from the roof of a building. Unaware that this had been planned from the start, Terry struggles with the guilt of this act, and the growing realisation that Friendly's corruption on the docks is kept by keeping men desperate, and by terrorising those who would speak out against it. While he is on the inside of it, Terry, now thirty, and nobody, is also slowly realising that he too has suffered at the hands of Friendly, mostly in his boxing career. This realisation is further influenced by his interactions and growing attraction to Edie Doyle, the sister of Joey, and by Father Barry's campaign to righten the docks. As a film, On the Waterfront captures a certain moment in American history, and it is difficult to argue that it is anything but anti-union in its stance, and it can even be further argued that its elevation into such an important position in American cinema represents an ideological point of view from a certain part of America that aimed to break the hold of unions in the country. Or, perhaps not. American union history is certainly not my strong point. However, it is difficult to watch the film and not view it as an act of propaganda, even as it is, by its own rights, a very watchable and fine film, made so entirely by Kazan's tight direction and Brando's fine performance--and also by performances by Lee Cobb, Pat Henning and others (I suppose people will add Karl Madden, but I've always found Madden to be a somewhat flawed actor, myself).

My mention of Spielberg, so aimlessly caustic earlier, can come back here. Whereas a film like On the Waterfront is no more politically motivated than Saving Private Ryan, though albeit with different motivations, since Spielberg is concerned with portraying World War 2 as the Last Good and Righteous War Against Villianous Cowardly Germans and With Heroic Ordinary Men... wait, wait, wait, getting carried away, again. The point I am trying to make is that, even though both films have an agenda, there is a sweetness, a manipulative use of emotion in Spielberg's film (this is perhaps Spielberg's strongest influence on American cinema) that is not in Kazan's On the Waterfront. The final moments, when Brando, battered and bruised, walks in to the docks to work does, yes, work on the emotions of the viewer, and aims to influence them in relation to the power and triumph of the individual, especially over corrupt mob bosses, but by placing the moment on the back of Brando's Terry, by rising him, finally, to be someone, Kazan ties the moment to the character at the centre of the film that the viewer can, if he or she wishes, chose to ignore the political statement being made. No viewer is given this choice in any Spielberg film. You are, from the moment any Spielberg film begins, being manipulated emotionally for his political purposes--you can not watch Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List and not feel yourself being manipulated, preached too, and ultimately fucked over by these films and the mind behind them...

...and I'm getting caught up in that hate again. I just don't know what comes over me. Spielberg, red flag. Why is he still making films?

Anyhow: what I can say is if you haven't seen On the Waterfront, it's worth the time. Brando is quite fine in it. I prefer the Kazan/Brando A Street Car Named Desire, simply because it's more complex, and layered, but you can't go wrong with either film.

Comments

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angriest
May. 16th, 2007 02:33 am (UTC)
So in what way precisely is Spielberg racist? By hating Nazis?
benpeek
May. 16th, 2007 02:39 am (UTC)
i knew you'd reply to that :)

anyhow, it's germans. i find it somewhat telling when your 'nazis' in indiana jones are the same 'nazis' in saving private ryan--that is, lying, decietful fucks who shoot tom hanks after he shows them mercy.
angriest
May. 16th, 2007 02:51 am (UTC)
Spielberg's spoken a lot about his regret for using the Nazis as cartoon-like buffoons in two out of three Indiana Jones movies and 1941 (by the way, if you wanted to make a case for Spielberg's films being racist, you should've gone for his colonial treatment of Indian culture in Temple of Doom). In many ways his treatment of Nazi Germany in Schindler's List is a direct response to his own poor use of them in early films.

I didn't find the use of Nazis in Saving Private Ryan to be racist at all. The soldier they let go was naturally going to rejoin a unit and continue fighting the Allied forces - it's what he was trained to do.
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benpeek
May. 16th, 2007 02:41 am (UTC)
cool, man, i'll keep a look out--i've seen failsafe, i think, but years ago, now.

howard isn't so bad for me. possibly because i haven't seen that many films of his.
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mariness
May. 16th, 2007 02:46 am (UTC)
Dinosaurs. Money. Indiana Jones. More money. Little cute aliens who eat Reese's pieces. Lots of money. Dinosaurs. Even more money.

Hollywood's motivations are pretty basic, you know.
benpeek
May. 16th, 2007 02:50 am (UTC)
you're forgetting: 'telling german's how much you hate them.'
mariness
May. 16th, 2007 03:07 am (UTC)
Yes, but that's not the prime reason Hollywood continues to support him. They support him for the same reason they supported Peter Jackson's bloated King Kong project: because Speilberg has made piles of cash.

BTW, have you ever read How the Jews Invented Hollywood? The anti-Nazi stuff has been there for a logn time-- it was even thrown into Robin Hood (the Errol Flynn), which was explicibly filmed as an attempt to increase popular sentiment against Nazi Germany. When I originally saw the film, I only saw sword fighting fun and Olivia de Haviliand doing something other than "Help me Scarlett"; when I rewatched it, knowing the intent of the director and producers, it was a revelation.

Contrast that with the extremely racist, and astoundingly anti-war film Gone With the Wind, which was filmed to keep the U.S. out of war with Germany (well, and to cash in on a hugely successful book.) Then realize that they were filmed at approximately the same time.

Als
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angriest
May. 16th, 2007 02:57 am (UTC)
There's a lot more to Spielberg than that. A continued obsession with broken American families, absent or replacement father figures, the Second World War, nostalgia, a regular assumption of other director's stylish trademarks (Spielberg-as-Hitchcock in Jaws, Spielberg-as-Lean in Empire of the Sun, etc).

I mean let's ignore most of his career. Anyone who makes Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. deserves more respect that Spielberg sometimes gets.
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mariness
May. 16th, 2007 03:09 am (UTC)
I was mostly attempting to answer Ben's question -- why does Hollywood continue to support Spielberg? And the reason is very simple: his movies have made piles of cash. Hollywood continues to support Mel Gibson for the exact same reason: The Passion of Christ made piles of cash. It's not a particularly artistic or political motive.
barthanderson
May. 16th, 2007 02:50 am (UTC)
>Why is he still making films?

Because Americans don't trust their own minds, feelings, or points of view. They want manipulation because they trust it.

Thanks for your thoughts on On the Waterfront.
benpeek
May. 16th, 2007 02:52 am (UTC)
no hassle, man.
elenuial
May. 16th, 2007 04:19 am (UTC)
On some level, I have to wonder if you're mixing up your feelings over content and craft. I don't know if I'd agree that Kazan's politics are any more "ignorable" than Spielberg's. The politics (sexual, racial, social, etc.) are implicit to the message in nearly any piece of media, and the only thing that makes it ultimately "ignorable" is consumer acknowledgement and choice.

I mean, take your standard children's film (eg "Mimsy"). I absolutely cannot watch them because of the heteronormal message implicit in them, even if they don't touch on such topics at all. The very fact that every protagonist is white, gender-typed, and upper middle class with a family that reacts in stereotypical conditioned ways to the world around grates on my sensibilities, because it subtly promotes the message, "This is normal. This is right." It doesn't show anything else as a possibility. The world of the film is the world as it should be, and the minds of children are getting reinforced into that.

To me, that's much more insidious than any overt politics that the consumer can easily recognize and choose to ignore. I guess you're saying that it's harder to recognize it in Spielberg, but I guess I disagree. I think it's all too easy, all too overt, in most cases.

Besides, the man knows how to craft a film, and that's worth something in the end. I mean, you may or may not like Harlan Ellison as a person (I don't know, do you? I don't...), but you have to admit that he at least knows the craft of writing. And, as someone who studies craft, that's pretty important and worth respecting.
benpeek
May. 16th, 2007 04:36 am (UTC)
you can read a political stance into any film/book/whatever, even if it is, at its base, the heteronormality that you bring up in relation to MIMSY. (i don't know the film, tho--i'm kinda anti YA stuff, just because i like things a bit more complex.) however, things such as heteronormality, or white people being portrayed as 'natural' (eg, you can as Asian Australian to describe someone who is, like, asian and born and living in australia, but when you say Australian, for most people, that's just a white person.) that kind of stuff, to me at least, isn't so much about politics as it is about reflecting the way in which creators see themselves. by that, i mean, they're not making the political statement, and would probably resist any idea that they are--but the fault is a social and cultural one, rather than a creator one, if you follow me?

(which is not to say it's right--it's not. but it's a different argument, i think.)

it is perhaps true that i do take an easy choice on ignoring the kazan politics. i'm not american. i don't have anything to do with unions. none of these push me. however, i loathe racism, and any example of simplisity in relation to race portrayals shits to me to know end. so, y'know...

still, i do think that spielberg (who at any rate, i view as a middle of the road director at the best of times) simply can't control the manipulation of emotions in his films. i doubt he could strip it back, and it feels the same, often, in all his films--to the point that it often overwhelms everything else. so, i figure, craft issue.

as for ellison, i like some of his work. i've never met him, so i have no opinion of him personally.
elenuial
May. 16th, 2007 04:48 am (UTC)
I see your point in differentiating between the two arguments. Still, it's the former that annoys me more than the latter because over politics are just that much easier to ignore.

Curious though: is there a movie that tackles race portrayals in a way that you like? Explicitly or not, that is.

Re: emotional manipulation

I'd see that more as a point of style, but I can definitely see how it could also be a craft issue. If he honestly can't not do it, then that's probably the case. But isn't that also some folks' definition of style? :)
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mattdoyle
May. 16th, 2007 06:22 am (UTC)
ok, ive never even heard of this film mimsy, but, if it does portray white, middle-class normativity as elenuial says, it may not, as you said ben, be making a political statement; it may just be reflecting the cultural environment of the creator...however, because it is an established norm, there is of course no need to make a political statement. if something is viewed as normal, it requires no statement at all, it is taken for granted as normal. it reinforcement of values is therefore subtle and understated because normativity grants privelege.

if, however, i was to make a children's film about gay asian kids living in the slums (which, come to think of it, sounds fab!), it WOULD be considered a political statement. The absence of a clear political statement for the normative does not necessarily make it apolitical however.

there's a double standard i think, which implies that the more "normal" you are, the less political you are. i think, though, that there is a lot of semantic crossing of wires between "political" and "controversy" though..some ppl seem to use them interchangably. people tend to think that you are only being political when you are being loud and boisterous and controversial, but i think it is a lot more complex than that.
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ex_chrisbil
May. 16th, 2007 12:25 pm (UTC)
I guess you never watched Munich, Ben, if you already hated Spielberg! I'm no fan, but I liked that. I thought it gave an interesting (I'm reluctant to say accurate) account of the blurred lines after the event. The event itself was portrayed as a pretty one-sided and brutal act by the t... t... aggressors.

Hey, my knowledge of fifties/sixties black and white American film is somewhat limited - my studies back at A-Level covered British New Wave of the same time, which is completely different - but I'm a huge fan of High Noon, Rebel Without A Cause and Twelve Angry Men. I'm curious in particular about your thoughts on the first one.
benpeek
May. 16th, 2007 02:01 pm (UTC)
yeah, i didn't see MUNICH. i thought about it for eric bana, but in the end, my days of spielbergness are long gone.

i don't actually think i've ever seen HIGH NOON, btw. i know it, of course--and i've seen the other two. but that first? man, fuck me, but i don't think i have.
ex_chrisbil
May. 16th, 2007 02:46 pm (UTC)
I was once told that Fonda is particularly interesting in 12 Angry Men as it's his first role as someone who's not a bad guy. However, I'm not a hundred percent sure that that's true... if it is, though, it would have put a whole different perspective on the film for audiences back in the day, eh?

You should check out High Noon. I'm impressed by any film that tells the entire story in a ballad during the opening credits, and still keeps the audience utterly entranced throughout. Lots of other cool in it, too.
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kellyshaw
May. 16th, 2007 05:03 pm (UTC)
Kazan
A lot has been written here, so someone may have already mentioned this. But you cannot watch or contemplate ON THE WATERFRONT without considering the following:

"Kazan's later career was marked by his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the postwar "Red Scare", in which he "named names...At first, although Kazan agreed to testify before HUAC, and readily admitted his former membership in the Communist Party, he refused to name others who had been members. But Kazan felt increasing pressure from Hollywood studio management to cooperate with the Committee and provided the names of former Party members or those connected with Party activities, in order to preserve his career."

I.E. Kazan ruined the careers and lives of many, many innocent folks in Hollywood, and ON THE WATERFRONT plays like a personal-justification of his heinous action. I think it's a great, classic Hollywood film, but one with mired in quite a bit of off-screen political history.
benpeek
May. 16th, 2007 11:15 pm (UTC)
Re: Kazan
yeah, by all accounts. i don't know much of that stuff though, so thanks for stopping by with it :)
ironed_orchid
May. 21st, 2007 12:52 pm (UTC)
But if someone makes a Steven Spielberg is a Pro-War Racist and Fuck Him and His Shitty Films t-shirt, consider me down for one. If it's worth saying, it's worth saying on a t-shirt.

I want this so much that I might even wear a t-shirt with words on it.

Missed this post earlier... happens.
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