Friday, August 18, 2017

Meet “Meet John Doe”

Today, while questions of political leadership are dominating our national conversation, Frank Capra’s  1941 Meet John Doe has an unexpected resonance. Though the details of this Robert Riskin comedy-drama are eccentric and even bizarre, the story has some relevant things to say about ethics in the world of mass media.  

Meet John Doe starts out with the takeover of a popular urban newspaper by a tycoon (Edward Arnold) looking to score political points. His goal for his paper is the sort of slash-and-burn journalism practiced today by Rupert Murdoch and sons. Journalistic standards be damned: what had been The Bulletin is now to become “The New Bulletin – A Streamlined Paper for a Streamlined Era.” 
On the chopping block are most of the newsroom’s staff, including feisty Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck). Furious at being canned and then expected to cough up a final column, she invents a heart-tugging letter from one John Doe, a jobless man who plans to jump to his death from the City Hall tower on Christmas Eve in a protest against society’s failings. Yes—fake news at its finest.

The outcry from the public leads Ann and her editor to search out a John Doe stand-in, someone who can be manipulated into keeping readers interested. Many out-of-work men apply, claiming to have written the letter. But the nod goes to Gary Cooper’s John Willoughby, a former baseball player with a wounded wing,  He admits the letter is not his, though he badly needs a job. Ultimately his brawny good looks and his aw-shucks manner make him an appealing John Doe substitute. This is yet another of Cooper’s great man-of-the-people performances, perhaps his finest. (He was to win a Best Actor Oscar for another 1941 common-man role, that of the heroic Sergeant York.)

Now that a fake John Doe is on the team, Ann feeds him talking-points about how people need to be more neighborly to one another. Too honest a guy to accept the subterfuge for long, he goes on the lam with harmonica-playing buddy Walter Brennan, intending to leave John Doe far behind. A stop at a rural diner, though, persuades him that his John Doe persona is needed by the American public. In fact, everyday folks all over the US of A are spontaneously founding John Doe Clubs as a way of increasing neighborliness in local communities. Despite it all, he’s a hero.

This is when, of course, the nefarious newspaper publisher comes in. Determined to take advantage of John Doe’s hold on the heart of the common man, he launches a huge rally at which Cooper’s character is expected to endorse him and his brand-new political party. His ultimate goal: the White House. But his hope of populism-run-amok is foiled when Willoughby again refuses to be a party to the deception. The publisher retaliates by spreading the word that John Doe is a fake. Which leads to a thoroughly-humiliated Cooper deciding to jump off the tower for real. As his suicide becomes imminent, various forces align to save his life. Care to guess if there’s a happy ending?

Frank Capra has always been revered for his warm depictions of American life. In this mid-career work (one of two films he directed for Warner Bros. after leaving his home at Columbia Pictures), he showed his skill with actors, including those in supporting roles. It’s strange, though, to see a Hollywood film so obsessed with the notion of suicide. And Capra’s iconic faith in common folk at times seems misplaced. Still, in this day and age, seeing people stand up to bullies is a major treat.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

“Here’s Looking at You, Casablanca”

Casablanca lives on, at the intersection of Lincoln Blvd. and Rose Avenue, not far from me in Venice, California. It’s true there’s nothing even faintly Moroccan about this nearly forty-year-old restaurant: its menu features California-Mexican cuisine, complete with margaritas, guacamole, and flour tortillas made on the spot. But Casablanca Restaurant does boast Casbah-style décor, and  houses a prime collection of memorabilia from the 1942 movie. The restaurant’s founders were so enamored of the denizens of Rick’s Café Américain that their parking lot has assigned parking spaces for Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, and the rest of the movie’s featured players, should they deign to show up. 

Noah Isenberg, though SoCal born, doesn’t seem to know about Venice’s Casablanca Restaurant. But his new We’ll Always Have Casablanca is a paean to the many ways in which the seventy-five-year-old film – “Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie” – is still with us today. This is the place to find comic allusions to Casablanca on The Simpsons and Saturday Night Life; he also tracks down various literary attempts, some of them bizarre, to update the love story of Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund, chronicling what happens after he urges her to get on that plane with her husband because “the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Isenberg even introduces Rick’s Café Casablanca, a picturesque nightspot opened in 2004 by a former U.S. diplomat in Morocco to serve those who hanker for good seafood amid nostalgic reminders of a movie that was filmed in its entirety on the Warner Bros. backlot.

Though Casablanca is best remembered as a love story, it owes its impact partly to the fact that it was released just as Hitler and his Nazis were overrunning Europe. Isenberg is at his best in focusing on a cast filled with actual refugees, actors who’d fled to Hollywood from such places as Austria, Germany, and France to escape Nazi persecution. (Some of them ended up playing Nazi on screen to make ends meet.) The actors’ own personal sense of loss helps explain why the scene containing the singing of the Marseillaise in support of the Free French packs such a wallop. He also makes the excellent point that Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, the detached cynic who finally chooses political involvement, nicely represents the attitude of many Americans before (and even after) Pearl Harbor. The American public in the 1940s, notes Isenberg, tended to prefer isolationism, but films like Casablanca helped sell the appeal of  a principled commitment to solving the world’s larger problems. Jack and Harry Warner, themselves from a Jewish immigrant background, boldly used their films in this period to address the specter of Nazism in Europe. One irony: though Casablanca highlights the desperation of the refugees, the specific threat to Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe is never mentioned. 

 Isenberg also traces the popularity of Casablanca into the Sixties, when scores of young campus activists identified with Humphrey Bogart’s iconic blend of idealism and cynical cool. That’s why Bogart-as-Rick posters were so visible in college dorm rooms in my day, and why theatres like the Brattle near Harvard University played Casablanca as part of an end-of-term ritual for many years. Now, as the Syrian refugee crisis makes headlines, the public’s appreciation for Casablanca seems to have waned not at all.  It turns out that Senator Elizabeth Warren, of all people, watches the film each New Year’s Eve, seeing in it much relevance to our nation of immigrants. “Each time I watch it,” she writes, “Casablanca gives me hope.”

Friday, August 11, 2017

Wild About Nature: Gary Ferguson’s "The Carry Home"

It’s a common Hollywood trope: people are transformed when they go back to nature. Think of the number of movies in which, while traipsing through the wilderness, protagonists discover their innermost selves, or confront their fundamental fears, or make peace with their haunted past. From the last decade alone, I can name several such films, all of them based on true stories of present-day Americans who—after a trip deep into nature—will never again be the same. There is, for instance, 127 Hours, in which James Franco, portraying the impetuous Aron Ralston, discovers the inner strength it will take to free himself after being pinned down by a boulder. In 2007’s Into the Wild, a young man played by Emile Hirsch journeys all the way to Alaska before realizing that his need for human contact is even greater than his obsession with the out-of-doors. And in 2014’s Wild, a recent divorcee named Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) hits the road, hiking from the Mojave Desert to the border of Washington State, in search of self-redemption and relief from the memories of her mother’s fatal illness.

Strayed’s journey up the Pacific Crest Trail spotlights how ill-equipped she is at the start of her trek. Gary Ferguson’s wilderness journey is quite, quite different, but equally compelling. Though at its core is an intense grief, the story he tells in The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness builds to an unexpectedly upbeat ending. Ferguson, an award-winning essayist and science writer, was married for 25 years to a fellow Indianan named Jane. As Ferguson puts it in his beautifully lyrical prose, “We’d been restless children, destined to become restless adults. Proud members of the last generation to soothe the anger of youth not with Ritalin, but with road trips.” 

The couple, bonding over a mutual love of nature, spent their lives both working and playing in the great outdoors. While Gary pursued his writing career from their Montana home base, Jane introduced young people to the beauties of Yellowstone National Park, and also served on search-and-rescue teams. For fun they hiked, skied, and canoed. It was a springtime canoe trip on Canada’s Kopka River, “when the leaves of the north country were washed in that impossible shade of lemonade green,” that the end came for Jane. After a tragic spill, Gary crawled away with a badly broken leg, but the waters claimed Jane’s life.

Gary explains what happened next, after Jane’s body was recovered and the local authorities dismissed their first assumption that the drowning involved foul play: “My redemption would come in the form of a last request Jane had made years before, asking me if she died, to scatter her ashes in her five favorite wilderness areas. And so I did. Five trips to five unshackled landscapes. At first, the journeys broke my heart. Later they helped me piece it together again.” His book cuts between a step-by-step accounting of that last fatal day on the river and a travelogue of the journeys he took, first alone and then with others, to return what was left of Jane to the wilderness that had claimed her life. We feel his emotions evolving, helped along by the passage of time and by some Native American wisdom that allowed him to slowly absorb the fact of her death into his own ongoing existence. Early in The Carry Home , Ferguson speaks of a “life lived as though nature were both wings and nest.” At the book’s end, having survived a tragic loss, he can again look to nature for inspiration and for solace. 

Here’s a link to Thomas Curwen’s deeply-felt Los Angeles Times story about the end of Gary Ferguson’s grief journey. Curwen was a participant in that last hike.