The work of Elia Kazan will forever be clouded by his unfortunate relationship with the naming of names what marred American entertainment and politics during and after Joseph McCarthy. As such, when Kazan received an lifetime achievement award from The Academy, it was met with a degree of hostility and certainly seen as a betrayal to the idea of liberty and freedom. In doing so, one is led to question what it means to separate an artist from their work, or in turn, attach their name to any action. Indeed, it is not quite as troubling as what occurs regarding the virulent political attacks that Lee has become known for in the past few years and is certainly a far cry from the troubling attachments to the work of Polanski or Allen. I could never hope to speak to the layer of ethical issues at play in such divisions, but what I can assert is that distancing or rejection should be related to the degree of problematic action. For Kazan his betrayal of other entertainers was troubling in so much as it was tied to fears of blacklisting and political threats, to act in accordance with these was deemed a moment of backstabbing, but frankly it is situational and while few did take a stand the anxieties of communist invasions were so manifest that any disavowing was met with animosity. In contrast an issue of direct violation of another human beings liberty is far more troubling and worthy of chastizing, again a discussion for another location and certainly not the intent of this blog at large. I do provide this bit of a diatribe, because I find the continual exclusion of Kazan from the obtuse cannon for these political reasons f somewhat frustrating as in comparison to say D.W. Griffith and his rather blatant offenses, particularly since Kazan, I would argue is his film making equal. Having already seen and adored On The Waterfront and begrudgingly accepted A Streetcar Named Desire as a masterpiece, I understand the controversial director's ability to capture the common man and place him in a space of cinematic distress rivaled only by Italian Neorealism to be exceptional. What makes A Face in the Crowd all the more brilliant is that it takes this initial depiction of the man who is down and out on his luck and pushes it to the impossible by making the tale one of political aspiration, social expectation and cultural madness that is somehow deeply satirical, but also subtly disparaging. It is in a work like A Face in the Crowd that one can see flickers of inspiration for Altman, while also finding a heavy does of Shakespearian hubris at play. It is a film with a direct and realized intention and succeeds in its execution magnificently.
A Face in the Crowd begins rather inconspicuously in a jail cell where Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) a journalist and entertainer has taken her show A Face in the Crowd into said jail to find one of the many voices of America. While the persons present in the space of the jail are mostly dismissive, the warden promises one of the men in the space a chance at an early freedom if he provides Marcia with a song. The man in question Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith) agrees, albeit begrudgingly, and proceeds to belt out a fiery tune about what he believes to be an ill-fated promise on the art of the warden. After doing so, Marcia immediately realizes his potential, dubbing him Lonesome Rhodes and allowing him to speak more about his opinions, ones that immediately call attention to acts of oppression. Lonesome's particular swagger and sense of justice take off like wildfire and before he has even spent moments out of jail, he is offered a show on the local radio station, wherein he takes to task politicians and important figures alike, always and at once making advances towards Marcia, while also sleeping with women as he sees fit. When even this surge of success proves small, Lonesome is offered a show in Memphis complete with sponsorships and while he is initially flippant about the methods of television, the rough and tumble singer takes to the airwaves with equal fervor and every man ideologues. Through sheer magnitude and occasional drunkenness, Lonesome is able to exploit the act of television advertising by not playing the game per se, but by calling attention to its fabrication, specifically the selling of useless goods. Indeed, it is Lonesome's selling of a placebo pill called Vitajex that gets him the most acclaim, despite being fully aware that it is nothing more than sugar and caffeine coated in yellow coloring. With this act, Lonesome is capable of swaying opinion in a grand way or advancing a cause that is flailing, all the while ignoring his relationship with Marcia in favor of younger women and drink. This prideful approach to life pushes Lonesome to the heights of Madison Avenue, yet when one drunken, on air diatribe is unknowingly captured the bottom falls out for the provocateur and before losing out to his deals completely he attempts to envision his own future presidency, if only created as a result of the very entertainment-based fabrication that made his career in the first place.
The person on spectacle is frankly one of the major themes of my blog nowadays, I am fascinated by how the body is offered up cinematically and the way in which a particular performer can add or detract from the success of said spectacle. I know it was discussed for its celebratory manner in the previous post on John Woo's Once A Thief, but here it is almost knowingly ironic. Kazan, no stranger, to the way in which the male body can be constantly powerful in the cinematic presence, manages to still subvert the layers of desire, much as he does with the slightly feminized Brando in both Streetcar and Waterfront. Frankly, there is nothing feminine about Lonesome and Andy Griffith provides no moment where such an interpretation could be gleaned. Griffith pulls from a fire somewhere deep in his belly and bellows through his lines, even the ones of despair and angst. To place a version of masculinity such as this on display required both Kazan and Griffith to understand that it is not only fake, but in a constantly expanding form of performance. When one initially encounters the film, one might wonder how Griffith could ever hope to top that initial song of freedom as it is hardly contained within the confines of the jail, and by extension the frame of the shot. As Lonesome's popularity expands so do his opportunities to perform, either by using radio waves to call attention to the absurdity of domestic unpaid labor, while also enjoying the products of said labor, or to allow a space for working class kids to play at the expense of a wealthy radio tycoon, it is constantly growing and always threatening to explode. Take for example either Lonesome's initial television encounter or the absolutely thrilling Vitajex commercial, both have to move to multiple spaces to capture the exuberance of Lonesome, though multiple screens both diegetic and non to push his message, whereas the Vitajex commercial exists in a temporal and spatial impossibility that is matched only in the decadence of Busby Berkeley show numbers. Griffith's performance pushes the limits of filmic representation and Kazan constantly opens new doors for the growth to swelter, making the call to attention at the end all the more noted, as it relies on fabrication to succeed in the illusion, or rather disillusion. So what starts as a loving and endearing depiction of the down and out person growing to stardom shows that even this is met with pride-ridden downfall. To be allowed a voice in the space of entertainment is notedly powerful, but it is also one that must be always aware of its performance elements, even at its most ironic.
Key Scene: The Vitajex sequence really is quite amazing, I am quite earnest when I compare it to 30's era Busby Berkeley work.
A Face in the Crowd is one of the many gems that is laying in wait at the expansive Warner collection that is in a DVD-Bluray limbo. I cannot express enough how necessary it is to view this film. While, On The Waterfront will likely always be Kazan's most well-regarded work, A Face in the Crowd is quite possibly his true masterpiece.