This year for the eighth summer in succession I presented—along with free pizza—a collection of old movies on a theme. The theme of this year’s series, jointly sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where I am a resident scholar, and the Hudson Institute in Washington, where the films were shown, was “Middle America and the Movies.” There were six selections, all of them having something to do with the Midwest as seen from Hollywood and, therefore, as in some sense representative of the country as a whole in a way that Hollywood itself never quite managed to be—though it used to come a whole lot closer than it does today. Four of the six movies were set, wholly or partly, in Indiana, which I take to be the movie capital’s Platonic ideal of a Midwestern state, and which was as well the original home of The American Spectator. In fact, Steve Tesich, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Breaking Away (1979), the final movie in the series, was a fraternity brother and roommate of the Spectator’s own R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., at Indiana University in Bloomington, where the film was set.
Breaking Away, directed by Peter Yates, along with the first of this year’s films, the less well known Remember the Night (1940), may also give us the best clue as to what it is that the movies find evocative or significant about the Midwest and its distinctive brand of Americana and Americanism. For in all these movies, the look inward also tends to involve a look backward. Sometimes this portrait of the American past is only allusive, as in the two films already mentioned, and sometimes it is more direct, as in the other four films in the series, all of them set in the past. Three of the four—King’s Row and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942 both), and On Moonlight Bay (1951)—take as their temporal locus the period around the turn of the last century up to America’s entry into World War I in 1917. On Moonlight Bay ends with the hero, William Sherman (Gordon MacRae) on the point of going off to war, but with no slightest hint on the part of the filmmakers—Roy Del Ruth directed this adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s “Penrod” stories by Jack Rose and Melville Shavelson—that he might not come back to his Indiana home in the same mental and physical condition as when he left it.
In that picture, as in Remember the Night, which was written by the great Preston Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen, the early years of the twentieth century are seen as a time when America was at her best, and when there must have seemed a general agreement that the best of America was the Midwest. By contrast, King’s Row and Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, also an adaptation from Booth Tarkington, show the progressive impulse looking back on the same period, although not without affection, as more a time of innocence, not to say naiveté, with little to offer the present but a lesson in the advisability of submission to the onward thrust of moral and material progress. The backward look in the final two films in the series, Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and Breaking Away, is toward the much more recent past of the 1950s, though Badlands, like the other films Mr. Malick has made since—notably The New World and The Tree of Life—also has its eye on an imaginary or mythical past of unspoiled purity before the shackles of society and civilization were placed on us. And by “us,” of course, I mean those of us who allow ourselves be flattered into joining him and other fashionably lonely survivors, in imagination, after civilization’s disappearance. It describes a time when what there is of humankind is supposed to have lived in harmony with nature and away from the corrupting influence of, you know, people. The idea of the unspoiled frontier, whose potency throughout the history of the movies to that point had always had to do with its being seen as past and settled, took on a new lease of life with Terrence Malick, as it did with the hippies at about the same period, when it was re-imagined as a freer alternative to the disappointing American present for those willing to simplify their lives.
Innocence is also a central theme of Breaking Away, but there it is a more down-to-earth sort of innocence presented to us without that distinctively American longing for those imagined wide open and empty spaces. One of the main characters, it’s true, fantasizes about sleeping under the stars in Wyoming, but this remains as much a fantasy as the hero’s affectation of an Italian accent and culture. Innocence is ignorance in this movie, not a sentimental romantic fantasy but something that must end with the youth that an old world realism tells us must and should be lost before we can take up our natural and inevitable position in an inevitable community and economy. Steve (birth name Stojan) Tesich, now alas deceased, was a Serb, a refugee from the former Yugoslavia, who always had a refugee’s love for and gratitude toward this country, as well as a critical perspective on it quite unlike that of Terrence Malick and other progressives of the 1970s who believed in the fantasy of extended innocence of the hippy philosophers, and that our transplanted European civilization had only destroyed some better thing that it had displaced.
Mr. Malick’s independent film Badlands and King’s Row by Sam Wood, a typical product of the studio system, are both manifestations of a kind of innocence-ignorance on the part of the filmmakers that answers the more common kind they both portray, and which keeps me from being as hard on them as they no doubt deserve. The difference is that King’s Row, starring Ronald Reagan in his greatest screen role, is innocently hopeful about the power of science and enlightenment to bring human life on earth nearer to perfection, while Badlands strikes one—it strikes me, at any rate—as close to despair about human possibility as anything much above the animal level achieved by its two morally unschooled heroes, played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. The movie achieves a kind of emotional quiescence by reassuring us not only that Mr. Sheen’s serial killer, Kip, simply doesn’t know any better but that it is pointless to expect him or his kind to know any better.
The fantasy of innocence here is also a fantasy of exemption from moral responsibility, which is swallowed up along with the former American civilization in the vast, indifferent prairie that is the movie’s central image. Yet it must be admitted that Badlands has proved a better predictor of the future than King’s Row—at least to the extent that the future, now present, is refracted through the media’s lens. Kip, who was based on a much less photogenic—and much, much less sympathetic—serial killer from Nebraska named Charlie Starkweather, is the prototype of all the fame-hungry moral retards whose enthusiastically reported rampages from Columbine to Sandy Hook have made Middle America a by-word for crazy killers to much of the rest of the world. They, like Kip all those years ago, have been schooled in moral ignorance by our wonderful celebrity culture. Meanwhile psychiatrists, like the early prototype of one played by Robert Cummings in King’s Row, are now mostly pill-prescribers and seemingly further away than ever from being able to cure the illnesses of mind and spirit which seem to afflict so many more of us than they did seventy years ago.
Yet in a pop cultural environment more riddled with fantasy than it has ever been, there is something that looks reassuringly real about the Indiana of Remember the Night and Breaking Away. Both dare to suggest that American civilization is not the malign and corrupting thing it is to Mr. Malick, nor yet the unlovely commercial-industrial expression of ambition and greed that it mostly appears to be in The Magnificent Ambersons or the pullulating mass of neuroses of King’s Row. Instead it is prefigured in the loving families that are at the center of both movies and that are still, for most of us, our first and best lessons in how to get along with others and the importance of taking responsibility for our actions. That is made explicit in one of the final scenes of Remember the Night in the words of Barbara Stanwyck’s character, who gets her lesson in love comparatively late in life: “When you make a mistake, you have to pay for it; otherwise you never learn.” What a concept! And yet once a people who thought of themselves as free took it for granted as the foundation of their free society. If Hollywood and the media have forgotten that, it is still possible to believe that there are those in Middle America who haven’t.
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