Wanted to apologize for the radio silence, folks; the Holiday Season is usually a cataclysmic time for all parties hoping to accomplish anything other than buying shit and getting drunk. I’ll have a few new thoughts on Friday; in the interim, here’s a hopefully-not-too-accurate representation of where I’m at these days, via Italian futurist Tullio Crali.
David Cronenberg’s new movie A Dangerous Method is terrific – tidy, devoid of the maniacal attention-seeking that I found distracting in Eastern Promises, and best of all, unpredictable. And the lion’s share of its spontaneity comes from Keira Knightley’s performance as Sabina Spielrein.
Spielrein was a pioneering female psychologist in the first half of the 20th century, before being persecuted by Nazis; but at 19, she was Carl Jung’s first one-on-one patient. A Russian victim of child abuse, she displayed volatile symptoms of schizophrenic – Jung’s word was “voluptuous” – behavior. His handling of the case turned her life around in a big way, which is to say she got better, enrolled in med school, and also eventually became his lover. For the movie’s first fifteen or so minutes, she’s bonkers – a volatile zombie held hostage by incorrigible feelings of shame and desire. Her early lines are pitiful yammers and blurts, stoking a mordant fascination for both Jung (Michael Fassbender) and the audience: you can’t look, but you sure can’t look away.
Everyone knows Cronenberg has lost interest in rubber, and spends more energy lately focusing on the human face. At the risk of actually giving a shit about the Oscars, I’d say Knightley is a no-brainer for Best Actress; she made me wince, shudder and squirm from her first appearance, and even as a sophisticated lady-shrink in later years, she looks/talks like her brain might blow out at any moment. Many reviews seem to think that Knightley should settle down a little. To me, her Spielrein isn’t just raving: she’s also incredibly sensitive, malevolent, and confused. (In this movie, as James Ellroy said, “closure is bullshit”.)
Speaking more anecdotally: multiple acquaintances of mine have claimed, without seeing A Dangerous Method, that Knightley is “too pretty” – that phrase specifically – to handle a character like this. For all I know, having a bona fide Hot Chick onboard may have helped Cronenberg get the movie financed, but I suspect this is the type of thinking that makes it hard for movie stars – particularly women – to get legitimately challenging parts. Getting “important” roles still seems fairly easy. The longest takes belong to Knightley, suggesting considerable trust – and fun – between director and actress.
You also wouldn’t know that from the studio’s PR; the trailer seems to be positing Spielrein as a crazy-ass bitch who gets between Freud and Jung’s fraternity. Two popular, officially-circulated promotional stills suggest her as a porcelain-perfect supermodel begging for (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here here, here), or alternately recovering from (here, here, here) Michael Fassbender. A handful chose to focus more Jung and/or Freud, (here, here, here, here), whose star power is tremendous but who is nevertheless a second-stringer in the movie’s plot. Maybe Sony Pictures Classics is manufacturing “sexy Spielrein” costumes for Halloween 2012?
I’ve just finished reading Penn T. Kimball’s memoir The File. Today, the author is a historical footnote; he was a liberal journalist, politico and academic who cut his teeth writing for long-extinct publications like PM and Collier’s, as well as Time, The New Republic and The New York Times. He served in the Marine Corps during WW2, and worked for New Deal Democrats such as Chester Bowles and W. Averell Herriman before settling into a career at the Columbia grad school of journalism.
All of this is detailed in the book, clearly, but the autobiography is not exactly Kimball’s own. Rather, it’s his livid, methodical response to government documents released upon his request – via the Freedom Of Information Act – wherein he found that he had been classified, in so (so so so so so so so) many words, as a threat to national security. This verdict was the result of a labyrinthine inquest coordinated over years by the Office of Naval Intelligence, the State Department, the FBI, and – ironically, with the least damning results – the CIA. The full bureaucratic gangbang took years, but it started when Kimball applied for a job with the Foreign Service in 1946; State operatives immediately began investigating him to figure out whether or not his loyalty would be an issue.
Can you imagine? Most of the evidence is not really evidence, but fragmentary comments made, one interview at a time, under tight secrecy guarantees. There is no smoking gun or pivotal betrayal; some of the clearances are equivocal, like this one from State:
Investigation discloses evidence of a material nature tending to affect adversely the applicant’s loyalty to the Government of the United States and its institutions.
It reveals much information both pro and con in regard to the applicant’s loyalty, and though no one placed him in the (Communist) Party, it is noted that but few of the applicant’s most enthusiastic supporters are able to recommend him without explanation and reservation in supporting his stand on past activities.
The general impression gleaned from the file is that Kimball was indeed interpreted by the state as a patriotic, hardworking, reliable American – one who would have been a perfect fit for the job if it weren’t for his progressivism. He spent three decades totally unaware this was going on; it’s impossible to verify, or resist, the notion that he might have been luckier if he had never asked in the first place.
The documents are rife with redacted names/places/concepts, and so I found myself chuckling while underlining key passages and quotes every handful of pages. He’s an excellent writer, deeply embittered by the process – and who can blame him? Read below:
For the next 20 years, my file shows, the FBI’s interest was revived from time to time – and so was the attention of the State Department and the CIA – sometimes for reasons that I could discern and sometimes for reasons that I can still only guess. My document collection eventually grew to 269 pages for me to pore over, worry about, carry around on my mind and rehash during those moments when I wasn’t absolutely required to devote my attention to something else. Over the years after the first installment arrived in February, 1978, more pages arrived in dribs and drabs – from the FBI in Washington, from their field office in New York, from the Passport Division of the State Department and, five years later, from the CIA. It is surprising how much is still missed after leafing through such documents a hundred times. Connections between my FBI and State Department files would suddenly dawn on me when I spotted a tiny initial and date in the corner of a page. Some contained scrawls that took on meaning only later when another piece of the puzzle became available. Janet would chide me gently about my preoccupation when it became clear that I hadn’t heard a word of her conversation at dinner. “Where are you, Penn?” she would ask, as if she didn’t know.
Here’s a verbatim quote Kimball adjoins to the above, which is remarkably telling in terms of these type of investigations’ role in broader politics. It’s taken from one of the FBI’s summaries:
Even if we were satisfied that the man is not a Communist or has Communist leanings, should we make the appointment (to the Foreign Service) there would be the possibility of someone raising the question on the floor of the Senate or House, holding up as an example the Kimball case in which the State Department had made the appointment when it had been charged that he is a Communist or Communist sympathizer.
In other words: by sheer dint of being investigated, whether conclusively or not, Kimball was no longer an option for a government job because the investigation itself could potentially be used against the government. Full circle. If not a page-turner in the classic sense, the book made me gasp a number of times at passages like these, which still can’t quite convey the documents’ full scope. (Although tempted, I think accurately quoting big chunks would be a Herculean task for me to contextualize, and for you to read. Just get a copy of the book!)
I also learned a little something about myself. Kimball writes with real severity about the importance of challenging his official, permanent reputation as a disloyal citizen – informally by writing the book, and officially by appealing the allegations. A few years after publishing The File, Kimball was successful in the latter endeavor. To read the book is to be dissuaded of this attitude, but when I first tried putting myself in his shoes, my initial response to his agonizing was, “who cares?”
After all, since Kimball earned his keep as a private citizen, the government’s (top-secret) opinion could only have caused so much harm. His wife Janet died the same day he received the penultimate shipment of CIA documents; he recounts feeling too sick to stand up, yet somehow tearing into them anyway. His paranoid, heroic obsession with setting the record straight testifies to an earlier generation’s attachment to ideals of due process and government transparency – not things I would identify as hallmarks of mine, even as it unwittingly barfs up more and more potentially actionable data.
Remember, Kimball was a Yale graduate who worked for bigwigs later entrusted with key spots in the White House, living an erstwhile nonchalant suburban life with wife + kid. He was not a proto-hippie, a ganja smoker, a purchaser of firearms, a subversive or an agitator of any kind; although active in journalistic labor unions, his record suggests nothing even remotely out of liberal-whack. Janet Kimball was the leader of a Brownie troop in the 50s, and both of them taught sunday school at their local church in Westport, Connecticut.
Nevertheless, literally dozens of government agents managed to build a case against them by secretly interviewing coworkers, colleagues, former bosses, friends and acquaintances. (One such informant was Arthur Schlesinger Jr., JFK’s so-called “court historian”*. ) There were background checks, credit reports, verifications of press passes, medical history, travel history (frequently incomplete, at least in the files made available to Kimball) and the marriage license.
If this much bureaucratic machinery was brought down on one dude who doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, where does this leave us today? The two most disheartening aspects of the whole thing, for my money, are these:
1. The sweep and expense of this type of investigation, which we can by no means assume was unique. The analysis it yielded was never intended for any kind of prosecution; it was amassed solely for internal purposes, to determine whether or not Kimball was a good fit to work for the State Department. If the government was willing to spend this much time and money verifying a nobody’s inadequacy for a minor diplomatic position, then it becomes more and more unfortunate that somebody like Abbie Hoffman never requested to have his information released. The mind reels.
2. The fact that it really, really, really takes two to tango. I just assumed that Kimball’s file was not a freak occurrence, but he himself is probably unique among people willing to contest this level of surveillance. (I’m sure more than one functionary got off the phone with him and sighed exasperatedly, praying he’d never call back.) At one point, in fact, FBI representatives offered him the chance to have his file destroyed for good, which seemed like a sweet deal until he remembered how much evidence it contained – vital for debunking the other agencies’ coordinated research. (He found out later that the CIA had made multiple classified copies of all the FBI’s documents anyway, totally erasing any potential benefit to that idea.)
*I first heard about The File in Christopher Hitchens’ memoir from last year, Hitch-22. Funnily enough, Hitchens just published a piece for Vanity Fair reviewing (if that’s the right word) Schlesinger’s just-released interviews with Jacqueline Kennedy, recorded less than a year after the assassination. A quick search verifies Schlesinger’s WW2 years with the Office of Strategic Services, which of course grew into the CIA. Hitchens’ vitriol towards all parties concerned made me feel a little bit better about the whole thing.
Rogue film critic Miriam Bale recently launched Joan’s Digest, an online quarterly of feminist film criticism. The kickoff party at Anthology Film Archives was wrapped around two films piloted by different Joans: first was Joan Crawford in the 1955 Female on the Beach, followed by Joan Bennett (above left) in Jean Renoir’s 1947 Woman on the Beach.
The latter film is a fairly sudsy affair, lodged somewhere between a dime-store love trifecta and a fairy tale for grownups…. But Renoir is as Renoir does, and therefore it’s worth watching at least twice. Robert Ryan plays a lunk-headed (but totally earnest) Coast Guardsman still haunted by his failure to save a pal’s life in a shipwreck; Bennett is the femme fatale who woos him back to sanity (not really). Their tryst begins, dangerously, under the nose of her blind, emotionally flammable, and considerably older husband (Charles Bickford, above right); he used to be a great painter, before a drunken fracas with Bennett’s character cost him his eyeballs.
The plot is pure noir, but Woman On The Beach isn’t a potboiler. It’s worth remembering that Renoir’s father was Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and so Bickford’s painter character, while unmistakably American (“He approached the canvas like a boxer approached the ring!”) may add up to a rather personal set of ideas on Renoir’s part – ideas about art, or maybe about impermanence. (Woman on the Beach is touted more as a curio than a classic. I have no idea what the two men’s relationship was like.) Blindness is more than a mere physical condition; the harder Ryan falls for Bennett, the more he becomes subsumed by the idea that her husband is faking it, so as to keep her. Ryan’s hero complex makes it impossible for him to back off from his mission to break up the marriage; either Bickford is blind, or he is.
What is it about images of waves crashing against cliffs, flash-lit by cloudy sunshine, that piqued so many great filmmakers in the 1940s? Today the motif suggests karaoke videos and R&B compilation commercials, but I’d stand this film next to Hitchcock’s Rebecca or Mankiewicz’ The Ghost and Mrs. Muir for sheer beach-gothic. My basic question is: can this movie accommodate as much introspection as a real trip to the shore? In this case, yes – the aesthetic is big enough to contain Bickford and Bennett’s curtailed dreams, as well as Ryan’s traumatized flashbacks. Whatever Renoir’s intended symbolism, it works – the beach is conceptualized as a kind of safe zone for hazy remembrances, rendering macabre and unmentionable thoughts as steady and as constant as the tide itself.
A friend recently sent me an op-ed by historian Walter Russell Mead on the myriad failures of the baby boomer generation, roughly in terms of delivering on the moral promises of the 1960s – in Obama’s words, of making the world a better place for its kids. There is much to chew on, and some fine small points – Mead is killer when it comes to Boomers’ impotent, fantasy-world policies on climate change, for example. He claims that the damage is extensive and all but irreversible, pathetic when juxtaposed against the achievements of the prior Greatest Generation:
What the Boomers as a generation missed (there were, of course and thankfully, many honorable individual exceptions) was the core set of values that every generation must discover to make a successful transition to real adulthood: maturity. Collectively the Boomers continued to follow ideals they associated with youth and individualism: fulfillment and “creativity” rather than endurance and commitment. Boomer spouses dropped families because relationships with spouses or children or mortgage payments no longer “fulfilled” them; Boomer society tolerated the most selfish and immature behavior in its public and cultural leaders out of the classically youthful and immature belief that intolerance and hypocrisy are greater sins than the dereliction of duty. That the greatest and most effective political leader the Baby Boom produced was William Jefferson Clinton tells you all you need to know.
Here he makes a classic historians’ error in looking at vast numbers of different people and assuming they all operated, at any time, on the basis of something resembling a simultaneous free will. His overall argument can’t escape its own aggro-conservatism, suggesting in so many words that another WW2-sized trauma is needed to create a “mature” generation of Americans. Does that sound like a fair deal to you? Whether or not life has been better without such an event is another debate entirely, but if you follow my line of thinking – and if you don’t, please comment below – this seems an almost terrifyingly patriarchal attitude.
Did I miss the script? Fact is, Mead is a boomer himself who fiercely advocated the Iraq War; his disappointment suggests a different, but nevertheless similarly busted-ass, pair of rose-colored glasses. His thesis implicates everyone, but I find it dubious that any generation wouldn’t “miss” Mead’s idyll of maturity, when offered a life of voluntary military service, suburbs, 9-5s, cable television, a reasonably forgiving higher education system, TV dinners, widespread recreational drugs and a cash-crazed juggernaut of an entertainment industry. A rough survey of government policy, 1945-present, actually leaves me with the conspiratorial suspicion that lawmakers actually wanted a less diligent society! Our presumed right to laxness is, in a funny way, what so many pissed-off college graduates worldwide are demanding from their governments as we speak.
This is not to say such a model is, by any means, economically sustainable – but society is prone to learning these things firsthand. At risk of being optimistic, I’ve always felt that the death of American hegemony, particularly in market terms, will create personal, vexing problems, which we will (however pigheadedly) rise to meet. Maybe we’re doing it already; I spend as much time as anybody rolling my eyes at post-68ers who bemoan the passage of their glory days, but the fact that Mead makes no mention of the Occupy movement suggests an allergy to linking the ideals of his generation and mine. I can only read this exclusion as an accidental concession that a potential American conscience runs deeper than Mead wants us to believe.