Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Face in the Crowd

I saw Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd yesterday, a terrific film in every respect. There is absolutely no reason why it should remain unheralded as a genuine American classic, it is every bit as a good as On the Waterfront, in fact in some respect even better as the subject matter - the nexus between politics and pop culture entertainment and the inbuilt potentiality of culture industry for demagoguery - remain more relevant for our times than ever before.

This is a typical American phenomenon though of course it is now no longer confined just to America. Almost everywhere Politics has transformed into show business, a variation on vulgar popularity contests, with politicians playing the role of media personalities. The fine line which separated advertising, public relations, media, business, politics and entertainment no longer exists. Kazan's film is an extremely sharp, and somewhat bitter, expose of this phenomena before it really became mainstream.

Andy Griffith gives a tour-de-force performance as a country singer who becomes a national media phenomenon not long after starting as an improvisational singer in a local community radio program "A Face in the Crowd". His rise is shown in a highly exaggerated (and very witty) manner. He is advising presidential hopefuls about how to run their campaigns. He is even offered a role in the cabinet, handling the department of boosting of national morale. Politically Kazan and his writer Budd Schulberg (they were together responsible for On the Waterfront as well) are firmly positioned on the left. Lonesome Rhodes might be a voice from the grassroots but he is still a demagogue, a populist demagogue but that doesn't change the essential nature of his politics. The senator he is helping is obviously a right winger who is exhorting people to be "individualistic" like true Americans so that he can cut social security and pensions!

The tone of the film is hyperbolic and bitterly satirical, may be that's one reason why it wasn't a success when it was first released. Also, the fact that people generally won't take kindly to the suggestion that they are just dumb sheep, always ready to believe what they see on TV or listen on radio. In its mood and tone, and also the subject matter, it is similar to Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole though fortunately it avoids excessively misanthropy and spleen. It also seems to be a precursor of Robert Altman's classic and much superior Nashville, which also explores the intersection between politics and culture industry. Nashville is also a satire but it is much more subtle, complex and incisive.

Kazan is a very important figure in the history of American films, mainly because of his conception of film acting ushered in a new era. Andy Griffith in this film is in the same league as James Dean and Marlon Brando. He was not a trained actor, he was actually a stand-up artist which fits perfectly with the role in this film. He is not "polished" which is exactly what his character also is. The rest of the cast is also superb as is the subtle but very effective visual style of the film. A great film in all respects, certainly deserves to be on the same shelf as On the Waterfront.

For more, an article by Jim Hoberman in Village Voice.

1 comment:

William Wren said...

i shall certainly add it to the ever growing list i can never seem to conquer