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Monday, August 23, 2004

Arts & Letters

The Wild One

Female: Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Johnny: Whaddaya got?
The Wild One, in which Brando played Johnny

“He gave us our freedom.”
— Jack Nicholson

It would seem that the respect for principle and the love of one’s neighbor have become dysfunctional in this country of ours, and that all we have done, all that we have succeeded in accomplishing with our power is simply annihilating the hopes of the newborn countries in this world, as well as friends and enemies alike, that we’re not humane, and that we do not live up to our agreements.

Perhaps at this moment you are saying to yourself what the hell has all this got to do with the Academy Awards?…
— Marlon Brando, in his statement explaining his decision not to accept his Academy Award in person for best actor in The Godfather, in protest against the historical treatment of Native Americans, 1973

Brando always scared the hell out of me. At least until I turned 16 or so (hormones can liberate the mind as well as confound it). Growing up in the Fifties as a shy, socially and culturally inept, kid in an immigrant family, Brando was, for me, about as overdetermined a male film icon as a male film icon could possibly be. Put plainly, he freaked me out. Watching him on the tube (because I wasn’t old enough to be taken to any of his movies), it was obvious that he was — to put it simply — dangerous. And while that has by now become a cliché in describing this (self-)construction of radical discord, it was no less true for a timid six- or seven-year-old who had no idea of (self-)constructions of radical discord and for whom, above all, “dangerous” was the last thing a child was supposed to be in McCarthyite (Greek) America at the height of the Cold War.

Still, one of my favorite movies as a kid was The Teahouse of the August Moon, which was broadcast regularly on TV. Although it had a “mature” theme (the need for eros in civilization), I was pretty oblivious to it (I was not a precocious child) and just lapped up the situational byplay. While Teahouse was a comedy, of course (and one, moreover, made in politically incorrect times), suffice it to say that at a historical moment when the United States is occupying another Asian nation, any movie in which the American occupiers are, ultimately, laid low by the cultural coherence — and resistance — of the occupied has lessons aplenty to teach to this day. (In Teahouse, the Okinawans take the money given them for a school by the culturally clueless Americans and rebuild their village’s destroyed teahouse in order to genuinely reconstitute their prewar, non-American, life.) Many critics have rightly remarked on the “broad” — nowadays it would be called racially insensitive — aspect of Brando’s performance. If I remember correctly, however, his portrayal is both sly and subtle: in any case, his character is, by far, the wisest one in the movie (and in the play on which the movie was based). For me, as a kid who loved war movies and went to pieces at the ending of The Purple Heart, it was a revelation in 1956 to see the Japanese portrayed not only as human beings, but as actually more humane than the do-gooder Americans who, in their vast cultural confusion — and arrogance — try to make over a small Okinawan village in their own image.

Thinking back on Teahouse, I now realize that it was also in that film that I first laid eyes on Machiko Kyo, in the role of the geisha Lotus Blossom. Although Kyo subsequently became one of my great screen crushes, I had no idea who she was at the time, let alone that she’d be so central to my own future film experience, starting with Rashomon, of course, but moving on much more sublimely — indeed, transcendently — to her transformation under Mizoguchi in Ugetsu, Princess Yang Kwei Fei, and Street of Shame (and, in a very different role, in Ozu’s Floating Weeds), just to name an obvious few. Now that the American cinema has been hopelessly disarticulated — formally, functionally, and at its core of narrative intent — by teen esthetics, computer graphics, and a kind of rampant diegetic aphasia that I can only describe as Tarantinoism, it is instructive to reflect upon an era in which (to echo film historian Thomas Schatz) “the system” did in fact possess an indisputable structural genius: in this instance, casting America’s most potent male presence and Japan’s most incandescent female actor in a comedy directed by…Daniel Mann. Such sheer esthetic audacity, which was once standard procedure for American movies, is unimaginable today.


Brando’s first six films, made within five years, were The Men, A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar, The Wild One, and On the Waterfront. His last six films, made within a decade, were Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, Don Juan DeMarco, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Brave, Free Money, and The Score. The disproportion here is so manifest, so extreme, that what seems initially to be a matter of “decline” ends up, on second thought, to be clearly one of existential purpose. Brando being Brando, moreover — his performances in his final work were, if nothing else, tours de force of a sort of wonderful, and lucid, contempt for acting. But I won’t belabor the obvious. I assume that very few people know or care about the films Brando made in the last couple of decades of his life. I cannot imagine, on the other hand, that there’s anybody in the world today who cares about film who doesn’t consider the first five years of Brando’s film career as a singular reinvention, if not of cinema per se, certainly of the American cinema.

The last time I saw On the Waterfront was exactly 20 years ago this summer. My wife and I, after spending a year in Greece, were slowly making our continental way to Paris for our flight back to the States, and we were in Budapest. As we are always wont to do whenever we spend more than a couple of days in a place, we checked out the local movie scene, and — again, as always seems to be the case — we were fortunate in that we had run into an American film festival, this one an official cultural-exchange affair organized by the US embassy. Because it was a program of classic American cinema, we had both seen most of the films multiple times, but then there were the Brando films — or, more accurately, the Brando-Kazan films.

I’ve written before on this site that I don’t think much of Elia Kazan as a filmmaker; more to the point (and here I have to make my unavoidable confession), I never liked Brando. I said that he scared me as a kid; but after I grew up and made movies the core of my esthetic education, he simply irritated me. To this day, I can’t even begin to fathom the notion of Brando as American cinema’s “greatest” actor. More resonant, iconic, or emotionally volcanic and brutal than Jimmy Stewart? Hitchcock and I would both disagree. More esthetically adept, intellectually taxing, and deeply revelatory than Cary Grant? I don’t think so — and, again, Hitchcock wouldn’t have either. It’s no coincidence that Brando’s most evocative performances were for a mediocre filmmaker — who, however, happened to be a deeply talented theater director. Brando never left the stage. The “secret,” in fact, to both his notorious “style” of mimetic incoherence — his role as the anti-Olivier, so to speak — and to his well-publicized contempt for his craft lay in the manifest falseness of stage-acting, to which he was tied almost umbilically (and which, not at all paradoxically, unites his film performances with those of the master of applied histrionics, Lord Olivier). No, Brando was not a film actor; Brando was…Brando.

Which brings me back to that night in Budapest. We decided to catch On the Waterfront. Neither of us had seen it in years, and I learned a long time ago that even bad art has an enduring half-life. When the lights went up, we were both nostalgic, in the sense of John Kerry’s appropriation of Langston Hughes: why couldn’t America be America again? It was the summer of 1984, and it was obvious that Ronald Reagan was going to be reelected president of the United States; meanwhile, in Budapest, the only thaw we could detect in the Cold War was among the Hungarians themselves, who made us feel more comfortable to be (and were amazingly hospitable to us as) Americans than our fellow citizens back home, who were about to reelect the Teflon president in a landslide.

When the movie was over, we turned to each other for a moment. We were sitting in Budapest having just watched Terry Malloy give up all illusions of being a contender in order to become a stool pigeon — albeit in a “noble cause” (there is, in fact, more than a touch of Waiting for Lefty in the film’s almost prolecult climax). A young Hungarian woman sitting next to us, having heard us speaking American-accented English as the lights went on, asked of the film’s ending — and not rhetorically (after all, the stool pigeon becomes the dockworkers’ hero-leader) — Does that make any sense? We shook our heads, but neither Melanie nor I was prepared at that moment to quibble, either dramatically or ideologically, with Budd Schulberg’s script. (I repeat: 1984 — the year of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, two years after E.T., and a year before The Color Purple. That last film was particularly telling: from On the Waterfront to The Color Purple in one generation.)

Most of the audience in that packed theater that night was in its twenties and even younger, but it reacted as one reacts to the end of a religious service: quietly, slowly, internally negotiating the transition from an alternative moral and intellectual engagement to life “as it is lived,” automatically, submissively, as an infinite series of concessions. Needless to say, this particular film carried an additional, and painful, poignancy for this audience, which, after all, had come of age in a society in which betrayal was the official definition of survival (the bullet-holes of 1956, and maybe even of 1945, still riddled the facades of Budapest’s buildings.) Under the circumstances, hearing Brando’s “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am,” in Budapest, in 1984, in front of a young Hungarian audience, proved, to me at least, the truth of the subconscious sense that we all have that art is an ethic and not an escape.

And that it is more than the sum of its parts. I’ll never think highly of Kazan as a filmmaker; I’ll never look to a script by Budd Schulberg as a model of either efficiency or penetration; and as for Brando, he probably allowed himself to be a film actor only once in his life, in Last Tango in Paris — a movie that’s considerably more problematic now than when it was made over 30 years ago. But so what? In 1984, I saw in Budapest why the American cinema was — until about 20 years ago — arguably more relevant to the world than the American constitution. Because freedom is not a policy, but a seduction. It is not a “choice,” but a craving. The point to freedom is its excessiveness, the world of plenitude that it both heralds and shields; it is not its utility, which makes of it a degraded (and corporate) functionalism and — unfortunately, the world being what it is — aggrandizement. (If anything explains the ghoulish nature of what passes as the current government of the United States, it is how absolutely wrong it has gotten the meaning of freedom.)

Freedom for much of an entire generation — in Moscow and Madrid and Buenos Aires and Havana and Cairo and Bombay to, of course, New York and Chicago and Omaha, where he was born, a true son of the heartland — was Brando in a torn t-shirt. Which is why any discussion of Brando as an actor doesn’t really matter in the end, and certainly doesn’t even begin to explain — or register — his affective power, which might or might not have been artistic, but was undoubtedly, for most of the world, existential. I now understand why, although I never “liked” Brando, I felt subliminally that I, and the American cinema even more, needed him, at least to show the flag; to make the world understand, in other words, that American movies were, in a fundamental way, about America, and that everything people read in their daily newspapers about napalm and burning crosses and spooks in dark glasses always a step ahead of — or hiding behind the curtains during — coups in Iran and Guatemala and Chile, was nowhere near as real, or descriptive of this country, as Brando was. Which is also why Brando’s parallel life as a political activist was so natural; in the event, there was nothing “parallel” about it. It was part and parcel of his own definition of himself, the “public” side of a human being whose acting represented — and this is what so few people, especially his fans, really understood — his private resistance(s).

From the moment he died, the culturati have been speculating about Brando’s “heir,” but what Brando achieved — and the reason he achieved it — was tied to a specific historical moment that is not only gone but impossible to summon again. The current reality of American cinema will no longer allow any actor to accomplish what Brando did. To put it simply, and in the words of Norma Desmond, the pictures are just too small — which brings us back to Brando in a torn t-shirt. Everything else considered, that’s probably the most liberating image of America the world has had in the last 50 years.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of
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