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A Night At The Movies

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Not going to them.  Thinking about them.

Specifically, I’ve been wondering if it is possible to make a movie that would accurately portray the events in the book I’ve been reading, the Whittaker Chambers Witness book.

And yes, I’m almost done with it for real now, less than ten pages to go, so if you’re sick of it you don’t have to put up with it much longer.

But I was thinking yesterday that the movies have one thing necessary that mitigates against their telling the truth on a very basic level, and I don’t know if it’s even possible to solve it.

The simple fact of the matter is that movie actors, even character actors who will never plain a romantic lead, tend to be people who glow in the dark–who have a certain level of charisma, just enough to make them stand out a bit on camera.

If they didn’t have that, they wouldn’t get hired. 

It isn’t a matter of being ugly or good looking, or being intelligent or stupid.  Hell, most of the actors I’ve heard speak seem to be almost monumentally stupid.

But if you want to see the kind of thing I mean, watch one a movie based on a true crime and then watch one of those true crime things where the people in the case are interviewed.

At the moment, I’m thinking of a Nicole Kidman movie called To Die For, based on a case in New Hampshire where a local high school teacher talked a group of low-status, misfit kids into killing her husband for her. 

To start with, Pamela Smart was no Nicole Kidman, or anything close.  She was a nice enough looking, sort of ordinary woman who would not have stood out among women of a similar age in any large city.

But the real kicker is the kids–the difference in sheer wattage between the actors playing the kids in the movie and the actual kids is stunning.  The actual kids were hangdog, nondescript, fade-into-the-background types.  Nobody ever noticed them in high school except to make fun of them, and if they’d had the guts to try a robbery,  nobody who saw them would be able to describe them with any accuracy, or be absolutely sure when trying to pick them out of a line up.  On the other hand, if they’d had the guts to try something bad under their own steam, they’d probably be more memorable than they are.

One of the things that was definitely an issue in the Hiss case was this business of wattage.  The HUAC hearings were being televised, and Hiss was definitely a high wattage person.  Chambers was more like those kids. You can see it in the pictures that accompany this book.

Yes, Hiss was good looking and slender and Chambers was not good looking and fat, but that isn’t the real issue.  Hiss sparkles in photographs.  Chambers looks like he’s fading into the wallpaper behind him.

(Interestingly enough–Nixon looks bad in photographs, but he does not fade into the background.  In fact, if I had to pick the guy with the most wattage in all these photographs, it would definitely be Nixon.)

If you did a movie about this book–and I think somebodyshould have done one, because it’s fascinating–you’d have to have Hiss played by somebody like Brad Pitt and the Chambers character played by…not one of the actors who played the kids in the Kidman movie, but one of the actual kids in the Smart case.

Except, of course, that Chambers was considerably brighter than that.

The movie based on the Drury novel based vaguely on the Hiss case had Henry Fonda in the Hiss part, and that was a good choice–not just good looking and charismatic, but the right kind of good looking and charismatic.

For the Chambers character, there was Burgess Meredith playing it totally, neurotically nuts, probably because one of the things everybody “knows” about the Hiss case  is that Chambers was crazy.

Chambers wasn’t crazy.  He was not the kind of neurotic Meredith played him as, and far from being an unsuccessful wreck, he was at the time of the hearings a senior editor at Time with a wife, two children and a working farm.

But then, you know, I still haven’t gotten over finding out that McCarthy was in fact absolutely correct about every single one of the fifty seven people he accused by name of being or having been members of the Communist Party.  I’ll have to go back to that thought another day.

Because the issue here is wattage–and I don’t think it’s possible to make a movie where one of the central characters has so little of it.  I think the demands of the form forbid it.  In order for people to watch your movie, they need the actors to draw them in, and an actor without wattage would not be watchable.

I’ve been trying to think if the situation would be better in print than in the movies, and I don’t know.

Chambers in print is far more compelling than Chambers in pictures, but that isn’t what I mean.  He was an intelligent man and a professional writer, of course he was reasonably compelling in print.

I’m thinking more of conveying such a character in a work of fiction–portraying him in third person.  You could always say he was somebody nobody noticed, but I’m not sure that that’s the same thing as getting across the sheer muddled, leaden nondescriptness of his presence in a group of people.

And I think something of the importance of this story would be lost if that nondescriptness was not made plain.  Because part of what happened in the country was the kind of kiss of death of television that would later smash Nixon when he ran against Kennedy.

And yet, it’s not that simple, either.

Because part of what turned much of the country in Chambers’s favor towards the end was also the result of television.  Charismatic or not, good looking or not, Hiss’s public reputation never quite surmounted the endless days of his sitting in front of television cameras prefacing every single answer to every single question, or close to, with the words “to the best of my recollection, and it’s a long time ago, so I don’t want to say I’m remember correctly.  For that, I’d need a chance to look at the records…”

Or words to that effect.

If Hiss had been asked his own name, he’d have started the answer like that.

Reading through the large hunks of the transcripts reproduced in this book is mind numbing by itself.  I can’t imagine what it would have been like watching it all on television.

Whatever, it’s Sunday.  I’m going to go listen to music.

Written by janeh

September 19th, 2010 at 8:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'A Night At The Movies'

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  1. It wouldn’t matter if you found the perfect actor to play each of the significant parts of your movie. The mere fact that such a movie would be critical of those former communists would be enough to ensure that it would never see a foot of film shot. The anti-anti-communist media collective is one of the most powerful around and it’s as strong here in Australia to this day as it ever was.


    19 Sep 10 at 10:37 am

  2. Reminds me of the old Simon Wiesenthal joke:

    “The good news is that they’re going to make a movie about you, Simon Wiesanthal, the great Nazi hunter. The bad news is Kevin Kostner plays Hitler.”

    But Mique’s right. Hollywood technique-the Drury bit for Hiss and Chambers, INHERIT THE WIND for the Scopes case, and right down the line–is not to make a movie about the event. First someone writes a novel or play “inspired by” the event, making a much better case for the left than was true in real life, then Hollywood makes a movie of the fiction.

    You’ll no more see a movie based on WITNESS than you’ll see the film version of DARKNESS AT NOON.


    19 Sep 10 at 10:58 am

  3. Oh, ack.

    You know, sometimes I’m just interested in the problem.

    We could talk about the difficulty of getting such a movie made, but I’m still interested in whether or not it would be technically possible to make it in any way that made it clear what at least one of the issues was in terms of public opinion.

    And Drury can hardly be charged with making the Left’s case. He was a Republican and a Buckley conservative, and any reading not only of Advise and Consent but of that entire political series makes that very clear.

    I think that Drury fell prey to just what John Oliver did–he accepted the conventional wisdom because it was in fact the conventional wisdom. The attempt to portray Chambers as a nut case and an alcoholic was overwhelming during the Hiss trials.

    John said that he got the impression that McCarthy’s problem was that he accused people without proof–but in fact there’s a lot I fault McCarthy for, but that can’t be on the list, because (as I said in the post) every single one of the 57 people McCarthy accused, by name, of being or having been members of the Communist Party were in fact or had in fact been members.

    And yet I’d give you a bet that if you asked twenty people on the street about McCarthy, the vast majority of the people who knew the name would respond as John did.

    It’s just one of those things everybody “knows.”

    With Drury, I think, the issue is far much more likely to be the result of the tribalism I’ve noted in other posts.

    Faced with accusaions against Hiss, who was one of their own, quite a few very conservative and anti-Communist people came out swinging against Chambers, not on the basis of the facts but on the basis of a simple gut feeling that one of us couldn’t be guilty of something like that.

    And in Drury’s book, the Hiss character is indeed lying, and is indeed prevented from becoming Secretary of State.

    Although he is not guilty of espionage (I don’t think the issue came up) and his time in the Party is over and done with by the time his confirmation hearings begin.


    19 Sep 10 at 11:09 am

  4. My point was not Drury’s politics, but that the movie was based on the novel rather than the reality–and, as you point out, the Drury version Hiss was a good deal less guilty than the real one. I don’t know why Drury did it that way: class solidarity, perhaps–evidently Chambers’ time at Columbia didn’t count–but maybe also to make a better novel. Hiss is such a spectacular example of the “wise fool” that there isn’t much to be done with him.

    I’ve also seen class solidarity mentioned in the Lizy Borden case–that the whole of the Fall River establishment stood by her exactly as long as it took to get rid of state law enforcement and out of town newspapers. (FALL RIVER TRAGEDY, I think?)

    Worth asking, though, about the moral standing of a “tribe” which will accept espionage, treason and murder from the members. Not one I’d care to join, thanks.


    19 Sep 10 at 1:29 pm

  5. I don’t think the tribe did accept espionage, treason, etc. I think they just didn’t believe the allegations.

    When the documentary evidence was brought to light, Hiss demanded to know how Chambers had broken into his house to forge the papers, and that was pretty much what the general level of belief was.

    One of us could not be guilty, therefore no matter what it looks like, that isn’t what’s happening here.

    And just going to the Ivy League doesn’t make anybody part of the club. In fact, college is really the least of it. The country days, the preg schools, the dancing classes and subdeb subscription dances are all much more important.

    And then every once in a while somebody comes along (like Barack Obama) who can just walk the walk, just learn it.

    It’s unusual.

    Bill Clinton never made it. He was “in” only because he had the right politics and could get elected.


    19 Sep 10 at 1:35 pm

  6. Stuff and nonsense! Oh, not about what it takes to be “in”–I’ll take your word on that–but about the level of tolerance. If Chambers had presented any more evidence, he’d have had to give some of it back. It was overwhelming. And every subsequent development made Hiss’ guilt more obvious. Instead of being ostracized, the man had a university chair endowed in his honor, and the “air”–by which you mean three newspapers, three broadcasting systems and maybe a dozen schools–continued to proclaim his innocence for decades. When that could no longer be credibly maintained, they went on saying the same things privately.

    They knew and tolerated, or they went to outrageous lengths not to know. If Hiss’ peers are not accessories after the fact to treason, espionage and murder, then there wasn’t a guilty German in the entire Third Reich.


    19 Sep 10 at 6:16 pm

  7. Well, I was 14 in 1950 and that was 60 years ago. I don’t recall much about McCarthy. By coincindence, the New York Times has a review of a book discussing misuse of numbers.


    This comes from the review and I assume from the book.

    Joe McCarthy, for example, didn’t simply allege that the government was infested with Communists; he held up a sheaf of papers and claimed it contained the names of 205 members of the Communist Party working in the State Department. The specificity of the accusation made it seem more believable. So what if the number soon went up to 207, then shrank to 57 a day later when McCarthy wrote to President Truman?

    I suspect that the claim that he had a list of over 200 communists but actually had a list of 57 is what lies behind the myth that he had no list.


    19 Sep 10 at 6:26 pm

  8. Except–it isn’t actually clear that McCarthy did say that there were 205 Communists in the state department.

    His script for the speech in question says “205 security risks including 57 members of the Communist Party,” and several people who attended the speech wrote to the newspaper that originally made the claim that McCarthy had said 205 Communists saying that they had HEARD 205 security risks and 57 members of the Communist Party.

    The more material that comes out about McCarthy, the more the “205 Communists” thing sounds like one of those things everybody “knows” that is not in fact true.


    19 Sep 10 at 6:30 pm

  9. Some time ago, over in RAM, I wrote that the first book I’d trust about the Bush administration would be published in 2090 by an historian born in 2040.

    Its been 60 years since McCarthy. We may now be able to sort myth from fact.


    19 Sep 10 at 8:40 pm

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