Mass hysteria

Two crowd shots from Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), in which Andy Griffith memorably plays Lonesome Rhodes, a folksy good-ol’-boy turned political monster—something of a combination of Joe the Plumber, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin avant la lettre.  “The crowd” in this film assumes a number of related shapes and forms: the swarm of screaming fans, the mass audience of the TV age, the political mob.  (Notice in the second of these shots that Patricia Neal, suddenly disillusioned by what Rhodes has become, tries literally to push against the crowd of his supporters.  Both her character and Griffith’s come to see the mass audience as a bunch of dupes, the difference between them being, I suppose, that he’s willing to capitalize on their impressionability while she wants to wake them up from the same kinds of illusions to which she fell prey.)

It seems to me that this is a criminally underappreciated 1950s film; upon its release it was snubbed by the critics (Manny Farber dismissed it as “hard-sell cinema,” too clever and slick for its own good), and Griffith and Neal, I think, have never really been recognized for their very good performances here.  One of the problems, I suppose, lies in Kazan’s uneasy command of tone: the movie begins to feel uncertain about what exactly it wants to be.  Joe Litvak writes in The Un-Americans that the film is marked by a certain “shrillness,” that it “hysterically aspires to be hysterical,” and he rightly notes that comedy—even satire—was never Kazan’s strength.  The sober ending, in which voice-of-reason Walter Matthau offers up some lame platitudes, does feel a bit wet-blanket-ish.  It’s a disappointment, because so much of the film up to that point feels poisonous and sharp.  A Face in the Crowd has the makings of a truly merciless black comedy, but it starts to pull back and become didactic in the last half-hour, and much of the energy dissipates.  Ultimately, it’s content to be a satire, and as Vladimir Nabokov noted, “satire is a lesson.”  Yet I still find this film’s attempts at hysteria more interesting than Kazan and Schulberg’s On the Waterfront (1954), which has always seemed to me a dull movie.  Sequences here such as Griffith’s on-air “wedding” to Lee Remick seem very prescient in their send-up of the kitsch of “reality” TV, and surely Robert Altman must have been thinking of the absurd baton-twirling sequence here when he used the Tennessee Institute Twirlers (the T.I.T.s—get it?) in Nashville (1975).  We can trace a line from this film all the way through most of the mass media comedies of the last fifty years: Network (1976), The King of Comedy (1982), Broadcast News (1987), The Player (1992), To Die For (1995), Bulworth (1998), Bamboozled (2000).

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