Nobody in Hollywood seemed a new Shakespeare quite like Billy Wilder. He is not the only poet to have done both comedy & something like tragedy–the closest thing to tragedy available to the age of liberalism. But he did it more often, more successfully, & more naturally than, say, Howard Hawks & Leo McCarey. So it’s less surprising that he’d give us a protagonist whose story ends very unhappily, but who’s all wisecracks &, like comic heroes, gets to tell his own story.
Let me give you the two oldest opinions about the effects of tragedy on people. One is, it makes people cruel–they come around to punishing people like they see tragic heroes getting punished–because they’re afraid that bad things are more or less inevitable & it’s better to inflict than to risk incurring punishment. Or it makes people somewhat less crazy–they see these terrible stories about their worst fears & they get a lot off their chest–fear & pity lose some of their power over people & they can then deal with public things reasonably.
These opinions seem to fit the ages of mankind I outlined above: The age of belief & the age of reason. The latter seems more involved in educating the public, but it is the former that is really about educating people. As I pointed out, the only result of turning poetry into some kind of enlightened self-interest is, the people producing the poetry can neither tell what people want nor reflect on what the love of beautiful stories says about people.
Stories attain fame if they persuade the audience to take them seriously, that is, to identify character as an analysis of human being with the character as a part of a plot. Thinking about human things & what we call morality somehow seems to originate in stories or poetry.
So what are we supposed to think about this Joe Gillis? That he was an ambitious young man who, dissatisfied with being an American like any other, embraced a desperate hope to distinguish themselves & reaped the inevitable reward of his ambition? Or that he was a believer in the new religion of beauty sold by Hollywood one ticket at a time & he was corrupted by the dawning realization that it’s a false religion?
That is, we start aware that he ends up killed. We want to learn how come & wherefore? What do we learn trying to answer this question? Did he have it coming or was he a foolish innocent? Well, one thing that’s obvious is, either way, it’s not clear what choice he had or what American freedom really amounts to–is it the prestige or wealth he fantasizes about or the trying to acquire it?
The talkies are an entirely different world. The assistant director jokes about how his friends might write their story such that it would get him a job. The producer jokes that he had no idea Gone with the wind would be big–it’s just a Civil War picture, if you think about it rationally. The screenwriter-protagonist thinks of the weird people from the old days–he’s an amateur historian, so to speak, with all the condescension for people & things behind the times.
The film also includes a rather cruel joke in the plot: Cars age better than women in this age described by a childish curiosity expressed in museums.
All this skepticism is not all the dispiriting stuff there is. We must add to it the equally dispiriting experience of failure. People hope to make it in Hollywood–that’s why they go there!–& audiences hope to get a great show in the picture palaces–that’s why they go there. Everyday, something of the terrifying desires of the origins is rekindled in the soul. America is just not enough for Americans; they want these other things & it’s legal to fantasize eyes open, in front of the screen.
But if those hopes get beat up enough, a kind of cynicism grows out of that experience; people come to think that all you can come to know is that it’s a racket & success has nothing to do with whatever makes human life worth living. The never-was screenwriter & the has-been star both testify to the essential injustice of the celebrity-worship business.
So what’s good about this new world? Well, people talk more. There’s a pretty strong suggestion, when characters in the movie talk, they have some chance to find out what’s going on & deal with it in a reasonable way. When they don’t, things go to hell. Certain beliefs & certain habits impose a deep, abiding silence on the soul–you cannot have grandeur otherwise; but there is then no way to change or to abide change. The age of reason is not simply the end of this kind of self-importance, but it does discount heroism.
To speak like Nietzsche, everyone was a poet in the silent pictures–everyone’s a philosopher in the age of talkies. It’s all sham, but it’s sham of a different kind. Better to say, everyone’s a critic or an intellectual now. The pictures really did get small, like Norma Desmond says. In a democracy, it’s not great things, but little things that interest people. That’s not all bad. It ruins most false gods. Most pretenses of awful secrets revealing a fate greater than all the world–most of that sort of thing is gone. You get wisecracks instead.
The shocking origins of Hollywood greatness On modern worship
Let’s talk theology. The old stars of Hollywood are like forgotten gods. One hears talk of Valentino or Fairbanks as though they were Mars & Adonis. They may not be gods–nor heroes–but they played such on screen.
They even have the names of European aristocrats, which is as close to the old gods as Americans get. The people with the names were not satisfied to let it go at that–they built in the impressive or over-adorned styles of old Europe & tried to bring with them as much of the impressive stuff that justified or adorned inequality. With Henry James, these new celebrated figures must have felt the burden of America’s lack of castles & palaces; but instead of moving away from the people that adored them, they brought in the palaces…
Norma Desmond is not only crazy, she is a fanatic or a believer of a certain kind. Her new picture is supposed to be Salome. This was a story that fascinated fin de siecle Europe. Oscar Wilde made a play of it–Richard Strauss made an opera of that, as a lesser Frenchman had before him; before them, Flaubert wrote about Herodias, Salome’s mother; someone made an opera of that, too. The woman who got John Baptist killed is the last hero of the pagan world destroyed by the arrival of the Christ. Heathen pictures were a feature of silent-era Hollywood. This speaks to some deep dissatisfaction with Christianity & with civilization.
Norma’s director, Cecil B. DeMille, somehow survived the arrival of the talkies. He never changed that much, but he found a way to do what he was used to doing. Now, he’s filming Samson & Delilah, the 1950 picture with Victor Mature & Myrna Loy. There you have that which we love to see, the Bold & the Beautiful–but there is something less than tragic about it. God is there to protect the Jews when the manliest of their warriors fails as a judge. Divine providence makes up for his failure. The seduction, deception, imprisonment, & terrible wrath of Samson make sense in the war between Jews & Philistines.
This makes sense, in a way. The American race is the youngest of all known races. Movies are the newest of all known arts. They depend in some way on a psychological trouble, an inability to distinguish objects & images. Only the naive or unsophisticated can fall for that–educated people would instead talk of suspension of disbelief. You see: In the new world, man’s natural state is rational skepticism & it could be suspended by a willful abandonment of rationalism–that is, when science becomes burdensome or merely boring.
The first age of man is barbarism; barbarians cannot well distinguish men & gods.
This is Billy Wilder’s story about Hollywood, & it is written from the perspective of a knowing stranger.
Our protagonists have a remarkable, rare manliness about them, however inconsistent, which renders them naturally incapable of being productive American citizens with regular lives; their triumphs & defeats, such as they are, owe much to chance. How do these guys end up? One finally starts acting like a good father–at least, he stops disappointing his daughter; the other gets a respectable job.
What does it mean to call these kinds of guys in this kind of story nice guys? They’re not pious about any number of laws & they seem to make their money out of the ugliness of human things. For protagonists in an action movie, they also have an unseemly attachment to money. They also seem to have more than a little foolishness hampering them. They are the protagonists, however, & they eventually do well & do good. Perhaps their problems are to a large extent typical of men in a society that despises manliness.
Their vulgarity is some kind of defense against these unmanly conventions: There is nothing more directly opposed to manliness than talk of niceness. The leap from hero to nice guy is not just a joke, however: Consider that just about every character in the story not only underestimates our protagonists, but misunderestimates them… Consider, too, that the girl around whom the plot is woven has no idea who to trust!
The story does a lot of work to rehabilitate manliness, & it is as much work to show it is needed as to show how it might be tamed. The essential thing has to do with the problem of freedom: If men are supposed to be protective, serious limits on individual freedom will follow.
The prettier of the two detectives seems blinded by beauty & inclined to heroism. He also cannot hold his liquor. This is another form of self-importance that’s repeatedly mocked throughout the story, mostly by emphasizing the element of chance. In his moment of enthusiasm, the fellow concludes he’s become invincible! It’s tough for a poet to point out necessity in such circumstances. Even his reasoning is impaired by his love of beauty–he wants things to be a little too pat.
The poetic teaching developed by this constant mockery of self-importance is twofold: It reveals a misunderstood, concealed manliness at work in the conventions of the times; & it educates men as to their weaknesses. This is not merely the education a master plotter offers people interested in plots. It is a necessary corrective to moralism & to the paranoid tendency in claiming rights. This requires balancing careful thinking about what’s really dangerous about our freedom against the self-loathing typical of neglected manliness. The name for that which does that work is prudence.
The plot organizes America into a kind of hysterical conspiracy theory. The Big Three car companies in Detroit, while advertising luxury to America, are murdering people to keep their great crimes secret–pollution–because they’re stupid about being greedy. Never fear: Foolish hippies who organize meaningless protests about how the birds cannot breathe anymore are organizing some kind of secret whistle-blowing resistance to this oligarchy. Manly men figure somewhere in-between. Are they partisans of democracy or oligarchy?
This kind of politics is obviously insane. But how can people who start from a personal experience of danger & injustice, like our detectives, detach enough to think of a political arrangement as something else than their problem? These are men fallen on hard times who have to face ugly things. In their situation, government is more of an enemy than a friend. Meanwhile, they’re supposed to have rights, too.
Remember the predicament of Watergate. While it’s true that Nixon’s enemies were loathsome traitors to their country, people felt betrayed, & soon after his landslide re-election. Who are you going to believe in a situation so shockingly undemocratic? Comparatively, Ford & Mr. Carter, however inept, at least were not thought to be crooks. The price paid was the end of talk about the future. American confidence collapsed.
So what you get here is a kind of reflection on the double meaning of plot. The poet has to come up with a story, something to interest the audience, & the detectives have to detect some crime. We seem to be led by a natural suspiciousness that lies at the origin of both meanings. Maybe democracy is far from being the erotic release advertised, not infrequently by exploitative or scary characters. Maybe every last citizen who knows his rights is paranoid that the world is out to get him.
There is another thing to consider here, too. We all know the world is really run by conspiracies, but we call the ones we like associations or friendships. The more the distinction between the successful & the unsuccessful looks like the distinction between inimical groups of friends, the more conspiracy theories spread–they’re the only theoretical replacement for personal experience in a world where abstract statements dominate speech & compel belief.
This is where the crucial importance of manliness comes in: Everyone needs loyalty to some group or another, but only men are going to be able to make sense of the world without falling into despair. Politics is so far away from citizens, secretive & complex: No one decides anything, but then rivers catch fire because of pollution or the sky disappears. The more politicians promise to reward citizens, the more the incompetence of government looks like malevolence & citizens feel powerless.
A strange hippie girl, Amelia, brings together, unwittingly, two losers, Jackson Healy & Holland March. Healy beats people up if they make trouble for other people. His job is a necessary correction to American freedom. He has an immediate experience of the shockingly immoral character of eroticism: He wastes no time on disquisitions, but cuts to the core–there’s incest in the land. Democracy is turning the world into a circus, it would seem.
March is not this kind of guy–he does not have a moral conception of his job as a private detective. Healy–there’s a name!–is way too moralistic for his taste & too direct. He’s fat, tough, & unrelenting: These are not qualities revered or useful in modern times. March is thin, tall, handsome, & has a way with women, young or old. He has wit, to put it all in one word. But of course this is not a job in America.
Instead, he used to help the retributive justice of divorce, but then Californian freedom put him out of work by instituting no-fault divorces. Breaking contracts is the future & the future is now in America. He should be happy about this, as he is not particularly faithful, not to say pious. He is not. His sarcastic attack on conventions is more at home in his father’s America.
Now, March helps old people deal with the freedom of their children & their general cluelessness. If the government practically wants to destroy the family, it’s up to private organizations to help the old find the young. Obviously, he lies, cheats, & steals whatever he can, but he’s basically harmless. It has never occurred to him to exploit people confused by this new freedom. His crimes are small, but it is not clear whether that is because of self-loathing or because of stupidity.
The two men come together as enemies first, then as friends. This girl that brings them together has to be found. They have stumbled someone onto something serious. Men are men inasmuch as they protect the weak; latter-day America may contemn manliness, but people do need protection, even when they don’t know it. Who’s going to help out people who have moved from privacy to anonymity in the collapse of American communities?
So this girl turns out to be a kind of oracle. What is the future of America? She blindly leads them on a strange ride through LA–one ugly, tawdry, dangerous, & borderline insane adventure after another, chance & nature confused. What’s going to happen with kids whose parents do not understand them once the silly ideology of progress of the hippies collapses? Does anyone really believe anymore in the old verities about the good protecting the weak?
The new Shane Black action-comedy. The most fun you can get out of Hollywood this year.
At the end of the story, Nameless is murdered. Qin assents. His corpse receives great honors. Is that the end of heroism? Is that manliness judged? The assassin, like his teacher, chose for himself. Sacrifice follows from heroic pride, which demands & asserts freedom from necessity. But empire depends on obedience & men who cannot live on their knees cannot live at all. Manliness is supplanted by ruthlessness. Ruthlessness can use the progress of the arts & sciences, which are perfectly compatible with slavery.
The installation of empire follows the confrontation of two rulers. The scholar persuades his students to die with dignity: They cannot overcome necessity except by writing. The emperor teaches his servants that he is necessity or above necessity: He is properly treated with awe: All crimes are legal in his name. The warrior-scholars are examples of civilization in man & their failure suggests that freedom is an unlikely thing, both unpredictable & frail. The moment where the greatest natures grow is the greatest danger for the country.
These heroes live by beauty & are properly comprehended within stories: They are brilliant & they are superb. The emperor is merely splendid. He rules by terror. The stories about the heroes are a silent undermining of political life, especially of court intrigue.
The emperor’s defense of the lives of his subjects shows a vulgar willingness to sacrifice whatever might make life worth living for them. This is security. The heroes are a reminder of the highest capacities of human nature. This is the identity of calligraphy & swordsmanship: Both reveal being–what it is to be a man, truly. But a race of heroes remains impossible.
Why does heroism brings about the end of the age of heroes? The single-mindedness of heroes seems to be opposed to the production of children. This would seem to be connected with the freedom of heroism: It includes women. Heroes are not peace-makers, because they believe in war, not nature. This is why they do not exert themselves to end war at any price. Instead, they wish to preserve human dignity at any price. They have a preference for the noble over the advantageous. As a lived experience, this aims to beautify suffering through ceremony. This prevents the use of reason to relieve man’s estate.
At the same time, the insistence on man’s dignity privileges the study of human capacities & denigrates the curiosity about the world in which we live which is required for the devising & improving of useful things. One wonders whether the emperor’s offer of rewards is a serious plan to end heroism. Does he hope to buy death by money, as he pays soldiers? Or does he hope to show that money is not afraid of heroes?
Have you noticed how many popular spectacles aimed at children are telling them they are living in a world where the adults want to drink their blood? That this has stayed secret suggests to me that the madness openly advertised to kids lies concealed in the parents. The popular spectacles now treat the young as orphans by right & heroes if they manage to cope with their situation.–The natural consequence of this madness.
Marvel’s new spectacles lead the way to the therapeutic future. Even Captain America is therapy for a young woman of no importance. She is terrorized by the world & has strange, incomprehensible, uninteresting powers. The more boring she becomes, the more the heroes of this world fight each other to figure out how to accommodate her anxieties. Resenting parental authority & a desire to break the law are trotted out in the most childish way, which is typical of Marvel spectacles–they are basically aimed at children because they’re childish. The novelty is the focus on a ten-minutes-of-movie-time character…
The other child is Spiderman, also a stand-in for the audience. He gets none of the affection–he’ll get a reboot, which trumps dignity. He gets the condescension reserved for small, white boys. He is unprespossessing; shy does not begin to describe him. Unlike the girl, he has a moral confidence & a practical attitude that make him a perfect fit for action movies. Of course, he is utterly neglected.
This was supposed to be a story about men who avenge their fathers: They’re important characters: Iron Man, the silly villain, & Black panther! Marvel has managed to concoct a psychotic murderer villain who’s boring. In Marvel stories, when someone starts murdering people, the way he’s treated is, heroes tell him they feel his pain–he must be a victim at heart.
Then, the black guy from Africa. A man who made a career playing heroes now plays Black panther, the most pathetic attempt to patronize the civil rights struggles–he even has kitty claws. How do black people like that, I wonder! Of course, he alone learns the exotic wisdom of not avenging his father, instead achieving peace.
Finally, Iron Man had his dad murdered & when he learns who done it, he goes crazy. He has to have his technology destroyed before he stops attempting murder. There is something castrating about being powerless without electricity… No wonder that silly girl who does hand gestures takes up more time than the quest to avenge fathers. The patriarchy is over because the men are unmanly. Every feminist detail in the movie is as silly as the titillation of alluring little women outrunning & outfighting men twice their size, but feminism wins by forfeit.
Liberals & conservatives on Americans as a race of heroes
Iron Man says the young kids at MIT deserve all the money he can throw at their projects, whatever they are. That’s faith in the institution that picks & supervises them: Faith in science. The tech oligarch is paying comparatively poor pale imitations of him. That’s class solidarity: The future is libertarians paying for technology. His America is a land of heroes: They rise to the challenge, they scientifically solve the problem of human nature. It’s FDR & Reagan.
These people will relieve the estate of mankind: They’re working for poor people. One wonders, what do poor people deserve? A black woman checks Iron Man’s privilege: Is all this generosity born of guilt? Is this class or race that’s browbeating him? Stark feels guilty for the death of a black kid, who apparently matters because he was a great science student building housing for third-world poor people. How about those of us who are not such scientific-educated heroes? Are we human?
We do not matter–this martyr of do-gooder liberalism & the racial privilege-checking teach the libertarian billionaire a lesson: Obey liberalism. He folds like a chair. Iron Man shares his feelings about wife & father, his failure to know & love people. Is this a manly man getting in touch with his feelings? Only if you think scientific power equals manliness. Otherwise, it’s just another guy who knows in his soul that liberals are right.
Then comes conservatism Marvel can believe in: Captain America, previously a liberal poster-boy. He wants American power free, unfettered by committees & international institutions. He cannot say, proudly: Most countries are tyrannies where the regime terrifies the people. Marvel heroes cannot believes in America enough to say that.
Iron Man is ok with putting heroism on a leash–he’s always trying to do that–he never learns from provoking catastrophe. Iron Man’s close to a politician: He knows the ugly truth about the people–the only way they will stop blaming him is if they blame themselves, which means they have to vote. Getting people to consent, however, would mean rule by fear: Whenever they’re terrified by strange enemies, they’ll throw themselves on the mercy of heroes. In the clothes of American democracy stands the old Roman dictator.
Captain America is far closer to American politics. He gets that people need to trust their president in war. He defends American sovereignty. He also believes Americans are a race of heroes, not because of technology, but because Americans will fight tyranny–they will fight for the right cause. But America has a treason party that prefers to lose wars just in case American power is unjust. That does nobody any good & makes it impossible to have any presidents, including liberal presidents.
In Marvel stories, the cowardliest liberalism triumphs. The American government is looking to throw heroes in jail because they save people’s lives & destroy villains. The problem with that is that there are victims. In a liberal world, it is preferable to have villains murder & tyrannize. America used to throw terrorists into jail & there were whispers of torture. Now, certified American heroes are jailed. Manliness have become so counter-cultural it’s illegal.
In Marvel stories, liberalism worships in the temple of the UN. No one mentions the tyrants who gain legitimacy at the UN. There are no Muslims & Jews in the UN: There is only the unanimity of moral authority: America is wrong & must be stopped. You would think that in this universe, civil war happens because there are some Americans who think America is a pretty good thing & shouldn’t be jailed for their willingness to fight evildoers.
Not quite. The plot is not about Captain America, who is marginal. It’s about Iron man, because he’s so popular. He’s supposed to be the libertarian prince of liberal America. Is he going to be stopped? Is his moral authority going to be removed? Not quite–the guy who loses on everything is Captain America. His insistence to think for himself & be a slave to no foreigner’s will or whim–that’s what makes him an outcast.
So the story mostly seems to be therapy for Iron man. He was neglected by his father & lashed out; his parents were murdered. Now, new virtual reality technology can give him the therapy he needs, if liberals are right & you just have to cope with grief. It turns out, Iron Man’s worship of power has some seed of manliness in it–besides class privilege, beyond political irresponsibility–there is a son who will avenge his father. He’s no weakling.
Iron Man thought he could buy therapy by creating new scientific powers. That science could give him power over his own soul, to cut himself from his father. But blood is stronger than science, it turns out. What has this to do with civil war? Nothing in the slightest. It only barely has anything to do with heroism: It shows that all legitimate manliness starts in righteous anger against injustice.
In Marvel stories, when someone tries to say something about the friendship between men–Captain America & the Winter soldier grew up together & fought a just war together–there is just embarrassing silence. Nobody knows why manliness might be important; no one is manly enough to speak up for it. So Captain America becomes an annoying obstacle in his own movie–he’s uninteresting. The guy who talks about processing his emotions & whose marriage is falling apart takes center stage.
This is the poor man’s Batman v. Superman. Far worse villain, plot, & details. All you get is amazing fights & there are very few. You’re better off reading the wikipedia page & my essays. This is further proof that Marvel is aggressively mediocre while DC has the really good, really interesting directors.