A view of redemption Some notes on manliness with a view to education
The movie starts with our hero Gunnery Sgt. Tom Highway telling a few kids in jail stories about his life in the Marine Corps. It’s whoring & sexual diseases that we hear about at this point. I think he means to say that women & politicians have a moralistic attitude about life. It gets in the way of war; it also misunderstands men. Highway seems to belong in jail.
Just then an awful fatso suggests Highway really wants to rape a boy & gives him advice. This is a movie about war, so let’s learn from the enemy. The hero is trying to save the boy’s soul. Now, Highway may not think about soul like Mother Theresa, but he knows he’s his own man – that man can stand up for himself, including risking his life – so he knows about soul. That boy does not belong in jail, we never learn why he’s there until we see what America looked like in the 80’s. This is one part of Reagan’s American that ain’t Reagan country.
Highway is nearing the end of his life & his country is not what it should be. A man of war cannot do much in times of peace, but any real man only sees problems because he wants to fix them. He is a hellion who has come to redeem all the unmanly kids who have no idea what it means to be tough except that they loath themselves & waste their lives in a futile revolt against a civilization concerned with safety.
This is a remarkably low-class audience. Is it true that military America is so debased? Not at all, but it certainly does not look like the America of individual progress, where no one needs to believe in the common good to achieve wealth & admiration, & where no one would commit crimes of violence – they would not even understand why such things happen. In the future, no one will punch anyone else. But in the past, such men lived & breathed fire. They might point out, they used to win wars, too, unlike their successors…
Now, people who might turn to violence & consider it just are simply thought to lack self-control, which implies they should be pursuing their self-interest instead. But it just means that they want to serve something worth more than self-interest. The revelation of divine justice is always waiting in the wings for them.
Highway says it’s always been hard for him to think there’s anything except right & wrong. This does not mean he does no wrong, just that he is unable or unwilling to accommodate it by justifying it. How can such a man withstand necessity?
A view of the hero Some notes on the possibility of going beyond law into kingship
There is only one joking political reference. When Highway tells them to order the squad bay, they vote against it. He makes fun of democracy & has them run. He’s not going to beat the democrat’s love of freedom & ease out of them by being a martinet. He’s going to give them duties & powers they do not know yet & will teach them that those powers depend on their being together.
Highway beats up a Marine who attacks him, who thinks to surrender to the MPs, which does little for his dignity, but does free him from Highway’s empire. Highway magnanimously refuses & promises to make of him a Marine. Highway pays for another Marine’s family, again keeping a man to himself, denying him to the MPs whereby America rules the warrior class. He defends Marines who make fools of themselves in a bar & are threatened by a bully.
The god-awful Major who seems excited about the prospect of seeing men die by his incompetence speaks the truth when he says Highway thinks of his men as his own. Whatever problems they have, he can solve. What is deficient in them, he can supply. He says, he can’t fix it if he doesn’t know what’s broken. He has no doubt he can fix what he can know & he knows how to find out.
He rules by this claim to knowledge more than by his fierce strength – he fights rather intelligently & controls his anger. He makes examples of the men he fights. Who thinks experience is what matters here should learn that character precedes experience – the other old Sgts. are not fighters. Then again, inexperience is shown to be either pacific or tyrannic. Highway’s knowledge about making Marines is tied to his belief that it is the right way of life for a man.
His enemies claim he does not know how the military works, else he should rule it. & that he does not know himself, else he should not have ended up old & alone. His ignorance about the military is in two parts, ignorance of politic silence & willful law-breaking. Both show him, however, to focus on his men at the platoon level, where he rules them like ancient barbarian-heroes. They fight & bleed together. He goes beyond the laws & rules them like a king, able & willing to secure their good & to fulfill his excellence in the process.
Kingship is the natural answer of the manly man to the chaos of war. This is again tied up with mind: Highway argues from necessity in defense of himself. Marines defend our very order, which defense requires them to adapt, improvise, overcome.
A view of American manliness Some notes on the excellence specific to the Marine
The movie starts with a montage of soldiers from WWII. That is the most glorious moment of American war history, because unlike the great American wars, it is not fratricidal. The nation for once sent million after million of men into hell. They achieved a peace for their country that bred indolence & a social revolution – no more could the nation & the military look anything alike. Our protagonist is Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway, who lived through all this, fighting in Korea & Vietnam, surviving & keeping in the army all the way to Grenada.
He is not a Reagan man, except inasmuch as the military vote GOP & they like to win wars rather than be humiliated. Highway summarizes liberal cowardice in a good phrase: Lost the wars after winning all the battles. The military wins battles; the liberals lose wars.
But Highway does not fit in the land of peace & opportunity. He is arrested for being drunk & disorderly, but the judge gives him a pass for heroism, while pointing out that he’s making a habit of fighting wars… His ex-wife thinks enough of him to shout his faults every chance she gets, which would probably ruin a sweet singing voice. He even punched an officer & micturated on a police squad car. Manliness just is tragic…
America neither wants nor can use heroes anymore. Winning wars is not part of politics & the kind of hope associated with heroes would make decline humiliating or unbearable. This is not a case of a political regime that cannot moderate its warrior class. This is a case where manliness has been wiped out of the society, to a large extent because of a new democratic revolution. Highway calls this black musician kid a hippie – he is shocked anyone even uses that ancient word – we are shocked to learn the boy’s a Marine.
But the newfound American peace is not without great trouble. Violent crime & economic crisis show not only a great need for manliness, but also that the future of peace is not really a life of pleasure. In fact, America needs the kind of loyalty produced by manliness as much as ever, precisely because the promises & expectations of peace try men’s souls.
Inasmuch as there is a contest between the heroic way of life & the peaceful way of life, this is not a good moment for the peaceful way of life. Perhaps the attraction of peace depends on forgetting about the times of crisis which would give pause to the belief in a comfortable control over the future. But why examine the heroic way of life in a crisis not of total war, but self-loathing?
Clint Eastwood’s best war film. A must see for young men.
A gorgeous thirst A few notes on the possibilities of decadence
C.K. went to South America when his marriage collapsed, which is where Tracy’s brother is supposed to be. It’s a lawless place, where men & eroticism are untamed. The dancer who has stolen her father also has a Latin name. C.K. says he returned on account of Tracy’s wedding; George eventually blames him for the entire spectacle. You may call that reasoning vulgar – you look who’s winning & take it from there.
Dinah’s dream & Tracy’s acting as though dreaming; uncle Willie’s remarks at the end; Mikey’s Cinderella talk when visiting C.K.; all this is meant to recall Shakespeare’s A midsummer night’s dream. C.K. is Oberon, Tracy Titania. He sees her drunk. Spy magazine stands for Athenian politics. They have the pictures of the wedding to prove it. Now, as it happens, C.K. does come closest to orchestrating the spectacle than anyone else; he is also the only spectator, really.
It is surprising how everyone dislikes George, regardless of manners. Could this opinion form a community–the wealthy & the poor, by day & by night, in sickness & in health… Tracy’s only possible reason to marry, loyalty to her father, is complicated… I believe he would be ruined by such a marriage. Yet it is repeatedly alluded, he is presidential. That suggests a difficulty Americans need confront. Do you know the joke, Washington is like Hollywood for ugly people?
C.K. is well-bred, but poor. He has no interest in bringing back the family fortune. He’s even had to work; he knows enough about democracy to be a friend to democracy. But he had no idea the coming of democracy would ruin his marriage. Would his wife had dared to think he looks disgusting without progress pushing her into moralism? In one very important, very obvious way, Tracy is inferior to her mother.
C.K. attacks Tracy where she is strongest – she walks with the easy grace of the successful. He says, it’s because blows always were softened for her. This inclines her to cruelty, both because she thinks she’s stronger than she is & because she cannot distinguish might & right. She must have put that kind of confidence into love before falling back on contempt. It’s all because they were once kids – having fun & making fun of people are connected. Playing together & playing at love are too near.
C.K. knows the truth about Tracy & has come to teach her. He is not trying to teach her a lesson, so to speak, because he thinks the truth about her is beautiful, but also somewhat funny. He forces her to choose between learning the truth & defending herself. He knew in advance she was willing to love & be loved.
The Quaker spirit A note on the last days of virtue
The old order is mostly gone. A woman at the library built by C.K.’s grandfather still uses the thee & thou talk. C.K. talks about the Quaker spirit – pacifism effectively means enduring suffering. Who else shows kindness to Tracy’s mother, who seems to be punished for not having commanded her husband’s fear by not having any husband? A social revolution has swept her into the past – modern women are equal with women & imprudent about letting them know.
The old order emphasized inequality. The oligarchs kept the democrats at arm’s length, out of society; men could enjoy their vices away from moralistic women. Maybe women abandoned religion because it counseled patient suffering rather than the conquest of men by shame & guilt. Progress is a fighting faith, however, & now women can acquire equality: The vote, prohibition, & divorce. Tracy therefore hears insults unknown to her mother. Women are no longer protected from man’s sharp eye or tongue. Her young sister embraces the vulgar tongue.
Nothing in the least ever happened in the old world, the girl complains. Tracy’s revolution does not attract the young, who take progress for granted & disrespect progressive heroes. The democratic revolution will ruin & expose private lives, which makes for scary, delightful stories. The people’s right to know is asserted shamelessly: We must all draw lessons from & pass judgment on scandals now.
Tracy & Mikey learn Liz’s story – another modern woman born of family failure, far savvier & kinder. Progress might just mean picking yourself up when your hopes are dashed & trying to find some dignity. Privacy might mean, nobody cares about you. The dignity of work looks different when you there is little hope of success. Progress might then look like feeding the ambitions & fueling the anger of a few privileged women.
A kind of democratic restlessness affects people – they expect to acquire more than they have & fear to lose what they have acquired. Marriage is seen to be far more difficult. The society expands democratically, so more women can get justice. Naturally ungrateful, women would prefer erotic success or the contentment of family…
Both commerce & democracy are parts of the collapsing Quaker way. Old families are not old anymore. In the future there may be a lot of women & no families. This story about Philadelphia has little to do with the Founding & the constitution, except that we now can see the individualistic implications of claiming one’s rights also in turning from loving someone to defending oneself. Tracy’s mother longs for the small society of family, which she suspects was superior to justice. These undemocratic possibilities now require a drink & Tracy can only dream of love.
The married maidens A note on the peculiar effect of democratic progress on women
Tracy has the unfortunate chance to hear severa people’s opinions of her. They are not altogether flattering. She learns her reputation is not really under her control; her aristocratic insistence on privacy is betrayed by her rather less aristocratic insistence on morality. She is repeatedly likened to a goddess, or the statue thereof, or at any rate a bronze – hard & shiny. The insistence on her look implies a lack of self-knowledge.
We expect C.K. knows all about this – does he ever! – privacy can be shared between husband & wife; many secrets emerge this way as secrets; & then their secrecy makes them attractive. Democrats indeed look at privacy as privilege & by turns resent & admire it. But she tempts uncle Willy with a perfume very ambiguously called complete surrender, who tells her not to play with fire on the eve of her wedding.
Four men give her a dressing down. C.K. tells her, in effect, that morality is not sexy. Mikey, who hears this, later ridicules bitterly the privileged class’s enjoyment of their privilege. But they do not enjoy themselves. George is outraged at her immorality & denounces it before her suitors: Oligarchic decadence – opposed, doubtless, to Christian democracy. Her father tells her she tyrannizes her body & neglects his coming mortality. He says, in effect, her voice is full of angry justice.
The women, of course, are far more defensive of her, but she obviously will end up humiliated publicly. Progress has led her to leap from choosing a husband to ruling a house: She has expelled her husband & usurped her parents’ authority: She has persuaded her mother to expel the father & now rules her younger sister as a mother. Her mother points out that this new society of woman is based on conjugal failure. Tracy thinks to remedy that.
Her rule is a thinly veiled tyranny. No one believes she can succeed or that she knows what’s good for her or them. But who can stop her? She corrects everyone’s mistakes. Her orthodoxy is remarkably old-fashioned – her mother also corrects mistakes, but of manners, not mores. What is modern in Tracy is her belief that power can turn an orthodoxy from noble failure into guaranteed victory.
Tracy believes in progress. She means to imitate her mother’s marriage with improvements, to choose & control a husband who acquires rather than inherits wealth. The future of oligarchy is a priesthood: Duty will replace love & therefore preclude erotic injustice. She laughs at silly George, who thinks splendor means looking like a mannequin; & that cleanliness is next to godliness. She wants to control how everything looks. She wants him to look like he belongs in her house.
The coming revolution Some notes on the arrival of democracy
Society types Tracy Lord & C.K. Dexter Haven were once the splendid couple everyone wanted to see. They very privately married, quarreled, & divorced. Now, she is making a rather more historical marriage, to man of the people George Kittridge. He wants the people to see – Spy magazine would show them – but she is only so democratic… He has worked his way in her father’s company & she seems to think he has earned more than the paycheck & responsibility.
This happy story of old & new money marrying to show how the oligarchs can be fair & help new oligarchs on their way is interrupted by a vulgar scandal: The patriarch is also facing a democratic challenge: He now loves a dancer. Love enslaves us to our beloveds & society be damned, as well family & laws. Wait till the democrats hear about this! All the pomp & circumstance of oligarchy will seem worthless if a patriarch loses his mind over a woman of the people…
No quicker to abandon manners after mores than any of us, Tracy is forced to accede to blackmail. Enterprising democrats prop up the oligarchy in their interest. They know the people want splendor & they will arrange the show for a price – it is not personal, it is just business. & Mr. Sydney Kidd of Spy magazine – no mean Machiavelli – shares Mr. Lord’s opinion about the relation between the private & the public.
But of course this conflict is psychological, not institutional. Old Philadelphia has lost its efficiency. The character of new Philadelphia is in question. Tracy has three suitors, an aristocrat, a lieutenant of industry, & a poet. The latter two work; the first two have the confidence of command; the first & last are cultured. The three are strong & weak because of what they do & do not do.
Women choose men, however, which somewhat restates the problem. C.K. is too immoral & an ironic man; George is too moralistic & shockingly earnest; & Mikey is just right – witness the sensitive male by whom woman holds manliness in suspense. Mikey is named for a British aristocrat by a terrible low-class father; his good-natured honesty is stained by the democratic love of scandal which empowers Spy magazine; his love of beauty renders him suspect to people & his popular quality renders the oligarchy suspect to him.
This man whom no one can fear calls himself the voice of doom & prophesies the end of oligarchy in Philadelphia, although he may be understood to guarantee the survival of their offspring. He rejects Tracy’s patronage on the people’s authority & falls in love with her by his own eyes, suddenly deaf to the rumors.
One of the best comedies of the age of stars; the only one brimming with political conflict.
A look at man of the future finished, the coming homelessness This most charming vision of the future seems to depend on being an orphan or vagabond
Linda was brought up by a mother who tried to fit in the oligarch class, but without compromising the democratic good-nature of her children. For this purpose, she arranged that one of the upper-level apartments should become a play-room. There, the younger Seaton’s can reflect on their dead mother & their lost childhood. Oligarchy requires seriousness & insists on the distinction between children & adults. But Ned & Linda agree with the poet, the child is father to the man – they judge people’s character according to their childhood, as with their cousins.
Children not only are incapable of doing serious things, but they mock seriousness – they take seriously unserious things. They live by imagination, not reality. They are already democrats, unconstrained in their minds, but at the same time unable really to defend themselves or stand up for themselves, because that would require standing on principle – setting limits to human action.
This is why Ned is a drunkard & Linda a ditz. It is not some weakness in them or some oppression in their father or some hurt caused by their mother’s death. Their education is not really deficient, judged against their dreams. But Ned does not write music anymore, nor does Linda do anything she might do. Democrats are not strong enough to be serious about what they love. They can manage resentment, though…
This is why Linda will fight her sister for Johnny Case. He is useful to both sisters, precisely because he is like the founder of their house – why the house is really a mausoleum. He might found anew. Linda is the opposite of her sister, who is a conservative, which is why Ned is contemptuous: Her beauty is banal. She is not allowed by these would-be revolutionaries & meanwhile malcontents any understanding of human beings. Why should Johnny love her then?
Conservatism seems to be an oligarchic quality, because only the few have wealth to protect. But man does not live by bread along – faith also must be defended. Johnny has the abilities of the oligarchs, but does not share their faith. His understanding of wealth is different. It does not include protection. He has nothing to lose, he thinks, & is unsure what he might win. This is why he is an unreliable ally of democracy – democrats do want to be like the oligarchs.
Linda & Johnny cannot make a family, without which their example is barren, neglecting human beings’ natural desire for children. This is because they have no respect for conservatism. Only an awareness of the good things in our way of life can guide the education of children. This is how the past imposes on the future – habits become virtues.
A look at the man of the future continued, his need for progress & a new woman On the use of heroism to create a banal world
Johnny Case has his heart-to-heart with Linda. They decide, they could go together. She is a modern woman, a defender of democrats against her father’s interests. She says, her problem is, she could never make up her mind whether she should be Florence Nightingale, Joan of Arc, or John L. Lewis (union leader). Two out of three are modern, all three served men, & one said she was a divine agent. The grace note is violence; these women served war; the only contemporary one is a man.
But leave justice aside – not making up one’s mind is part of democratic freedom. She implies, she needs a mission, & therefore a master. Instead of gods or proletarians, she has found a latter-day hero. She is her own master who rejected her father’s authority; but she chooses to obey someone else. Democrats dislike obedience – they prefer to call it following a leader; the assumption there is, they are going in the same direction anyway. But the man has chosen the direction. Men are decisive; women indecisive. Women are more democratic.
One wonders whether the progressive ideas that liberate these two to elope will permit them to retain the man-woman way of understanding themselves & each other. Linda’s brother Ned is obviously unmanly, a musician, unable to stand up for himself or to be the serious businessman his father would prefer. Johnny dominates him as well, if for his own good. But Johnny has no aristocratic sense of rule – he lets the boy go to ruination & minds his own business. The patriarch is similarly weak – he is defended, however, by status & manners. He squirms under Case’s gaze.
Linda & Johnny know what they want to escape, but not what they want. They are escaping family, too. Their only friends are liberal academics, rather drab figures, not charmless, but bloodless. Fun, but when the trouble starts, they are useless.
Johnny does resemble Linda – he says fun belongs with you, work with age. Oligarchy ages men prematurely; so does necessity. Freedom includes freedom from necessity. This leaves him with the question, why work? If you’re free from necessity, there is no necessity to work. Could work be done for fun? Could any serious thing?
He rejects, like her, the life of acquisition. Both her father & sister understand acquisition is an ongoing concern – only those haves who think like have-nots will continue to have. Things have to change for things to stay the same. Johnny does not want things to be the same. He needs a new social order in which to thrive, one in which a sense of play is prized more than mordant seriousness. A world run by Linda, not her sister.
A look at the man of the future It goes without saying, this is a modern holiday–a godless celebration of man’s possibilities, excluding the unpleasant ones, it goes without saying…
Katharine Hepburn overacts–I am unpleasantly surprised to see director George Cukor, a man of sense & taste, allow it. I find the denouement implausible, which is not to say that it is not devoutly to be wished. Could play & fun ever bear the burden Linda places on them? Why sympathize so with the revolt of children against adults? It presages the coming social revolution, the 60’s democracy, when so many who had previously felt unhappy ended up suffering abuse & self-abuse beyond compare with the fairly ridiculous revolts of the irresponsible.
But there is more to life than history. The Seatons, says Linda, live in a mausoleum. Her younger sister, Julia, has attracted, & means to attach, a young man the spitting image of her now-revered grandfather, as she thinks & he will soon learn. Johnny Case is not, however, that man. Lincoln’s appeal to democrats to work their way to get the best America has to offer them leaves him unpersuaded. So does the call of family.
Why work? Well, necessity drove him, & his natural charm adds much to his achievements, not least in concealing suffering. But the young man’s beautiful immortality, which Cary Grant summons effortlessly, does not endear him to the oligarchs who actually run the country. They know, if everyone were like him or if they were to like him–& does not beauty rule over the minds of many?–the whole country would be damned. Remember taxation & representation–no freedom without property.
The young man’s quiet revolution shows he is not so innocent as he seems: He knows mankind will disagree–he conceals the extent of his disagreement with the American way. Why should a man who knows necessity end up being accused of being un-American? Well, he fell in love unwisely.
But this accident is typical–what oligarchy can survive without marrying their daughters to the most promising democrats? All the pomp of people who would look unlovely without so much expenditure & art either achieves this or ruins the orders. There is a dangerous suggestion, in the man changing sisters, that a democrat is free to take & leave women as he pleases. The political danger is never more obvious than in the elopement, which adds insult to injury.
A new age of progress is coming, says Johnny. He wants to know about new ideas: All ideas are new to him, but he has the democrat’s love of novelty without the his fear of adventure. Is not Julia right to fear his changing nature? He wants them to adventure together – to face danger. Linda is persuaded the high life is not worth living – it is either anything else or or die like Ned & their mother.
George Cukor’s least persuasive movie worth noting. It teaches gently that we should look at psychology if we want to understand the oligarchy & democracy & their complicated relation in America.