Robbins’ Well-Cast Agitprop: A $30 Million View of the 30′s

Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock plays like an Upper West Side liberal’s tribute to the socially activist 30′s, a time when Diego Rivera’s Marxist-Leninist mural in the Radio City Music Hall was demolished by Nelson Rockefeller in concert with his bosom buddy, William Randolph Hearst. Meanwhile, Orson Welles and John Houseman were trying to mount a W.P.A. Federal Theater Project production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock despite the combined opposition of the Congressional Un-American Activities Committee and the Stage Actors Guild whose members were forbidden to perform in the musical.

Mr. Robbins, who is 41, is barely old enough to remember the late 60′s and early 70′s turbulence of Kent State, Woodstock, the Kennedy and King assassinations, Watergate and the fall of Saigon, much less the social turmoil of the 30′s. Predictably, he has written, produced and directed Cradle Will Rock pretty much as a 30′s Popular Front cartoon in contrived settings and groupings that might have been choreographed at the time by Busby Berkeley in his Warner Brothers Gold Diggers extravaganzas. Mr. Robbins could not have foreseen, however, that the protest movements of the 30′s and 60′s would have morphed at the end of the 90′s into the anarchist-sparked riots of what future media mavens will describe as the “Battle of Seattle” directed against the global shadow of the World Trade Organization.

I wonder what the nostalgia-harvesters of the next millennium will make of our particular moment in time, when the charging bulls of Wall Street have not only gored all the red flags of collectivist constraints, but have also turned most of us into vicarious capitalists. My own family was on relief in 1936 and 1937 when Cradle Will Rock erupted on the Broadway stage. We were never poor, however, just broke, just one deal away from renewed solvency, and we remained rock-ribbed Republicans throughout our Micawberish misfortunes. My standup comedy line is that we were the only relief family in Brooklyn to vote for Alf Landon in 1936.

I never knew at the time that Orson Welles was the radio voice of The Shadow , a.k.a. Lamont Cranston, but, strangely, I did know about the Rivera-Rockefeller imbroglio from left-leaning Greek relatives, whom my Greek-monarchist, Pelloponesian parents disdained as “communists.” I grew up reading William Randolph Hearst’s Evening Journal and Morning American , and then the merged Journal-American , and all its copious comic strips. Thus, I know at least that there were many conflicting political currents running through the raging sea of the Great Depression.

This is not to say that I expected Mr. Robbins to cover every last inch of the 30′s waterfront. If only the actual stage musical he commemorated and idealized were the slightest bit clever and melodious. As it is, Marc Blitzstein’s Cradle Will Rock is as excruciating a piece of addled agitprop as I have ever encountered in any medium. Furthermore, it is very strange to see Bertolt Brecht materialize on screen as a ghostly influence on Blitzstein. For one thing, Brecht was very much alive at the time, and busy writing screenplays in Hollywood. For another, he had Kurt Weill to write the haunting music for The Threepenny Opera , and Blitzstein clearly didn’t.

Mr. Robbins can be credited at least with assembling a mostly impressive cast with the comparatively limited means available for this $30 million production. Top acting honors clearly go to Cherry Jones in the role of Hallie Flanagan, the omnipresent, much traveled and troubled, and grossly underpaid head of the Work Projects Administration’s Federal Theater Project. In her discreetly smart suit and no-nonsense broad-brimmed hat, Ms. Jones’ Flanagan comes close to holding the whole picture together with her intelligent projection of a practical but still vibrant idealism. Hank Azaria is at times almost comical in reminding us that if there is anything more pitiful than a suffering artist it is a suffering socially conscious artist. Emily Watson seems indestructibly charismatic as she enriches and ennobles the part of her proletarian waif Olive Stanton with her dazzling screen presence. Susan Sarandon gives an interestingly modulated portrait of Margherita Sarfatti balanced in Stendhalian fashion between her early bohemianism and her later fascism as Mussolini’s emissary to the art-collecting captains of American industry. She can thus serve as a go-between between Rivera and Rockefeller, between Mussolini and the industrialists who can supply his war machine in its aggression against Ethiopia.

In the realm of wishful fiction, John Turturro plays the firebrand Aldo Silvano, who impoverishes his wife and children in order to assert his antifascist resistance to the Mussolini so strongly adored and admired by Aldo’s sheltering extended Italian family. Aldo is writ large, and Mr. Turturro’s blazing eyes and angry voice make him monotonously larger. Bill Murray’s Kafka-esque ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw-with a sadistic dummy and a paranoid aversion to Commies in his craft-joins with Joan Cusack’s tattletale Hazel Huffman who is shunned by her party-line comrades, to form the most bizarre counterrevolutionary romantic team I have seen since double-agent Robert Donat wooed Czarist noblewoman Marlene Dietrich in Jacques Feyder’s Knight Without Armour (1937) in the midst of the Russian Revolution.

Vanessa Redgrave’s Countess LaGrange, John Cusack’s Nelson Rockefeller and Phillip Baker Hall’s Gray Mathers are the most puppetlike characterizations in their self-parodying displays of ditzy frivolity. More damaging to the production, however, are the representations of Orson Welles and John Houseman by Angus Macfadyen and Cary Elwes, respectively. Mr. Macfadyen projects the imagined exuberance of Welles in this era without the imagined charm, the imagined energy without the imagined genius, the imagined outrageousness without the imagined irony. Mr. Elwes seems overtly gay in a manner that seems more 90′s than 30′s, and, in a manner less restrained than Mr. Houseman’s in his public appearances to the end of his life. Ruben Blades is somewhat better as Rivera, though his part requires little more than a rising crescendo of exasperation. But still, what a cast for a doomed project, though hardly a dishonorable one. There is much ado about something, but Mr. Robbins’ reach far exceeds his grasp on this occasion.

Straight but Great

David Lynch’s The Straight Story , from a screenplay by John Roach and Mary Sweeney, is the kind of movie that no matter how many rapturous reviews it receives, once you find out what it is about, your first reaction almost has to be, you’ve got to be kidding. You expect me to spend just under two hours watching a 73-year-old geezer traveling from Iowa to Wisconsin in a John Deere-powered lawn mower dragging a makeshift covered wagon behind it? Where’s the sex? Where’s the adventure? Where’s the violence? Where’s the horror? Where’s the dramatic excitement? Where the spectacle? And don’t give me any humanist claptrap. Sure, I like old people, but not in lead roles. Even Aristotle would object to a character who had long ago passed the crossroads of decision about his destiny.

Well, folks, I’m here to tell you that The Straight Story is nothing short of sublime. It’s clearly one of the three or four best movies of the year. Indeed, in some ways it’s too good to be an American movie. It reminds me of nothing so much as Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), a three-hour-plus movie about peasants I didn’t want to see just before leaving for Cannes 21 years ago. A publicist persuaded me it was something special, and he was right. It was suffused with an unembarrassed goodness that was as rare then as it is now.

There was no publicist this time to alert me to the glories of The Straight Story . There was no pressing need for me to see it for review purposes. I simply found myself with a free evening, and nothing else to see that I had not seen already. Still, I was not very high on David Lynch. He had always struck me as too weird for my taste, and his reported lack of weirdness on this occasion struck me as weirder still.

My first surprise was the formal abstractness of the director’s visual style, but then way back in Mr. Lynch’s Blue Velvet I remembered his peekaboo propensities with the most lyrical manifestations of nature. My second surprise was the detailed complexity of the screen story. Lines were planted along the way, and were fully and poetically harvested before the final fade-out. There were no loose ends, no shaggy dog diversions. I suspected the decisive participation in the proceedings of Mary Sweeney, who, in addition to being Mr. Lynch’s significant other, was the editor, co-screenwriter and researcher of the film. It was also Ms. Sweeney who bought the movie rights to the story after reading the original New York Times story on Alvin Straight, the grizzled Midwestern lawn-mower Ulysses.

Richard Farnsworth, as Alvin, and Sissy Spacek, as his slow-speaking daughter, give two of the most moving and most insightful performances you are likely to see this year. And, like The Tree of Wooden Clogs , it is suffused with so much unembarrassed but never sappy goodness not only from the principals but from the people along the way as well that it helps make up for all the mean-spiritedness and malignancy that takes up so much screen time these days.