Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Way We Were and the Way We Are

A movie from 1973 keeps popping up in my mind, a movie which was disavowed by the guy who wrote the original screenplay, which had multiple writers trying to rework it and which was thought to be a schmaltzy failure at the time. Actually, not everyone thought it was a failure: Pauline Kael  liked it but she thought it had been dismissed because it was a woman's fantasy rather than a male fantasy.

The basic theme had to do with political awareness and the value of social responsibility versus the obligation to simply make things work for yourself.
The pragmatist and the politically engaged

The heroine, played by Barbara Streisand is a Jewish girl from New York who is very engaged in the ideas of her time, which is 1944, so fascism, the Second World War draw her in, and then after the war, the McCarthy era of Red baiting and the Committee on Un-American activities. In college she meets a golden goy, Robert Redford, who intrigues her because, beyond his good looks, he writes very well. He also writes very easily, and he is clearly talented in a way she never could be.

There is a scene in a bar, where she finds him in his white Navy uniform, drunk on a bar stool and she brushes his blonde hair back from his eyes, which Kael pointed to, as one of the few representations of female enrapture ever depicted in film.

They eventually marry, but they travel different paths: she is caught up in fighting the forces of darkness--McCarthy, repression of Blacks, the Commie hunting, repression of free speech, and the blacklist for writers accused of communist sympathies during the House on Un American Activities witch hunt--and he is writing screenplays for sit coms, making himself a career, making money, indifferent to the causes which so inflame her.

In this, there is something similar in Dr. Zhivago, where Julie Christie just wants to live a normal life but her husband is a Bolshevik zealot. Of course, in this case, your sympathy is with the woman who wants to avoid the passions of political conflict. The Bolshevik, Strelnikov's, ardent political convictions drives him to actions which destroy his marriage, his family and his life, just the sort of thing Redford's Hubbell decries. Principles driving a doomed destiny. This is the primary conflict in Zhivago, the desire for a private life, which the Communists decry as decadent; the important thing is signing on to the big principle. The capitalist, Ayn Rand says the only moral thing is to take care of yourself, and let individual choices drive the big picture. Even George Bernard Shaw, in Major Barbara, lines up in this direction: The biggest obligation one has in life is not to society, but to not being poor.

The scene from The Way We Were I always remember shows that Redford actually does have a philosophy which drives him and it is a philosophy which rejects political activism as self indulgent.

Redford (Hubbel): This is grown up politics, Katie. And it's stupid and dangerous.
Streisand (Katie): You're telling me to shut up because it's dangerous?
Redford: I'm telling you its a waste. And that those men are only gonna get hurt. And that nothing is gonna change. And after jail, after years of bad blood, when it's practical for a fascist producer to hire a communist writer because his movie is in trouble, he'll do it.  They'll make movies, have dinner, they'll play tennis, make passes at each other's wives. What did anybody go jail for? For what? A political spat?
Streisand:  You're telling me to close my eyes and watch people being destroyed so you can work in a town that doesn't have spine enough to stand up for anything but a buck?
Redford: I'm telling you that people are more important than a God damn witch hunt. You and me. Not causes. Not principles.
Streisand:  Hubbell, people are their principles.
Strelnikov, all principle, no personal: Dr. Zhivago

And there you have it. People are their principles. That is a political person summing up.
And for Donald Trump, principles do not matter. The deal matters.

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