Page Two: Persistence of Revision

Fascism, Frank Capra, and how legend becomes history

Page Two
Last week I swooned over the masterpiece that is Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. It has been suggested that I was gushing so wildly that perhaps I had the vapors, but I don't think that is biologically possible. This time out, I simply present some historical context for the film. One of the few complaints about the film is that the threads never really resolve themselves. Given the history, the film is almost too direct – though, thank God, it is not like The Good Shepherd, where everything is so neatly tied up at the end that all meaning is lost, flooded by Hollywood-narrative synchronicity.

As the narrative unfolds, del Toro's film becomes ever more metaphorically obscure and symbolically dense. This is not to say it grows incomprehensible but quite the opposite: Using his mastery of the language of cinema, the director abandons the linear and accessible for the visceral, subconscious, and endlessly referential.

There was a time I devoured histories, just wanting to make sense of things. Even in the heyday of this feast, I would stumble over the Spanish Civil War. It was hard to grasp. The revolt, begun in 1936 against the recently elected republican government, was driven by the army – self-proclaimed "Nationalists" who claimed they were defending Spain by trying to overthrow this liberal and weak government. The Nationalists, who in addition to the army included the church and major landowners and aristocracy, were clearly right-wing. The Loyalists supported the republic and are usually regarded as leftists, though their ranks included the more conservative Basques, as well as workers, academics, unionists, anarchists, and communists.

Nazi Germany and fascist Italy allied with the Nationalists, supplying them with troops, aircraft, and weapons; the Germans used Spain as a testing ground for many of their new ideas about how to conduct a modern war.

Russia supported the Loyalists, supplying them with very limited military support – essentially nothing, compared to what the Nationalists were receiving.

The United States chose not to get involved at all, not even selling military supplies to the combatants. Many Americans went over to fight on the Loyalist side regardless, forming the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Both sides in this brutal civil war committed atrocities. Many of the Loyalists were anti-cleric, so priests and nuns were killed and churches burned. They also showed no mercy to Nationalist sympathizers. The Nationalists were even more vicious, making lists with tens of thousands of names of Loyalist sympathizers, so they could butcher them.

One of the things that confused me in trying to grasp this conflict was that many of the early histories became so involved with detailing the different groups within the larger factions that all sense of coherence was lost – a problem made even more pronounced as the infighting among subfactions intensified. Communists and anarchists began killing each other; Loyalist factions that wanted to negotiate peace ended up fighting with those that didn't; and the communists instigated a major, violent split in Loyalist forces.

Franco more effectively held the Nationalists in check. He had taken over the Falange (fascist) party, so he had a national political base; even though the interests of the different Nationalist factions were often at odds, for the most part they buckled under to Franco. Though there was still fighting among rival groups on the Nationalist side, especially among opposing factions in the Falange party, it wasn't as severe as it had been. In 1939, Franco and the Nationalists won the civil war.

Spain stayed neutral during World War II. It was sympathetic to its former allies Germany and Italy but mostly stayed out of the conflict. The Allies conquered Nazi Germany in 1945, ending the fascist regime.

In Spain, Franco's "fascism" wasn't really the same as Germany's; instead, it was much more reactionary. Rather than trying to forge a new world, Nationalist revolt was very specifically aimed at returning Spain to its traditional power structure – the church, the wealthy landowners, and the army, disenfranchising the lower and middle classes from political power.

Set in 1944, Pan's Labyrinth takes place a half decade after the civil war ended. Franco didn't die until November 1975. The film is not set at the beginning of the reign of a vicious and repressive government, nor anywhere close to its end. The dark side is not merely metaphorical but has come into power and rules Spain.

There was so much history, so many factions, and so little hope at that time, that to capture its mood, one must present a grandly ambitious, open-ended, multitiered nightmare. Del Toro achieves this – but not in a dank, pretentious way.

The anti-Franco resistance was based on the Spanish lower classes' history of perseverance in the face of brutal suppression. There was hope, as well: not hope for victory but, instead, for survival – just making it to the morning of the next day. Living was the only revenge. Instead of a neat, metaphoric picture, del Toro's film offers a vast, cracked, burning, and disparate portrait of a Spain slowly being suffocated, green and light being swallowed by dark and blood.

The following section is an excerpt from a larger piece I'm writing. It is another in my ongoing assaults on modern American film-writing. It addresses the subject of how, when legend becomes fact, the legend gets printed – even when it comes to film history. Frank Capra is almost always painted as a determinedly Pollyannaish American storyteller – one who ignores the more complicated and problematic sides of American life and instead presents reassuring, Norman Rockwell-type portraits. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is generally regarded as a populist fairy tale. The film is constantly referenced as an indicator of a kind of naive, cheerleading belief in the triumph of American ideals. There is even a documentary titled Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? on the festival circuit.

As a Capra champion who dislikes most contemporary film and filmmakers, Michael Medved writes in Hollywood vs. America, "No director in the history of motion pictures has been more attuned to that everyday heroism than the late – and much lamented – Frank Capra. In one statement of his artistic credo, the maker of It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It Happened One Night and so many other great films declared: 'Movies should be a positive expression that there is hope, love, mercy, justice and charity. ... It is the [filmmaker's] responsibility to emphasize the positive qualities of humanity by showing the triumph of the individual over adversities.' ... Capra's faith in those 'positive qualities of humanity' is perhaps the most significant missing ingredient in today's popular culture."

The majority revisionist view, which tarnishes Capra and his work in most every way, is clearly expressed by David Thomson, who writes about Capra in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, "And I knew I was challenging orthodoxy (though I was following in the excellent footsteps of Andrew Sarris) by saying: 'The most odious aspect of these films [those of the late Thirties and early Forties] is the way they bowdlerize politics by suggesting that the tide of corruption can be turned by one hero. Deeds and Smith admonish indolent or cynical government assemblies with a soulful list of clichés that Capra persuades himself is libertarian poetry, rather than a call for unadventurous conformity.'"

The director is often derided as authoring "Capra Corn," which is frequently used as a negative qualifier; in Cinema of Outsiders, Emanuel Levy describes "a modern example of Capra's 'little people' without Capra sentimentality ...". Later, about the Coen brothers, Levy writes that "The Hudsucker Proxy plays like a Capraesque fairy tale with a Preston Sturges hero and Howard Hawks dialogue; it borrows from Meet John Doe with Capra's populism turned inside out ...".

Thomson again: "And the films, it seems to me, are a kind of fascistic inspirationalism in which the true daily, tedious difficulty of being American is exploded in the proposed rediscovery of simple goodness. Ross Perot may look and sound like Preston Sturges' Wienie King (in The Palm Beach Story) but he is a figure from and for Capra." Robert Sklar, in Movie-Made America, writes, "The later movies provided an integrated prepackaged network of myths and dreams and invited viewers to join."

There is debate about the impact, quality, and meaning of the body of Capra's work, but far less about his films' ideological makeup. These glib critical assertions should have concentrated on the latter before the former. Capra's films are far more complex and conflicted than they have been considered; whereas they celebrate the American dream, they also confront the contradictions and diseases of his contemporary society. Thomson commits the most grievous error; yes, it is a biographical dictionary, but he is more interested in the teller than the tale and subjugates the latter to the former.

The first time I watched Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it was on television, and I was 11. I remembered being devastated at the end. Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) was not elected as a senator but was appointed by the governor after the seated senator died – very specifically because Smith was such a naive idealist that the powers that be figured he would be an easy dupe. At the end of the film, Stewart makes a principled stand, waiting to hear from the people in his state. He does, but not in the way he had hoped.

The political machine in his state, through thugs and violence, crushes the people's rebellion against it. Marches are turned back with blasting fire hoses, and police break up rallies. The members of the youth clubs Smith used to head turn to their offset press to print an accurate version of what is happening. It's a stirring moment: the kids and their press. Then they take to the streets on foot and bike to distribute the publication to the state's citizens. They are brutally beaten, their papers destroyed. Meanwhile, the state's mainstream media becomes a propaganda machine against Smith.

The populist happy ending that all celebrate is a fiction. The young senator, hoarse from his filibuster, shows some hope, as bushel baskets of letters are brought into the Senate chamber. Watching, we are ready for that great, redemptive moment. Instead all the letters and telegrams attack Smith. He is broken. The status quo of compromised, corrupt political machines has won.

Then there is grafted-on, phony Hollywood grace – the deus ex machina suicide attempt of the state's other senator (Claude Rains), himself once an idealist but now thoroughly corrupted.

Even at the age of 11. I found no satisfaction in victory by default. Instead, deep down, what resonated with me was the explicit portrayal of the corruption of American politics. Crucial to understanding Frank Capra is first rejecting the traditional model. Capra was an American immigrant artist who loved this country, especially the idea of it but could never really reconcile its contradictions.

Between 1936 and 1948, Capra directed his major classic works – although for a significant part of that time he was involved in making films for the war effort and not directing studio productions. In addition to his work in the Why We Fight series and other government films, his studio releases were: 1936, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town; 1937, Lost Horizon; 1938, You Can't Take It With You; 1939, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; 1941, Meet John Doe; 1944, Arsenic and Old Lace (filmed in 1942); 1947, It's a Wonderful Life; 1948, State of the Union.

Consider that this body of film – remember Capra's work is corn about "hope, love, mercy, justice" – represents only a little more then a decade of movie-making.

Five of the films produced one right after the other.

The last three of the prewar films (Mr. Smith, Meet John Doe, Arsenic and Old Lace) and the first of the postwar films (It's a Wonderful Life) end with an important character's contemplated or attempted suicide. The two most political of the films – Mr. Smith and State of the Union – both boast phony endings, but both also first condemn politics as usual.

Yet they are derided. To consider Capra's movies, as contrasted with critics' readings of them, is to deal with a literature that seems more and more removed from the source. Famously, comic impersonators' takes on such familiar figures as Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson are based on the seminal impersonation of that person by another performer more than on the person himself. The same is true of Capra's work, for which we are given readings of misreadings. How could anyone write, "Even more than Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith embodies the favorite Capra Theme."?

When all is said and done, trust the film. end story

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Frank Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Guillermo del Toro, Pan's Labyrinth, Spanish Civil War, film criticism

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