Friday, November 15, 2013

ANOTHER FINE MESSAGE

Back in the ‘70s, critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel used to occasionally devote a show to their “Guilty Pleasures”—lurid or tacky movies in which they saw some wit or energy or pungency and couldn’t help but like. I’ve never been a huge fan of the moniker; I’ve always felt that if something gives you pleasure and doesn’t hurt anybody else, you probably shouldn’t waste time feeling guilty about it. Besides, fashions change. Today’s guilty pleasure might turn out to be tomorrow’s recognized masterpiece.

But I admit, there is a genre of movies for which many critics—critics who would like to be thought hip, anyway—might feel a bit sheepish about admitting a fondness, and I’m no exception. But I’m going to acknowledge, red-cheeked, my guilty pleasure:

Message movies.

Yes, that’s right, earnest, high-minded, didactic, condescending, heavy-handed, platitudinous, preaching-to-the-choir message movies. I like them. I even love some of them. I’m out of the closet.

This—among other reasons—is why I wish I could be in Palm Springs, California this weekend. The town is already the home to my favorite film festival in the country, the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in May, and this weekend, today through Sunday, the Camelot Theatre on Baristo will host the inaugural edition of the Stanley Kramer Film Festival. Kramer, of course, was The King of the Message Movie.


In addition to appearances by Kramer’s widow Karen Sharpe Kramer and his daughter Katharine Kramer, the fest will feature a line-up of six movies either produced or produced and directed by Kramer. It kicks off today with The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), continues Saturday with The Wild One (1953; directed by Lazlo Benedick) and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and on Sunday with Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and The Caine Mutiny (1954; directed by Edward Dymytrk). With the possible exception of Mad, Mad World, all of these star-packed favorites qualify as message movies.
What do we mean when we say “message movie?” Well, broadly, the definition would be something like this: A fiction film which seeks to dramatize some controversial social or cultural issue, usually in an accessible, unsubtle way, and usually with an overt, “editorial” viewpoint regarding which side of the issue is the right one. Racial tolerance is a typical preoccuption—among the Kramer Festival’s line-up, for instance, it’s the theme of both of Friday’s selections.


Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a classic specimen. The film has a breezy, sunny, romantic-comedy look and atmosphere, but the theme is spiky—white liberal discomfort with interracial marriage when it’s concretely in your family, as opposed to theoretical. A San Francisco newspaper publisher (Spencer Tracy) and his wife (Katharine Hepburn) are introduced to the fiancé of their daughter (Katherine Houghton)—a flawlessly dignified and charming young black doctor (Sidney Poitier). Privately, the Doc tells his prospective in-laws that he’ll call off the marriage if they don’t approve, but that he must have their decision that night. The Dad, supposedly on the basis of all the hardships the couple will face, finds himself tempted to take the Doc up on it, much to his wife’s horror.

Kramer and his screenwriter, William Rose, weren’t naïve about black racial attitudes—it turns out that Poitier’s parents don’t know his fiancée is white, either, and his father (Roy Glenn) is no happier about it than Tracy. Again, this guy’s wife (Beah Richards) is appalled at her husband’s intolerance. And the publisher’s maid (Isabel Sanford) isn’t impressed with the idea either—she thinks the Doc is uppity.

In description, the movie might sound fairly crazy—the young man’s offer, made without consulting his fiancée, to forget the whole thing if her parents don’t improve, just isn’t that convincing, and the symmetry of the older couples’ attitudes seems artificial, too. They’re like devices from a clumsily structured stage play, keeping everything on one set, trumping up a fake deadline for the action (the Doc and the daughter are flying overseas that night) and, most importantly, allowing for everyone—but especially Spencer Tracy—to make big showcase speeches.

All I can tell you is that the movie works. It’s not that it makes its laborious plotting feel at all likely, because it really doesn’t. You recognize all of the awkwardness of the storytelling as you’re watching the movie, and you dismiss it as unimportant.

Partly, at least for movie buffs, this is because of the charisma of the actors, all of whom are in top form, especially Tracy, whose last film this was (he died less than three weeks after completing it). Partly it’s because some (not all) of Rose’s dialogue has sparkle and screwy wit. But to a great degree it’s because the movie persuades you, corny as it may sound, that Love Trumps Race.

Or, at least, it persuades me. Plenty of critics—movie critics and social critics both—elaborately rolled their eyes at Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner back in the ‘60s. Some of them, no doubt, were motivated by the need to show that they were way ahead of this movie and of any middle-class square that it could possibly edify. But some were probably motivated by honest cynicism—they just couldn’t buy the underlying optimism of the movie, or of message pictures in general.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner stands easily accused of all of the big slams against message movies: First, that they’re “preachy”—in other words, that they commit the grievous sin of saying what they mean, directly and bluntly. They do so, not uncommonly, through grand righteous speeches, shoved into the mouths of actors with a credible manner—often Spencer Tracy, in Kramer’s case.

Secondly, the message movie is seen as a biased, wag-the-dog sort of genre. Instead of telling a neutral story from which an attitude toward a social theme might arise naturally in a viewer, these films are seen as contriving a story in order to support a social position. In short, they’re seen as propaganda.

Finally, it’s argued that message movies are also ineffective propaganda—that they don’t change hearts and minds. I don’t know that this can be confidently claimed in every individual case, but on the whole, the idea that if, say, you were a firm racist before you saw Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or The Defiant Ones, you’d come out of those movies suddenly colorblind and tolerant does admittedly seem pretty implausible, in the unlikely event that you saw them at all. But this, by itself, doesn’t mean that such films can have no efficacy in advancing progressive social change.


Here’s what I mean. A while back I happened to hear a few minutes of a talk radio show here in Phoenix in which an elderly-sounding woman was venting her dislike of Mexicans, illegal or otherwise. At a certain point, citing her belief that Mexican immigrants were welfare cheats, she said “I’m sorry, but they don’t work.”

The host (a self-identified conservative, by the way) cut her off at this point with: “Well, at least you realize you should apologize for your prejudice, so that’s something.”

It struck me that he was right. That “I’m sorry” was a good sign. Message movies don’t turn bigots into non-bigots, at least not usually. But they can be a part of a pop-culture mainstream in which such bigotries are ridiculed or vilified, and expressing them becomes less acceptable—in which if a racist old lady can’t keep her ugly attitudes to herself, she at least feels the need to preface them with an insincere “I’m sorry.”

As is pointed out right there in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—by Spencer Tracy, so you can be sure it’s true—interracial marriage was still illegal in nearly twenty states at the time that movie was made. Of course, you might point out that that’s about the number of states in which, at this writing, same-sex marriage isn’t illegal, and this wouldn’t make a pro-marriage-equality movie particularly courageous in this day and age.

And you’d be right, both for that theoretical movie now, and for GWCTD in 1967. Neither is courageous. It’s not like Hepburn and Tracy and Poitier et al were acting the story out live in a park in Birmingham, Alabama or someplace like that.

But I’m not arguing for the courageousness of that movie or of the “message” genre. I’m arguing for its utility, for the part it's played in creating a middle-of-the-road pop culture that helped make the values it was advocating acceptable, and, more importantly, the values it was opposing unacceptable.

But even if you find my claim for the social effectiveness of message movies dubious, I would still argue in favor of them simply as entertainment—well-acted and sometimes full of thrilling oratory, often (especially in Kramer’s films) delivered by legendary stars, and charged up with a sense of the possibility of human progress. So, as far as I’m concerned, long live the Stanley Kramer Film Festival.

At a glance, though, longevity for such a fest seems unlikely. After all, Kramer directed fewer than twenty films. But if you consider the movies he produced but didn’t direct—and that list would include stuff like High Noon and Marlon Brando’s debut film The Men—he was remarkably prolific. You could program an annual festival for several years without having to repeat a selection.

I hope, though, that if this festival continues it eventually becomes devoted, at least in part, to message movies in general—find some other term for them, maybe, so that audiences don’t stay away in droves—not just those from the Kramer canon. Anything could be fair game, from Johnny Guitar to The Day the Earth Stood Still to Network.

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