Guess Who's Coming to Brandeis?
To get to the press conference, we had to drive out to Waltham on a hot, damp evening, passing the time making "spirited" conjectures about the man we were to see and the movie he just made. There was none of the excitement you feel you should get when you're to meet someone applauded by Premiers and Presidents. For this particular important filmmaker was Stanley Kramer, the meeting-place was Brandeis, and the new film Bless the Beasts and Children. If shirts stuck to our backs at the conference, it wasn't tension but the weather.
Stanley Kramer came to Brandeis looking craggy and forceful in a jockish outfit. He is a medium-sized, bulky fellow, with a weather-worn face and an unselfconscious lope in his walk. Flanked by three natty Columbia pictures representatives, and ensconced in a withering basement office, he was there to answer questions posed by five film students, two theater profs, and two Crimson editors for "film people", as the youngest, denim-suited rep called us).
The questions Kramer fielded were mostly lickspittle stuff. (For the affair was not, it turned out, a bona fide press conference--the Crimson people were the only critics present--self-styled or otherwise.) It was one of the studio-sponsored get-togethers meant to spread word-of-mouth in big college areas. The questioners sounded like job-seekers; as I walked in, a young gentleman kneeling on the floor (there were some scattered chairs) asked: "How do you sell your films?" And Kramer replied that he had a treatment ready whenever he had a saleable package; that he'd recreate the story for the prospective financier, "enliven it, enrichen it and pull the snake out of the basket."
Kramer also told an anecdote about clearing San Francisco streets for the last shots of On the Beach (one pigeon raced through police lines); gave his analysis of the studio and star systems (the studios will die in a couple of years of unmitigated elephantiasis; the big stars are getting forced into television); and related how he handled his six youthful charges in Bless: "We were alone in the desert, and they did what I wanted or I hit 'em."
Perhaps the reason Kramer was eating up the questioners' semi-condescending 'artistic appreciation' was its novelty. For years, Kramer was Hollywood's only liberal "socially-conscious" producer-director (with the occasional exception of New York outsiders like Kazan). He stayed in Hollywood for studio money and soundstages, and his films were among the few made there that dealt, on a large scale, with important contemporary subject matter: racial strife, American "success", the misfit problems of war veterans and motorcycle gangs. To make them, Kramer had to fight--and then compromise. He hoped to film the T.V. play, Judgment at Nuremberg, so he filled his cast with Names and touted the project to United Artists as its year's Grand Hotel.
Kramer's formulae worked out pretty well throughout the 50's and 60's, both financially and critically. Taking a subject like nuclear warfare, he'd film it in a tendentious style, cohering to simplistic argument (e.g., the scale of nuclear warfare is a bad thing) and conventional Hollywood form ("human interest", sex and jokes). He walked off with plaudits from the press, and a fistful of Oscars. But few of the films he's directed himself stand up as more than the worst kind of "message movie".
Kramer's latest effort says nothing much about everything. Elements of youthful alienation, masculine role-playing, western violence, and the sterility of bourgeois life, are all either sketched in, or driven home with a sledgehammer. Bless the Beasts and Children is so lacking in intellect, or psychological veracity, that its heavy allegory of six middle-class youngsters who try to save 70 buffalo from an annual sport-slaughter becomes, in effect, only a shaggy-bull story. Columbia execs must be worried: the film has, in general, been drubbed, and they've given it a big Boston build-up. They're also clever: the film cost a cheap $840,000 to make, and if they plug it hard enough, in today's crazy market...who knows?
Kramer tried to please the people in that Brandeis office. Perhaps he was just thinking ahead to the two other engagments he had to speak at that night; perhaps he recognized the sycophants sucking up to him between the Johnny Walker and the club sandwiches as just another business duty. For all his anti-Establishment fighting, Kramer admits to being part of the vested interests. He's brought in his films underschedule, underbudget, and the statements they convey are so vague anyhow, that you wonder why they were ever "controversial".
One's first inclination in such gatherings is to learn whatever possible, and run; to write Kramer and the "conference" off with a zero. But Kramer has had such a great influence on mass audiences in his heyday, and his films for so long epitomized Hollywood's "serous" award-winners, that it seemed a cop-out to let him off the hook, to go back to Cambrige and spout some brief sobering statements about old-time-movie decrepitude. I engaged Mr. Kramer myself, and asked him whether his films had political intentions, and whether he conceived his films in political terms. And Kramer replied:
"I've never made a film to get across a message, I find that word patronizing, and I'm pessimistic about the results...if you can get one person to walk out of a theater and say, 'Why, I've never thought of it that way before,' that's about all you can get. And that's very heady wine.
"I feel guilty about some of my earlier films...the unrealized pretensions, when they don't turn out, open up whole vistas of attack from an art standpoint...(finally) I make films that mean something to me. When I read On The Beach, I thought it was an exciting story...nuclear war was my concern, as a man of this century...
"The turning point for me came, I guess, with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. The critics said it was overly simplistic, but it was designed to be a fairy tale...This black guy had it made, he didn't need Tracy and Hepburn. They were basic 40's, 50's liberals. If they hadn't let their daughter get married, it would only have been because Poltier's black.
"Tracy's last line was "If you love each other, get married and screw all those people'. It must have meant something--they blipped it on TV..."
I asked Kramer whether it didn't follow from what he said, that he indeed thought in terms of influencing a mass audience. But Kramer said, "no...I used to try to please everybody, now I just try to please myself." When I asked whether he felt "guilty" because of the dramatic quality of his early films, or because he didn't sufficiently develop his "message", Kramer retorted, "Would you accept it if I said they just weren't made well enough?" And when I inquired whether he'd ever had to compromise not only his filmmaking, but his film meanings, he said warily, "I'm happy I made the films, just because I think I made them well enough. Call it arrogance..."
Soon afterwards, Kramer was led upstairs to the main auditorium of the Spingold Theater (which looks as rich as it sounds). About thirty people there had been watching an assemblage of film clips hyped by Columbia as a "Kramer retrospective". Kramer was showing a little more sweat on his brow.
For a moment, Kramer dropped his guard ("baring" himself, as he put it), and told the audience about his projected film on Lt. Calley. Kramer has the rights to John Sack's book, and spent five weeks at the courtmartial getting seventy hours of tape. "You've got to recognize that he's a human being. Certainly, he's uneducated and inarticulate. But he's a human being, and the prosecution was trying to make him out as some kind of animal...Before you understand My Lai 4, you've got to understand My Lai 1 and My Lai 2. This man leveled a village before he was even fired on. But so had every captain in the Army".
At one point, a crowd bustled out of a rehearsal hall. "Can't be our overflow," muttered Kramer. In his final summation, he repeated his "changing one mind" and "heady wine" statement, and shot a glance at the critics' corner.
Thus went Stanley Kramer. That night, he represented not only the ludicrous aspects of Hollywood deep-think, but the frame of mind needed to outjob mainstream Hollywood product. All his films have the built-in sentimentality evidenced by his one-man, one-"feeling" statements, and this negates any biting commentary he ever wishes to make. Most men are basically good, says Kramer's films; their political and social ills are shallow compared to the potential of their 'untapped depths of human understanding'; if you get a Negro and a cracker on the same side of a chase, they'll learn to respect each other. Think of Pauline Kael on Ship of Fools: "Original Sin Meets Mr. Fixit." As for recalcitrant Nazis or racists: Kramer only suggests slaughter.
Kramer's is the easiest kind of statement to make superficially and still score emotional points. Audiences have always been gulled by it, even 'sophisticated' ones, so Kramer's influence must not be simply scoffed at. In fact, the only alternatives offered to it by the few American films dealing with contemporary social ills have been 16mm Newsreel formlessness, the terrorism of ex-Weatherman Robert Kramer's Ice, the varying documentary techniques of Wiseman, De Antonio et al. None are really interested in getting at the conceptual root of an issue, and then advocating viable morality or actions. None really operate to aim at the heart of the film audience.
The only film industry which seems to have overcome its skittishness over politics is the Italian. Bellochio, Petri, Pontecorvo, Bertolucci have all made films which transform tough social criticism, by passion and human perception, into art. Even Italian hacks, like Montaldo of Sacco and Vanzetti fame, are hacks on a higher plane. If American film is to mature, its maturity will come from those able to confront Kramer's value system and erase its sigma from socially-conscious flimmaking. As Robert Steel said (in New American Review No. 4):
...any work of art that manages to capture a sense of the immediate and face it with an intellectual conception of general import requires artistic skill, discipline and sensibility of the highest order. This doesn't happen often, but when it does we are reminded of what Hollywood seems never to have learned: that politics is not a stranger to art, but at the very center of man's struggle with himself and his society.
A friend of mine was filming the Kramer proceedings for one of his Brandeis film courses. At times, he'd lower the sound equipment he was holding to fill in details (with snickering nonchalance), of Kramer's own productions. I urged Pete to sink his film in a time capsule, so that future generations will know that once there were filmmakers who didn't know much about film, weren't interested in taking stands on social issues, but felt very committed to people. If, that is, those generations--after years of Kramer-like brainpickling--will be able to tell the difference between authority and self-justification.