the big picture 1.15.99

"On The Waterfront." "A Streetcar Named Desire." "Gentlemen's Agreement." Big pictures.

Elia Kazan, the director of these and other films, is going to receive an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony this year.

There will be a lot of interesting discussion over this. In previous attempts to honor him with prestigious awards, the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, to name one, the efforts have failed due to his controversial decision to name names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities back in the 1950's.

The argument in favor is that the guy is due his recognition for a great body of work, and that we should not confuse moral principles with aesthetic ones.

The argument against is that the guy is a snitch who contributed to people being blacklisted and who were therefore unable to even try to create a body of work.

That's putting it all very simply, of course.

It's fascinating to follow issues like this in Hollywood, where relationships are powerful elements in deal-making and employment, and the end result is a product of massive collaboration. Ah, Cinema.

It's fascinating to follow issues like this in Washington, where relationships are powerful elements in deal-making and employment, and the end result is a product of massive collaboration. Ah, McCarthyism.

A lot of people waffle on the issue, saying they can see both sides of the dilemma Kazan faced. I can see both sides too, but I'm not one of the wafflers. Democracy stands or falls of its own merits, and the citizens who live in it have a duty to vigilance not primarily against a subversive idea, but against suspension of the basic ideals democracy espouses. I've never been asked to name names or else go to jail, but even if it was an issue of keeping food on my family's table, it'd be jail for me. A lot of men died to keep us from tyranny, lots of blood spilled in my family and yours, and it's difficult for me to imagine that I could make that trade.

I feel close to the issue, having met and talked with some of the people who were blacklisted in my own labor union. The sacrifices they and their families made are heartbreaking, and they possess an honor greater than any bestowed by a Congress or a President, of the United States or even of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They understood and respected the concept behind the Bill of Rights. There is a certain cohesiveness which their particular history provides me, a solidarity that comes out of the sacrifices of others and declares a responsibility to something greater than oneself or one's career, or even to one's family. Such focus does not exclude the consideration of family or career, but strives wholly to ensure the existence of a sound democracy in which work and family can survive. It's true of the Hollywood Ten, and it's true of the veterans in my family who fought in war, and I hope it will be true in generations to come, if they can tear themselves away from Star Trek 27: The Rehash.

So I am curious to hear Kazan's acceptance speech. He is part of an amazing body of work in film and theater, and I hope that any gushing about his skills as a director won't wash away the memories of what happened to the men and women who decided not to name names to the committee. I have a feeling we're going to learn a lot about ourselves, and a lot about the nature of forgiveness over the next several weeks as people mull over their ideas about this. As I've said before, I believe forgiveness is essentially giving up all hope for a better past, and I hope that in the discussions to come in anticipation of his Oscar we can all learn something about sacrifice, ideals, and remembering the Big Picture. The future of the freedoms we enjoy depends on such consideration.

today's music:



today's wisdom:

"No one man can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices."

- Edward R. Murrow, of Sen. Joseph McCarthy