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California Dreaming: Light and Dark

“And if all else failed you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special”: President Reagan’s Farewell Address (1989)

“Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you rip the fronts off houses you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?”: Joseph Cotton, Shadow of a Doubt, Universal (1943)

Few countries have identified themselves so thoroughly with one particular art form as the United States has with cinema. If Chesterton was right about America being a country with the soul of a church, then the scriptures of its civil religion are most faithfully written on celluloid parchment. Over the last century, watching canonical works like Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and It’s a Wonderful Life has become much more than a pastime; it has been a ritual, an amanuensis that calls Americans to remember who they are and reaffirms their faith in the happy ending. As the country strayed from the yellow brick road after 1960, true believers have found spiritual sustenance in these sacred visions of yesteryear. Not coincidentally, it was during the presidency of a former actor that Robert Zemeckis crafted the platonic ideal of the USA for readers of the National Review. That ideal was and remains Hill Valley, California, November 5, 1955.

When Marty Mcfly stumbles out of his DeLorean in Back to the Future, it is into a world where the theme music is ‘Mr. Sandman’ not ‘Like a Virgin’. There is no danger that he’ll step on feces or used needles in the noticeably clean streets. There is not a Latino in sight and the few black characters are genial, not professional malcontents. The headteacher barks “Slacker!” not “Bigot!” All are content, all is neat and all is prosperous; this is surely the Gipper’s Shining City on a Hill. Yet that immediately begs a question the film never tries to answer. Where did it all go wrong? The Hill Valley Cinema of 1955 was showing a western, pointedly starring Ronald Reagan. When Marty returns to 1985, he knows his jump is successful when he sees the peep show that is there instead. How on earth did this happen? How did the chromium yesterday turn into the graffiti-coated, rusted today that could prompt such nostalgia in the first place? Well, there are worse places to look than Hollywood itself, which was alive to the darker shades of American dreams much earlier and more portentously than many would imagine.

Nobody sat down to plan the type of movies later termed film noir, that warning flare reflected off the bakelite veneer of the ’40 and ‘50s. It was a spontaneous response of producers, writers, and directors to the shocks of the mid-century: the resentments of the hungry ‘30s that found a voice in hardboiled crime fiction; the epic bloodletting of World War II; the forces let loose at Alamogordo; the arrival of the Cold War. In the face of such brute reality, not everyone wanted to make sugary escapism any longer, or the two-dimensional crime pictures from before the war, where gangsters were happy to be bad and rarely asked questions about it. Noir was different; it did ask questions. It ogled ordinary people laid low by desire, fate, and dark social forces. As the murderous Joseph Cotten tells his niece in Shadow of a Doubt, the real world is a nasty place, but the deepest shadows are behind your own front door. Movement conservatives would have us imagine that crime, materialism, sexual license and civic gangrene were unknown before Kennedy was elected, and have used this narrative shamelessly for their own ends. It has a certain truth to it, given the calamitous course of the last 60 years. However, it is much less than the whole truth, because the sordid energy of the ‘60s most definitely did not emerge out of the ether. A half dozen trips into the lost world of noir suggest the fabled picket fence had a bad case of woodworm.

• Mildred Pierce (1945): It’s hard to watch this film without thinking of the generational strife twenty years after its release. Mildred (Joan Crawford) is the embodiment of the Calvinist work ethic and its paradoxes, a Los Angeles housewife who fights her way up from washing dishes to running the boardroom. And for what? To support Veda (Ann Blyth), a monstrous brat who disdains her mother’s origins but never sees a boy or a toy that she doesn’t want to buy with her parent’s money. Needless to say, things end badly for all. Mildred is a good woman, but her motherly love is filtered through the materialist ethos of nascent consumer capitalism, an ethos that feeds on obliterating old restraints. Vida is unquestionably a narcissistic tart, but she is not altogether illogical. Unlike Mildred, she seems able to read the signs of the times and acts accordingly.

• The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946): the incendiary properties of lust are obviously the theme of this tale about Frank Chambers (John Garfield), an indigent who wanders into a lonely California diner in search of work. When he beholds the comely figure of the owner’s much younger wife Cora (Lana Turner), the celluloid ignites. Looking at it again though, it is the rootlessness of the characters that stands out most. Frank is a drifter. Cora and her husband run an isolated business that caters to people on their way somewhere else; indeed, it is her husband’s decision to sell the diner and move on that leads the two lovers into murder. The lasting impression is of mentally unsettled people, unable to commit to anything. As such, Frank and Cora may find it easier to kill but they don’t find it easier to trust each other, with fatal consequences. In a picture made just after the building of the first freeways, the continuous presence of the open road is salient; it deceitfully hints at an easy escape from the past and from oneself.

• Nightmare Alley (1947): In probably his only villainous role, Tyrone Power was never better than as Stanton Carlisle, another drifter set loose from settled society. He takes up with a traveling circus and learns the tricks of phony mind-reading from a couple of aging performers whom he uses and abuses. He then strikes out on his own as a horribly plausible spiritualist, one so flashy he makes Joel Osteen look like Cato the Younger. Beneath the grin, he is actually a predator whose contempt for humanity is matched only by his eye for its weaknesses. In its curdling of entertainment and faith, the film is an acerbic comment not only on hucksterism but on the solipsistic, do-it-yourself culture of American religion, one on the cusp of terrific changes that would bring every last orthodoxy into question. As later events would show, false prophets can be demented (Jim Jones), shameless (L. Ron Hubbard) or inane (Oprah Winfrey), but they never lack a following.

• The Asphalt Jungle (1950): This a great heist film that also peers into the mental toll of the American Dream better than most. A raid on a prestigious jewelry shop in an unnamed city is given the green light by an upper-crust lawyer (Louis Calhern) who gives the impression of sangfroid to the outside world. Yet behind closed doors, he is actually a desperate, pathetic spendthrift yoked to an extravagant way of life, with a feeble wife to sustain and a nubile mistress (Marilyn Monroe) he must keep amused. Money worries also dog the men who do the heist, chief among them the sympathetic muscle man (Sterling Hayden) who is consumed by the loss of the family farm in Kentucky during his youth. However, the character most out of luck is the city itself, and a decidedly unpleasant character it is: grimy, lifeless and devoid of beauty. This thing wrought by industrial man seems positively devised to alienate him from himself. One can’t blame Sterling for wanting to get back home to the green fields and the horses. However, as he and the viewer both find out, there is no way back to Arcadia.

• Ace in the Hole (1951): There is nothing new about ‘fake news’. What is stunning about Billy Wilder’s first film after Sunset Boulevard is the prescience and sheer vitriol in this depiction of media cynicism and public gullibility. A man in search of Indian artifacts in New Mexico becomes trapped in a cave. The drama is turned into a crisis by a demonically ambitious journalist from New York, Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), who would pimp his own grandmother if that were the price to save his fading career. He prevails on the crooked sheriff to spin out the rescue operation for the desperate man so that Tatum can make himself the ringmaster of the noxious circus that follows, one that draws thousands of ghoulish voyeurs out into the desert. It is not surprising that the film fared badly with critics and filmgoers; it was, quite frankly, an acid mouthwash for the press and public alike.

• The Sniper (1952): a lonely, neurotic man (Arthur Franz) brings San Francisco to its knees as he works out his sexual frustrations by picking off women from high vantage points, day in, day out. As the body count rises, the film concerns itself as much with the panicked efforts of the authorities to make sense of the sniper as it does with the man himself. Is it society’s fault? Is it the parents? Is it city life? Is there a reason at all? The picture was made 14 years before Charles Whitman ushered in the age of the mass shooter as a recognizable social phenomenon and it is eerie to watch this picture in the knowledge of what would come afterward. It really does feel like a warning.

What were these and other films like them trying to say about their times? For one thing, one is struck by how much the main characters resemble the lonely figures that haunted Edward Hopper’s shadow cities on canvas, estranged individuals that warn of what progressive, technological modernity really means. Fifty years before Robert Putnam’s inquest into the demise of American civil society, film noir presents a world full of characters who are very definitely bowling alone, people very frequently without families, certainly in the sense of extended kinship groups of siblings, cousins, uncles etc. Children are rarely seen. God is almost always absent. The protagonists may not be burdened with responsibilities to others, but rarely is there any individual, family or community who can counsel, chide or restrain them; they are horribly alone when the going gets rough. Very often, their isolation is also bound up with movement; our anti-heroes have frequently fled or been lured from another part of America in search of better fortunes elsewhere. One can’t help but notice that their escape-cum-quest is often made westward.

This brings us closer to the heart of the matter and to California, the final goal in the Anglo-Saxon trek to the promised land of liberty and plenty. It is the dream within the American Dream, a Whig Eden of perpetual sunshine where you can escape from those fusty hierarchies back east, not just in England but New England. That said, the essence of dreams is unreality; it is in their nature to slip between the sublime and the terrifying. So it proved in the Golden State of the mid-20th Century, the most populous in the Union by 1962. It was marketed voraciously as a Shangri-La of sun, glamour, and cheap land; yet it was the also the spiritual home of hardboiled crime fiction, of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain. The roots of film noir lay in precisely the feeling of trouble in Paradise that these authors insinuated, a world seen through Venetian blinds that spliced the endless sunlight with shades of sin. It is deliciously ironic that 1943 should witness both the first Los Angeles smog and the publication of Cain’s Double Indemnity, the novel which Chandler, as screenwriter, would help fashion into the quintessential L.A. noir. If California really did represent the world of tomorrow, then an alarm had been sounded that it was all too good to be true. This puts a different complexion on Fred MacMurray’s confession at the start of the film: “Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money - and a woman - and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?”

Chandler died in 1959 before he could fully see the newer California, and America, that was indeed shuffling through the smog. However, his work would inspire someone who was around to see them and who was not pleased. Robert Towne wrote the screenplay for Chinatown (1974) chiefly to understand the forces that obliterated the gorgeous southern California landscapes of his boyhood. In doing so, he penned what might be the hardboiled Back to the Future, a dark journey into the past written with certain knowledge of the grim future that that past was about to create. It is well worth dwelling on.

Towne’s story pits P.I. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) against a constellation of mysteries. The drought-ridden Los Angeles of 1937 is starved of water, despite not being any drier than normal. The city’s chief water engineer, Hollis Mulwray, refuses to support a planned new reservoir, despite the thirsty clamor, because of the disastrous collapse of the last one. He then apparently drowns in one of his waterways. Meanwhile, farmers in the San Fernando Valley are incensed at a campaign of intimidation waged by hidden forces in City Hall to force them off their land, and Mulwray’s widow Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) is strangely intimate with the young woman thought to be her late husband’s mistress. Only one figure connects these tangled threads: millionaire Noah Cross (John Huston), Mulwray’s associate and father-in-law, and shady civic powerbroker.

When Gittes finally unravels the conundrum, his confrontation with Cross is one with Lucifer himself, for Cross is surely the serpent in Eden. He tacitly admits to everything. Forcing out the farmers and siphoning off water to create the drought are two arms of the same plot. With the San Fernando Valley now in his hands, he can irrigate the land with water from the new reservoir and sell it off for development at a vastly greater price, something guaranteed now that the valley has been incorporated into L.A. itself. Mulwray’s reward for his sense of civic duty was to be drowned by Cross in his own fishpond. Evelyn’s reward for having Cross for a father was being raped by him when she was 15. Her husband’s ‘mistress’ is actually her sister/daughter that she is frantically hiding from the satyr that sired her.

More than anyone else in the noir panoply, it is Cross who exposes California Dreaming as a real nightmare, a tab of bad LSD covered with the face of John Locke. Cross recognizes humanity’s potential for depravity but, far from recoiling, he embraces his share as a consumer, and then some. Gittes challenges him about his reasons for wanting to swell the city: “How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can't already afford?” Cross’s jaunty rejoinder is the very acme of libido dominandi: “The future, Mr. Gittes—the future! Now where’s the girl?” Morality is not so much something he has rejected but simply outgrown. In this land beyond the Rockies, beyond history and higher account, it has ceased to be relevant; there is only the self and its appetites, the everlasting ‘More!’

This brings us full circle because Hill Valley, California, November 5, 1955, is the very future Noah Cross has in mind, one the post-war boom made real coast-to-coast. It was a suburban supernova of concupiscence, a hunger stoked by corporate America for cheap gasoline, for freeways to take you wherever you pleased, for the cornucopia pushed on TV adverts, for walking into the sunset with Rock Hudson, for Marilyn Monroe standing over an air vent, for the best of everything...for whatever you wanted. If that isn’t the mentality of Cross, then I don’t know what is. However, desire is not something you can turn on and off like a tap, as Raymond Chandler and the Church Fathers would both have made plain. You can’t shake a bottle of champagne and expect calm when the cork is yanked out. Whatever the sins of the Boomers, they weren’t the ones who made Playboy a national institution after its first issue in 1953.

Considered in that light, it’s uncanny how much Movement Conservatism's fabled 1950s looked like a gargantuan version of Survival Town, the Potemkin village thrown up in Nevada to gauge the blast effects of atom bombs. The homes were all very neat and tidy but were utterly fake. The society that put them there had summoned up infinitely more powerful forces that would destroy them. Similarly, the decade of Billy Graham and Fulton J. Sheen also made public figures out of the apostles of Venus (Hugh Hefner, Alfred Kinsey) and Mammon (Ayn Rand). The decade of the TV nuclear family saw an alternative family structure begin to spread across the land, the Hells Angels. The ultimate Hollywood happy ending, the wedding of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier, came in the same year as Howl, Allen Ginsberg’s obscenity-riddled descent into perdition. Not to belabor the point, but one can’t blame the Boomers for any of this. When Ginsberg “saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”, the oldest Boomer would only have been eleven years of age, if that.

St Paul said there had to come a time to put aside childish dreaming and confront the truth, however dimly we perceive it. The unmitigated failure of Anglo-Saxon conservatism has come through intellectual childishness of the first order, the delusion that the Whig victories of 1688 and 1776 were conservative, or created an order that would allow anything to be conserved anywhere it touched. It hasn’t even kept men out of women’s toilets. Not the least symptom of this infantilism is an enervating attachment to nostalgia, a fealty to kitsch and fantasy, not to tradition and reality. Given the parlous condition of the land, it should be a savage indictment of Reagan and his acolytes that their underlying assumptions about American life should still owe more to Norman Rockwell and Frank Capra than to the sharper if darker visions of incipient “American carnage” discerned by Hopper and Chandler. The last half century has amply shown whose imaginings about the future were right and whose were not. In contrast, the era of Trump may not be a cheerful one, but it has one great virtue; the slumber is over.

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