Hello, all, this is the first movie talk you have requested–& I am known to obey the popular opinion, so I have got around to it, despite all sorts of technical difficulties. Watching this movie, I realized I first saw the remake–with Michael Douglas & young Ryan Reynolds & other people–which was all rather humorless mediocrity. The problem it had to face–that we want adventure, that we lust for power, novelty, & excitement, & that suburban life appears mediocre & uncreative–was not thought through, & it is a failure so typical of the last decade of popular movies it’s not worth talking about it now.
I also discovered another thing–the In-laws & The Americanization of Emily are both directed by a very old man who has not gone the way of clay just yet, a Mr. Arthur Hiller. & we had got to the In-laws from The princess bride, because of Peter Falk. It’s a funny ol’ world, as is generally acknowledged. Now that I’ve meandered my way to the movie talk, let me share with you some notes that may not be the first thing in your mind when you recall the movie. I’m a pol.sci lifer, so I always pay attention to all things political. It has taken me some effort to find something to say that you do not already know & I am not at all sure I have found anything. But I can at least show you how the movie looks like if you are as superficial as I am.
There’s no reason to shoot at me: I’m a dentist.
Alan Arkin plays a caricature of an assimilated Jew. He is a dentist, his wife tells the cops, every night, he comes in at the same hour. He overpays on taxes, his CPA’s clever suggestions to te contrary notwithstanding. His wife & daughter laugh at the thought he might be walking on the wild side. They are an educated family, the Sheldon Kornpetts. The daughter tells the father about the sexual tension in a father-daughter relationship & psychoanalyzes him out of his old Jewish common sense. He is halfway between the old Jewish immigrants & the new super-educated modern Jews.
He is also a parody of Job. He is a man who has played by the rules in a way most people find inconceivable. The laws, you might suspect, the The Laws to him. He believes, as all decent people believe, that to deserve is to have & to have is to deserve. He hopes the world will somehow do right by him. Machiavelli’s question, how can one be good among so many who are not?, in a way, haunts him. The law is his only protection from this nightmare. He is also exasperated & moralistic, as you’d expect.
Sheldon: There’s red tape in the bush?
Vince: Enormous red tape.
Peter Falk plays a strange little man–he has the democrat’s ease & fellow-feeling, the con man’s light touch, not to say human touch, & he seems to have no respect for the law, being guided by what he wants. The Jew finds him incomprehensible & almost irresistible–it would be impolite to avoid him or refuse him & it would be a kind of haughty attack on democracy to disbelieve in his profuse compliments, his professions of good, & his seemingly unconditional offer of friendship.
To talk in the terms of the political art, this is a kind of confrontation of the oligarchic man & the democratic man. Both seem liberal, so some translation may be required for us conservatives. The Jew concerns himself with his private life: He lives a comfortable middle class life made possible by his dedication to his work & his opinions about what is respectable–both of which are under attack by the zany democrat–both of which are somewhat derided by his wife & daughter, who do not share his strictness. He is strict for obvious reasons: He knows hardship, his forebears having known more than they could possibly like, & he sees that the world around him is not in good order. This is ’70s America: You can see how ugly NYC looks & you might remember what a social collapse had created it… The oligarch & democrat both believe a comfortable private life to be desirable, perhaps the good life. But they disagree in part as to the requirements for work & the worth of inequality.
The democrat forces himself on the oligarch & he has recourse to public opinion & public gatherings to get approval & the upper hand. He knows he is more at home in America than the other. The oligarch wants to set limits to things, to protect himself & to justify his greater well-being by tracing it to his doing well. He cannot convince even his family quite. The marriage between their children is far more democratic than oligarchic. Assimilation is the American way. The plot where democratic & oligarchic men confront each other & must cooperate both for the law & outside the law is a kind of preparation for the happy end of marriage. It is at that level a story about crime & international espionage–of course, to do with money & banking: Sound money is the necessary political basis for the American economy–hence the world economy–hence liberal democracy & the middle calss. Economics–the oligarch here–is not as serious as politics–the democrat. To him, the ground on which he stands is hidden: It is the secret power of the CIA.
In America, this is actually a persuasive argument: Americans are almost blind to the difference between oligarchs & democrats for two reasons. First, everyone gets a sense that work is the source of dignity, so working more or more profitably is not suspicious or publicly unacceptable. Secondly, Americans often think the differences in character & wealth between oligarch & democrat are sort of like the different between old & young, between serious & unserious, & between the naturally gifted & the others. Wealth is connected to justice rather than injustice–it is respectable. Look at races other than the American–you will see how rare this opinion is.
I’ll tell you, the benefits are fantastic. The trick is not to get killed.
The adventure suggests the democrat is a restless man. He has a family, but cannot live at peace with them quite–he is always going somewhere & perhaps in his soul is a longing for something. Going around the planet doing dangerous thing among important people is a comic correlative of empire. America never finds itself lacking for people who think they can settle the internal affairs of Iraq or Vietnam, so this is not implausible. The daring of the movie is to suggest that the origin of this ignorant arrogance is in the American national character. If you remember the proud history of the Texicans or the taking of California–again, there is some evidence…
The Peter Falk character reminds me of Cary Grant’s character in His girl Friday–except Cary Grant was a star–the star, indeed. In that story, the American democrat given to inventions & lies & illegal doings for the sake of advantage is faced with an insurance salesman–his once & future wife decided on the rebound that safe as houses would not be safe enough… The insurance salesman is an innocent in about every sense of that word. He tells the conman-journalist-populist politician: I figure I’m in one business that really helps people. Of course, we don’t help you much while you’re alive, but afterward – that’s what counts! Of course, fearless, shameless, red-blooded American Cary Grant raises an eyebrow at this kind of asceticism or otherworldliness worthy only of Max Weber…
So also with the Peter Falk character. He is full of opportunity. Democracy, you could almost say, is all potentiality, not actuality–all motion, not form. The man says: The most amazing thing is how grateful you’re going to be to me when it’s all over. Here you can see a new world.