Sunday, July 11, 2010

On The Beach

Of all the directors who’ve spent time on the Hollywood A-list, few are as little valued now as Stanley Kramer. He was nominated three times for a best director Oscar, for The Defiant Ones, Judgment At Nuremberg and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, although he never won. In addition to racism and the Nuremberg trials, he addressed subjects like evolution and nuclear war, usually in lengthy, star-laden epics. His approach to comedy, with the three hour It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, applied a similar game plan. In his Biographical Dictionary Of The Cinema, David Thomson summed it all up like this: “his own films are never better than middlebrow and over-emphatic; at worst, they are among the most tedious and dispiriting productions the American cinema has to offer. Commercialism, of the most crass and confusing kind, has devitalized all his projects, just as his deliberate enlightenment seems to have wearied notable actors…Kramer is a hollow, pretentious man, too dull for art, too cautious for politics.”

Stanley Kramer

If anyone’s seriously tried to reclaim Kramer’s reputation, I haven’t come across it. That’s not my intention here either. However, for whatever random reason, I did recently rewatch his 1959 post-nuclear drama On The Beach, which in its day won the British Academy’s “UN Award” and received a Golden Globe nomination for “Best Film Promoting International Understanding.” Thomson says: “There are few films as deeply depressing as On The Beach and Judgment At Nuremberg because their visions of apocalypse are as numbstruck as a rabbit in headlights.” Which is a fair description of the former film, but one we can regard now in a different headlight perhaps.

Based on Nevil Shute’s novel, it’s set in the immediate wake of a nuclear war that’s wiped out (it appears) the entire northern hemisphere. Australia for now remains intact, but with the knowledge of radiation creeping up and facing certain death in some five months. Gregory Peck plays the captain of a surviving US submarine; Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins play various Australians. There’s no social breakdown, no anarchy; people still do their jobs (there’s just the merest hint near the end that a military man and his female assistant might throw it all away and go for some end-of-the-world nookie). The Gardner and Astaire characters are lushes, but it seems they might have been that way anyway (a common 50’s manifestation of unhappy love lives). In the movie’s most prominent example of edge-of-darkness liberation, Astaire restores a vintage Ferrari and entering it in the somewhat depleted Australian Grand Prix (which he wins). Even near the very end, people line up in a calm and orderly manner to collect their government-issued suicide pills.

Nothing Permanent

The Australians pick up a radio signal from California, and the submarine travels back to investigate (it turns out to be generated by a Coke bottle caught in a window blind). The scenes of a deserted San Francisco are impressively rendered, even though we’ve seen similar concepts executed many times since then. What’s most striking though is the absence of bodies, or abandoned cars, or debris. The neatness is no doubt a sign of 50’s limitations, but functions now as a bizarre last gasp of Eisenhower-era conformity; even on the edge of death, it seems, people tended to that last blade of grass.

I don’t know if the movie is as resonant now as a specific nuclear parable; although there’s no doubt a continuing risk of nuclear proliferation into the hands of terrorists, I doubt that consumes the average citizen relatively as much as it does our leaders and budget allocations. And in any event, it wouldn’t lead to the particular scenario depicted here, where an entire hemisphere has been wiped out. The general sense of helpless, desperate anticipation still seems contemporary though, but rather as a metaphor for our real pending apocalypse – the fiscal one. The developed world seems poised in exactly this kind of frozen spectatorship, unable to deny any longer our debt-ridden balance sheet’s unsustainability, nor that every indicator of population and demography and infrastructure only points downward, and yet consumed by short-termism, if not total irrelevance. I know I sometimes experience a dissociation when I look around my neighborhood, at the restaurants and furniture stores and other stores selling nothing in particular. It’s beautiful and utterly solid, and yet built on nothing permanent. We seem to know this on some level, that things have to change, but we don’t demand it and don’t vote for it. We’ll deal with the deadly radiation when it gets here I guess.

There’s Still Time

Kramer’s approach is most dispiriting in the very last shot: he returns to the site of a large banner bearing the message “There Is Still Time Brother,” where we previously saw rallies being held in ever-decreasing numbers; now the location is deserted, except for the blowing garbage (post-apocalypse Australia is less neat than the US it seems), and Kramer closes in on that banner, ominous music swelling, sending its somewhat thudding message directly out to the audience. Even that’s easier to take now though, given the overwhelming signs that we’re incapable of learning from anything. The fact that everything’s so sleek and fully-developed and connected, that we’re so wired to information and interaction, ought to make us better informed than ever, but as people often point out, we mostly use these facilities for reinforcement rather than enlightenment. When you add in the endless distractions of popular culture and toxic politics, we collectively end up just about as dumb as we could possibly be. Kramer’s filmic equivalent of picking us out of our cribs and giving us a shake sure isn’t subtle, and if used in a present-day film would no doubt be patronized, but it’s not so different from a lot of the parallelism James Cameron dropped into Avatar.

At various times while watching On The Beach, even as it reaches its conclusion, you could assume you’re watching any old melodrama, focused purely on the baroque emotional hang-ups of overdone semi-icons. Even if you’ve seen it before, it always seems plausible some miracle might somehow open up, and even near the end, a highly posed shot of a windswept Gardner seems to carry as much weight as the pending end of the world. Maybe it’s the height of artistic constipation, to create a bunch of characters that behave so much like they’re in the movies, even at a time like that. Or maybe it’s the film’s unwitting truth, even more so now than then, that although we know things can’t last as they are, we can only deal with that knowledge by shutting our eyes to it, and creating ever-more idealized and implausible versions of ourselves and our so-called society.

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