Arts and Entertainment
by derk richardson
WHEN IT COMES to preposterous, it's hard to top the latest Jim Carrey vehicle, The Majestic. As you probably know by now, director Frank Darabont's cold war fantasy spins off the stand-up-to-political-bullies theme of such Frank Capra classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. After declaring himself interested only in getting his life back, a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter, Peter Appleton (Carrey), experiences a sudden change of conscience and gives the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) a civics lesson about the First Amendment and genuine patriotism.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Americans may indeed be in the mood, as San Francisco Chronicle critic Bob Graham observed, "for a sentimental movie about their values." But The Majestic goes beyond striking what Graham calls "a rosier emotional balance than real life does" in its treatment of "reconciling individual rights with the demands of a wartime posture." What makes my blood boil is the way Darabont has everybody from the press and hostile audience gathered in the committee hearing room to the war-shocked residents of the idyllic town where Appleton adopts a presumed-dead local hero's identity during a bout of amnesia cheering the protagonist's righteous conversion from self-absorbed apolitical hack to novice motivational speaker and self-sacrificing defender of the Bill of Rights.
Sure, a handful of accused Hollywood "Reds" did refuse to cooperate with HUAC's witch-hunters and Tinsel Town's in-house blacklist enforcers, but they were hardly welcomed back to the studios with open arms, let alone exonerated by the committee. If they didn't go to jail for contempt of Congress (like the Hollywood Ten), they mostly resigned themselves to anonymity for the rest of the '50s, until the hysteria died down and the blacklist was broken. McCarthy-era history doesn't turn up Appleton-like characters who eagerly deserted the potential riches of a revived movie career and opted for life in an idealized and insulated American community-that-never-was.
The night before I sat down to lambaste The Majestic's pernicious revisionism, I had a dream in which I was jumping up and down with neighborhood kids on a grassy slope in front of our house. The ground was spongy, and with each bounce I flew higher into the dark night air, first above rooftops, then above treetops, and eventually high enough to get a view of the entire Bay Area, partially socked in by fluffy banks of fog. I could feel gravity's pull weakening, and I finally soared to the point where I was floating free, lightly rolling and tumbling far above the planet, looking down on patches of light through the clouds and mist. I could see brightly illuminated stadiums and a tiny campfire at the spot where I'd taken off.
I was exhilarated, and alone. As I started plummeting back to earth, in a not-quite free fall, I tried to aim for the campfire but went almost completely out of control, zooming and careening downward, albeit with no sense of panic or dread. I landed belly down in the dirt at third base in the ninth inning of a Major League Baseball play-off game (but that's another story).
The Peter Pan and Pied Piper parallels between my dream and The Majestic notwithstanding ("Line up behind me on the road to freedom!"), I'm certain the feeling of my nocturnal fantasy was inspired by two Terry Riley albums. Last year Bang on a Can released a luminous live performance of Riley's In C (Cantaloupe), with 11 musicians playing interlocking and overlapping minimalist phrases on 13 instruments for 45 minutes in an exquisite flow that goes nowhere and everywhere. I also recently came across Riley's 1968 Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band "All Night Flight" Volume 1: Purple Modal Strobe Ecstasy with the Daughters of Destruction (Organ of Corti), a 40-minute solo performance on soprano saxophone, organ, and "time-lag accumulator." In his 1996 notes for the CD, Riley captured the essence of my dream experience in his poetic evocation of the music: "Waves in the Curved Air Celestial Cloud waves. Waves of ecstatic attunement to the Sound Current that Reverse Echo the demonic waves of Anxiety reverberating in the Underworld."
If, as Joan Didion argues in her forward to Political Fictions, our political process proceeds "from a series of fables about American experience," and if, as seems increasingly evident, we are dependent on popular culture for the bulk of our political education, we would do well to be cautious about which allegories we buy into. My dream and Riley's subversive trance music may bear less linear relationship to "reality" than The Majestic, but some fictions speak more truths than others.
E-mail Derk Richardson at email@example.com.