Mr. Levin views the post-war era—roughly the period running from 1945 to the year 2000—as following a coherent trajectory that has left us in a situation in which it is impossible to put into place the grand designs of either liberals or conservatives. As he writes, “In our cultural, economic, political, and social life, this has been a trajectory of increasing individualism, diversity, dynamism, and liberalization. And it has come at a cost of dwindling solidarity, cohesion, stability, authority, and social order.” This is what he means by the “fractured” republic. Over the course of these decades, Americans lived through a cultural revolution that promoted greater freedom and liberation from social norms and a market revolution that promoted dynamism and innovation while destroying the private sector unions and corporate oligopolies that dominated economic life from the 1940s to the 1980s. Conservative attempts to restore social consensus and liberal attempts to restore a managed economy are both bound to fail due to the liberating effects of these twin revolutions.
Seems pretty accurate to me. The book sounds worthwhile, although I probably won't read it just because I have so much other reading I want and need to do. A bit more about Levin's assessment of that post-war era:
The main problem...is that Americans across the political spectrum are caught in a “nostalgia trap.” They assess the current situation in terms of social and economic standards that were established in the immediate post-war decades....
As a consequence, the two political parties are exceptionally backward looking, albeit in quite different ways. Republicans and Democrats long to restore different elements of the post-war order. Liberals and Democrats, for example, wish to restore the corporatist economic structure of the 1950s and 1960s, characterized by powerful labor unions negotiating with corporate oligopolies, while also reigniting the spirit of liberation and rebellion that burned during the 1960s. Conservatives, meanwhile, tend to assess the present in relation to recollections of the social stability and shared values of the 1950s and take their economic and political bearings from the 1980s when, under Ronald Reagan’s leadership, they restored the nation’s economic dynamism following the inflation and slow growth of the 1970s while presiding over a military build-up that helped to win the Cold War. Each side looks back to the post-war period as a kind of golden age and seeks to restore a piece of it without acknowledging how far away we have since moved from the conditions of that era.
Perhaps it's just a matter of what I've happened to see and read, but it seems to me that liberal affection for the 1950s is a fairly new thing. I've been accustomed since the late '60s to hearing the '50s vilified as everything from merely conformist to quasi-fascist. But then I've probably been more exposed to the cultural revolutionaries than to old-line liberals.
Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies, introducing this film, says it’s his favorite film noir, and one of the best. I agree. In preparation for writing this note, I’ve just watched it for the third time, and liked it even better. I’d have to say now that it’s one of my favorite movies, period.
I think any reasonable critic would agree that it’s at very least among the best of its kind. To pick a personal favorite from a list including other excellent examples (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, et.al.), is partly a matter of subjective preferences. The noir plot generally has near its center a bad romance, a man who is tough and perhaps somewhat shady, but usually fundamentally decent, and a beautiful but treacherous woman.
If you’re going to be emotionally involved in the story, you have to find that couple convincing and at least somewhat appealing. And for me that’s one of the things that distinguish Out of the Past from others: the couple are played by Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, and both of them are to me both convincing and appealing. I’ve liked Mitchum for as long as I can remember watching movies. (If I saw Thunder Road soon after it was first released, which I think I must have, I was only ten or eleven.) As far as I can remember Out of the Past was the first time I’d seen Greer. What can I say except that she’s very beautiful, and in a way that happens to hit the mark for me? I’d certainly fall in love with her if I were sitting in a dim cantina in Acapulco and she walked in out of the sun.
But that gets ahead of the story. The second thing that makes Out of the Past so powerful for me is the cinematography, which seems to me superior to most similar films of its time. This is especially striking in the opening. We’re given a number of beautiful scenes of the Sierra Nevadas, then a road sign that sets the stage: Los Angeles that way, Lake Tahoe and Reno the other way, and just one mile away, Bridgeport.
Corruption this way, corruption that way. Or you could stop and hide in Bridgeport.
We see a man in a dark hat and a dark coat driving a dark car into Bridgeport. It’s a nice-looking little town, and in fact a real town, in which these scenes were filmed. The man isn't Mitchum’s character, but someone out of his past, Joe Stefano. Stefano is looking for Mitchum’s character, who is introduced first as Jeff Bailey but is actually named Jeff Markham, and who runs a garage in Bridgeport. (If you wonder why it’s called “Mono Motor Service”, it’s because Bridgeport is in Mono County.)
Stefano arrives at the garage.
These opening scenes are bright and crisp. It’s winter and the trees are bare, but the sun is bright, and lines are sharp. The town is quiet. Stefano arrives at Bailey’s garage, and learns from a deaf-mute boy who works there (referred to only as “the kid”, as far as I remember) that Bailey is not there. There is a bit here that I hadn’t noticed until I watched the opening again just now. We don’t yet know who these people are. But as Stefano is talking to the kid, a police car comes down the otherwise empty street. Stefano watches it come, which is natural. But then he turns to watch it go, with an interest which is not quite so natural. And the kid notices this, and doesn’t like it. We learn soon enough that his suspicion is justified.
Stefano walks across the street to Marny’s Cafe. Marny, friendly and chatty, tells us, and Stefano, a lot, and in passing utters a line that prefigures much of what is to come “Seems like everything people oughta know they don’t wanna hear.”
Big-city guy Stefano signals his disrupting presence in Bridgeport by cranking up loud jazz on the jukebox as soon as he sets foot in Marny's Cafe.
The kid has gone off into the mountains in search of Bailey, who is out fishing with a lovely local girl, Ann (Virginia Huston). If the town is pleasant, the fishing scene is idyllic, the winter sun glittering on the lake.
Talking about clouds, and the future, not realizing that this is noir.
There is a romantic conversation, and a brief kiss. Ann looks off into the distance. Over her shoulder Jeff sees the kid, who is signing to Jeff, and the idyll is disturbed.
Not maybe, but maybe not: the perfect note for Jeff’s fatalistic but not hopeless attitude. And those two examples of the dialog illustrate another aspect of the film’s quality: the dialog is for the most part excellent, plain but with resonances, clever but not ostentatiously so, and happily lacking in the overdone wisecracks, labored slang, and macho posturing one often finds in crime dramas of this period. Well, okay, there is some macho posturing, but it's not exaggerated.
Stefano is a hoodlum who works for a gambler and “operator,” presumably of criminal enterprises, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). Bailey/Markham had also worked for Sterling in the past, but there are clear indications that the parting was not a friendly one, and presumably has something to do with the fact that Markham has changed his name. Stefano seems friendly but there’s an undertone of menace in the conversation, not least as a result of the fact that Stefano has found Jeff at all. (How this came about is never quite explained.) Sterling wants to hire Jeff again. He agrees to meet with Stirling in Lake Tahoe the next morning. We assume there is an implied threat here, that Jeff was hiding from Sterling, and that now that he’s been found must deal with the situation.
The next scene takes place at night, and from this point the film gets literally and figuratively darker. Jeff asks Ann to accompany him on the all-night drive to Tahoe (only 78 miles according to the signpost in that opening scene, but maybe the mountain roads made for slow going). He wants to tell her the truth about his past.
Night drive to Tahoe.
In a lengthy flashback we learn of his previous life as a private detective hired by Sterling to locate Kathie Moffat (Greer), the girlfriend who had shot him and stolen $40,000.
I’ll stop the plot summary at this point. I’ve gone into this detail, and included these stills, in an effort to communicate how well-crafted the movie is. The story gets pretty complicated from here on, and I won’t be giving anything away if I tell you it's not a light-hearted one.
If you want to see a clip, go here. I didn't include it here because it goes further in the story than I wanted to, although it's not a major spoiler.
Kirk Douglas gives an excellent performance as Sterling—affable, smooth, and ruthless.
There's something crocodilian about that grin.
Sterling is involved with miscellaneous other shady types, including Rhonda Fleming as a femme at least as fatale as Kathie. The most potent thing about Kathie for me is that she taps something in men—or at least in this man—which makes us, against all evidence, suppose that a really beautiful woman is also good. (There is a great riff about this in one of John Le Carre's books, but I'm not sure which one.) Ann is perhaps a bit too sweet; I learn from poking around on the internet that Virginia Huston was somewhat typecast as the good girl in this sort of film, and you can see why.
The kid is a poignant figure. At the end of the movie we are back with him in Bridgeport. It's another bright day, but things have changed. There's an ambiguous bit at the end which fans of the film don't seem to be entirely agreed upon. Roger Ebert thinks it's just ambiguous, and I tend to agree.
I like this movie so much that I may buy a copy. That's very high praise for me, as I own fewer than a couple of dozen movies, and a lot of those are Bergman. If there's a noir film that you think is better, please let me know. And of course if you like the genre and haven't seen Out of the Past, do so at your earliest convenience.
For several weeks now I've established a routine of going down to the bay every morning with a folding chair, a cup of coffee, and my notebook, and writing for a couple of hours. I also take my phone with me, partly because someone might need to contact me, and partly so that I can set a timer to keep myself from sitting for too long at a stretch (back problems). That obviously presents a great danger of distraction, but so far I've managed to keep it mostly under control.
What did begin to distract me, though, after the first few days, was my surroundings. There is the constant activity of gulls, pelicans, herons, ducks, geese, kingfishers, and the occasional osprey over and around the water. There is the water itself, the changing light and textures. And a bit to my surprise, the sky, with its constant movement of clouds--not surprise that it is beautiful and changing, but that I find myself paying so much attention to it. Of course that may have something to do with the desire to avoid work. And sometimes I can't resist picking up the phone and taking a picture.
"Looking to those colleagues, [Iowa committeeman Steve ] Scheffler admonished them to acknowledge their errors and unite around Trump."
Ha. As someone or other said somewhere or other in the past few days, we now have a choice between a candidate who doesn't know anything about the Constitution and one who knows but doesn't care. All in all, I suppose I'd prefer that Trump win, since I think or at least hope that the forces opposed to him would keep him from doing anything too crazy, and perhaps he might not be as actively harmful as Hillary intends to be.
Also at National Review, Kevin Williamson writes that 1968 Was Worse, and we should all calm down about the state of the country.
Well, yes and no. 1968 was worse in terms of actual disastrous events and threats (many younger people don't realize how tense the Cold War really was, and a lot of older people seem to have forgotten). But the fabric of the nation has deteriorated further since then. It's true that the divisions between young white leftists and the moderate-to-conservative wider culture was just as intense, if not more so, in 1968. Race relations, as tense as they are now, are surely better overall. But after 50 years of cultural and political struggle the sides are much more evenly matched in numbers, and there is much more widespread sense on both sides of being in a struggle to the death. Neither side really feels that it can live with the other in the long run. The anger and frustration are worsened by the continual expansion of the national government's assertion of control in state and local affairs. The national safety valve of federalism--the idea that Nebraska and Connecticut can be allowed to run themselves in different ways--is treated by the left as a right-wing plot, and the left has control of most of the judiciary, which ought to stop the overreach.
Possibly worse: the political system itself is showing signs of severe damage. In 1968, whatever you thought of most politicians, you could suppose that most of them respected the constitutional system, and that the people themselves respected it and expected the politicians to do so. I don't think that's true anymore. Too many of the supporters of both Hillary and Trump simply want what they want and would be perfectly happy to support a monarch who promised to give it to them.
Vanilla does not equal plain! It's a delicious flavor.
--Jay Nordlinger of National Review, in a tweet posted on the magazine's web site. (No, I am not on Twitter and don't want to be.)
I love vanilla ice cream, and for that matter vanilla almost anything. A few months ago I saw these in the grocery store while I was looking for another favorite, ginger snaps, and have become very fond of them.