Bright Lights Film Journal

Between the Idea and the Reality the Shadow Falls

So please mind the gap

Starting with a series of shorts in British TV, for two decades David Sington has been making sturdy, fact-based documentaries. "Sturdy" does rhyme with "nerdy," but in a world where facts are often loosely screwed into anything but weight-bearing conspiracy theories, there's room for some dull exactitude . . . Or is there?

Probably not coming soon to a cinema near you, Sington's latest feature is The Flaw. The Daily Beast tells us that this all starts with Alan Greenspan's statement to Congress that, shamefully, there had been a "flaw" in his understanding of American capitalism. While experts still argue about what Greenspan really meant, stubborn innocents still say: if we put everything into a static housing stock and nothing into maintenance or new builds, our investment — or "home" — will be as safe as any other balloon pumped till it bursts.

Sharing more scraps,The Beast growls that Sington is not as "blistering" as Charles Ferguson, whose own documentary, Inside Job (2010), also covered Greenspan's epiphany/confession. In this view, The Flaw is possibly too gentle, too factual — in short, not beastly enough. But whatever caused its restricted distribution (I'm going for Unflawed Friends of Unfettered Capitalism), a film I might never see will always be associated in my mind with a 2009 book I have actually read — or rather the 2010 edition, where it's mentioned favourably in some revised back pages.

The book's authors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, have long worked in the sphere of epidemiology. (Luckily for some, the blurb explains this as "international research on the social determinants of health.") Meanwhile in Grimsville (or, if you insist, "Great Britain"), The Spirit Level, Why Equality is Better for Everyone, has become required reading across the political spectrum. Inevitably, it's already being trashed — by the Left for not saying enough and by the Right for saying too much. If nothing else, this confirms that its authors aren't writing for apparatchiks. On the contrary, they take deliberate aim over the heads of politicians, however talented or visionary, in an effort to reach "ordinary people." Of course, this begs rather large questions of its own; and, with due respect to David Sington, the obvious cinematic resonance is with the aims — if not the tone and content — of Frank Capra's more wonderful films.

As for its own tone and content, The Spirit Level is an unemotive, panoramic look at rich democracies — or what remains of them — from big old Japan to little old Finland. And what the book's many stats and graphs boil down to is this: the narrower the gap in income between rich and poor in every society studied, the smaller the budget required for crime and health issues. I'll say that again: less ill-health and crime, for rich and poor alike — i.e., less government debt — is found wherever income extremes are minimised.This, by the way, isn't simply about fairer taxes, helpful though they are. Just as effective, it seems, are pay structures that don't set up enormously exaggerated differentials in the first place.

And the encouraging thing is that, far from stitching us into an ever greyer uniformity, well-tempered income distribution actually enhances social mobility. Best of all, it seriously weakens the hold of those truly dull everyday vices, class and race hatred. So it seems we have a choice: make use of a few boring but accurate economic stats and improve the general global outlook; or go on being thrilled to death by bleak and beastly inexactitude.

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One rather worryingly old response to the new, scientific egalitarianism is that, science-loving though we all might be, America can't wait forever for Europe to get in synch. The fact that one R&B fan in Wales can still hum along to "Love Train" by the O'Jays is, no doubt, highly laudable. But when it comes to action on Growth and Stability, such sentimentality lights no one's fire.

Oddly enough, the allegedly bipolar Capra doesn't completely ignore issues of Us and Them — or "trust" as it's sometimes still called. In 1941, on the brink of America's entry into World War II, he made two films. The first, Meet John Doe, closely reflects a time of high unemployment in the U.S. and — much less obviously — a time when Fascism had already seized control of most of Europe. Nevertheless, with its multilayered look at non-political collective action against poverty and hunger, it's still recognisable as a serious movie. Then, as wickedly escapist as one could wish, came a spring-heeled divertimento about maiden-aunt serial killers, Arsenic and Old Lace; and because of events at Pearl Harbour this was shelved until the war was over. In real time, then, the contrast between the two films is even more pronounced than release dates suggest. By the way, I think this tells us very little about Capra's "complexity." It does, however, help underline the sheer effort — for all concerned — that went into the making of John Doe. And if Capra was settling for less controversy and commercial failure with the follow-up, audiences still enjoy it as much as ever. (For more detail on all this, see Joseph McBride's long but very readable Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success.)

Here, I'll stick briefly to four scenes from John Doe. The first and earliest takes place in the skyscraper office of New York City's mayor. He's just heard that someone plans to jump off the City Hall tower at Christmas. His shrewder instincts tell him that this protest at mass unemployment and corrupt business ethics is, in all probability, pure media hype. And his shrewder instincts are, of course, correct. But with Christmas still months away, when a shadow falls past his window he fears the worst. His PA assures him it was only a seagull. "Seagull? Isn't that a bird of ill omen?" "Oh, no," murmurs the PA, in a rather high-pitched attempt at dove-like cooing. "The seagull is a lovely bird."

If you've ever been dive-bombed by gulls on a rooftop car park, you'll know that the mayor wasn't getting the most accurate distillation of the facts. But like all good story-tellers, Capra allows us to feel the mayor's panic and the PA's anxiety to calm him down. Of course, any well-acted scene will get our mirror neurons firing empathically in several directions at once; but what feels special here, I think, is that something appears to have suddenly wandered off the street and into a film — something almost as surreal as Life.

There's a similar moment in another one-to-one scene between two very differently placed men. It's night-time in a downtown bar, and Gary Cooper's handsome, dewy-eyed John Doe is being put wise by a balding, narrow-eyed, rather skinny newspaper man. Not just in Capra films, James Gleason often played sharp-witted, soft-hearted New Yorkers. But this doesn't prepare us for: "See. You're gentle . . ." Gleason's zig-zagging monologue finally makes the point that not everyone is "gentle," least of all that phony supporter of rapidly spreading John Doe clubs, media magnate Norton.

In this context, "gentle" could mean "Christ-like" or "stupidly naive." Or it could be an expression of fatherly love made possible by the magic of alcohol. For the literati, it's a signal that John Doe is a kind of twentieth-century Candide; and the film's writers — notably Robert Riskin — would certainly have known their Voltaire, not to mention the whole Republican/Rationalist ethos of the late eighteenth century.

As I was recently reminded by Bill Maher's brave and funny documentary Religulous, iconic Americans like Franklin and Jefferson weren't exactly strung out on Jesus; and even their view of God, low-key and Deistic as it was, would not have helped them understand what He's become today. In that light one can see why some critics object to Capra's "half-baked" ideals. Like the founding fathers, they're probably having a bad reaction to Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.

The problem with that view is exposed in Capra's next scene. Cooper's character has stormed off to confront Norton and his fellow plutocrats at a dinner where, despicably enough, they've just been finalising plans to put Norton in the White House. But Cooper's indignation isn't about political egos or even self-serving wealth. What's made him mad is the conspiracy to turn non-political self-help groups — the John Doe clubs — into something owned and managed by politicians. Yes, there's a hint of Jesus among the money changers in the Temple; but Cooper's character admits that — mostly for the sake of regular meals — he's been going along with a media scam, albeit one intended to rouse the spirit of neighbourliness in a very dispirited, not very neighbourly world.

To parody Jerry Lee Lewis, in this film there's a whole lotta fakin' going on. However, precisely because it exposes a human tendency to be emotionally and physically compromised, John Doe offers an interesting deconstruction of self-deceit. Compromised or not, then, this attempt to etch out a more socially inclusive vision of world democracy could hardly be more relevant to our own age. And if dry modern references to "civil society" and "the voluntary sector" aren't slogans for which many of us would lay down our lives, it's good to see the dream of a fairer society still being pursued — nowhere more bravely than across the entire Muslim world . . .

Stepping back from Capra's attempts to save humanity from itself, almost as striking to me about the dinner party scene is how it begins and ends. To appreciate its opening we need to recall that, as a young man, Capra had schmoozed his way from nowhere into directing silent films. A couple of decades on — despite relentless public and studio insistence that talkies had to talk — it seems he wasn't giving up yet on the purely visual. In utter silence, then, Cooper walks past a long table of seated guests. Too tired to do more than glance down at them, he's gathering energy for that imminent speech. As a coup de theatre, this is almost throwaway. But in terms of emotional force, it compares well with the next, much bigger scene: the moment of Silent Prayer at a rainswept night-time rally where the camera pans from Cooper on the rostrum across rows of darkly shining umbrellas in the crowd. . . .

At the end of the dinner party scene, shows of artistry give way to a quiet show of courage — so quiet that modern viewers might well miss it. But, for many white audiences in 1941, the fact that Capra allows everyone to see a group of black domestics listening intently to — and clearly inspired by — a fierce critique of their "masters" was, quite simply, an act of vandalism.

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John Doe concludes with what detractors see as yet another gone-wrong allusion to the life of Jesus. It's Christmas, but it might as well be Easter with another good man bent on sacrificing his life for humanity. Cinematographer George Barnes makes excellent use of long expressionist shadows; and you'd be right to guess that he, too, began his career in silents. As we can see from the actors' breath, the air is very cold. Thick snow falling outside an only partially enclosed space at the top of the city hall has drifted thinly over the floor. If this is a studio set-up, it's a brilliant piece of fakery; but to me it feels real.

What's utterly beyond doubt is the commitment of the players as they attempt to bring off a scene that includes: a suicide averted; romantic love realised; a coming together of John Doe supporters despite the evidence against their hero; and finally a snook well and truly cocked at all corporate/political interests that feed off human weakness and set one group violently against another.

Appropriately for such an achievement, it's the tout ensemble — writers, actors, technicians — to whom the glory ultimately goes. But if I'm forced to pick one contribution out, it has to be Barbara Stanwyck's extraordinary performance. Despite appearing in several early Capra talkies, it had been almost a decade since they'd worked together. And on this evidence it's clear why she'd been snapped up so often by other directors. One must also credit whoever it was in the writing department who gave her a touch of flu, just to soften up Stanwyck's equal-to-any-man persona. To prevent Cooper's character from jumping to his death, she can't suddenly become a helpless, swooning victim of love. Yes, alright, she does finally swoon, but "suddenly conks out" describes it better. So she remains what she's been throughout — an intelligent, strong-minded woman who not only believes in this stupidly stubborn guy but actually shares his stupidly stubborn principles, to the point of being willing to die with him. If the scene is on YouTube, watch it for yourselves now, but have some tissues handy. (If it didn't actually wreck the emotional equipoise of everyone on the original set, they must have been on something pretty strong.)

Yet, as I've indicated, even Stanwyck's tour de force has to be seen as part of a huge team effort. And yes, of course, huge as it was, it didn't save the world — the world having already slipped further over the edge than many, even in Europe, had realised. In that far-off time, when telecommunications usually meant a delivery man with a bag of stamped, addressed envelopes, lack of global awareness isn't hard to explain. With fewer excuses today, that old shadow between idea and reality shouldn't fall quite as deep and hard as in Capra's time. But that, as they say, is another story.