Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Majestic (2001)

I saw this recently--and I was really powerfully impressed.  In some ways, this film is the movie industry trying just a little too hard to pat itself on the back.  The opening sequence of the film where the screenwriter is in a conference with the producers reminds you that a lot of movie making in the Golden Age was formulaic--and the plot of this film is also slyly formulaic as well. 

Jim Carrey plays a screenwriter who has been summoned to appear before the House Unamerican Activities Committee.  Like nearly every film about HUAC and the blacklisting period, it never gets around to letting you know that the Hollywood Ten--the first group asked to testify before HUAC who refused--were actually members of the Communist Party, and their refusal to testify was organized by the CPUSA as an act of employment martyrdom.  While there were people, like the screenwriter in this movie, who were naive and did not realize who they were associating with, the actual circumstances are not anywhere near as simple as films like this portray.

Nonetheless: the screenwriter drives north along the coast to clear his head, gets into a serious car accident, ends up with trauma-induced amnesia--and that's where the film really takes off.  I won't tell you what happens, but it is a powerful and very positive portrayal of post-war small town America--and a town suffering a horrendous loss.  Until World War II, it was very common for regiments to be largely made up on people from a particular town or county.  It only took one horrifying battle to destroy the future of a community, by killing so many of the young men.  With so many young men dead, a generation of young women in that community would have no chance of marriage--unless they moved away.  The small town is one of those communities whose heart has been ripped from it.

There are so many things about this film (other than the rather PC nature of the blacklisting) that are so perfect that I can't even begin to list them all.  Period detail is splendid.  I am not old enough to remember 1951, but enough of the material culture of 1951 was still around me as I was a child to recognize it.  The unabashed patriotism--even in the face of overwhelming loss--is powerful, and the film does not denigrate it.  Yet the portrayal of loss is overwhelming, without turning into antiwar diatribe. 

While the 1950s was hardly the era of sexual innocence that some social conservatives like to imagine, there were standards of propriety that kept a lot of behavior under wraps.  As someone once observed, "Hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue."  With the exception of the screenwriter's explanation of why he attended a Communist Party front organization, there is nothing in this film that would have been out of place in 1950s America.  Yet the relationship between the returned veteran and Adele Stanton (played by Laurie Holden) is a reminder of how a passionate kiss can tell the audience that the longing between two people is more than Platonic.

A number of older actors play important roles: Martin Landau and James Whittemore among them.  Along with the rest of the cast, they remind you great acting is not a matter of histronics or beauty.  This is a film of aching beauty.  I highly recommend it.

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