'Rock' in a Hard Place | The Nation


'Rock' in a Hard Place

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Not since Charlton Heston painted the Sistine Chapel has there been so epic a film about arts patronage as Cradle Will Rock. Heston, you will recall, had to cope only with the Vatican. But in Tim Robbins's ambitious new movie about power, politics and culture--set in the thirties, but unambiguously directed toward the present moment--artists must satisfy a whole range of paymasters, from Rockefeller to the federal government.

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Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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A more apt comparison would be between the surviving staff of the satirical magazine and the brave abortion providers who carried on after the murder of Dr. George Tiller.

With the insouciance that epic filmmaking demands, Robbins has dumped the contents of 1932-38 into the single drawer of '37, so that Cradle Will Rock may jingle with incident. Here, as the film's title would suggest, is an account of the legendary opening-night performance of Marc Blitzstein's proletarian opera, The Cradle Will Rock: a work first produced by the government and then presented in defiance of it. Here, too, is the grilling of Hallie Flanagan, head of the WPA's Federal Theatre, by the House Un-American Activities Committee (an interrogation that took place a year and a half after Cradle's premiere); and here, from three years before Cradle, is the story of Diego Rivera's mural painting, with head of Lenin, for the RCA Building: a work first created and then destroyed by Rockefeller money.

Also wandering through the film are William Randolph Hearst with his film-world protégée Marion Davies; a composite industrialist, who is eager to trade steel and Old Master paintings with Mussolini; a ditzy countess, who keeps a pet "composer" right out of My Man Godfrey; and various art workers, from Federal Theatre actor Howard Da Silva (here fictionalized as one Aldo Silvano) to a drunken ventriloquist who is fading away with vaudeville.

Clearly the moviegoer, as patron of the arts, gets a lot for the price of a ticket. At least, there's a lot on the surface. Characterizations for the most part are broad--inspired, perhaps, by Blitzstein's dramaturgy. (The movie's steel magnate might as well have been named after the opera's villain, Mr. Mister.) Juxtapositions of episodes are often bold, as in the Cubist space of Rivera's mural. If there's a unifying element to these cartoonlike pieces, it's the light and color of cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier, who gives everything a sumptuousness that's just slightly antique. His skill with cranes and dollies also helps a lot when smoothing is called for--as in the opening sequence, which carries us, as if in one gesture, from down-on-her-luck Olive Stanton (Emily Watson) sleeping in a theater, to disgruntled, anti-Communist bureaucrat Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack) pasting up fliers on the street, to the apartment where Blitzstein (Hank Azaria) is lacerating his fingers on the piano keys, torturing from himself the score of TheCradle Will Rock.

Watch that sequence well. It's one of the few in Cradle Will Rock where Tim Robbins brings his characters together in a continuous space. To describe the movie is to ask why he prefers to keep them apart.

An answer to that question might begin with the two characters (out of some twenty major roles) who are presented as thinking, caring, attractive people. One of them is the impoverished actor Aldo Silvano (John Turturro). It's obvious why Robbins likes him. He's the trouper who never belittles the role of Fourth Scholar in Doctor Faustus and never holds up a rehearsal, even when shuttling to Brooklyn to care for his growing family. A movie star and producer-director such as Tim Robbins couldn't exist without the Silvanos of this world; and so, through this character, he shows them a decent respect.

The other character who's fully formed is Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones): an arts bureaucrat who is calm, intelligent, well informed and eclectic in her tastes. Had Flanagan not existed, it would have been necessary to invent her, so that Aldo Silvano might have what the Federal Theatre represents in this movie: the prospect of steady, honorable work at decent pay.

Without such a prospect, as Cradle Will Rock insists, artists serve as prostitutes. To account for the variety of streetwalkers and courtesans on display, we now need to step back from this film and look at an earlier, somewhat different movie project.

In 1984, the year before his death, Orson Welles wrote his own account of the premiere of the Blitzstein opera, which he and John Houseman had produced at the Federal Theatre's Project 891. Welles's screenplay (which was published after his death) is of course a fiction, whose closeness to reality is only relative compared with Robbins's work. Even so, Welles was there and Robbins was not; and so it's instructive to read the almost-firsthand version.

The year, as I mentioned, was 1937, and Welles was 22. In Chicago, policemen had just shot to death ten strikers at Republic Steel, while in New York, Welles and Houseman were about to present an explicitly Marxist musical--The Cradle Will Rock--about a strike in Steeltown, USA.

This coincidence of art with life did not escape the notice of Congress, whose conservative members, like comedians, can always boast of good timing. Four days before the opening, they shut down the production. When Project 891 went ahead with a final dress rehearsal, armed guards showed up to padlock the theater.

Yet Cradle opened anyway. According to Welles's screenplay, Blitzstein proposed that the show could be done without costumes, sets or an orchestra. This suggestion launched Houseman on a mad, heroic scramble to rent a theater privately, with an upright piano for Blitzstein. Then, when Actors Equity ruled that no performer would be allowed onstage, Welles provided a final stroke of improvisatory genius, reminding the company of our "constitutional right to stand up and sing wherever we'd like to"--for example, from the seats of the theater.

Welles's screenplay does not dwell on the resulting triumph. Nor does it glorify the "boy" (as he calls himself) who directed the show. The screenplay is mostly an act of soul-searching--eloquent, flamboyant, amused soul-searching, of course--and a tribute to Blitzstein, to whom the script is dedicated.

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