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.

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.

Here is how Welles describes the composer: “Serious rather than solemn, he brightens a room when he enters it. His political beliefs are like moral convictions but they are held with the most perfect serenity. A total stranger to extravagance in any form, he is mannerly, widely educated, unaffectedly civilized, a man of natural authority and unstudied charm. It never occurs to him that his mere presence is a kind of rebuke to the rest of us.”

So much for the Welles version. In the film that Robbins wrote and directed, we have instead a sweaty and unshaven Blitzstein: jerky of movements, hollow of eyes, given to hallucinatory dialogues with conscience-tormenting figures (such as his dead wife and Bertolt Brecht). Brighten a room? This guy would more likely clear it.

What about Houseman? In the screenplay, Welles introduces his great collaborator and enemy with these words: “Now in his early thirties he conveys an impression of greater age by virtue of a magisterial air, wholly natural and unforced, and already impressive.” In sum, a highly capable man–unlike Cary Elwes in Cradle Will Rock, whose characterization of Houseman amounts to a lift of the nose and a dangle of the wrists.

As for Welles himself: He liked to say that a director is someone who “presides over accidents.” We hear in this remark a characteristic chuckle of false modesty. All of us live amid the crash of entropy–but very few, as Welles knew, can make the pieces fall into patterns.

Those happy souls do not include the bellowing, arm-waving drunk in Cradle Will Rock. This Welles (Angus Macfadyen) just happens to be in the neighborhood when shows get produced. And why are they put up? He doesn’t much care. To judge from this man’s roarings about a theater of sensation, you would not guess that the real Welles gave his time and energy to the Spanish Loyalists, that he chose to collaborate with Blitzstein on other occasions (including a benefit for New Masses and a production of Julius Caesar updated to Fascist Italy), that he abandoned RKO to make a documentary about Brazilian workers.

I find it curious that Welles, Houseman and Blitzstein–people who were fully as intelligent and committed as Hallie Flanagan–should appear as caricatures in Cradle Will Rock. The first two resemble the news media’s version of Karen Finley. They’re scandal-making elitists who take advantage of a federal program and by their irresponsibility contribute to its ruin. Blitzstein is not much better. Like the media’s image of a politically correct academic, he’s a wretched ideologue, trapped inside his own head.

If Diego Rivera fares better in the film, it’s largely because the role has gone to Ruben Blades. Like the real Blitzstein, he is a kind of rebuke to those around him. No other actor in Cradle Will Rock stands up to Blades’s cunning, anger and irrepressible glee–though these qualities are put in the service of another cartoonlike scheme. It’s true that Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) bought Rivera’s services, then dumped him as if he were a disobedient whore. But the movie goes further. At the end, all but rubbing his hands with cupidity, Rockefeller declares he will now promote abstract art–it’s better for business.

I would be the last to defend the Butcher of Attica; yet I note that Picasso’s Guernica found a home in Rockefeller’s Museum of Modern Art. (So, too, did Rivera’s bloodthirsty Agrarian Leader, Zapata.) So maybe the relationship between artist and private patron is more interesting out in the world than it is in Cradle Will Rock. Certainly the relationship between Welles and a short-lived system of public patronage was richer than the film lets on.

Robbins wants to protect his art workers and honest bureaucrats from such complexities. I suppose that’s why he constructs a thematic montage for his characters rather than freeing them to interact. Maybe he also wants to protect the good people from himself. Like Welles, he is a writer-director-producer-star. Is that why he makes Orson an ass–because he’s ashamed of his own success, working for private paymasters? If so, I wish he’d think again. As a star, he does a lot for the troupers–including giving them work in a project that may be a little clunky but doesn’t entail prostitution.

Lighten up, Tim Robbins. Your heart’s in the right place. Now move your head.