Wednesday, May 05, 2010

A Place In the Sun (1951)

Just as it is always exciting in the course of list-following to come upon some delightful work one had never heard of previously, it is often equally so to finally sit down to a standard classic one has been aware of and seen casually alluded to for years but has never taken up, especially if one has been able to avoid in that time picking up any sense of what it is about. This still happens to me a lot with movies, my familiarity with the classics of that art even now remaining surprisingly narrow. Today's subject for example marks my first experience of both the director George Stevens and the star Montgomery Clift, who are, if not colossal, at least significant figures in the lore of Hollywood. As this is also still pretty much in the time period from which I like watching just about anything if it is at all good, despite the rather grim subject matter I on the whole had a satisfying time of it.

If I were rating this movie, which I am not, because earnest film criticism, both good and bad, is one area of endeavor that the world has a more than adequate supply of, I would give it 3 1/2 stars out of 5, maybe 4 for the style and unusually strong visual appeal of the two main stars, though I have to say I wasn't impressed by Montgomery Clift as being any especially great shakes as an actor. I know it's the Method, and mumbling and a certain languidness are part of the approach, but I thought he came across as too flat and limp all around. Elizabeth Taylor, who I usually imagine as being an awful actress because she comes across as more than usually deficient in her overall mental development, was, I won't say good, but effective for what she was supposed to do. Of the various romantic ideals that Hollywood has presented over its history, she is not one of my personal favorites--the promise of voluptuous, luxurious, vapid lotus-eating without any forseeable end I take to be what she is supposed to represent--but she has a undoubtedly timeless quality about her as a movie star. Unlike most of the stars of the past, she doesn't seem to be a product especially of the specific period in which she was between 17 and 25, and it is not difficult to imagine her as a twenty year old getting roles in inane movies and TV shows today, and being effective in them. Her relation to media is like Wilt Chamberlain's to basketball, a genetic freak in which is embodied the prototype of the various qualities that their industries seek in a performer. An Elizabeth Taylor clone could get a movie contract in any era just as a Wilt Chamberlain clone would be the #1 pick in the NBA draft every year.Though set in the postwar times in which it was made, this film is avowedly based on Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy, which was published in 1925. I haven't read it, so perhaps the economic circumstances of 1951 portrayed in the movie were greatly exaggerated to accomodate the plot, though I don't get the feeling that they have been much. I note this because 1951 was right in the middle of the period in which the income tax rates for the top earners in the U.S. were supposedly 91%, and were purportedly much higher for well-off people across the board than they are now. It is true that the lifestyles of the families in this film who are supposed to represent an unattainable fantasy of wealth and privilege would be laughed at by the likes of Donald Trump and Aristotle Onassis and people of that ilk. Their children go to private schools and they have a nice but hardly ostentatious vacation house with a speedboat on a lake in Indiana or someplace like that. That Elizabeth Taylor's character has lots of nice clothes and is able to spend the summer sunning herself at the lake while the less privileged girls have to go to work in a factory is depicted as a cruel injustice and cause for resentment, though again, compared to the possibilities for expenditure, extravagance and opportunity open to wealth in our times, this seems like a rather quaint idea of how to spend the summer.

In any event, whether the movie is an accurate portrayal of economic life in 1951 or not, I have read enough accounts of the era to have gleaned pretty convincingly that rich and privileged people were still plenty rich and privileged even in a time of much higher taxation on income. Contrary to the argument one sometimes hears from anti-tax zealots who have allowed themselves to become overheated, that the American system is set up to "punish success", monetary success in particular is hardly rewarded more desirably anywhere else. To imply otherwise is misleading and insulting whatever your opinion is on the morality of taxation. It was a bogus argument in 1950, and it is certainly one now. I was reading one of Paul Theroux's travel books recently--the Mediterranean one, I've been reading one every year or so the last few years--and (though I take him for a rich person himself) he made the observation that when you hang around rich people they constantly talk about how they don't have any money. And look, I'm sure that when your tax bill is six and seven figures a year that it does seem cruel and tyrannical and that one is being taxed to death, but however exorbitant income taxes are, wealthy people still have more money than everybody else does, usually significantly more, as well, usually, as a continued ability to generate or gain access to substantial income streams. Once you reach a certain level the system for wealth generation is so stacked in your favor that the mediocrities and failures, who are made thus by the mechanisms of this system which by and large they cannot escape and are told they have no right to escape or agitate against, after a certain point have to regard progressive taxation at least as much of a self-defense measure than a shameful plundering of their betters. The concentration of wealth and laws which facilitate this among privileged castes have no benefit to people outside these castes, and there is no reason why such people should support such a system unless the society has a whole has become otherwise diseased.

I was looking for a good music video that took this movie for its subject, but I didn't find anything I liked. A lot of people have made maudlin tributes to Liz and Monty's supposedly deep platonic friendship (the gay Monty being supposedly the only man she knew at the time who did not desire her sexually), which has always struck me as preternaturally uninteresting. We all know nowadays that no woman is only good for Just One Thing, but if anyone was ever close to fitting that description, it was Elizabeth Taylor. There was one video of clips from the movie set to "Total Eclipse of the Heart", which might have been funny if the song weren't seven minutes long. Next time try the 90s disco remix version at least.

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