Soundtrack: Subbluecollar stuff downloaded off of the net a few years ago

A Brief (Update: actually, it’s not so brief) Note on Frank Capra & termites

Forager indicates that he is substantially in agreement with a lot of the stuff I’ve been ranting about, but asks “What About Capra?”. I replied, of course, because I think the question deserved an answer, and the results were beneficial, as we each were able to clarify our positions, a little, vis-a-vis Mr. Capra. Along the way, Forager mentioned Manny Farber’s “termite art” once again, and I decided that, even though I really should be finishing off doctoral applications, I ought to do a little checking up on this fascinating “insect aesthetic”… Anyway, I’ve barely scratched the surface of “termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art”, but I like what I’ve gotten under my fingernails so far…

During the course of the aforementioned comments-thread discussion, Forager and I decided that we agreed (with the help of a little somethin’ called the “shotgun suspicion”) that Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life is actually an exceptionally dark film… But that didn’t solve anything, because we still have no way of understanding why I love it and he hates it (or really dislikes it, anyway). Forager added that he really likes early Capra works such as The Bitter Tea of General Yen and It Happened One Night–it’s just the films the director made after his “breakdown” in 1935 that bother him. Now, I don’t want to go on for too long about IAWL in this space, because I’m trying to hive up that particular honey for use in late-December, but Forager also mentions Meet John Doe, in passing, and I think I’ll use that film as my text…

I really have to disagree with Forager’s contention that the later Capra films “don’t acknowledge any of the contradictions and complications in the material”. Or, you know, maybe I could let that statement stand, if the proviso could be added that, because this acknowledgement never takes place, the contradictions and complications which are manifest within the film are all the more intensely felt! Basically, I don’t think Frank Capra ever recovered from the bout of craziness which drove him into seclusion for most of a calendar year, immediately after he had become the toast of Hollywood, thanks to the Oscar-sweeping performance of It Happened One Night in 1934. The apocryphal story is that a “strange man” came to see Capra in his sickbed and lectured him about squandering a magnificent opportunity to enlighten a world that was waiting, with baited breath, for his next film. If that doesn’t convince ya that the Capster was a bit deranged, I don’t know what would! And I love it! Typically, I like works that just don’t hold together. My favourite books are Hawthorne’s Blithedale, Melville’s Pierre + The Confidence Man, Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood, Hammett’s fiction–all of which are usually interpreted, when they receive any attention at all, as “fascinating failures”. My point is–why throw an artistic pass that you know you are capable of completing perfectly? To score another touchdown? Why run up the score? (this is the main source of my problem with Hawks, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Ford–well, no, I just hate Ford, I’m not gonna lie to you, dear reader!–but the rest of ’em? come on! Who wants to watch Hitchcock defeat the Freudian thriller 77-0?) Capra had already made the ultimate “never the twain shall meet” fable (Bitter Tea), and the ultimate screwball reconciliation between the sexes/classes fantasy (It Happened One Night), but the problem then became, what to do next?

I think the key early Capra film is actually The Miracle Woman–a textbook “fascinating failure” that no one, including Capra, knew what to make of, once it was done. The only thing that’s obvious about the film is that Barbara Stanwyck is probably the greatest screen actress of all time–and that any of the artificial technique she might have acquired earlier was completely eaten away by the impossible task her director assigned to her (basically, she was somehow supposed to embody complete sham and complete authenticity!) It’s an insanely great performance, and we’re not likely to ever see its’ like again, but I think that, in every film he made after 1935 (except for obvious phone-in jobs like You Can’t Take it With You and Arsenic and Old Lace), Frank Capra tried to recreate the intensity of that performance on an ever-widening canvas. By the time you get to John Doe, the termites in Capra’s brain had so eaten away at his ability to deliver a coherent sermon that you (or I, anyway) just gawk in amazement at what on earth it is he ever could have been hoping to communicate to the world. I mean–what’s wrong with Gary Cooper in this movie? To use actor-speak: “what’s his motivation”? Why does everyone keep changing all of the time? Why does Edward Arnold actually look concerned about Cooper’s welfare at the end? Does Stanwyck really think her hobo is the second coming of Christ? Does anyone really believe that “the People” that we’ve seen in this movie are capable of the kind of unified action that Stanwyck’s cynical speeches call for? Even after she says she’s starting to believe? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, and neither, I’m sure, did Capra. Later on, he would just smile and say he made these movies “for the little guy”, but I think we can just dismiss that–he made them because he was so distressed and hopped up on the dichotomies that his early films had brought to light that he couldn’t help filming a record of the madness that comes from not “embracing contradiction”.

Anyway, that’s what I think. I can understand why some people would find these films annoying, harrassing, disturbing, etc. But that’s why I love ’em!

Good night friends!


  1. “Who wants to watch Hitchcock defeat the Freudian thriller 77-0?”


    Um, er, sorry. Kinda got carried away there.

    Slightly more seriously, I don’t know if it’s because I went to a high-school that regularly crushed the opposing football team by margins of 50 to 70 points (not that I ever went to the games, but nevermind) but there’s something about watching the perfect execution of a concept that is just so beautiful. I love the way a Hicthcock film can manage to hit every note exactly right. It’s brilliant.

  2. Josiah,

    You’re right, of course–and I like to see a thing done to perfection as well (nor am I anti-Hitchcock, by any means: I own virtually every film he made between 1935 and 1958), but these aren’t the works I turn to, as Emerson would say, “for lustres”…


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