1. For Brando
With Marlon Brando dead, I’ve a dull ache in my chest at the thought of a man of such genius, energy and talent having joined the long line of souls who’ve passed through this place on their way back to the dust that all flesh is heir to. If Marlon can die, I thought when I heard the news, if Marlon can lay down and die then it really is true that we all, we writers, artists, musicians, and the like, are someday really going to lay down for that long dirt nap. So we aren't immortal after all, are we?
Sure, Orson Welles dying with Kikki in his arms back in 1985 was a kick in the head, but we had always suspected, hadn’t we, even way back around the time of A Touch of Evil (1966), that Orson was just such stuff as bye-bye was made of? Orson's life was always a way too hot medium. He was intense and reckless, an enfant terrible burning up years of creativity with hustling and globe trotting with that state of panic he was always in; always trying to raise funds to make his movies by hook or crook, fighting the noose around his neck but somehow always tied to the very forces that he’d rebelled against. He payed a long, hard price for having stuck his young thumb into William Randolph Hearst’s wealthy eye with Citizen Kane (1941). And in the end, once he'd grown fat, he was like a burned out acetyline torche—spent, resigned, creeping around Burbank in that stage shawl of his, clutching a huge unlit Cuban cigar, a ghost sitting on Johnny Carson’s couch even if still in possession of a sharp wit and venemon.
Compared to Orson, Marlon's life though, was a cool medium. There was never a noose around Marlon’s neck. He was not tied to anyone or to anything, at least not as a cinematic artist he wasn’t, and never could be. He was never in ‘rebellion’, he merely played rebels on screen. He never cared enough about cinema or about Hollywood and the money-men running it to bother to rebel. Where on some level Orson always wanted in his heart of hearts to be taken seriously, even to be accepted on his own terms, Brando never gave a rat’s ass who did or did not accept him. He made his own terms, and he lived with them, on his own. Rather than being in rebellion against stati quo, he was in and maintained always a profound sense of disinterest, like Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Dean Martin, Doris Lessing, and Miles Davis. That’s what made Marlon 'dangerous': his will toward freedom. And once he had grown fat he was still 'dangerous'. We still talked about him, speculated about his intentions. We held our breath waiting for him to 'come back' (and he did, twice, when he acted a post modern patiche of Vito Corleone in The Freshman (1990) with Mathew Broderick and when he acted his own dissipation in The Score (2001) with Deniro). Sean Penn still hung out with him on Marlon’s Pacific island. He was never brought to heel by the pezzonovante (Italian, translation: 90mm gun--'big shot') who tried all his life to domesticate him. He didn’t crawl into court when his son, Christian bit off a prison sentence for murder, but rather held his head up with dignity and humanity as he testified before the jury as a character witness. Critics still venerated him, and he never lowered himself to living as a has-been in the Hollywood colony of retirees who would wander down the steep, goatway of Mulholland Drive in early model Bentleys to turn up pasty faced on Johnny’s couch.
He came out of retirement for the last time to do The Score, an overtly allegorical story about a retired thief (Deniro) forced out of retirement by a young upstart thief (the powerful, then young Ed Norton) in order to steal a priceless (get this) scepter. The overt allegorical material has to do of course with the lineage of the grandfather (Brando), the son (Deniro), and the grandson (Norton). The resonance is obvious but nevertheless poignant thanks to the generosity of Deniro and Brando, whose scenes strip bare the old thief's (that is to say, the actor's, the father's) anxiety over usurpation. The scepter represents, of course, the primal, and sovereign claim to patriarchal authority, youth, and power. It is the son’s by natural right (Ed Norton's natural right), and the father and grandfather both know it. Even as they plot together to defeat the boy-thief Deniro and Brando know they are only buying time which must be repaid. Deniro and Brando both play on the implied anxiety of loss of celebrity, of youth, of life force. Even fat, Brando languidly twists the heads off his scenes and, in Brando fashion, turns mundanity and cliché inside out, investing the role and his lines with a self reflexive display of what a has-been would be like as an underworld mover and shaker all out of moves with nothing left but the shakes. With Deniro giving him plenty of room without a hint of genuflection, Marlon invests his lines with a laconic anomie. As he uses his own body, his own dissipation and fatigue to draw a character whose bathos underscores the pitiable end that thieves and actor alike must sooner or later accept if they fail to die young, as James Dean did.
But it isn’t really pity Brando is trying to conjur with the performance, it’s dread. In the character Brando sketches here (for it is just a sketch, not a wrenching, fully realized Method creation of the type Brando had constructed in his youth) we recognize the mortality we all have got to take a gut full of someday, and a Method actor like Brando clearly couldn’t have passed up the chance to tap into even this final portion of his life and to burn it as creative fuel—to burn even his own aging, mortal body, his own loss of vanity, dignity, and pride. This quiet, mundane role is, for all the mundanity of it, one of the the scariest screen performance I ever saw him in, almost as scary as Orson Welles’ incredibly courageous performance in A Touch of Evil (1958), wherein he bares his own personal vulnerabilty, rot, and aging pain. Brando’s grandfather thief is a sort of companion to the aching vulnerabilty of his earlier characterization, in Aurther Penn’s The Chase (1966), of an ethical small town police chief who undergoes a gang beating by corrupt citizens outraged at his ethics.
That gang beating in fact raises the semiotic of gang rape, and gives pictorial representation to a type of feminine vulnerability in Brando which I suspect was always an undertone to his film image as well as an element in the odd cruelty that critics and fans alike heaped upon him during his career (a symbological misogeny?). There was a soulful trait to him, at times even a pulchritude and full-lipped handsomeness to Brando in his youth—a beauty just dangerously short of female which was, as with Dean and Sal Mineo before him, a key to his ability to tap into deep seated audience responses. To this day his work taps into both our capacity to love him and to hate him. It was something he played upon not to enhance his ‘celebrity’ but rather to enhance his ability to construct characters we couldn’t help but feel something about—ergo the sadness he can evoke with his characterization of the grandfather thief, his final role.
* * *
It occurs to me that many of the myths about Brando will ineluctably be rolled out now, but he has made his final escape—he won’t hear any of in death just as he ignored it all in life. Because he remained aloof from it all, he died free and clear, his own man, his own human being. So it is left to us who admired his art to respond to the dehumanized, demonized, simulation Brando the Hollywood power structure will be rolling out in the wake of Brando's escape, supported by the mass media and entertainment journalism. Let’s start with the myth that Brando was a ‘failed genius’ who squandered his gifts; an actor with a tragically flawed filmography. With this first set of myths we’ll look at, critics and fans were prone to see Brando’s filmography as uneven, as sloppy. As an actor he was seen as being in some cases, and more and more after the 50's, wild, foolish, undisciplined, self-indulgent, doing work which failed to fulfill he potential genius, and which would have come to more merit if only someone had been better able to take him in hand, to control his raw energies. When one think about it this line of reasoning sounds a much like the attitude Vatican flaks took toward Michelangelo when he refused to act as they wanted him to, doesn’t it?
2. Post Modernity and Brando’s Film Roles
First of all, Godfather (1972) and Apocolypse Now (1979), while brilliant roles, were and are not true markers of the depth and the breadth of Brando’s work, nor are they the truest keys to understanding the greater implications of the evolution of his project as an actor. Brando, like Thomas Pynchon, Stanley Kubrick, Richard Pryor, and Dean Martin, was a post modern artist. If one does not know why I should choose to conflate these particular and diverse artists and does not understand why Dean Martin would included, one ought to study Umberto Eco, Venturi, Frederick Jameson, and well, to listen to Dino, Sammy, and Frankie.
Godfather and Apocalypse though they had certain post modern elements, were not films that could have contained or absorbed Brando’s deliberate, post modern distortions, not in the sense that Burn! (1970), The Missouri Breaks (1976), or Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) could. Nor did Brando deign to distort these two roles in a post modern manner, as he had distorted many of his earlier roles. He deliberately did not carry out post modern distortions of his acting of Corleone and of Kurtz, and I believe that this was so because he and director Francis Ford Coppola must have decided that the characters ought to be played with an orthodox dramatic treatment. The gestalts of The Godfather and of Apocolypse Now were more important to their cinematic a-ffect and execution than was the single element of Brando’s acting of his own individual characters. The Godfather in particular, was an ensemble work of art consisting of multiple contributions from a host of powerful actors, and from several technical artists.
That is to say the dialectical conjunction of screenwriting and direction (Puzo and Coppola), production design (Dean Tavoularis), editing, mise-en-scene, soundtrack, score (Nino Rota), and editing was equally crucial in creating a whole artwork. Brando as a result did not innovate very much in the two roles most often identified with him. Because he played these roles very straight, Hollywood and the mass media have always displayed a willingness to mytholize the two portrayels. These two films were eventual commercial and critical successes, yes, but Brando had already done the bulk (though not all) of his most radical and most challenging work by the time the two films came along, and so in a very real sense, the roles of Vito Corleone and Colonel Kurtz were, like his scenes with Dinero in The Score, merely examples of the traces of his more radical self.
Again, Brando was a post modernist. Early on. I mean fresh out of the Stella Adler method acting stable. He was post modern even in the original stage production of Streetcar. Many critics early on, and some even now mistakenly call Brando the inheritor of the inarticulate rage and angst of James Dean, but despite the outward resemblences between them (after all, Dean too, came out of Adler’s Method mill) Brando was neither inarticulate nor was he angst ridden or raging. He merely played those things. Dean lived them. Thus Dean turned his Porsche Spider over on September 30, 1955 turned it into mangled wreckage, and in the process killed himself. Brando’s cinematic portrayels of plakangst were always rationalized, planned, and executed as artistic statements or even as artistic experiments or artistic whims. His art was not crazed, wild, or self-indulgent, because he never took film or himself that seriously in the first place. Though he could play very orthodox, Adlerian and Stanislovskian roles, as in the film version of Streetcar (1951), The Chase (1966), and On the Waterfront (1954), and though he could even play classical with the best Shakespearian actors, as in Julius Caesar (1953), he conciously twisted, distorted, and turned inside-out many of the characters he played and many of the lines he delivered. At least some of the time and particularly early in Brando’s career critics felt the need to take (or simply were too stupid to avoid taking) this as being evidence of Brando’s ‘primal energy,’ his ‘youthful power’ and ‘masculine energy’, as if he were the reincarnation of Dean, or brother to the unbalanced, emotionally disheveled Sal Mineo (another Hollywood, agnst ridden martyr).
Later, of course, and in direct proportion to the degree that they were invested in the supposed ‘integrity’ and ‘coherence’ of the particular characters Brando had played, distorted, or deconstructed, critics felt the need to denounce this ‘wild energy’ as ‘self desructive’ and to denounce Brando himself as a reckless killer of dramatic a-ffect and of the dramatic quality of the films he ‘wrecked’ with his ‘antics.’ He was depicted as willfully destroying his own artform.
Even the brilliant and insightful film critic, Pauline Kael who invented literate American film criticism with her insistance upon intellectual rigor in the analysis of cinema just as if it were an artform on par with painting, dance, literature, and music (artforms that film in fact subsumes in a dialectical gestalt) denounced Brando as a ‘self parodying comedian’ for his post modern antics on screen in Mutiny on the Bounty, though she later rescinded her denunciation after seeing him in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), saying of Brando’s performance, “"Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form". In reaction to Mutiny however she’s written of Brando, in a March 1966 Atlantic Monthly article entitled, “Marlon Brando: An American Hero” that the ideal 1950’s Brando had disappeared and that the disappearrance ought to be mourned becaused of the virtues of what the 50’s Brando had represented:
Brando represented a reaction against the post-war mania for security. As a protagonist, the Brando of the early fifties had no code, only his instincts. He was a development from the gangster leader and the outlaw. He was antisocial because he knew society was crap; he was a hero to youth because he was strong enough not to take the crap. (In England it was thought that The Wild One would incite adolescents to violence.) There was a sense of excitement, of danger in his presence, but perhaps his special appeal was in a kind of simple conceit, the conceit of tough kids. (©. 1966 P. Kael)
The irony here of course is that the very qualities Kael here romantically idealizes in Brando (the James Dean-esque, Method inspired rebellion against authority, the excitement, and the quality of being ‘strong enough not to take the crap’) are the very qualities that drove him to leave the 50’s behind, and to deconstruct the Method, to parody his earlier persona. Brando, unlike the Dean of the 50's, did not die, did not turn over his car. In fact he climbed off the motorcycle of The Wild One (1953), unzipped the leather jacket and went on, something that entailed his going beyond Dean and Stella Adler. Kael further writes of Mutiny on the Bounty that,
In the action sequences he's uninteresting, not handsome or athletic enough to be a stock romantic adventure hero. He seems more eccentric than heroic, with his bizarre stance, his head held up pugnaciously, his face unlined in a peculiar bloated, waxen way. He's like a short, flabby tenor wandering around the stage and not singing: you wonder what he's doing there. (©. 1966 P. Kael)
Which is Ironic, actually, because if one thinks a bit about it one realizes that given both the class history and maritime history of Great Britain, Brando's choices in playing Fletcher Christian this way could arguably be said to ring true. It is at least possible to imagine that Christian might have been a spoiled, priviledged aesthete. British officers, who wielded the power of life and death over seamen in the British navy due to strict class priviledge in the time period Mutiny focuses upon might very well come off to us now as frilly, pouting, and effete (Brando's Mr. Christian). Likewise, Christian, a truly highborn British officer could certainly be imagined as a man who might be in conflict with a lowborn superior officer like Bligh, who might resent his junior officer being simultaneously his social better. Thus, Bligh the pompous bully. At the very least, the dramatic tension Brando's portrayal creates takes a cliché role and injects it with energy that is even now memorable. And that is the point: Brando often sought to create tension through counter point, obtusion, negative capability, and through unexpected treatments of his roles. He varied tone, rhythm, pace, and pitch, sometimes abrasively so, in the way a jazz musician would, using improvisation, humor, and even atonality to destroy and recreate his roles, and destroy and recreate ours and his own expectations of those roles. In the jazz aesthetic, which values rigorous technical ability yet also decisively priviledges the innovative over the orthodox, this is called improvisation and interpolation. Like Miles Davis did at times, Brando would do the equivalent of turning his back on the audience.
Looking up at that broad back on the wide screen, Kael is as offended as her counterpart jazz critics were over Miles Davis. To add epitaph to injury, she goes on further to say of Brando's very next role in The Ugly American (1963), that "When he submerges himself in the role, the movie dies on the screen." Both Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Ugly American, indeed, were inaugural performances for Brando, introducing that parodic, "head held up pugnaciously, face unlined in a peculiar bloated, waxen way" as well as the prominence of "his bull neck, so out of character," as Kael calls it and as the neck first appears in Ugly American. This parodic use of his own body became a sort of trademark look for the larger parodic project Brando invented for himself in the 1960's. It became also, the image that a thousand cartoonists, critics, and detractors reduced Brando to in their rush to declare him a burn-out, a sell-out, and a has-been. Mutiny, in which Brando plays British naval officer Christian as a sort of peeved and put upon fop rather than a strong, virile tragic hero as, say, Clark Gable had played him earlier, is one of the signal moments of the agony critics expressed over Brando's antics. Further, the sincerely classical actor Trevor Howard's interpretation of Captain Bligh's brutal demeanor was based on Howard's attempt to play Captain Bligh's class antagonism, arising from Bligh's identity as an insecure, lowborn Brit who has risen to class legitimacy but is not quite confident enough in his authority and so must underline his military power with cruelty. Howard's is a nuanced, insightful performance, one which critics felt made Brando's reductio ad absurdum all the more insufferable inasmuch as it ruins Howard's more manly display of orthodox acting skills.
Perhaps what is most disappointing about Kael's admittedly understandable chagrin with Brando's choices is the unfortunate truth that, for all her candor, wit, and penetrating insight, for all her intellectual girth, Kael's 60's critique of Brando nevertheless offers an example of the critic typically lagging behind the artist: Brando took an artist's leap out far past the scope of Kael and her critic's vision, and into a post modern consciousness that she perhaps did not reach until 9 years later when she raved about the very same mercurial, parodic, bull-necked (and bare-assed) Brando of Last Tango In Paris. Still, Kael definitely wrote for an entire generation of critical response (albeit far more articulately than most of the critics she spoke for) when she wrote that,
Brando's career illustrates something much more basic: the destruction of meaning in movies: Perhaps Brando has been driven to this self-parody so soon because of his imaginative strength and because of that magnetism that makes him so compelling an expression of American conflicts. His greatness is in a range that is too disturbing to be encompassed by regular movies (©. 1963 P Kael).
That leads to the second set of myths critics and fans erected around Brando and his work: that he was insane, unstable, emotionally disturbed, that he was, in short, indistinguishable as a person from the film roles he created.
3. Post Modernity and Brando's Psyche
While the Hollywood system, backed by critics of varying sophistication needed to pretend that the essence of the meaning of Brando's work was to be found in the fact that he'd begun his career as some sort of furious and brutal savage who stunned audiences with a primordial energy in The Wild One, the truth, as I have argued above, was far more interesting than that and far more complex. Brando was a thoughtful man and a thoughtful artist who sought, like a jazz musician would, to overcome cliché, to create new ways of feeling and thinking in his work, and to synthesize new cinematic experience and indeed, to simply have a good time in the act of play. All this he did through what was partly a new approach to The Method and its technique of plundering the actor's psyche.
What I mean in fact is that The Method, which allowed actors who studied and practiced it to create intense cinematic possibilities through the use of the technique of 'emotional recall' and through the application of raw emotion the actor has delved into her own memories and neuroses to find, was, for all its energy and innovation, a dead end for Brando. He knew, one suspects, one should think he absolutely did know in fact, that James Dean had taken the more obvious, raw, and more powerful points of Method acting to it's ultimate and extreme end with Giant (1956-released after Dean's death) and with Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Brando was smart enough to know that he could not and should not wish to, replicate, out shout, out miserate, and out contort James Dean's emotionally wrenching, over-the-top kamikaze performances. If James Dean was Charlie Parker (with Sal Mineo perhaps as Dean's Chick Webb) then Brando was certainly, as I've already implied, a lot like Miles Davis. Though Miles was present at the birth of Bebop he had no desire to spend his artistic career in the wake of the meteoric vector of his compatriot, Charles Parker. As he himself has indicated in interviews and in his autobiography, Miles saw little value in continuing with classic Bebop after Bird's death, though critics all expected him to carry on Bird's project. Bebop's conceptual, aesthetic, and technical possibilities had been exhausted for for Miles, and so not so much abandoning it but deconstructing it, he used the pieces to make something new. Miles abstracted Bop, slowed it to a crawl, and ultimately tossed it away in order to create 'Cool.' The artistic parallel between Miles and Bird, and Brando and Dean seems clear.
I won't attempt to argue that Brando was not a troubled, emotionally brittle man, nor that there was not a sort of bathos in his morbid obesity at the end of his life. I won't even point out the obvious truth that many actors of his generation who forged his or her self on the crucible of the emotionally devastating Adlerian version of The Method exhibited lifelong excesses of emotional turmoil, many of them dying of it (Dean, Marilyn Munroe, and Mineo most visible among the casualties). Instead, I'll argue something more human, having to do with a more mundane and ordinary truth: that like most artists, and certainly like most artists who become wealthy, world famous and worshipped as icons at a very young age, Brando exhibited signs of megalomania, paranoia, obssessiveness, emotional infantilism, and, as he grew older, dissipation. I would argue however, that none of this adds up to his having been in any way illegitimate as a cinematic artist, any more than Miles Davis' own idiosyncrasies, bizarre behavior, misogyny, and bouts of agoraphobia meant that he was somehow lesser in his musicianship. His musicianship was fine, though just as with Brando, critics accused him of losing his chops, of degenerating into a has-been and sell-out, and of betraying jazz first when he abandoned Bop and adopted Cool, and then again and again as he moved on through more metamorphoses to play electric, and to play Fusion.
Indeed, as with nearly every other citizen of complexity, value, and large spirit America's 20th century was blessed with, Brando's deeper complexity and significance both as an artist and as a man of conscience, is silenced amidst the noise of obnoxious and cynical ridicule of his personal life: bad father, abusive husband, and failed celebrity. Tinker, tailor, deadbeat, fatty, is the declension steadfastly held against him, it seems.
Dave Zirin, editor of the Prince George's Post, explodes that cynicism quite deftly in his recent eulogy, "Our Marlon Brando", published on July 2, by CommonDreams.org:
The Brando I want to remember, especially now, is the actor who pulled back in the 1960s to focus on supporting the Civil Rights Movement and the broader struggles against war and oppression. In 1959, he was a founding member of the Hollywood chapter of SANE, an anti-nuclear arms group formed alongside African-American performers Harry Belafonte and Ossie Davis.
In 1963, Brando marched arm in arm with James Baldwin at the March on Washington. He, along with Paul Newman, went down South with the freedom riders to desegregate inter-State bus lines. In defiance of state law, Native Americans protested the denial of treaty rights by fishing the Puyallup River on March 2, 1964. Inspired by the civil rights movement sit-ins, Brando, Episcopal clergyman John Yaryan from San Francisco, and Puyallup tribal leader Bob Satiacum caught salmon in the Puyallup without state permits. The action was called a fish-in and resulted in Brando's arrest.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Brando announced that he was bowing out of the lead role of a major film and would now devote himself to the civil rights movement. Brando said "If the vacuum formed by Dr. King's death isn't filled with concern and understanding and a measure of love, then I think we all are really going to be lost."
He gave money and spoke out in defense of the Black Panthers and counted Bobby Seale as a close friend and attended the memorial for slain prison leader George Jackson. Southern theater chains boycotted his films, and Hollywood created what became known as the 'Brando Black List' that shut him out of many big time roles.
After making a comeback in Godfather, Brando won his second Oscar. Instead of accepting what he called "a door prize," he sent up Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse befuddled presenter Roger Moore and issue a scathing speech about the Federal Government's treatment of Native Americans.
Even in the past several years, he has lent his name and bank account to those fighting the US war and occupation in Iraq.
So how do we remember Brando? He was a celebrity, an artist, an activist, and at the end an isolated and destroyed old man.
It is tragic that we live in a world where most people's talents never get to see the light of day. It is equally tragic that those like Brando who actually get the opportunity to spread their creative wings, can be consumed and yanked apart in process. (©. 2004, D. Zirin)
The political dimension of the lives of American artists is habitually occluded, lost, and denied; hidden from our consideration and buried even before the artists themselves are. Indeed, the political dimension of the lives of just about everyone of significance in America (even of politicians!) is hidden from our consideration in order to foster a trivial, commercial culture of consumption of celebrity, and to facilitate the chronic memory loss Americans suffer from. It is what makes us all so monstrous in the eyes of the rest of the world: like belligerent children we inflict damage and pain upon those around us but then are mortified and confused by the hostility and disgust directed at us by those who feel hurt, neglected, and wronged by our crude abuses, abuses we cannot even manage to remember. How much more mortified must the French, the Russians, The Chinese, and the Arabs feel about our inability to recognize their histories, their cultures, their artists given the fact that we cannot even recognize our own? After all, no less luminary a philosopher than Jean-Paul Sartre, in his 1947 essay, "Jazz in America" had announced the existential dimension of jazz which, if one reads the essay closely, would at least contextualize if not explain Miles Davis' future personality disorders and his future antics with regard to jazz form. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir saw in jazz not am exotic, primal form arisen from primitive voodoo nor a dead, staid classical music, but a living, complex existential art form of global significance tied to philosophy, history, psychology, economics, humor, and even to biography. Thus, the French preoccupation not with measuring artists against public expectation and moral cant, but against the details of the artist's own life and material reality.
I disagree with Zirin in only one respect. It is not so much that we live in a world "where most people's talents never get to see the light of day." Instead, it is very certain that we live in a country (the United States) driven by a degenerate Capitalist profit motive that erects a fetishistic cult of 'celebrity', diverting our attention and that of adherants abroad, away from depth, meaning, and historical detail in order to train us to consume. Among the things we thoughtlessly consume as merchandise, is the depth and human complexity of our artist's lives, particularly our great artists.
Of course, It little matters to Brando now that we consumed him rather than understanding and appreciating him. He is where we can no longer harm him now.