Brief impression: “A Face in the Crowd”

July 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

All of a sudden Sidney Lumet’s 1975 masterwork seems that much less original. Of course, there is a rich history of great films being informed by other great films, but Elia Kazan’s 1957 gem pre-empts ‘Network’ so thoroughly that it is simply hard to ignore the latter’s indebtedness to the former. Strangely, while both films dissect, by way of dogged satire, the phenomenon of cult of personality and its place in popular media, ‘A Face in the Crowd’ may be a much more apt commentary on the current culture of ‘following’ and being followed than a film of its age has any right to, particularly nowadays during which it seems to take less and less for one to acquire a posse or legion of fans and adorers, whether in the flesh or otherwise.

In ‘Network’, news anchor Howard Beale’s dwindling audience share only skyrockets once his impending axing flips his switch and turns him into a crazed or perhaps pseudo-crazed mad prophet of the airwaves, one who seems to echo and articulate the frustrations of the average television viewer in post-Vietnam, post-Watergate United States of America. In contrast, ‘A Face in the Crowd’ gives us Andy Griffith in a loose-limbed, powerhouse performance as song-singing drifter Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes, a self-professed “just a country boy” whose small-town charm, charisma and latent narcissism is snapped up by sharp-eyed Arkansas radio promoter Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal in perhaps the performance of the picture) only for him to snowball into a national television sensation. It turns out that there’s just something about this fella Lonesome that millions of Americans seem to love, so much so that he wields an immense influence in fields that your usual TV personality perhaps ought not to. Sure, Rhodes may very well have been a composite of the Elvis Presleys and Buddy Hollys of the day (as well as media personalities like Will Rogers and Arthur Godfrey), but beyond the effect Lonesome has on his legion of screaming adolescent females, this film takes a peek into the socio-political implications of a personality this big and this self-assured. Rhodes’ mentorship of a presidential hopeful is a sad reminder of how personality can and often does supersedes policy and principle in The People’s choice of a leader.

Preventing this film from floating off into the stratosphere where overly brash satires that sadly disappear into a vortex of their own cynicism go to die is Kazan’s dedication to a sort of grassroots realism that tends to wheedle its way into his generally baroque approach, acting almost as a sobering reminder that the mythical heights to which Lonesome Rhodes rises in the film do not exist exclusively in a world of cinema and fantasy but in the same world that is home to the everyday, the average. This is perhaps no more evident in Lonesome’s grand homecoming when he is treated to a routine by the local high-school cheerleading team (a slight call-back to the forbidden sexuality in Kazan’s previous film ‘Baby Doll’). The choice of interweaving of candid-looking, almost verité shots of the small-town American crowds that have come to see their local hero with more staged and stylised depictions of Lonesome’s antics and reactions seems to suggest that there is an element of mutualism at play here; that Lonesome satisfies his fans’ need to adore, to worship, to elevate as much as they feed his need to be adored and worshiped and elevated. The truth of course is that this not quite mutualism or commensalism but a kind of mutual parasitism whereby both parties feed off each other to satisfy needs that do not in any way benefit either of them in the long term.

But for all the socio-political commentary, as is true of a great deal of Elia Kazan’s work, ‘A Face in the Crowd’ is great entertainment in the broadest Hollywood sense: it’s classical rise-and-fall storytelling that moves at a cracking pace, populated by the faces that have a certain star quality. This picture is one strong piece of evidence in favour of the idea that a film can package intelligence and insight in a snappy, flashy package of song, sass and swinging style.

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