Monday, 16 September 2013

Anti-Antihero Heroine takes Heat to Hail Fritz Lang and Emily Post.

Am I alone in thinking (I suspect I am) that émigré Fritz Lang is perpetrating a European sophisticate’s grotesque caricature of American table manners and rudimentary cuisine in his The Big Heat (1953)?

For I believe high satire defines the scene of supper-time exchanges between police sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) and wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando, sister of Marlon), with Lang
none-too-subtlyguying suburban domestic rituals performed in dinettes from coast to coast where Everyman is king; a demoticised king whose gun is always toted, and whose castle’s ever moated by a homesteader’s white picket fence.

No salad. A baked potato, a massive wedge of steak 
with bottled brown sauce and canned beer.

Consider the sly interplay between consumables as fast food is dished out from a diner-style menu of fried steak, baked potato, cigarettes and canned beer. What, we ask, would New Yorker Emily Post, la grande prêtresse des bonnes manières, have made of it.

It’s a long overdue question, so — after precisely sixty years of agonising — why not allow the simple folk of Hicksville their own agony-aunt-column to quiz her?

Hicksville: Is it not egregiously impolite for Bannion to smoke a cigarette in his wife’s kitchen and, moreover, while nibbling a bread-stick, to perch his smouldering butt-end at the edge of the countertop on which their food is prepared?
Emily Post: Smoking like a furnace in most polite circles is to be abhorred. Nor should one talk with one’s mouth either full of food or barricaded with tobacco. On the other hand, the Hicksville wife should not make a display of intolerance, or she had better take the first train back home, since she is likely to find New York very, very lonely.  

Hicksville: Is it not equally impolite for Bannion to tuck into his steak, plunging his knife into his baked potato before his wife is seated at the supper table?
Emily Post:
The bolting of meals is to be deplored. No one should begin eating until everyone is seated. The knife must never be used to scoop baked potato out of the skin, or to butter potato ... butter for baked potatoes is taken on the tip of the fork shovel fashion, laid on the potato, and then pressed down and mixed with the prongs held points curved up.

Hicksville: Bannion’s wife, Katie, carves her husband’s steak on the supper table. Is this correct form?
Emily Post: A certain type of man always likes to carve, and such a one does. Carving on the table was once considered an art necessary to every gentleman.

Hicksville: Appallingly, Bannion brings two beer cans from the fridge to place on the table; the implication being that they will remain there. Surely this is a solecism of a very ugly character?
Emily Post: In proper serving of cold drinks of all sorts, even where a quantity of bottles, pitchers and glasses need space, everything should be brought on a tray. A cloth must always be first placed on the table, before putting down the tray. The tray may be a massive silver one that requires a footman with strong arms to lift it, or it may be of Sheffield or merely of effectively lacquered tin. 

Hicksville: The absence of vegetables or salad is troubling. Surely a meal composed of a baked potato and a massive wedge of steak with bottled brown sauce (high in carbohydrates and cholesterol) cannot be considered wholly nutritious?
Emily Post: Steak and broiled chicken are fairly practical since neither needs gravy, condiment, or sauce — especially if you have a divided vegetable dish so that two vegetables can be passed at the same time.

Rebel cop as New York anti-hero.

Emily Post may have held inflexible views on table place settings and dining etiquette (‘...the diner must never be allowed to hold his fork emigrant fashion, perpendicularly clutched in the clenched fist, and to saw across the food at its base with his knife...’) but she was also aware that the younger New Yorkers of her day were as a breed fiercely independent of their elders. (Incidentally, we may reasonably assume The Big Heat has New York as its setting because Bannion’s wife talks of ‘Jersey mosquitoes’ attacking on all sides.) 

Yet, all the same, I believe Emily Post would have applauded Fritz Lang’s satire (she was in her 81st year when The Big Heat was premiered and New York’s cinemagoers first saw rogue cop Bannion bolt fast food any old how, then turn in his badge to prowl the mean streets on a payback mission to bring down the gangland syndicate that murdered his cigarette-and-beer-sharing post-Postian proto-feminist wife). 

As Emily Post concedes, the generation of young males growing to manhood in the first half of the twentieth century, … don’t care enough … to live up to the conventions of “manners” that old-fashioned hostesses demand. And as these “rebels” are invariably the most attractive and the most eligible youths, it has become almost an issue; a hostess must in many cases either invite none but older people and the few young girls and men whose mothers have left cards for them, or ignore convention and invite the rebels.’

The Emily Post Eligibility Test for New York’s ‘attractive’ rebels.

Emily Post lived just long enough to greet the 1960s, so she was no stranger to the rising class of Rebel Hero emerging from Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio in New York whose alumni include those classic antiheroes, James Dean, Paul Newman and the kid brother of rogue cop Bannion’s screen wife, Marlon Brando.

But hang on! 

What our Hicksville country cousins eagerly desire to know, surely, is: would Emily Post have recognised the Strasberg rebel’s attractive onscreen persona as fundamentally the biddable notional firebrand who will eventually be welcomed to dance the cotillion at Lucy Wellborn’s débutante ball? 

Hicksville: Consider The Wild One (1953), released in the same year as The Big Heat. Is biker gang leader Johnny Strabler (Marlon Brando) rebelling against anything of socio-political significance other than those forces that oppose his narcissism? 
Emily Post: Exhibitions of anger, fear, hatred, embarrassment, ardor or hilarity, are all bad form in public. And bad form is merely an action which ‘jars’ the sensibilities of others. 
What are you rebelling against, Johnny?’
‘Whaddaya got?’

Hicksville: Would you censure the Method school of acting, which, despite its emphasis on theatrical honesty and total immersion in the character’s emotional state, is often associated with actors who have never overcome a tendency to mumble? Take, for example, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), whose risible angst finds its causative agent in the trauma of witnessing his father’s emasculation by frilly apron.
Emily Post: In all monosyllabic replies a child must not say ‘Yes’ or No or What? ... Any number of busy men scarcely know their children at all, and have not even stopped to realise that they seldom or never talk to them, never exert themselves to be sympathetic with them, or in the slightest degree to influence them. To growl ‘Mornin’,’ or ‘Don’t, Johnny,’ ... is very, very far from being ‘an influence’ on your children’s morals, minds or manners.
‘What are you rebelling against, son?’
‘Undiagnosed Frilly Apron Complex, Daddy.’

Hicksville: Would you consider an incident of public disorder, drunkenness, and fatuous vandalism the impressive act of a Rebel Hero? One recalls the opening scene of Cool Hand Luke (1967) in which beer-swigging Paul Newman beheads parking meters with a pipe-cutter.  
Emily Post: An older man addicted to the use of too much alcohol, need not be discussed, since he ceases to be asked to the houses of ladies. A gentleman may be in his shirt sleeves actually, but he never gets into shirt sleeves mentally — he has no inclination to. All thoroughbred people are considerate of the feelings of others no matter what the station of the others may be. 

‘What we have here is a failure to communicate.’

Hicksville: Perhaps you could direct us to your own Emily Post Method for overcoming inarticulateness and achieving an expressive persona that is distinguished by simplicity and a grounded honesty of utterance.  
Emily Post: Simplicity of speech and manners means language in its purest, most limpid form, and manners of such perfection that they do not suggest ‘manner’ at all. Unconsciousness of self is not so much unselfishness as it is the mental ability to extinguish all thought of one’s self — exactly as one turns out the light. Simplicity is like it, in that it also has a quality of self-effacement, but it really means a love of the essential and of directness. Simple people put no trimmings on their phrases, nor on their manners.

Epitaph for an Antihero.

Hicksville: It’s time to extend a big thank you, Emily Post, for reminding us of your god-fearing forebears who evidently tempered your discrimination in matters of speech, morals and, indeed, table manners. Our citing of Paul Newman as Rebel Everyman reminds us also of his earlier movie, Hud (1963), and the almost Old Testament judgement on the eponymous antihero pronounced by his high principled father. ‘That’s the shame of it ... ’cause you don’t value nothing. You don’t respect nothing. You keep no check on your appetites. You live just for yourself and that makes you not fit to live with.’ Indeed, an Epitaph for an Antihero. 
Emily Post: Occasionally too, there appears in Best Society a provincial in whose conversation is perceptible the influence of much reading of the Bible. Such are seldom if ever stilted or pompous or long-worded, but are invariably distinguished for the simplicity and dignity of their English.

‘You gonna get your mouth around that?’
‘Gonna try’

Template for a True Antihero.

Let me confess it. My jaundiced view of the American Antihero derives from my first encounter with a gun-toter in New York City in 1968, the decade in which Emily Post died (1872-1960). The occasion was a thanksgiving dinner and, after the grace was said, my table companion turned to the Limey and removed from his waistband his NYPD .38 special as a cue to laud the rights he enjoyed to bear arms, being essential, he insisted, for the security of a ‘free State’.  That was his thanksgiving.

In the sixties, some 50 percent of New York households boasted a handgun, yet, regrettably, Emily Post had not prepared me with the correct form to manage this encounter, so I nodded vigorously and passed the cranberry sauce with a sickly grin. Actually, Emily Post reserves her advice on the politesse of gun ownership to a few words. Despite the askance glances of wife and valet, a gentleman customarily resolves that ‘every evening is spent in cleaning guns’, and she adds the admonition that the gentleman’s son should be ‘taught by his father or a guide — at all events, some one — how and how not to hold a gun ...’

Anyhow, any discontent with the shortcomings of the American Antihero – whose whining consumerist anomie is exhibited here, specifically, the rebel’s want of a heartfelt grown-up cause, an infantilism that Emily Post presciently identified in the ‘younger fashionables in New York almost a century ago – is predicated on literary conditioning that takes as its template the searing heroics of a REAL Old World vigilante (executed March 20 1540, Berlin) ... Michael Kohlhaas, as envisioned by that master of German Letters, Heinrich von Kleist, in his classic eponymous Revanche-Geschichte.

My adulation is boundless, as was Kafka’s, for this existential antihero without peer ... a charismatic rebel WITH an exhilarating, soul-blazing cause.

Post-Postian Postscript

I should not allow this opportunity to pass, in reflecting on American mores observed by cinema-goers of my mother’s generation, without a flashback to her consternation at witnessing Marlon Brando as the sheriff in The Chase (1966) polishing his toe-caps with his boots on, his foot braced on the arm of his living room chair. It was a solecism incomprehensible in its magnitude. Incidentally, The Chase, was one of only two films in which Jocelyn Brando appeared in a supporting role with her celebrated brother; the other was The Ugly American (1963).

Boot polish! Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall in The Chase 

Post-Brexit Footnote 08.07.2016 : A correspondent takes issue with me to question whether there exists a truly sustaining belief in the survival of high toned etiquette in Britain today, considering it a false ‘preciosity’ to suggest that somehow American table manners are a ‘burlesque’ of an enduring English correctitude. Well, I am pleased to reassure my correspondent that back-sliding in the Best Behaviour department is not wholly restricted to diners in the States, and there are back-slidden malefactors to be found in the very best High Society in England, particularly, it seems, among the Ruling Class at Westminster. Consider the scandal whipped up by the newspapers in 1996 when Conservative junior minister David Heathcoat-Amory resigned on a point of principle (a pre-Brexit protest at the over-regulation imposed by the European Union and the Tories’ ambivalence in rejection of a single European currency). 

On his announcement of his resignation, the UK press published a photo of a milk bottle on his breakfast table. This was regarded as a glaring solecism for a toff by some. ‘Can any person who permits a milk bottle on his table be considered for high office?’ the newspapers reported. (Source: Confessions of a Eurosceptic by David Heathcoat-Amory, 2012.)

Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence, 
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)
and Listen Close to Me (2011)  
and A Bad Case (2015)

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