Thursday, June 19, 2008
What's always been the most interesting facet of film study for me is in observing the interplay between influences, particularly taking into account the screenplay and dialogue. I'm All Right, Jack is a clever satire and black comedy, true enough, but the most interesting facet of the film is how indebted it is to major works of literature, art, and satire. As a amateur music critic and Anglophile, having now seen the movie for myself, I recognize its impact the upon many of the major rock recording artists of the 1960's and 1970s. This is especially evident when one considers the referential lyrics of many songs subsequently written by British rock 'n rollers, particularly Pink Floyd, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Kinks. To wit, the most prominent example that comes to mind of this kind of direct cross-pollination is Roger Waters' straight lift of the title into the 1973 hit "Money."
I'm all right, Jack/Keep your hands off of my stack
Peter Sellers' character, Fred Kite, spouts the pseudo-intellectual phrasings of the stereotypical working-class autodidact labor boss, while pontificating the self-important drivel and populist phrasings of a demagogue, right down to the Hitler mustache and unapologetic Communist leanings. Kite's service board/inner circle includes a man with a pronounced stutter, who has a habit of punctuating important points by means of forceful interjection. This is itself a direct reference to Robert Penn Warren's novel All The King's Men. In that work, one of Louisiana governor's Willie Stark's trusted advisors, a bodyguard with the auspicious nickname of Sugar-Boy, hangs close by the boss and seconds the pronouncement of his boss with the very same decided stammer.
Quite unlike many films that sometimes overreach in an effort to be a laugh riot, I'm All Right, Jack is a relatively droll affair. Nor, like many contemporary satirical films, does it resort to gross caricatures that by way of overstatement let the audience in on the joke. Though certain sections are indeed amusing, it's downright disconcerting how close to the truth and eerily plausible are the characterizations of each and every role, all players in a vast game built upon distrust and fear. The cynicism and fatalistic view advanced by the picture has dated not in the least with the passage of time and runs in tremendous contrast to the deliberate fantasies and romanticized clap-trap that passes for reality still churned out by studios on a constant basis. The best satire lets no one off the hook and never can be dismissed as partisan propaganda, even artfully presented propaganda.
The character of Stanley Windrush, a kind of naive ignoramus much in keeping as Voltaire's Candide, cuts through the crap and in the process doing so, demystifies the inner workings of the system. That it takes an idiot savant to reveal the conditioned inanity of pointed dysfunction reveals much about the kind of perverse, self-serving stalemate that passes for business as usual. No one comes off smelling like roses by the end and in the process, everyone's hands are shown as bloody, no side more than another. Selfishness and personal gain reign supreme and any utterances to the contrary are shown to be little more than window dressing that unskillfully disguise the sordid reality.
Yet, what is most striking to me is the mutual sense of paranoia shared between labor and management. Though both of them are being played for suckers by the top brass, and are little more than pawns being skillfully manipulated by upper-level elites with the sole purpose to produce the most profit for the highest up, neither side understands this. Nor would they likely admit to it even if they had indisputable knowledge to contradict their previous assumptions. The supreme irony is that management and organized labor both exist in conflicting parallel universes, but neither of them fully understand the true nature of the game. Due to the presentation, it's difficult to feel any kind of sympathy for anyone, least of all the working class.
At its outset, one almost expects this film to be the traditional paeon in black and white to the virtues of socialism and collective unity, but in keeping with the title of the film, everyone is obsessed only with material gain and personal profit. What is more, the insanity of the workings of the system supersede sense and any altruistic duty to one's fellow person. Voltaire ended Candide by insisting that actual works, productivity, and actions speak far louder than ceaseless philosophical ruminating to no apparent end. It's a damning critique of intellectualism but also a cautionary tale that making idols of our views, no matter what our station may be, is the quickest way to ruin.
It's fashionable in liberal circles to espouse wholehearted, full-throated support for labor unions and to not neglect to invoke the names of agitators, provocateurs, and stirring historical figures in doing so. However, one might do well to understand the kind of willful incompetence and ridiculous conflict between management and labor that fueled anti-union sentiment and in doing so did much to destroy its power. In the end, it's never as simple as us versus them.