Monday, July 27, 2009

Film Review: Ace in the Hole

Two films, 1951's Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole and 1957's Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd savagely criticized the growing power and scope of the media. Both, upon their release, predictably drew heavily negative reviews from the press. Movie critics took personal affront to the bile and spleen directed their way and formulated their responses accordingly. In part due to such bad reviews, they ended up being commercial flops, though Ace in the Hole was a rousing success overseas, particularly in Europe. Part of the problem, too, was that cynicism that bleakly rendered into celluloid was simply repulsive to the Fifties attitude of renewed optimism particularly after having recently experienced the horror of The Great Depression and World War II. The American public would not be ready to entertain such subjects until the Seventies, and particularly not until after Watergate.

The film was based on two real-life stories, one of a man named Floyd Collins who, while spelunking found himself trapped by a landslide inside a Kentucky cave, and the other which involved a three-year-old California girl named Kathy Fiscus who fell into an abandoned well. Both incidents drew much media attention. In this fictional circumstance, a New Mexico man named Leo Minosa is trapped by a cave-in while seeking to remove ancient Native American pottery from inside a burial ground. Despite the fact that such an action technically counts as desecration of a grave site, he is eager to make fifty dollars, which is what the pottery would fetch to an interested party. An opportunistic and amoral journalist, Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) devises a scheme to heavily publicize what on the surface would seem to be a relatively limited story. By stretching the truth and adding a sensationalist human interest angle to what would otherwise be a straightforward matter, Tatum attracts the attention of thousands of interested people who arrive at the remote town of Escadero to gawk and be part of a literal Media Circus complete with carnival rides, vendors hawking food, and constant updates to a fascinated public by way of on-site radio broadcasts.

When the story catches fire, everyone who can use the event to their own financial advantage has no reservations in doing so. The most telling example of this kind of callous capitalism is the Ma and Pa America couple who are the first to arrive on the scene after the local papers print the story. Seemingly, one would think such people would be the bastions of morality and restraint. Before the throngs arrive, we, the audience are led to believe nothing to the contrary. However, after the literal Media Circus is established due to a combination of hype and deviously clever exaggeration, our prior assumptions are thrown aside. In horror, we view how this seemingly pious man emphasizes that he, not others claiming to the contrary was the first person to arrive on the scene, and then pivots neatly upon this claim by using his newly minted soapbox as a way to sell insurance to the assembled multitude. The circus swells and grows with every passing day, and with it arrive more and more people using the situation to make a buck, to increase their own power, or both.

Meanwhile, the Frankenstein monster which Tatum brought forth has become obsessed with monetary excess, at the expense, of course, of the man still trapped inside the cave. Tatum could have agreed that the man be rescued in a fraction of the time, even within a few hours. The original plan proposed by the engineer employed to aid in the rescue effort would have removed Minosa in a day, but Tatum insists that a more lengthy method be employed instead that will last nearly a week from start to finish. Obsessed with punching his ticket to a position at a larger paper back East, he is unwilling to waste a golden opportunity. Aware that building the tension of the story and infusing it with it a kind of desperate expectancy is the surest way to attract readership and build interest, Tatum's ambition and corresponding hubris are painful lessons for each of us. The hardest of hard truths in this film are that material gain and influence peddling can very easily supersede the facade of noble purpose, and that the potential demise of a human life can run a distant second place to selfish desires. In this day and age, such a message could not be more agonizingly topical and current.

Wilder enjoyed playing the role of contrarian. ''I don't like the audience to be aware of camera tricks,'' he told one interviewer. ''Why shoot a scene from a bird's-eye view, or a bug's? It's all done to astonish the bourgeois, to amaze the middle-class critic.'" Though he never took the same liberties with shot composition and camera technique as many directors, his screenplays pushed the envelope and during his most successful period, he found the coveted sweet spot that almost every director aims for---edgy enough for the critics and the intellectuals, commercial enough for the studios and the average moviegoer. His professed reluctance to be too experimental with the camera was due to his belief that using such tactics distracted the audience and broke the suspension of disbelief that he believed was critical to maintain throughout an entire film. More experimental directors resorted to their own creative liberties specifically in opposition this this idea. Their professed intent was to deliberately break the fourth wall and to make the audience aware that they were watching a film, not a facsimile of real life.

Ace in the Hole is a bit of an anomaly in Wilder's canon. It was his only major U.S. box office disappointment, and perhaps the only time that the director indulged his true artistic vision without much concern for making a solidly sellable product. Though it is arguably not his best work, it is probably his rawest and most personal one. Wilder's first batch of films (Sabrina, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment) are some of the best, most enduring works of their era, made even more impressive by how they managed to combine an edgy, frequently dark subject matter with a thoroughly commercial streak that achieved mass popular appeal and several Academy Awards as well. However, his later works were frequently underwhelming. Many great directors tend to become less concerned with grossing large sums of money in the twilight of their career, instead making high quality films precisely the way they'd like, finally freed from needing to bother with anyone's bottom line. Wilder, however, tarnished his reputation quite a bit by releasing several commercial and critical disasters in a row that were nowhere near up to his own high standards, ensuring that he would never be able to direct again.

In viewing Ace in the Hole today one recognizes that we have already arrived at an age where the media is a dangerous force in forming and fostering popular sentiment, and that unless its motives are examined closely, with this degree of power what can be created instead of an honest desire to unearth the truth is an orgy of cheap consumerism and amoral profiteering. These days the media seeks to justify its own existence by reacting indignantly to public criticism. Its constant refrain is that one ought not to shoot the messenger. That may be so, but if the messenger is the problem, then how can one not do so? Though the media might have been created to inform the public, it has taken significant liberties since then to interject itself and its own agenda to be indispensable for its own sake, not for the sake of the general public. In this New Media age, mainstream media criticism of the blogsophere which often scathingly condemns bloggers as being comprised of a rag-tag bunch of amateurs reacting irresponsibly to news events is little more than a fear of being usurped. One cannot stress overmuch how the mainstream media dips into blogs for news stories while also never feeling compelled to give credit or reimburse citizen journalists for the inspiration.


jadedj said...

I have always considered Ace in the Hole one of the finest films ever made. Both in message, and rawness.

This is a spot on post Comrade.

Liberality said...

I will have to seek them out to watch them.