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Saturday, October 22, 2022

October 22-23, 2022: HUAC and McCarthyism in Pop Culture

[75 years ago, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA), usually referred to instead as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), built on its new status as a standing committee in the US House of Representatives and held its first trials. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of layers to that controversial committee and its influences and legacies, leading up to a weekend post on pop culture representations!]

On two novels and four films that represent different sides to these fraught histories.

1)      The Book of Daniel (1971) and The Public Burning (1977): I wrote at length about E.L. Doctorow and Robert Coover’s Rosenberg-inspired historical novels, and a little bit about Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, in this post—here I’ll just add that historical fiction is a particularly apt genre to explore these themes, as of course questions of truth and fiction, history and story, narratives and audiences could not be more central to any events and issues.

2)      The Front (1976): The Front is probably best remembered as the last time Woody Allen acted in someone else’s film, before the mega-success of Annie Hall (1977) made him a full-time filmmaker (and actor in many of his own films). He does give a compelling tragicomic performance as the titular front, a small-time 1950s bookie enlisted by a blacklisted friend to pretend that the friend’s TV scripts are his own. But the film is far more noteworthy as a collaboration between a number of formerly blacklisted artists, including screenwriter Walter Bernstein, director Martin Ritt, and actor Zero Mostel among others.

3)      The Majestic (2001): Director Frank Darabont clearly set out to make a deliberately Capra-esque film with this historical melodrama about McCarthyism and the movies, and Jim Carrey, while demonstrating (for one of the first times) that he had acting chops beyond his silly comedies to that point, was no Jimmy Stewart. But I do really like the way the film’s mistaken identity plot creates a clear parallel between a World War II hero and a blacklisted artist, helping us think about active and critical patriotism in direct conversation.

4)      Good Night, and Good Luck (2005): Speaking of critical patriotism, few 20th century figures demonstrated that concept more potently than did Edward R. Murrow, never more so than in his vocal opposition to Senator Joseph McCarthy. George Clooney made that moment and man the focus of his directorial debut, with the great David Straithairn giving one of his countless stellar performances as Murrow. This is quite simply one of the best American films of the 21st century, and a vital cultural representation of the McCarthy era to boot.

5)      Trumbo (2015): I haven’t had a chance to see Jay Roach’s 2015 film, based on Bruce Alexander Cook’s biography Trumbo (1976) and starring Bryan Cranston as the blacklisted screenwriter, and I welcome reviews in comments! I’ll just say that I hope the week’s series has made clear how many compelling stories, both individual and collective, are linked to this fraught and telling historical period. I look forward to more pop culture storytelling, and yes more public scholarly blogging, about it!

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Other pop culture representations, and/or other histories or contexts, you’d highlight?

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