History Repeating

There's a rush-hour sense of history to Tim Robbins's Cradle Will Rock. Historical forces and famous ghosts jostle past each other in this evocation of mid-1930s New York like harried commuters at Grand Central Station.

Robbins's frantic period-pageant is named for and centered on the Federal Theater production of Marc Blitzstein's leftist musical drama, first staged in June 1937 by then 22-year-old "boy wonder" Orson Welles. Defunded by the government at the last minute, perhaps because of its radical politics, the show went on in the street—a mythic moment in Popular Front culture, as well as Welles's career. (Indeed, Welles's last project was a script about this particular adventure.)

Himself a brash writer-director (but not, here, actor), Robbins acknowledges Wellesian theatrics with his opening scene, in which homeless waif Emily Watson wakes up behind a movie screen upon which a newsreel is being projected. But Robbins's real artist-hero is bland Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), introduced with a showboat dolly-shot in the throes of creation and thereafter shown wandering through Manhattan, composing his play whilst communing with the spirit of the still-living Bertolt Brecht.

Cradle rocking: Orson Welles (Macfadyen) and John Houseman (Cary Elwes) seize the stage.
photo: Demme Todd
Cradle rocking: Orson Welles (Macfadyen) and John Houseman (Cary Elwes) seize the stage.


Cradle Will Rock
Written and directed by Tim Robbins
A Touchstone Pictures release

Directed by Alexander Sokurov
Written by Yuri Arabov and Marina Koreneva
At the Directors Guild Movie Theatre December 11
At Anthology Film Archives December 12

Opening titles call Cradle Will Rock "a (mostly) true story" and Robbins turns the period between late 1936 and the following summer into an essence of the era by importing a few events—mainly the 1933 scandal over Diego Rivera's Rockefeller Center mural, which included the image of Lenin, and the December 1938 congressional hearings on the Federal Theater. Leaping from one situation to another, Cradle Will Rock is a hubbub of historical confluence: "May I present Mr. Nelson Rockefeller?" "Mr. Hearst, always a pleasure." Although the jazzy cocktail-party atmosphere suggests certain Robert Altman movies, Robbins's mix of fiction and history can be derived from John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy—itself a Pop Front sacred text.

Blitzstein, who is far more serious here than Welles (Angus Macfadyen, always stridently on and yet barely present), pitches his project to Federal Theater head Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones as a paradigm of sunny virtue), as Rockefeller (played by John Cusack as an exuberant young idiot) pays a studio visit to Rivera (Ruben Blades, who has the look). After commissioning him to decorate his family's corporate headquarters, Rocky winds up dancing with the portly artist and his half-naked models to a song Billie Holiday would not record for several years. Meanwhile, various magnates are busy swapping embargoed steel for smuggled-in old masters with Mussolini agent Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon, having a bit of fun with her role as a glamorous Jewish fascist).

The two art projects evolve in tandem. Meanwhile, the plutocrat antics of a fictional steel magnate (Philip Baker Hall) and his dizzy aristo wife (Vanessa Redgrave) entwine with stories of the invented little people—abused but plucky natural talent (Watson) and struggling Italian American antifascist actor (John Turturro)—who realize themselves in Blitzstein's play. Everyone is true to their social role. The most interesting of Robbins's imagined characters is Bill Murray's Federal Theater-employed ventriloquist, a depressed anti-Communist who argues politics with his dummy and attempts to seduce priggish bureaucrat Joan Cusack by coaching her to inform on subversive superiors.

Robbins can be quite ingenious at excavating '30s New York (although the period design isn't as clever as that other Depression fantasy, Sweet and Lowdown). Still, loath to wax nostalgic for an America that no longer exists, he emphasizes the most contemporary aspects of this New Deal kulturkampf, making much of the battle over state-funded art and equating red-baiting with homophobia. Burned by the radical Rivera, Rocky has a vision of the Abstract Expressionism to come: "Colors and form, not politics." His education is furthered by an even wiser patron: "Artists are whores like the rest of us. . . . We control the future of art because we pay for the future of art."

Win some, lose some: Blitzstein's play comes to life even as Rivera's mural is pulverized (and pulverized—the Rockefellers could rape Venezuela in the time it takes here to destroy one little wall). Something of a public mural itself, Cradle Will Rock is a lofty, well-intentioned, and flat history lesson. Moving quickly, if not without signs of exertion, the movie never pauses for breath or suggests an inner life. The effect is willfully superficial. Robbins may be less smug and more politically attuned than Alan Rudolph, but—thoughtful as it is—Cradle Will Rock can't help seeming as full of winking poseurs as Rudolph's kindred period pieces, The Moderns and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.

Cradle Will Rock is ultimately too exhausted to fulfill the promise of its title—although the finale is stirring in a dopey way. Robbins, like Blitzstein, is basically preaching to the choir (and that choir is a lot smaller than 60 years ago). Still, his parting shot is well-taken. The final leap onto the crass Broadway of Miss Saigon and Robbins's studio, Disney, reinforces the notion that, once upon a time, for a short time, middlebrow culture was oppositional—or so it seemed.

**Alexander Sokurov's Molokh is a far loopier historical reconstruction than Cradle Will Rock. Russia's most dour and least compromising visionary filmmaker has taken as his subject a 20th-century showman whose megalomania dwarfs even that of Orson Welles, namely Adolf Hitler.

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