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Monday, April 29, 2019

‘Match Me, Sidney’– Donald Trump, ‘The Sweet Smell Of Success’ And The Wonderful Fiction Of Morality

The 1957 movie The Sweet Smell of Success starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis is a Hollywood classic in which the rich, the famous  take a fall. According to the unwritten code of Hollywood good always triumphs over evil.  JJ Hunsacker is the toast of the New York tabloids, a premier entertainment and gossip columnist who can destroy reputations of people, restaurants, and talent with one column.  He relies on gossip, innuendo, and suggestion; and rarely if ever the facts.   A favorable notice in his column, often paid for in favors, money, or inside information, is what he has for sale.  Hunsacker is an urban oracle,  reviewer of first and last resort,  center of all things worth knowing .

Image result for images movie poster sweet smell of success

Sidney Falco is publicist, a lobbyist, and hanger-on, low-life and  groveling, ambitious without limit, soulless and desperate.  He and Hunsacker are the perfect couple – without scruples, moral anchor, or rectitude.  He does favors for Hunsacker in return for a few favorable lines in his column.  When Hunsacker asks Falco to destroy the reputation of the young jazz musician in love with Hunsacker’s sister, Falco at first agrees; but as Hunsacker’s requests become more and more deformed and brutal, he refuses. 

In the film Body Heat, Edmund Walker, the unscrupulous, soon-to-be-murdered investor and real estate developer shares his secret of success to his wife’s lover and killer.  ‘Do what it takes’, he says. ‘Whatever it takes’, advice taken to heart by his killer.  Ned Racine is careless lawyer with few scruples but whose lack of principle has never paid off.  He has never figured out how to land a big score. Seduced by Walker’s wife, he is promised that by killing her husband, they will both profit from his wealth.  Racine, too slow-witted to see he is being conned, agrees to kill Walker; but rather than an easy score, Racine finds that Walker’s wife shifts all the blame on him and goes off with all the money. He has tried to do what it takes but has been outwitted by a woman who does what it takes with far more resolve, intelligence, and moral indifference than he. 

Image result for images poster movie body heat

JJ Hunsacker and Sidney Falco ‘do what it takes’.  Hunsacker’s social canniness  and  feel for  the ‘pulse of the city’ give him what he thinks is license to write anything.  He and his readers are complicit.   Neither he nor they care about the truth but only about its semblance – what is implied not what it is.   It is Hunsacker’s readers who have given him license through their indifference to the truth and appetite for the vulgar.  It is Falco and other agents and clients who hope to get Hunsacker’s favor and attention and who feed him rumor, innuendo, and deniable lies who provide the material for his columns; and it is JJ who takes all and prints all.  Corruption continues because it is endemic, universal, and ignored.  Readers, agents, and columnists are equally guilty. A persistent if not inevitable truth. 

Unreality – that blend of what is, what was, and what might be – is far preferable to hard facts; and those who profit from this suggestible reality are no more than transit points for information.  Without a public hungry for sensationalism and indifference to what is, there would be no Hunsackers and Falcos.   Who in today’s electronic age of media either knows, cares about, or is interested in finding out about the truth?  In a relative age, license is based on interpretation. If the age considers bi-polar sex – a biological, historical, scientific fact - to be a fiction, how can anything else be considered fixed, permanent, and beyond debate?

As importantly such moral relativity is given even greater license because of the increasing impossibility of deciphering the complexity of society.  One feels justified in relying on subjective judgement rather than probing for more objective answers.  It is far easier to submit to God and accept all as his doing rather than  disaggregating facts, factors, variables, and causes to find real secular answers.  Social media make such subjectivity easy.  Every unconfirmed, speculative, and nonsense notion can find a home on the Internet.  Once one finds his group, his associates in speculation, he has found legitimacy, justification, and purpose.

The same moral question raised in The Sweet Smell of Success -  who is responsible for this erosion of objectivity and valuation of truth and fact – is even more relevant today.   The media are only vehicles for the dissemination of information.  Most of those who post impossibly unbelievable stories do it innocently, out of feeling and personal commitment.  They used to shout to small crowds on Union Square – itinerant preachers and psychotics – now they can reach everyone.  Those lobbyists, media organizers, media companies, and electronic publicists are only facilitators.  No one is directly responsible.  All are indirectly responsible.

The Donald Trump phenomenon should not be surprising in this relative, intellectually permissive, and morally lax age.  Donald Trump is the man of this post-logical era.  He has never made any pretentions about who, beneath the thunder, braggadocio, and greasepaint he is.  It is his nay-sayers who demand something more, something ‘presidential’, something traditional and familiar; but they will always be disappointed because there is no ‘there’ there.  What you see is what you get.  Image is all and everything.  Trump is everyman because he is no man – he is a Hollywood, Las Vegas, New York creation that has nothing to do with Ames, Iowa or Duluth, Minnesota. .  He is what Americans would like to be, not what they are.  We all would like Trump’s arm candy, his yachts, his Mar El Lago resort, his executive privilege, private jets, and bodyguards.  We all want to be protected, cared for, deferred to.  Because Trump is a man of our fantastical imagination, we can more easily imagine being him than the Bushes,  Jimmy Carter, or the Kennedys.

Image result for images donald trump with beautiful women

So enter the question of morality and moral rectitude. If Donald Trump has been created out of a hyper-realistic fantasy – an invulnerable superhero– and if people see him as such, then what is holding him to a vain idea of ‘reality’  The circus side show, the fun house, the chamber of mirrors, and the big event itself are enough reality for anyone.

Take away Sidney Falco’s venality and JJ’s amoral pursuit of power – i,e, stripping them of any moral supposition – and you have us.  There are few ambitious, hungry and aggressive Americans who let morality get in the way of individual pursuits.  We are the snake oil salesmen who are only making a living – what is chicanery and a silver tongue except making a go in an unfair world? The marketplace is crowded near the edges – the check-is-in-the mail, fly-by-night operator; the Enron deep paper-cover investor; the cut-corners roofer; the Kazakhstan oil futures trader. Caveat emptor has always been right up there with E pluribus unum.

The Sweet Smell of Success is appealing because it has a righteous Hollywood ending; but more importantly because it is about us.  We are Sidney Falco, the Faust who sells his soul to the devil; the complaisant compromiser for whom the marketplace of values has soft, indistinct edges; the Job who has the audacity to challenge God and justify himself even before the Almighty; the corner shell game grifter; the manipulator.

We might aspire to be JJ Hunsaker but know that we can at best be Sidney Falco.  We hurt no one on our way up while Hunsaker finds, entreats, uses, and discards anyone who can help him.  Our morally questionable pursuits for a decent living are nothing compared to the depredations of the rich and the powerful.

At the end of the movie, it is Hunsacker who suffers for his emotional brutality, left alone by the only one he cares about.  Falco has, like JJ’s sister, walked out on him, willing to take the beating of Hunsacker’s thugs.  Falco, we assume, will go straight, realizing his moral destitution, believing in redemption, and saved by his rectitude.  Hunsaker’s abandonment by his sister and Falco are only the first departures; and this morally corrupt man cannot but fall.  The American dream of success at any cost has its conditions after all.

Or so says Hollywood.  However, for every corrupt Wall Street adviser caught in insider trading and investment fraud who is caught, hundreds are missed, flying just under the wire, manipulating the SEC rules, parsing, justifying, and defending their self-interest.  For every televangelist caught in delicto flagrante there are hundreds of others more carefully concealing their indiscretions, and creating a cult of absolute belief as cover.  For every politician who is caught with his hand in the till or allegedly unethical behavior, thousands fly free to use their power and influence within bounds.  Again, everyone is complicit – we the voters who accept politicians’ self-serving apologies; the media who accept acts of contrition as end-of-story lines; and the politicians who know that everyone in America has a short moral memory.

Image result for images jimmy swaggart crying

Woody Allen has been the one Hollywood director whose characters get away with murder by doing what it takes.  In Crimes and Misdemeanors, a well-respected New York ophthalmologist has his lover murdered because she insists that he do the right thing – confess to his wife, get divorced, and marry her.  At first he has moments of uncontrollable guilt and anxiety; but after the murder investigation languishes and he is no longer a suspect, he returns to his own life.  The murder has never existed.  Fact and truth were conveniently erased, and lives are led happily ever after. In Match Point, a lower-class ambitious tennis professional seduces the daughter of one of London’s wealthiest families, soon finds her predictably uninteresting, and begins an affair.  His lover, like the woman in Crimes and Misdemeanors, demands that he do the right thing when she finds out she is pregnant – confess to his wife, get divorced, and marry her.  The tennis pro can see no way out.  He cannot leave the life of wealth and privilege into which he has married; and his lover refuses to go away.  He murders her and gets away with the crime.  It never happened.

Image result for images movie poster match point

Despite our Hollywood-inspired temptation to believe that right always prevails (Woody Allen notwithstanding), we believe otherwise.  Not only do we do what it takes, but have less and less moral compunction about our actions.  Traditional standards of morality – right and wrong, codified in every religious text and secular constitution – cannot survive a pervasive, insistent culture of relativism; a free flow of electronic information; an ethos of identity and individual rights; and an environment where apology trumps moral right. 

Donald Trump is no more than a product of his age, the president who more reflects the true nature of American than any before, and most definitely one of us.  Not a pretty picture, perhaps, but accurate.

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