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Book Review: ‘The Free World’, by Louis Menand

On occasion, the styles of foreign and American films clashed with funny results. Menand’s description of the making of “Bonnie and Clyde” is a masterpiece of storytelling. The script came from two American journalists who imagined “a witty gangster image featuring cool anti-heroes like Belmondo in ‘Breathless’ and Charles Aznavour in… ‘Shoot the Piano Player’, with a romantic situation that would be a little outrageous, like Jules and Jim. What could possibly go wrong?

François Truffaut expressed his interest in making the film before bailing out to make “Fahrenheit 451.” He gave the script to his friend Jean-Luc Godard, who did not understand why the photo had to be shot in Texas when it could just as easily be filmed in Japan. “I’m talking about cinema and you are talking about meteorology,” he lectured the two Americans before bidding them farewell. The option was chosen by Warren Beatty, whose career, after “Splendor in the Grass”, had hit the skids. Brilliantly portrayed by director Arthur Penn, the film barely stood out. The head of the studio, Jack Warner, despised him. Beatty was nothing like Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney, Warner’s favorite villains, and the storyline depicting a murderous but otherwise likeable hillbillie clan left the mogul speechless beyond a string of obscenities.

“Bonnie and Clyde” was better received in Europe than in the United States. Longtime New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it a “garish and grotesque movie.” Other early reviews were similar, with the notable exception of Pauline Kael’s 7,000-word paean in The New Yorker, a publication, Menand notes, which appealed to well-educated and culturally insecure people “eager to dislike.” the wrong things, or loving the right things for the wrong reasons. Kael had a reputation for loving next to nothing. In this case, however, his affection for the film’s quirk, sexuality, and alien touches helped assure audiences, as well as future critics, that they were witnessing a changing of the guard. Or, as Menand puts it, “When Dunaway stroked Clyde’s gun and sucked on his Coke bottle, the New Wave had really come to America.”

Authors are free to choose their characters, of course, and Menand, with 727 pages of text, is freer than most. There are finely tuned capsule biographies of Elvis, The Beatles, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Betty Friedan, and Tom Hayden, as well as a host of public intellectuals whose occupation no longer exists. Hundreds of names are mentioned, which sometimes makes it difficult to connect the dots. And there are curious omissions, like Alfred Kinsey, whose massive studies of the sexual practices of American men and women sparked a cultural earthquake; and Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, the nation’s greatest writers, whose mind-boggling exchanges are the literary version of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier trilogy.

Menand concluded in the 1960s, with Vietnam as an anchor. The anti-war movement had started with scattered student protests against the modern university’s role as a servant to the power elite – a message borrowed from sociologist C. Wright Mills and echoed by President Eisenhower, of all, in his farewell speech. And the protests had remained that way, largely confined to college campuses, until the gasping escalation in Vietnam could no longer be ignored. The American vanguard arrived late in the fight, but quickly made its presence felt. Political activism has replaced political indifference. Some believed that Vietnam sucked oxygen from America’s most creative minds. Menand takes a more sympathetic point of view, seeing the change as a welcome, albeit belated, response to an unfolding disaster.

Meanwhile, realists like Kennan and Morgenthau lashed out at the insanity of entering a conflict in which the United States had no legitimate interest. By then, Kennan had softened his earlier views, admitting that containment could never be a blank check. There were nations that deserved to be defended, and nations that were not. His contempt for the arrogance of the Kennedy-Johnson political hawks outweighed his distaste for radical students waving VietCong flags.

By 1945 America had been seen as a cultural backwater with a generous government – a government that had shed blood to liberate Europe, then spent billions to get the continent back on its feet. Two decades later, the opposite was true. American culture was confident and diverse, while the government’s reputation was in tatters. We hope Menand has a sequel in mind. The bar is set very high.

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