I’ve always had a soft spot for literary and cinematic evocations of New Orleans. Filmed in black and white, set to Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” the shots of the city that open Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law rank among my favorite few minutes of any movie. Despite the cheesy voodoo and dead chickens, I love Angel Heart, and I remember being taken by the atmosphere even in a relatively silly evocation of the city like the crime caper The Big Easy. In 1997, when I read A Confederacy of Dunces, I’d just moved to New Orleans and was staying at the YMCA on Lee Circle. If I hadn’t been living in the city, the characters in the novel might have seemed comic, not to say overdrawn. As it was, I read the novel as a realistic one, since I saw people like the characters in the novel every night.
I lived in New Orleans from 1997 to 2000, and it took me most of a decade to write about the city; most of my attempts fell too easily into the sort of clichés one encounters about New Orleans—the alcohol, the drawl, et cetera. My father’s stories make Uptown New Orleans seem like a countercultural heaven when my parents lived there in the 1960s; they also make the clashes between counterculture and law enforcement at the end of the decade seem outright dangerous, policemen beating up hippies in the French Quarter as much a sign of the times as the 1968 Democratic National Convention or later, the Kent State shootings. When I first visited, in 1994, a flyer outside a bar on Decatur Street compared the number of murders in New Orleans and Jerusalem; that year, “including Hamas bombings,” each city had experienced upwards of 360. Though the events following Hurricane Katrina affected residents of the city in ways most outsiders cannot begin to comprehend, the storm also constituted a national tragedy, a tragedy that tells us about the fabric of the nation as much as it does about the politics of a particular place.
One of the great joys of Stuart Rosenberg’s WUSA, his 1969 adaptation of Robert Stone’s A Hall of Mirrors, is the way it evokes the New Orleans that was still visible but disappearing even when I lived there in the late 1990s—the Canal Street department stores, the French Quarter dives, the jazz clubs, the bars with wood paneling. If that New Orleans resembled anything, it resembled the blue collar city that disappeared when the dot com boom remade San Francisco in the early 1990s. Indeed, things have changed in the decade since I left; that YMCA where I spent four nights in 1997 is long gone, as is the Hummingbird Grill, an all-night diner on the ground floor of a residential hotel where ex-cons worked the grill, and the waitress brought you a thermos when you ordered coffee. Certainly, Rosenberg’s jingoistic right-wing media outlet—the titular radio station, peopled by hucksters and conmen who may or may not mean what they’re saying—seems prescient, though the inevitable comparisons with Fox News might be a bit overblown, insofar as Paul Newman’s Reinhardt, the dissolute disc jockey at the center of the story, is far more charismatic than anyone on Fox. Oddly, though, the film can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to glorify or condemn Reinhardt’s moral apathy. In fact, apart from fringe elements on both sides of the political spectrum, moral apathy seems to be the defining characteristic of just about everybody in the movie. As in Yeats’ poem, in WUSA, only the worst are full of “passionate intensity.”
Briefly, the story goes as follows: An alcoholic drifter, Reinhardt, washes up in New Orleans. He meets Geraldine (Joanne Woodward), also a drifter, on the run from a pimp who scarred her face in Houston; though she looks for work as a waitress, when nothing pans out, she solicits men in bars. Eventually, the two pair up, and Reinhardt finds work as a disc jockey on WUSA; though he identifies as “liberal,” as long as there’s a paycheck involved, he doesn’t mind reading news with a conservative, openly racist spin. In short order, Reinhardt and Geraldine move into an apartment in the French Quarter, in the same building as a group of disaffected hippies and Rainey (Anthony Perkins), a young, liberal southerner (a judge’s son, we discover) who after a stint in Venezuela with the Peace Corps, has come home and started collecting data on New Orleans welfare recipients for some vague municipal entity. When they meet, Rainey excoriates Reinhardt for working for WUSA. Far more charismatic and verbally adept than Rainey, Reinhardt wins the argument handily, though he upsets Geraldine by mocking Rainey’s idealism, which he characterizes as self-aggrandizing. Shortly thereafter, Rainey discovers the survey he’s been conducting is a sham. In fact, he’s working for the same people who own the radio station, and the data he’s collecting will be used to fuel the campaign of an up and coming conservative politician who wants to kick African-American welfare recipients off the dole.
In Stone’s novel (he also wrote the screenplay), the three major characters exude a palpable sense of desperation that propels the reader through the more hallucinatory parts of the narrative. In the film, though dissipated, Newman (being Newman) manages to make Reinhardt look and sound cool; in fact, he turns in such an effortlessly charismatic performance, and he’s such a pleasure to watch, it’s almost a problem, since the apathy he makes so appealing runs contrary to what would seem to be the movie’s own left-leaning political inclinations. When he’s not with Geraldine or working at the radio station, Reinhardt spends most of his time drinking and getting high with the hippies downstairs, who seem unfazed by his willingness to betray his principles for a paycheck. Along with Reinhardt, they sneer openly at Rainey, the idealist. In one scene, when Rainey shows up at their apartment to see Reinhardt, one of the hippies asks if Rainey’s “cool.” Reinhardt jokingly replies that Rainey’s not necessarily “cool,” but he won’t bust them for the dope they’re smoking, which is all anyone’s concerned about anyway. In that regard, perhaps inadvertently, Newman’s charisma, his on-screen chemistry with Woodward, and the fact the film’s plot confirms Reinhardt’s cynicism, all cause the film to express a worldview much closer to Reinhardt’s cynical, self-interested libertarianism than it is to Rainey’s sincere, if somewhat patronizing liberalism—which is a problem, since the movie clearly wants us to sympathize with Rainey’s convictions, if not with him as a person. If this constitutes one of WUSA’s chief failures, nevertheless, it also makes the movie deeply suggestive of the contradictory philosophical underpinnings of American counterculture, and it’s one of the chief appeals of a film otherwise remarkable for proving the biggest flop of Paul Newman’s career.
In WUSA, apart from the shady conservative politicians and business owners behind the radio station, only Geraldine and Rainey seem possessed of any moral conviction, and it destroys them. In a small but significant departure from the novel, Rainey—by now dangerously unstable, as wounded idealists tend to be—becomes not just complicit in but actually touches off the orgy of violence at the climax of the movie. For her part, Geraldine’s vulnerability—her humanity—makes her a victim. When she’s busted with a quantity of marijuana the hippies downstairs have hidden in her purse—an act of cynicism that makes them complicit in her death in ways the film never explores—rather than face Louisiana’s draconian penalties for possession of marijuana, she takes her own life. Over a song Neil Diamond wrote for the soundtrack, in a montage, Reinhardt walks (stumbles) through a derelict graveyard, apparently grieving Geraldine. In the movie’s final scene, ruefully yet somehow boastfully, Reinhardt tells the priest and onetime conman he followed to New Orleans at the beginning of the movie that he—Reinhardt—is “a survivor.” Then he flings his jacket over his shoulder and walks out the door, presumably to board yet another Greyhound to yet another city.
On one level, Reinhardt’s departure recalls closing shots in countless Westerns, not to mention Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And yet in Twain’s novel, we understand Huck’s decision to light out for the territories to be a moral one; he’s rejecting a society readers understand to be hypocritical, racist, and immoral. By contrast, in WUSA, though we understand society to be all those things, the principled cinematic outsider of Cool Hand Luke, Newman’s earlier and much more successful collaboration with Rosenberg, acts out of self-interest, and the archetypal hero’s walk into the sunset loses its moral weight, reduced as it is to an expression of cynicism. In the end, Reinhardt flees because that’s what he does, and he makes no amends for (or even acknowledges) his complicity in the mess he’s made in New Orleans. Not for nothing is the structure cyclical, ending on the same note as it began, with Reinhardt, the priest-conman, and a Greyhound. In many respects, we’ve ended up exactly where we started.
If this sounds like condemnation of the movie, it isn’t. Not exactly. Perhaps inadvertently, the movie captures much that was (and is) wrong with American counterculture, which suffers from deeply conflicted philosophical underpinnings, not least the conflict between the individualism Reinhardt (and Luke) seems to espouse and the communalism inherent in any leftist critique. Consider the hippies living below Reinhardt, who along with Reinhardt, openly mock Rainey for not being “cool.” By all appearances, they’re card carrying members of the American counterculture of the time, and yet throughout the film, they behave so inconsistently, it’s difficult to extrapolate any political philosophy except one of the moment. Granted, they’re right to malign Rainey; after all, we realize Rainey’s disturbed enough to resort to violence. And yet while the film’s hippies mock Rainey’s idealism, they seem untroubled by Reinhardt’s cynically undertaken employment. Does this make them opportunists, cynics, or capitalists? Later, they appear onstage as a faux gospel group during the massive conservative political demonstration at the climax of the film. Is their performance at the rally supposed to constitute some ineffectual form of sabotage? If so, their complicity in driving Geraldine to suicide makes the film’s hippies a self-interested bunch of pranksters, at best.
If anything, the movie posits a world where everybody’s on the grift, from Reinhart’s preacher friend (a conman from New York) to the few African-Americans we actually meet who are on welfare. In point of fact, the conservatives have it right; in both the film and the novel, most of the welfare recipients Rainey interviews are collecting benefits fraudulently, a fact that only serves to justify Reinhardt’s moral apathy. In a movie with a standard Hollywood plot arc, Reinhardt might experience a change of heart. In WUSA, the closest he comes is a speech ironically praising the Vietnam War at the film’s climax. “When our boys drop a napalm bomb on a cluster of gibbering slants, it’s a bomb with a heart,” Reinhardt says, half-cocked, while the rally turns into a riot. “And inside the heart of that bomb, mysteriously but truly present, is a fat little old lady on the way to the World’s Fair, and that lady is as innocent as she is fat and motherly.” As a parody of Newspeak, it’s pretty funny. And yet by the time Reinhardt’s lecturing us from the podium, unbeknownst to him, the film’s one committed leftist, Rainey, is being beaten to death by an angry mob.
Despite the film’s leftist leanings, as a moral center, Rainey—who we first encounter taking photographs of African-American children—fails, not least for his lack of charisma, but also because his idealism is so easily bested by Reinhardt’s cynicism. As we discover midway through the film, the socially conscious work he’s been doing is a sham. Apparently, this pushes him over the edge. In the end, his act of violence incites a riot, and while it’s hard to say anyone deserves what Rainey gets, it’s also hard not to feel he’s reaping his just deserts. At the very least, his death seems somewhat less than tragic.
Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman’s 1967 collaboration with Stuart Rosenberg, posits a world in which the wrong people are in charge, and an individualistic outsider like Luke dooms himself by sticking to his principles and asserting any kind of individuality. Yes, the movie works a little too hard to compare Luke to Jesus. Nevertheless, in that film, which is otherwise nearly perfect, we understand Luke’s rebellion as an expression of an altogether human yearning, and we experience his death as the tragedy it is, a tragedy that seems to illustrate the pettiness of the Southern lawmen Luke finds himself in conflict with, even as it enlarges Luke. In WUSA, Newman’s hero doesn’t act out of any principle except his own will toward dissipation. Even when he delivers his speech at the climactic rally, Reinhardt speaks from inside an alcoholic bubble. Of course, Newman brings this off with charisma, and after the rally, when we watch him weaving between parked cars and looking bemusedly at the violence happening around him, it’s hard not to think the movie is unwittingly endorsing his cynical disengagement, or at least making it look really appealing. In this regard, one finds a better analogue for Reinhardt in Chinatown’s Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson). Like Reinhardt, Gittes seems a cynical sell-out. And yet as we discover over the course of the movie, he’s chosen to work as a private investigator because he couldn’t disengage when working as a cop; he couldn’t force himself to play politics. Therefore, he’s chosen complete disengagement—for as the movie reminds us, being a PI mostly involves spying on cheating spouses. “What did you do in Chinatown?” Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) asks Gittes of his years on the force. “As little as possible,” Gittes replies.
In Chinatown, in order to survive, the characters must navigate the corrupt political world of Los Angeles in the 1940s, and Gittes becomes heroic because he won’t—in fact, cannot seem to—do this. By the end of the movie, in part because he develops feelings for Mulwray, Gittes finds himself involved in thwarting a massive land grab orchestrated by her father, Noah Cross (John Huston). “As little as possible,” Gittes mutters, provoking former partner—now Sergeant—Escobar’s ire, in the movie’s final scene, when it becomes apparent Cross’s money and power will insulate him from the law. In WUSA, though one senses Reinhardt’s disdain for playing politics, he’s actually quite adept at it. More to the point, he seems to live by Gittes’ condemnatory phrase; not just does he do “as little as possible,” his apathy actually serves the interests of the powerful—though importantly, so does Rainey, whose “passionate intensity” makes him their unwitting tool. And yet Gittes hardly shares Rainey’s idealism, for in fact, Gittes and Reinhardt are cut from the same cloth. Importantly, like Reinhardt—like most American heroes—Gittes distrusts institutions, particularly civic ones. In Chinatown, when presented with a chance to overcome his own disengagement, however briefly, Gittes does. In WUSA, Reinhardt’s feelings for Geraldine exert a far less transformative effect on him than Gittes’ feelings for Evelyn Mulwray exert on Gittes. Nevertheless, however they dress them up, Reinhardt and Gittes both suffer largely personal disappointments; they might want the world to change, but unless there’s a woman involved, neither of them is going to go very far out of his way to change it. This distinguishes them—as embittered romantics—from Rainey’s wounded idealist.
Of course, in some respects, WUSA’s failures are endemic to the medium. Throughout Stone’s novel, A Hall of Mirrors, the scars on Geraldine’s face define her. In the movie, in most scenes, you hardly notice them, and when another character points them out, you have to look twice at Woodward’s face. After all, however marginalized Reinhardt and Geraldine are supposed to be, in WUSA, we’re still watching Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In one scene, Reinhardt and Geraldine take a night swim in Lake Pontchartrain. After they get out of the water, Reinhardt accuses Geraldine of being a “man-killer” for luring him into the lake. In the novel, you know he’s not flirting. In the movie, the line plays like Hollywood banter. Ultimately, then, the novel succeeds at being what the movie can’t quite decide it’s going to be, a character study of two damaged human beings caught in the swirl of events larger than they are, and it succeeds at doing this in part because it doesn’t try to be a serious political thriller. The massive political rally cum staged race riot that forms the culmination of the story serves more as a backdrop than a source of intrigue; if anything keeps us turning the pages, it’s our (admittedly morbid) interest in the characters, who do ordinary things like work and fall in love, trying to live their lives in the midst of chaos.
And yet by virtue of the problems inherent in its transformation to celluloid, the story has things to tell us. Conventionally, we’re given to understand the hippies sold out, turned into baby boomers, became fat, self-interested yuppies; of course, there’s some truth to that. One counter-narrative emphasizes the systematic destruction of organized labor in the United States and the negative effect that has had on the American Left. In WUSA, Newman’s Reinhardt personifies conflicts that inform both mainstream American culture and the counterculture, and the movie’s problems illuminate the contradictory philosophical underpinnings of both. Among other things, in WUSA, we observe the uneasy relationship countercultural values have with traditional American ideas about maleness, with the way Americans view themselves as members of a community, and with the American mythology of the outsider as both hero and anti-hero, an essentially romantic, individualistic mythology that runs counter to the communalism at the heart of most leftist ideology. After all, at the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, while we empathize with Huck’s decision to light out for the territories, he’s about to start down a long, lonely road, a road leading to no particular utopia that’s been defined in our literature. Unfortunately, Huck’s principled rejection of the slave society America was in the 1830s translates all too easily into a rejection of any civilizing influence whatsoever, a conflict we see played out in films throughout the 1960s and 1970s—in Five Easy Pieces, for instance, where Jack Nicholson’s Bobby has so damaged his relationships with everybody in the movie, like Reinhardt, he can only flee.
In A Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch argues that much of what passes for counterculture is countercultural in appearance only, since it actually apes the values of the mainstream culture; as an example, Lasch cites countercultural icon Jim Morrison, who epitomizes the mainstream culture’s narcissism and self-indulgence. Certainly, this tension between individualism and communalism—between rejecting society altogether and changing it from within—informs much of our current political discourse. We hear it on the left, where progressives routinely talk about abandoning the Democratic Party. We hear it on the right, as Tea Partiers threaten to abandon the Republicans. Indeed, all the weird doublespeak about “big government,” though misleading (usually it’s a call to cut social programs that aren’t half as costly as corporate tax cuts), illustrates how this same issue shapes our ideas about politics now.
Of course, it’s funny watching WUSA in 2011, in a media climate long since saturated by Fox News, talk radio, and other overwhelmingly rightwing news outlets. While the film’s jingoistic radio station may not recall Fox News in all its particulars, the refrain “real Americans” evokes the thinly veiled racism that has only gained traction in American political discourse since Barak Obama was elected in 2008. In a culture in which corporate ownership has become the rule, it’s also worth considering how Reinhardt’s dilemma resonates forty years after the film was made. How many of us must now make some kind of decision that involves reconciling our conscience with where we choose to—or can find—work?
Nevertheless, in the end, if anything sells me on WUSA, it’s the location shots of the vanished and vanishing city that was New Orleans in 1970, the city my father still tells stories about, and if I love anything about A Hall of Mirrors, it’s the way Stone evokes urban New Orleans, specifically the neighborhood once known as Back of Town, a predominately African-American neighborhood today still struggling to recover from the damage it suffered more than five years ago during Hurricane Katrina. In fact, if I’d argue for the timeliness of WUSA’s DVD release last month—the first the movie has appeared in any home format—I’d argue for that timeliness having more to do with New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina than with the parallels between WUSA and Fox News.
Published in 1967, A Hall of Mirrors, Robert Stone’s first novel, concerns conservative white Southern politicians staging a race riot in order to undermine the Civil Rights movement and evict black New Orleans residents from their homes by booting them off welfare; whatever the difficulties inherent in its film adaptation, in WUSA, those details can’t help but evoke the Diaspora of one-time New Orleans residents who find themselves economically stranded in cities as far-flung as Houston, Los Angeles, and Fayetteville, Arkansas—a situation only made worse by the demolition of a number of New Orleans’ housing projects in the years following Katrina. In its sense of time and place, Stone’s novel evokes the city New Orleans was more than forty years ago, and yet its drifters and conmen are archetypal American loners, and their uneasy transition to celluloid neatly illustrates the incongruities between the era’s Hollywood outsider-as-hero mythos and the film’s leftwing critique of American politics. In the novel especially, Reinhardt and Geraldine may be taken as representative of a disaffected American underclass that has only grown since the novel was published. Nevertheless, if the movie romanticizes its hero’s cynicism and disengagement, it’s hardly the first American movie of that era—or any other—to make those traits seem heroic.
A few years after Stone’s novel was published, when WUSA went into production, Paul Newman—who clearly believed in the movie, since he co-produced—quipped half-seriously it was the most important movie of his career. A decade later, he cited the movie’s lack of focus on its two protagonists as one significant reason for its failure, an opinion I’m inclined to share. After all, if we fall in love with Newman and Woodward, we never really get to know Reinhardt and Geraldine. Won over by the stars’ charisma, we forget Reinhardt’s apathy, and the film seems to contradict itself. Ultimately it proves satisfying as neither a polemic, a political thriller, nor a character study. Nevertheless, considering the racially charged rhetoric we’ve heard from the right since Obama’s election—considering American news media outlets almost uniformly characterized African-American New Orleans residents as “looters” in the days following Hurricane Katrina—the movie seems as relevant today as it ever was. True, the novel’s larger canvas allows Stone to paint a truer portrait of politics in this particular time and place—true, the success of the novel lies in Stone’s attention to his characters, a focus the film never quite manages to maintain—nevertheless, in part because Newman embodies such a glaring contradiction, the film tells us a great deal about the contradictory forces shaping American culture both before and since it was made.
The following appeared in the September 8, 2005 Wall Street Journal, several days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall:
A few blocks from Mr. O’Dwyer, in an exclusive gated community known as Audubon Place, is the home of James Reiss, descendent of an old-line Uptown family. He fled Hurricane Katrina just before the storm and returned soon afterward by private helicopter…. When New Orleans descended into a spiral of looting and anarchy, Mr. Reiss helicoptered in an Israeli security company to guard his Audubon Place house and those of his neighbors.
The new city must be something very different, Mr. Reiss, [chairman of the city’s Regional Transit Authority], says, with better services and fewer poor people. “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically,” he says. “I’m not just speaking for myself here. The way we’ve been living is not going to happen again, or we’re out.”