All the King’s Men may be fittingly called a “swamp crotch” of a film, but Max DeCurtins wades through that swamp to open up its unstable representational politics—both linguistically and musically.
I recently attended the wedding of a professor I had in Grad School Part the First who, by all accounts, is something of a minor celebrity in early music circles, and particularly beloved here in Boston. It had that event-of-the-season aura about it. Who will be there? This harpsichordist; that violinist? How many people at this one event could actually describe in casual detail the peculiarities of at least a dozen different church organs around town?
What can I say? Esoterica knows no bounds.
The only activity stipulated in the invitation, other than the service itself, was the rehearsal and performance of Maurice Duruflé’s setting of the hymn Ubi caritas. Relishing the rare opportunity to sing, I dragged a good friend who gigs regularly as a soprano to the rehearsal, assuming—given the musical qualifications of the company I expected to see—that a polished performance would ensue. (If that strikes you as a humblebrag, it’s not meant to be.)
For the next hour and a half, dressed in formalwear in a church with no air conditioning on a day that reached 94° and swampy humidity—what I like to call Get Me the Fuck Out of New England weather—I witnessed the conductor rehearse and perform the Ubi caritas, a lovely if sleepy piece of music, at half tempo. This is like taking painkillers and adding booze. Between her lengthy expositions on the heavenliness of it all (you can feel it, can’t you?), starting rehearsals in the middle of phrases, and being corrected on the finer points of church architecture terminology by an unruly member of the choir, even a lay observer would have drawn the inescapable conclusion that this conductor hadn’t a clue what she was doing. I’m no Christian, but you know you’re having a bad day when you get upbraided by a Unitarian.
For the next few days, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for having dragged my friend, a classically trained vocalist, through the soup of heat and humidity to what ended up being a decidedly sub-par, if heartfelt, musical endeavor. The wedding was cute, though, so that’s okay.
When you watch All the King’s Men, you feel this sort of guilt on behalf of everyone who participated in it. They went in, a group of veteran actors—Penn! Law! Winslet! Hopkins! Gandolfini!—expecting to make a weighty political masterpiece in a politically charged year, and instead ended up with a swamp crotch of a film: hot, dark, and oppressive. Overwrought in every conceivable aspect, much like my description, it lands with a great thud.
The movie starts with Willie Stark, governor (Sean Penn) and Jack Burden, listless observer (Jude Law) driving through the Louisiana night—and yes, indications abound that it was indeed a dark and stormy night—to pay a visit on old Judge Irwin, retired conservative jurist (Anthony Hopkins). Anybody who is anyone will read this scene as Prelude to a Murder. Before anything nefarious happens, though, the movie sends us back in time five years to explain how we arrived at this moment, which turns out not to be the dramatic climax that anybody who is anyone would expect.
In the extended flashback that forms the bulk of the movie, we witness various other flashbacks, mostly to Burden’s youth, and between this and the dénouement that isn’t, I find it difficult to trace the movie’s plot. Allow me therefore to summarize:
Man approached by political operative. Man encouraged to run for governor. Orange pop with two straws. God. Hicks. Booze. Man finds out he’s a dupe. Booze. Man harangues masses. Hog shit. God. Reporter. Southern aristocracy. Racism. Booze. Man wins governorship; makes enemies. Big Oil. Reporter becomes ex-reporter; goes to work for governor. Booze. America. Anthony Hopkins. Unrequited love. Ex-reporter doesn’t exactly lose morals, but fails to grow a spine . . . or testicles. Betrays best friend. Corruption. Creepy bodyguard dude. Booze. Extramarital affairs. God. Suicide. I am Your Father. Guns. Blood. Death.
All the King’s Men is a movie in search of motivations, full of Things that Don’t Happen but Should: sex between Jack and Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet), divorce (Willie Stark and his mostly off-screen wife), and demonstrations of moral courage (by pretty much everybody). The implied murder of Judge Irwin that opens the movie? Doesn’t happen. Irwin commits suicide instead, and what got him there wasn’t the middle-of-the-night visit by Willie, Jack, and “Sugar Boy” (Willie’s creepy-ass bodyguard), but a later visit by Jack alone, in which he reveals the existence of a damning letter proving that even Judge Irwin’s self-professed high-minded morals took a backseat when it came to his own career. Penn, as Stark, spends most of the movie strutting around smugly asserting his own prophetic musings, but consistently mistakes speech that sounds profound for real profundity. Jack Burden fails to summon the will to stand up to Stark, or to protect Adam Stanton (Mark Ruffalo), or to win Anne’s heart, despite having numerous opportunities to do any of the above. Only Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson) seems to grasp the local ethos for what it is, and, despite her few appearances, entertainingly gives zero fucks about dumping the cold water of reality on the movie’s hot melodramatic mess.
All this is to say that I don’t really understand how a movie is supposed to make an impact when all the characters feel like they’re half-assing their lives. It’s hard to see the motivation in a movie that tries to make corruption dramatic when everyone in it seems to accept some amount of corruption as a basic fact of life. Director Steven Zaillian’s answer to this was apparently to rely on the star power of the cast and the overly dramatic camerawork, musical score, and plot devices—like a paint-by-numbers kit—to create a movie that, by virtue of all those things, would surely have the desired oomph. Except movies, like most other things in life, don’t work like that.
One of the most volatile conversations happening right now around Hollywood has to do with representation. I think it’s a fascinating development in cultural discourse because it lives so close to that bête noire, Authenticity, and the idea that audiences seek “authentic” experiences. And while I can see a lot of things that might stand in the way—money, politics, a disinclination to let critical thinking and experience shape one’s decision-making*—of what a viewer might find “authentic” in a performance, or an entire industry, some hurdles are not so terribly difficult to clear. One such basic hurdle: winning the viewer’s suspension of disbelief on account of getting some fundamental shit right. (See also: why my father can’t watch action or science fiction movies without pointing out how they fucked up elementary physics.) All the King’s Men trips over this hurdle and does a face-plant. (* To be honest, if the influences of money, politics, and/or stupidity aren’t authentic, I don’t know what is.)
Folks, this movie isn’t just set in the South; it’s set in Louisiana—the Deep South. Of the five major players in this tedious, sordid story, not a single one hails from the region. In fact, half the cast comes from across the pond. For those of Southern extraction, I imagine this comes across roughly the same way as LGBTQ people feel seeing gay characters played by straight actors, musicians seeing musically illiterate extras (or even top-billed actors) playing musicians, and pretty much everyone who’s not white seeing white people play . . . people who are not white. I may generally regard with exasperation the South’s dogged quixoticism, but on this one, I’m in solidarity. Southerners, I feel ya.
When it comes to the movies, lack of accurate representation often means putting the viewer’s suspension of disbelief at risk. Five actors, five wildly different Southern accents. Now, maybe we could chalk this up to each character’s distinct background, but the movie’s paltry exposition neither suggests this nor gives the viewer an opportunity to grasp and process that possibility. Instead, it simply comes across as a lack of polish, a choir inadequately rehearsed like the gaggle of Unitarians at the wedding. And that’s just the start of the many problems with All the King’s Men.
An uncomfortable framing plagues most scenes, but none more so than those of Willie Stark’s diatribes. The camera fixates on Penn so closely that you can see, like a rabid dog, the spit fly from his mouth as he—barely intelligibly—yells himself hoarse. The contortions of his face remind you—like filmed operas, especially those with coloratura arias—how political speeches, among other things, never envisioned themselves subjected to gross, voyeuristic scrutiny. What looks normal enough from a distance suddenly becomes either absurd or appalling when seen close-up. Is it even worth drawing parallels to 2016? To present a connection as meaningful requires some kind of useful insight; without disempowering the viewer to read Willie Stark as a proto-Trump, I suggest that just because the topical parallels exist does not make the movie prescient in any way. There have always been Trumps and proto-Trumps; we just sometimes pay more attention, and sometimes less.
Like All the King’s Men, which literally ends in black and white with pools of blood—the product of Adam Stanton’s assassination of Willie Stark—filling in the crevices of the Louisiana state seal, this election seems determined to wear down the voter with the crass and the fictitious until the senses go numb. I don’t know what it’s going to take to break through to the many tens of millions of Americans who are apparently ready to sell the Constitution for a carton of ammo and a few sticks of chewing gum, but frankly, I suspect that we’re going to have to wait for generational turnover to take its course and hope against all hope that Gen Xers, Gen Yers, millennials and post-millennials don’t go batshit crazy in their middle age and dotage. In the case of Floofy Hair, people are apparently only now catching on—for real this time, as if to say that everything heretofore hasn’t been, you know, utterly absurd—that batshit craziness is inalienable from his being.
While the movie clearly intends for the viewer to have a similar primal reaction to seeing Stark, closely framed, foaming at the mouth, and to have that drive the overall drama, All the King’s Men tries to force its dramatic effect through other means as well, particularly in its transitions between certain scenes. These are made as though the viewer wields a camera taking a snapshot of a given moment—complete with flashbulb. It self-consciously directs the viewer to mark the moment that just passed as historic, the moment that someone decades in the future could recall as the moment just before shit hit the fan. I think this sort of effect falls mostly flat in the era of Instagram; do we really think of pictures this way anymore? It’s a question that’s open to debate, and I do not claim to have an answer. What is not up for debate is that the flashbulb transition, accompanied by Jack’s ceaseless voiceovers, jars the viewer and contributes even more to the movie’s in-your-face-ness.
Equally as jarring: the score. I cannot heap enough scorn upon All the King’s Men for the pervasive, grating way in which the basic timing of the music fails to align with the basic cadence of the speeches, like two sine waves of different wavelengths, out of phase just enough such that the peaks of their amplitudes never coincide. Again, I refer the viewer back to Willie Stark and his bromides, and how the camera tracks or focuses on him while the music flows independently of the flow of his speech. While maybe in a different movie and for a different purpose, this might be avant garde or experimental, in All the King’s Men it just comes across as another of those basic hurdles painfully missed. Zaillian most absolutely should have caught this and fixed it.
Seeing as even respect for the deceased seems to have fallen out of favor these days, I’ll refrain from criticizing James Horner directly, even though he burdened the world with the score for Avatar (and for Titanic before that). Quite possibly the only scores of Horner’s I have ever enjoyed, both on their own and as balanced components of their respective films, belong to Apollo 13 and Field of Dreams. I remember seeing the former in theaters, twenty-one years ago, with a former Childhood Friend Because Parents, and the latter just a few years after it came out, during that brief period in pre-tween boyhood when those patina-ed father-son narratives involving sports like baseball still held a certain romanticism, before my soul began the long process of telling me that I’m gay and don’t give a shit about any of that stuff. My point in this tangent is that Horner succeeded much more when he scored uplifting movies than when he scored dramatic or tragic ones, “My Heart Will Go On” be damned. His most effective themes have a hymnal or folk quality to them, and the nice thing about hymns is that they’re usually so old or so musically basic that few people, save a handful of crazy assiduous scholars, ever bother to think about where they originate and how they have influenced music in myriad settings—a useful thing for someone like Horner, sometimes characterized by his detractors as more of a serial borrower than a composer. His original score for All the King’s Men sadly proves less effective, leaning too heavily on stereotypical musical codes for drama, just as his score for Avatar leaned too heavily on musical codes for racial exoticism.
Other musical problems exist as well. For a movie set in Louisiana, zydeco seems curiously absent, and jazz to a lesser extent. In their stead the viewer gets a couple of snippets of the whitest music there is—classical music. I suppose I should be less surprised given that All the King’s Men focuses pretty much entirely on white people. The appearances of Porgi amor, qualche ristoro, the Countess’ first aria in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and of Beethoven’s Für Elise—a piece I wish didn’t exist—serve to underscore the Burdens’ and Stantons’ performance of upper class status. In the imaginary archetype of what makes a person “cultured” and upper class, opera and Beethoven rank right up at the top. Für Elise, moreover, has the most absurdly ironic position to play in this myth of the cultured aristocrat given that Beethoven himself pretended to a noble heritage he did not have; moreover, recent scholarship suggests that Beethoven may have hoped to marry the eponymous dedicatee of Elise, real identity so far unconfirmed, and may have been denied on account, in part, of his lower class status.
In the world presented in All the King’s Men, laced as it is with problems of racism and classism, it’s yet another reminder of just how much privilege, or the perception of privilege, seems to have shaped public reception of classical music since at least the nineteenth century. As a musicologist, I am less about proving or disproving the validity of this narrative of reception than I am for challenging the listener to hear musical and interpretative possibilities; to explore how music may function in context, whether that context is a movie, a historical institution or place, or a particular culture or society. And sometimes it’s my job just to encourage the reader or the viewer to listen closely in the first place.
In politics, getting elected is the easy part. Getting elected in sufficient numbers, and actually getting shit done; that’s the hard part. (To say nothing of policy, which is rarely marketable without gross oversimplification.) In 2006 popular sentiment against W, though it had never abated since his “election” in 2000, finally gained enough strength to win Democratic control of the House and Senate. I saw All the King’s Men in the run-up to the midterm election, and any liberal who denies having gleefully anticipated the prospect, at long last, of a Democratic check on W and Darth Vader, is probably lying. As someone whose political awareness began to form in the years following the 1994 midterm wave that installed Gingrich as Speaker, and the effect that it had on Bill Clinton’s second term, I had learned long before 2006 that Republicans, on the whole, seemed decidedly full of it. It follows then that my reaction ten years ago to All the King’s Men, which heaps together anti-intellectualism, evangelical Christianity, rich interests, and corruption, understandably went something like this:
FUCK REPUBLICANS EVEN MORE.
There’s a certain appealing naïve self-righteous anger about that response, but there’s exactly zero case to be made that All the King’s Men is, or ever was, about partisanship. Partisanship, many people tend to forget, merely serves as means to an end, and as often as not said end is patently at odds with responsible governance. For all that Willie Stark claims to be about the people, his fellow “hicks” (might as well own it, right?), they are largely absent from view. Plus ça change.
Ten years later, the only thing All the King’s Men is about is, as far as this re-viewer is concerned, how awful a movie it is.
That All the King’s Men traffics in long-winded clichés about love, power, and relationships should frustrate any viewer—not because no other movies have ever pushed such clichés but because you wish movies would stop cheapening what in reality often turn out to be powerful experiences. Jack, in one of his many voice-overs, describes an encounter with Anne, and speaks of “letting someone go on even if you don’t care, just to prolong the time.” It’s obvious that anyone who’s ever been in love, or something like it, can recognize that feeling, but that’s one of the many little life experiences best left to boozy conversations with your friends; it doesn’t really need to spelled out so literally. (Speaking of booze, as far as I can tell, the movie’s only measurable effect on me has been to increase my thirst for a Sazerac, the hankering for which began the afternoon of that musical wedding.)
Intentionally or not, Zaillian ends up making Jack Burden a study in every conservative’s favorite trope about the decline of society, the Absent Father. It has been held up as the cause of everything from male homosexuality to politicians insufficiently itching to mix it up militarily in some of the world’s messiest geopolitical flashpoints. Return fathers to American families, conservatives insist, and all sorts of issues from crime and truancy to basic manners will resolve themselves. Truly, this is mostly bullshit, but hey—it’s a good talking point. As social workers, novelists, and dubious denizens of the internet all know, reconnecting (or connecting) someone to an absent father can carry quite the shock value, and not necessarily in a good way for a person or character. For that reason it’s a favorite plot twist in movies as well, because the assumption of a father’s absence allows for a character whose paternal status the viewer does not know to be literally absent for most of the film, or to play a role that actively subverts the idea that he might be another character’s father. All that’s left to the director is to do the reveal, then sit back and reap the dramatic rewards of an “oh, shit” moment as the viewer is forced to reinterpret everything that has transpired thus far. Darth Vader’s (consistently misquoted) revelation in Empire Strikes Back unquestionably epitomizes this plot twist.
A similar revelation in All the King’s Men strikes me as the card that makes this particular house of cards collapse under its own weight. Jack Burden’s discovery that he is Judge Irwin’s son forces the viewer to go back and re-interpret his entire relationship with Willie Stark as that of a rudderless young man in search of a father figure, when in reality the dynamic in place since Stark’s early days on the campaign trail has more closely resembled a classic tortured, asymmetrical friendship. Jack can’t shake his emotional, almost post-hypnotic attraction to Willie and his world, while Willie, for his part, emotionally abuses Jack. None of this is any secret, to the viewer or to the characters themselves, but because the “I am Your Father” plot twist is assumed ipso facto to crank up the drama a few notches, the viewer has to strain against the suggestion of a subtext less plausible than the one Stark and Burden enact themselves.
Jack’s final soliloquy, his final voice-over before the movie ends in a flurry of speechifying and blood, describes nothing if not the torturous nature of various human relationships. As before, in Jack’s waxing nostalgic about his feelings for Anne, this unspoken knowledge, this world weariness, needs no explanation for most adults, but All the King’s Men is nothing if not consistent in its swampy dramatic oppression:
“After any great trauma or crisis, after the shock subsides and the nerves stop twitching, you settle down to the new condition of things, because you know that all possibility of any more change has been used up. You’ve seen the pattern, finally, because you’ve stepped back far enough to take in the whole picture, but it’s too late now to do anything but accommodate yourself to it. And that’s it; there’s nothing left to do, or say, except that God and nothing have a lot in common. The End.”