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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Is Ben Mankiewicz turning TCM into a worker's paradise?

Benmankiewicz Yesterday, we found ourselves trying to puzzle out why so many conservatives were losing their minds over the progressive politics of the amazing "Avatar." Today, the battle front moves to Turner Classic Movies, the cable TV oasis for movie lovers, which is under attack from Big Hollywood's John Nolte.

The outspoken conservative blogger is up in arms over TCM weekend host Ben Mankiewicz, whom he claims took a pot shot at Fox News' Glenn Beck in the course of his recent presentation of Elia Kazan's strikingly prophetic 1957 film, "A Face in the Crowd." 

Nolte's post offers a textbook example of the conservative movement's hysterical paranoia over modern-day cultural issues. In a post titled "Will Ben Mankiewicz Be Allowed to Destroy Turner Classic Movies?" Nolte contends that the weekend host interjected his liberal politics into a network that until now has been "first, last and always a place for movie lovers of all political stripes."

Claiming that Mankiewicz made various snide comments about Beck and other conservative talk-show hosts, Nolte complained: 

"I felt sucker punched. Not only was Mankiewicz clearly referring to right-wing talk radio, it was just as obvious with his snide 'cry on cue' comment that he was specifically targeting Glenn Beck. Why is this one comment worth complaining about? Because we all know that this is how it always starts. Once the dam springs a leak, the dam always ends up bursting.... The Goatee'd One can interpret the meaning of Elia Kazan's masterpiece in today's world all he wants, but he needs to keep that interpretation to himself and show his viewers the respect of allowing us to interpret it for our own selves."  

I'm hardly a knee-jerk defender of Mankiewicz. In fact, I was one of his many detractors when he and Ben Lyons were briefly co-hosts of the syndicated movie review program "At the Movies." But I dug up a transcript of the host's appreciation of "A Face in the Crowd," which appears here on the TCM website -- and I have to say that not only does Mankiewicz do a nice job of capturing the enduring appeal of Kazan's film, but it's really a stretch to claim that anything he said would possibly destroy the experience of watching the classic film.

Faceinthecrowd What Mankiewicz said was this: "In an era when the political commentators who shout the loudest or 'cry' the most generate the ratings, the prophetic nature of this 1957 classic enhances its remarkable timeliness today .... Did [director Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg] drive to 2009 and see a world where television celebrity trumps wisdom, thoughtfulness and reason?" 

Not only does that feel like fair comment, but the last sentence -- about celebrity trumping wisdom and reason -- actually echoes a long-held conservative belief in upholding the standards of cultural civilization, even if it may be the conservatism of H.L. Mencken, William F. Buckley and David Brooks, not the conservatism of Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. It's true that the "cry" reference seems clearly aimed at Beck, but Mankiewicz's other comment -- about commentators who "shout the loudest" could just as easily be directed at Chris Matthews as anyone on Fox News. 

If anyone is trying to make sense of the meaning of "A Face in the Crowd," it's almost impossible not to draw comparisons to today. When I interviewed Schulberg a few years ago, he went out of his way to insist that the film should be viewed in the light of today's loudmouth culture, which he said drowned out all of the subtlety and nuance of more considered commentary. To talk about "A Face in the Crowd" without remarking on its remarkable prescience would be doing the movie a disservice.

Nolte and I agree that TCM is a wonderful resource for movie lovers, but when it comes to what Mankiewicz had to say about "A Face in the Crowd," Nolte is letting his own politics get in the way of enjoying a thoughtful appreciation of a remarkable film. If you've never seen it, make sure you watch "A Face in the Crowd" right away. It offers an unerring glimpse of our modern media culture -- on both the left and on the right -- and it's not a pretty picture.

Photo: Ben Mankiewicz. Credit: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press.

Comments () | Archives (15)

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"In an era when the political commentators who shout the loudest or 'cry' the most generate the ratings ..."

This sounds like most of the current crop of tv commentators, from both the left and the right. I think Nolte's posting says more about his own view of right wing tv personalities than does Mankiewicz.

I agree. Nolte is typical of conservative boobs as I have been one myself. As far as Mankiewicz I have been a fan TCM for years and Ben is outstanding. NO problem ever with Ben or TCM.

Oh please. John Nolte is an idiot. The vapid, paranoid right wing commentariat sees evil in every shadow. Theirs is not a philosophy - it's a pathology. They need psychiatric intervention not publicity.

Hey Patrick,
Thanks for cluing me in to Ben's reference to G. Beck; I would have never figured out who Ben was referring to without your article! I don't watch Beck (or Fox)--I didn't know Beck was a cry-baby. Now, thanks to you, I know he is. Could it be, just maybe, you filtered Ben's comments through your own particular set of "rose color glasses" or maybe they are just beer goggles.

Yes, it is a good film. That it was made in 1957, and targeted an entirely different generation of pundits and populists for skewering, just shows that the problem of TV (and radio) loudmouths is literally older than Glen Beck and his crocodile tears.

Another reason why this is an excellent movie for all time is the disdain many (including me) feel for Elia Kazan and his testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, yet we can put that aside and say this is a great movie.

If Vitajex (the worthless nostrum in "A Face in the Crowd" turned into the nation's number 1 pep pill by Lonesome Rhodes' catchy jingle and suggestion that the pills be colored yellow) were an actual product, it undoubtedly would be a primary sponsor of Fox News Network--with Rush Limbaugh, who we all know has an affinity for pills, its top spokesman. And Lonesome Rhodes couldn't have had a more apt protege in cynical down-home right-wing Americanism than Sarah Palin.

The theme of "Face in the Crowd," like that of the more sentimental "Meet John Doe," is, of course, the gullibility of the public, and neither Fox nor its fans are shy about citing the network's popularity and its reputation as something apart from what it terms the elite liberal media.

Hey oconaillz, maybe you should put down the beer and put on your own goggles before re-reading the article. Patrick did not refer to Glenn Beck, John Nolte did in his piece about Ben's commentary on the movie: ""I felt sucker punched. Not only was Mankiewicz clearly referring to right-wing talk radio, it was just as obvious with his snide 'cry on cue' comment that he was specifically targeting Glenn Beck."

I like this part of Mr. Nolte's argument: "...he needs to keep that interpretation to himself and show his viewers the respect of allowing us to interpret it for our own selves."

As if ANYONE in American television allows its viewers to interpret ANYTHING for themselves.

Even CNN has gone down the tubes (pun intended).

Bill from San Diego,

Look out! They need pyschiatric intervention! They are after you!

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