Saturday, October 24, 2009

Trumbo: The Movie

I rented Trumbo last night. Yes, I realize I'm a bit late to this party. I didn't see the play, which might have prepared me better for this film. In particular, I didn't realize how much of it would consist of dramatic readings of Trumbo's writings, especially his correspondence.

That approach certainly features the power of his prose. A withering letter to his daughter's school principal, for example, is a tour de force. (Apparently Mitzi was ostracized for her father's political views.) The film also includes a poem composed to his son Christopher on his tenth birthday, which Trumbo evidently spent in federal prison for contempt of Congress. (He did indeed have contempt for that Congress.)

But I admit to some slight disappointment that the film didn't hew to the conventions of straight documentary filmmaking. The dramatic readings by Hollywood celebrities probably raised the project's profile, but they make the film less useful for me and my purposes at San Francisco State. I've been looking for a film to replace Hollywood on Trial, which also contains remarkable footage of Trumbo but is in poor condition and expensive to replace. This one offers far less historical detail about HUAC, Hollywood, McCarthyism, etc.

I doubt the filmmaker's will be crestfallen by this verdict. Just as well.

Not surprisingly, the film passes over a remarkable detail in the Trumbo family history: namely, that Mitzi dated Steve Martin while they were in college. Martin's exposure to the family was something of an eye-opener for him. Check out Born Standing Up and consider the serendipities of American popular culture.

David Kipen, now at the National Endowment for the Arts, alerted me to another remarkable detail this week. Trumbo, John Fante, and Carey McWilliams all left Colorado at approximately the same time, bound for Los Angeles to cut a swath. There were giants in the earth in those days.

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