Monday, May 14, 2012

Bad Anthro Theatre

I haven’t really reviewed a movie since my days in graduate school at the Arizona Daily Wildcat, but I watched a really bizarre and horrid one the other night that kind of begs to be belittled.
               It’s called “Alleged” – and it’s unclear just what the title actually refers to, because it’s about the famous “Monkey Trial” in which John T. Scopes was charged with, and convicted of, the crime of teaching evolution in Dayton,Tennessee in 1925.  Nobody ever said he was innocent during the trial; his defense was basically about the badness of the law.
               This weird movie purports to be the “real” story of the Scopes Trial, unlike the classic play and movie “Inherit the Wind,” which contains numerous errors.  Well let’s start right there.  “Inherit the Wind” contains no errors at all, because it is a work of fiction, a “roman-a-clef”.  There is no John Scopes, there is Bertram Cates; there is no Clarence Darrow, only Henry Drummond, no William Jennings Brian, only Matthew Harrison Brady; and no H. L. Mencken, only E. K. Hornbeck.  Further, it is about the McCarthy era, not the Roaring Twenties.  Sure it takes place in the Roaring Twenties, but the play was about the political suppression of ideas, which was the issue in the 1950s, when it opened.
               “Alleged,” however, self-consciously asserts its verisimilitude, even going so far as to use the real names of the famous principals, as it butchers the very reality it claims to imitate.  The movie takes place in a preternaturally clean rural Southern town, free of class prejudice and the Ku Klux Klan, much less the fire-and-brimstone caterwauling  of the age. 
               The movie then integrates a eugenics sub-plot to tie evolution to eugenics.  Now this is something I am a bit sympathetic to, since I’ve written about it over the last few years.  There’s only two problems with this plot contrivance.  First, eugenics didn’t actually come up at the trial.  And second, the people the movie demonizes – Darrow and Mencken – are the ones who actually wrote eloquently against eugenics (shortly after the trial ended).  In Mencken’s literary magazine, The American Mercury, Darrow called the eugenicists “irresponsible fanatics”.  In the Baltimore Sun, Mencken  called eugenics “mainly blather”. 
               William Jennings Bryan was very much the pacifist and isolationist, and was ahead of his day in his views on equality and his views again social Darwinism.  But he didn’t write specifically against eugenics.  Darrow and Mencken did. 

               In fact, Darrow published his critique of eugenics in H. L. Mencken’s literary magazine, The American Mercury.   When the very first biologist to make a public critique of eugenics comes forward, it is H. L. Mencken’s friend, the Johns Hopkins geneticist Raymond Pearl.  And he publishes as well in The American Mercury, and it is so newsworthy that it gets picked up by the wire services and makes headlines all across America.  Story goes that it even cost Pearl an offer of a professorship at Harvard.   The point is that, far from being the eugenicist that the film depicts, it is hard not to see Mencken’s hand all over the mobilization of American opinion against eugenics.
               What little there is of the famous cross-examination of Bryan by Darrow – the climax of “Inherit the Wind” – is actually condensed into a single minute of this ridiculous movie.  This Bryan (played by former Senator Fred Thompson) is serene, thoughtful, and implacable for his minute of cross-examination.  The event actually took place on July 20, 1925, on a Monday after most of the journalists (including Mencken) had left town.  Serene, thoughtful, implacable.  This movie’s cross-examination gives us no glimpse of whatever inspired The New York Times to include in their next day’s Page One headline, “Angered, He Shouts That He Is Fighting for God against America’s Greatest Atheist”.
               What’s even weirder is that this film plays around with the actual court testimony just as egregiously as “Inherit the Wind” did, except that his film claims not to be doing so, which means that it is more of a lie than “Inherit the Wind” could possibly be.   For example, when William Jennings Bryan  volunteers that he believes that the “days” of creation may have been indefinitely long periods of time (he wasn’t tricked into it, as “Inherit the Wind” implies), this movie has Darrow respond “You do not!”
               The truth is much more interesting.  Darrow was surprised to learn that Bryan accepted the age of the earth, but would certainly not accuse Bryan of perjuring himself by lying about his beliefs under oath.  But District Attorney Tom Stewart immediately realized Bryan’s answer was a big problem, and interrupted.

STEWART: I want to interpose another objection. What is the purpose of this examination?
               But he was too late.  Bryan was already orating.

BRYAN: The purpose is to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible, and I am perfectly willing that the world shall know that these gentlemen have no other purpose than ridiculing every Christian who believes in the Bible.
               But Darrow hardly ever let an adversary have the last word.

DARROW: We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States, and you know it, and that is all.
               So Bryan continued speechifying.

BRYAN: I am simply trying to protect the Word of God against the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States. I want the papers to know I am not afraid to get on the stand in front of him and let him do his worst. I want the world to know that agnosticism is trying to force agnosticism on our colleges and on our schools, and the people of Tennessee will not permit that to be done.
               Cue the applause.  The day ended about a half-hour-later, and not at all serenely, as this movie suggests.  In fact, “Inherit the Wind” captures the chaos a lot better.  Here is how the day ended, not at all suggested in Senator Fred Thompson’s portrayal.

BRYAN: Your Honor, I think I can shorten this testimony. The only purpose Mr. Darrow has is to slur at the Bible, but I will answer his questions. I will answer it all at once, and I have no objection in the world. I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in a God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee to slur at it, and, while it require time, I am willing to take it.
DARROW: I object to your statement. I am examining you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes!
JUDGE RAULSTON: Court is adjourned until nine o'clock tomorrow morning.
               I thought it was pretty weird also when Darrow reviews human evolution privately with his scientists and reduces the fossil evidence to Java Man, Nebraska Man, and “Boxhole Man”.  I think the screenwriters probably meant “Boxgrove”.  You’d think the scientists would have been even passingly familiar with “Neanderthal Man” and “Piltdown Man” (both of which were indeed known at the time, although the latter turned out to be unreal, like the Paluxy River footprints that prove humans lived with dinosaurs). 
               Nebraska Man is interesting, because it does represent an egregious example of scientific overreach.  By 1927 it was understood to be a peccary.   Isolated, worn teeth are sometimes not as clearly diagnostic as we might like, but it certainly wasn’t something solid enough to bludgeon the creationists with, and often quite snarkily.  Historian Constance Areson Clark discusses this in her very interesting recent book, “God or Gorilla”.
              The plot of “Alleged” is actually a clumsy, vapid romance between a budding newsman and his budding girlfriend, set against the backdrop of the trial.  The newsman has no family except a dead father, and the girlfriend has a black half-sister, which isn’t at all scandalous in clean, rural 1925 Tennessee.
               The real problem is the idea that a counter-lie must be put out there to offset a prior lie, in this case,  the filmmakers’ perception of “Inherit the Wind”.  This is, I think, related to the stupid creationist idea that there are exactly two sides to any story: the scientific and the Biblical.  And since it is a zero-sum game, anything bad for science must ipso facto be good for the Bible.  So making Mencken look bad must make Jesus look good. 
               The biggest lie of all, however, is actually in the credits.  After placing the story in the backdrop of “actual” events and “real” personages, in order to claim a degree of verisimilitude that they don’t actually deserve, the producers actually show the standard disclaimer.

Paradoxically, that is probably the truest thing about the movie.