By John Bredin
In our 2011 film The Rebirth of Cinema, my wife and I symbolized Hollywood with the image of a dead, rotting tree that was decaying into the ground. The site we chose was the top of the New Jersey Palisades in Fort Lee, where the movie industry was born a little over a century ago. In the spirit of low-budget, DIY filmmaking, we simply wrote the word “Hollywood” on a scrap of white paper, then placed it on the moribund tree carcass.
Our filmic announcement of the death of Tinseltown, made eight years ago, is even more cogent today. And no, I haven’t seen A Star Is Born, nor do I have any desire to. Didn’t they make that film a dozen times already? Are they really that bankrupt of new ideas? Don’t get me started.
I did, however, see the octogenarian Jean Luc-Godard’s latest masterpiece, The Image Book—an aesthetic marvel, visually beautiful, but also a scathing indictment of Hollywood as a propaganda machine for the military-industrial-complex—at the Film Society of Lincoln Center last month. It should be required viewing for every human on the planet.
Okay, now it’s Broadway’s turn to get spanked. I once interviewed Judith Malina, the noted pioneer of political theater, on a TV show I host called Public Voice Salon. “Have you seen any Broadway plays recently?” I asked, innocently; and the great Malina winced at the mere thought of it. “I haven’t been to Broadway in thirty years…I really have no interest in it,” was her unbossed, unbought response. Ah, how we miss Judith Malina—one of the few who never sold out.
And let’s not forget that it was Greenwich Village that incubated the revolution against Broadway in the 1960s. Tired of its formulaic, commercialized bent that ignored critical social and political issues (a modern-day version of Rome’s “bread and circuses”), a courageous band of Village creatives—led by Malina and her husband, Julien Beck, along with the folks at Judson Church, La MaMa, and Caffe Cino—pioneered a new, radical theater that became Off, and later, Off-Off Broadway.
Now even this once spunky, rebellious genre of experimental theater is on life-support. Bowing to the corporatocracy, it’s become tame, boring, and predictable. Bereft of original ideas. Run by marketers (not artists) hell-bent on pleasing suburban tourists. Indeed, the recent closing of Cornelia Street Café—one of the last spaces for artistic freedom downtown—is, for me, the canary in the coal mine heralding the death of the Bohemian Village. It should be sparking a revolution. But it’s not.
And yet I remain an eternal optimist. Where there’s life there’s hope. Perhaps that dead tree, symbolizing Hollywood, I depicted at the start of this essay will mulch and give birth to new life as winter cedes its hoary frost to the happy colors of spring. When I see Bernie Sanders on the stump at 77, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking (and dancing) her truth to power, I can’t help but get excited.
Likewise, when I attend meetings at 69 Charles Street (the headquarters of this newspaper and, arguably, one of the last vestiges of The Village’s famed Bohemian scene)…after this, the flood!…I’m filled with hope that, in the words of Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” How amazing that Sinclair Lewis lived here. America’s first Nobel Prize winner in literature. Author of It Can’t Happen Here, a story that imagines a fascist takeover of America.
Well I hate to clue you, but it is happening here! As we join forces to roll back this fascistic drift, 69 Charles—with general George Capsis at the helm—might help lead us to victory.
As for the project to save American cinema and theater, I have some biographical skin in the game. As a scion of Blanche Walsh—perhaps the greatest American actress you never heard of—I feel a moral responsibility to help my “family business” (Broadway and Hollywood) recover from its current malaise and reclaim its artistic integrity. Not only was Walsh the original advocate of an American National Theater (to save the theater from crass commercialism, a problem even in 1895), she was also the original model for a “movie star.”
She achieved this in a film, Resurrection, (1912)—based on a Tolstoy novel about love and social justice—that Adolph Zukor used to elevate motion pictures above the muck and mire of penny arcade entertainments and make them a legitimate art form in the same league as novels and plays. Remembering Walsh, and Resurrection, could play a key role in the resurrection of Hollywood itself.
In keeping with the show business themes here, I’ve crafted these ideas into a one-man show titled I Am Not a Robot. This hybrid between a lecture and a play celebrates the fact that I still don’t have a smartphone; along with my silver anniversary (25th year) as a radical, liberating teacher. I plan to debut it in The Village sometime this year. Exactly where and when, I still don’t know. Remember, I’m not a corporate guy. I don’t even own a watch! If you’d like to attend, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.