Monday, April 26, 2004

American dreaming

Since reading with any concentration is beyond me at the moment, last night I sat up until 2am watching Volker Schlondorff's classic film of Death of a Salesman. Actually, feeling idle, I put on the documentary that comes with the dvd, Private Conversations, which is an illustration of everything that's irritating about Dustin Hoffman (is there a more mannered or self-conscious actor? you wish he'd just do it, like the transcendent young Malkovich); and, well, there's plenty of Arthur Miller being a Great Playwright as well, and you wonder why he's there every day on the set, for a play that at that time was already about three decades old. Mainly I ended up admiring Schlondorff's patience. But then, well, I just had to watch the movie. As a lesson in how to film a play, it's exemplary: Schlondorff's decision to film on a consciously non-naturalistic set makes it possible to set up the strange, word-driven realities that you can manage on a stage, while also permitting the intimacy of film, and the artifice sharply focuses the play's searing emotional realities.

Salesman is a creaky old play which, like Arthur Miller himself, shows its age and its time: a certain wordiness, an old-fashioned theatricality, a shadowy didacticism which the play fortunately (unlike a great deal of Miller's later work) transcends. But it's still one of my favourites, the moment when tragedy enters the province of the middle class. "A small man can suffer as much as a great man," as Linda says of Willy Loman. I found myself admiring the fine balances of its moral mechanisms, the way responsibilities are shafted home mercilessly while blame is withheld: "Nobody dast blame this man," as Charlie says at the end. Though Willy's only defence is in fact the totality of his inner collapse: the fact that he is a human being, to whom "attention must be paid".

Salesman is the classic portrayal of the psychosis of the American Dream, itself now with the received wisdom of a cliche. But in these passionate performances you see the muscle of the play itself, and it struck me this time with a new contemporary force. The American Dream - the dream of glory, of being a "winner", of the innate justice of the claims of individuality over all other moral claims, even the claims of truth - is as deluded, as powerful, as destructive as it ever was. Miller intended the Loman family as a microcosm of the North American ideology, its desperate sales talk, its shabbiness, its sadness. (OK, this is not an anti-American diatribe: there's the worldly, unillusioned compassion of Charlie and Linda there too...) "In this house," says Biff, "we never said the truth for ten minutes". It's a dream, as Miller argues, which destroys the possibility of honest self-assessment. America does not know itself, will not know itself, and as long as it remains seduced by the dream of itself, cannot know. And in not knowing itself, it cannot know others. Sometimes, to outsiders, this level of self-blindness can be utterly baffling.

And here in this house, just north of Antarctica in a town chosen famously for a film about the end of the world, I'm one of the baffled. American individuality, as exteriorised into a new form of Manifest Destiny, is impacting here: at the Victoria Market last week I saw notices on the walls calling for action against the Free Trade Agreement Australia has signed with the US, warning of how our quarantine laws will be compromised, threatening our extremely enviable food culture by undercutting our producers, introducing diseases which we have managed to avoid, bypassing our environmental laws. It's hard not to feel the Dream breathing down our necks. But most disturbing is, of course, the new US imperialism, its radical dream of reshaping the world. It's a dream as self-destructive, as shabby, as sad as Willy Loman's. And that's just for America - it's much worse for anyone on the wrong end of it. But I think that what frightens me more than the lies is that the President appears to believe them.

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