The Bitter Tea of Mister Capra
“Sometimes I take a picture that isn’t like me. But I took it, so it is like me. It has to be. I put those pictures away.” — Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), Three Days of the Condor
When I was in graduate school (can it really be over a decade ago?), I did a paper for my Milton seminar in which I attempted to point out and correct several errors in Stanley Fish’s foundational work, Surprised by Sin. We’ve already established in these pages that I was young(er) and stupid(er) once, but that is not in this case my excuse. One school of thought in higher education at the time was that no attention was bad attention. One short hand way to garnering attention to oneself (which was desperately needed to get conference papers, journal papers, vita-stuffers and that elusive first job) was by publicly and loudly going after something (or someone) that had enough attention to spare.
Not that this trend was limited to colleges and universities. It was and still is part of a larger social attitude about the best way of doing business, one described by sociolinguist Deborah Tannen in her book, The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words. Amazon.com describes Tannen’s thesis thus: “In The Argument Culture she posits that misunderstanding is endemic in our culture because we tend to believe that the best way to a common goal is by thrashing out all our differences as loudly as possible along the way. Thus we are treated to a whole array of confrontational public forums, from congressional partisan politics to media circuses à la Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones, all based on a metaphor of war.” The main reason Tannen singles out journalism is both because it models the culturally preferred mode of discourse and convinces us that such structured polarization is not only best, it is monolithic. Fair and balanced means equal time to both sides of the issue, preferably to a spokesperson as close to the pole on either side as possible to make the conflict more dramatic (if not more meaningful), and those who garner the most attention are not necessarily the ones who have the best or most helpful ideas but those whose expression of them are the easiest to place in opposition to an antagonistic counterpart.
I start with Tannen because a couple months ago, amidst the annual run up to the annual television broadcast of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Wendell Jamieson caused a lot of fuss with his New York Times article claiming loudly and forcefully that this sacred cultural cow was really just a bunch of bull. Jamieson’s article had that loud and deliberately overstated tone that I remembered well from my days of shooting spitwads at Stanley Fish, and if the provocative bravado of the attack is part of the charm of such pieces, it also allows us to take them none too seriously. Anyone who has written such an article understands that a win is not convincing people of your argument, it is getting them to engage it.
Not all of these guns blazing essays or reviews are the same, though. My essay never made it to Milton Studies much less The New York Times. There has to either be a big name attached to the agonistic critique or a seed of truth to it. And in Jamieson’s case the seed of truth is that Frank Capra’s films, for all his wholesome reputation, have some pretty dark strains to them. At the primary film discussion board where I hang out (when I’m not writing brilliant and erudite essays for 1More Film Blog), I managed to somewhat embarrass myself after watching The Bitter Tea of General Yen by remarking that John Ford movies have a way of starting conventional and yet unraveling in unexpected ways. After having my mistake pointed out–the film had been unavailable for so long I had forgotten why I had put it on my queue–I wondered openly why I had gotten into my head that it was a John Ford production. “Perhaps,” a sympathetic colleague opined, “because it doesn’t feel anything remotely like a Frank Capra movie…?”
I love that answer because it gets me and my pop-up (that’s the polar opposite of encyclopedic, right?) film history knowledge off the hook. It kind of leaves me wondering, though…what does a Frank Capra movie feel like, anyway? Capra was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director six times. He won the statuette for You Can’t Take it With You, Mister Deeds Goes to Town, and It Happened One Night, and those aren’t even the pictures he is most revered for. He also received nods for It’s a Wonderful Life, Mister Smith Goes to Washington, and Lady for a Day. Everyone loves Capra, but ask a cinephile for a list of the great auteurs in film history and…well, it’s not that Capra’s name doesn’t come up, exactly. It’s just that everyone tends to think of him as a director of great (or at least beloved) movies rather than just a great director.
For those coming late to class, auteur theory holds that the director is the ultimate “author” of a film. Auteur theory is not without its challengers or skeptics, but its influence has been immense and has entered the popular film goer’s consciousness even if she or he has never heard of Cahiers, Truffuat, or Bazin. Don’t believe me? Go to the movieplex and ask a random 100 viewers to name their favorite director. See how many of them don’t have one. Then ask them what they like about that director. Invariably he or she will start naming titles of films by that director that are beloved. But ask them, “Well, what makes that a ‘____’ film?” and they may start to look at you strangely.
When we are looking for an answer, we can talk primarily about style or content. We might say (if we’ve read a few Intro to Film books and want to look really smart) that Citizen Kane has a lot of balanced compositions or that John Ford loves to use a door as a frame. (I felt darn clever after making such a connection during a screening of Bucking Broadway a couple years ago, only to have Peter Bogdonovich reference the same exact shot as an obvious example of Ford’s style during the Q&A thirty minutes later.) Alternately, we can say that Steven Spielberg is drawn to children or other Romantic innocents and that M. Night Shyamalan’s films have surprise twists. The trick to this game, if you aren’t going to do formal analysis, is to try to pick something that is specific enough that it doesn’t describe tons of other films and yet broad enough that it covers the bulk of an auteur’s work and not just a couple of his or her films. So saying Michael Bay films have a lot of explosions or Eric Rohmer films are talky and all about desire doesn’t quite cut it. (Did I say “Eric Rohmer”? I meant “Billy Crystal.”)
I guess for Capra my reductive hook is that a lot of his films seem to me to be about challenges to idealism. People in Capra films–and I’m including the Why We Fight series in this assertion–have high ideals, and if we know anything in a Capra film, it is that if you talk the talk you better be ready to walk the plank, because as Job is my witness, the world will put you to the test. For that reason, I somewhat agree with Jamieson when he says It’s a Wonderful Life is “terrifying” and about “being trapped.” I disagree that it is about compromising. One thing that’s so appealing about Capra films is that his idealists do put their ideals to the test. George does open the bank. Mister Smith does go to Washington. Megan Davis does put herself on the hook for Mah-Li’s loyalty. Sometimes they suffer greatly because those ideals lead them to trust in and sacrifice for the good of others, but even when that happens one feels as though the idealist is better off having had the ideals even if the people they love have failed to live up to them.
The central conflict that moves the plot towards a climax in The Bitter Tea of General Yen is one in which Megan tries to apply Christian, missionary logic to get General Yen to spare a slave, Mah-Li, who has betrayed him:
You can always do so much more with mercy than you can with murder. Why don’t you give her another chance?[....] I want you to see the beauty of giving love where it isn’t merited. Any man can give love where he’s sure it’s returned. That isn’t love at all. But to give love with no thought of merit, no thought of return, no thought of gratitude even, that’s ordinarily the privilege of God. And now it’s your privilege. Oh General, with all you have within you, your superior brain, your culture, how can you be so blind to spiritual greatness? Do this thing I ask you. Do it for me. Do it even blindly if you must, and I promise you…I’m so sure of it. I promise you that for the first time in your life, you’ll know what real happiness is. You’ll know that I…
At this point in the speech, Megan breaks down and General Yen offers her a handkerchief. Her rejection of the offer–”I have one of my own”–appears to break the spell of influence her words are having on him. And Yen’s reply along with his subsequent asides to others makes it clear that (outwardly at least) forcing the idealist to see the unworthiness of the world in which he or she lives is his reason for sparing Mah-Li.
You must be sincere, Miss Davis. I don’t believe a word you say, but when you ask me like that…I forget that I am General Yen. [...] But I ask myself, ‘What do you get out of it?’ You’ve hardly known her for more than a few days. Still you act as if she were your own flesh and blood. [...] Words! Nothing but words. You came in here to preach!
When Megan says that they are not her words and that the one who first brought the words was willing to give up his life for them, General Yen asks the question that seems to reverberate through most Capra films: “What are you willing to give up for them?”
“I expect nothing from you. Nothing but words and phrases you learned in Sunday school. You don’t believe in them any more than I do. You were wrong when you said I resent missionaries. I despise them.”
After such a speech, Megan has pretty much no choice but to answer for Mah-Li’s loyalty or to give up her idealism altogether, and it doesn’t take someone who has seen It’s a Wonderful Life a dozen times of The Passion of the Christ once to figure out that there is a price to be paid for saying “the sin on my head.”
Yet the word I keep going back to in Jamieson’s essay is “compromise.” Megan doesn’t compromise to protect herself, and neither, I realized, does George Bailey. Isn’t the point that they are both idealists who bring suffering on themselves for refusing to compromise their ideals, even when they know their lives could be alleviated of much suffering if they would?
But hey, cynical deconstructionists, don’t worry, the Freudians have your back. If I say that George and (especially) Megan aren’t trapped, that they freely enter into suffering in order to preserve their ideals (as does Mister Smith), one can always argue that this allowing oneself to be trapped is simply the expression of a repressed desire–to be a martyr, to escape family constraints, to be under the thrall of the mysterious Orientalist “other” than one isn’t supposed to find quite so alluring. Perhaps George wants the bank to fail because he is too enmeshed and passive-aggressive to leave Mary and follow his dreams. Perhaps Megan wants Yen to rape her because she is too established in a prejudicial society and can’t bring herself to give herself freely to the only man who appears to actually want her.
The oft-commented upon dream sequence earlier in the film shows a caricatured Yen attacking Megan only to be stifled by a masked white man who comes to her rescue. If dreams are supposed to be repressed fears or desires, it is easy enough to see, particularly in the way how the more urbane face of Yen is superimposed under the caricature, that Megan is already beginning to to find him desirable. And the rescue may speak to a repressed fear as well as a repressed desire. Where is her fiance, anyway? (It is worth pointing out that later in the film, when Megan first dresses up in Oriental garb, she fantasizes briefly about Robert kissing her before crying and continuing to put on her make up.) And why is he so anxious to postpone the wedding to get to those orphans under fire? When Megan dreams of being rescued from the caricature of Yen, the masked figure of Robert gallantly comes to her rescue, but when she removes his mask, it reveals the face of Yen. This can be one of those horror movie tropes of relief turning back to fear, but might it also suggest that in some repressed way, Megan realizes that it is Yen who is saving her–from a sexually indifferent Robert who can’t spare five minutes to say “I do” to a bride who has followed him thousands of miles across the ocean and cares more about doing God’s work than making her feel desirable or even welcome.
Even if the subtext, though, is all about a love that dare not touch, I will insist that it has this in common with the missionary text. They both insist on making Megan agent rather than reagent; they both force her to find a way to do that which the culture says she cannot. One reason, I think, that Capra’s films play differently to modern audiences is that we have been weaned, nay gorged, on irony, and we expect text and subtext to comment ironically upon one another rather than reinforcing one another. It’s as though we’ve forgotten that there is a whole history of art, literature, and poetry where the secondary meaning, be it a subplot or a subtext, reinforces the central theme rather than beginning the already anticipated work of deconstructing it.
This is why, I think, Jones’s final speech to Megan is so interesting: “It’s all a lot of hooey. I’m drunk. Just the same…I hope when I cool off, the guy that changes me sends me where Yen is. And I bet I’ll find you there, too.” There is a recognition (or at least an assertion) that despite their ethnic differences, Megan and Yen are somehow the same. They are both proud. They would both rather die than compromise their ideals. It is not merely the case that Yen truly desires Megan in a way Robert apparently does not, it is also Yen’s insistence that ideals be more than words that makes him closer to Megan’s true heart than Robert. When he dismisses with scorn the notion of taking something (i.e. her chastity) as a prize that would not be freely given, he identifies himself as one of the idealists. For all his protestations that he he wants to break the missionary’s spirit, it is clear that he responds to Megan’s “do this for me” more than any other argument, and wants to win her and not just an argument.
The “bitter tea” of the title is, of course, a not so veiled allusion to the cup of suffering that Christ asks to be taken from him but to which he says “not my will, but yours be done.” It is the bitter tea “of” General Yen both in that he is the one who is putting Megan’s ideals to the test through suffering and also because he himself must drink to live up to his own ideals. It is a cup from which George Bailey also drinks, as does Mister Smith and Mister Deeds. It is a cup which would mean death to many of Capra’s viewers to whom he tried to explain Why We Fight. But if there is a recognition in the films of Frank Capra that the experience of this cup is often bitter, I do not agree that the experience of this bitterness means that they portray a “pitiful, dreadful” life nor that they are about “relinquishing your dreams.” There is a sweetness to holding fast to an ideal even when it costs you, to experiencing a dream even if it is not realized. This, too, is what makes a Frank Capra picture.