How do you stay true to ideals when there is pressure to compromise in order to make a living? How can you sell without selling out? These questions are provocatively posed in “mostly true” intersecting stories surrounding a pro-union play funded — and then closed — by the U.S. government.
Today’s teens live in a world in which politicians squabble about whether an “elephant dung Madonna” should be hung in a government-funded museum exhibit and rap stars famous for being outrageous and outspoken issue bowdlerized versions of their recordings in order to meet the requirements of chain stores. Older teens, who try to grapple with the problem of holding onto integrity in a complicated world, will appreciate the way those issues are raised in this movie, thoughtfully constructed by writer/director Tim Robbins to show characters with a range of dilemmas and priorities.
We see artists who want to make political statements, artists who want to make money, and artists who are thrilled by art for its beauty. The director — 22-year-old Orson Welles, just before going to Hollywood to make “Citizen Kane” — simply says that his goal is ‘to [annoy] all the right people.”
We see a young businessman (Nelson Rockefeller) who wants to use his fortune for art – as long as its message is one that does not make him too uncomfortable. An older businessman wants to use his fortune to buy Old Masters — and to buy the support of politicians, so he can make more money.
Teens should notice the irony and symbolism, like the rich people dressing as Marie Antoinette’s court for a costume party and the opening newsreel showing art being censored in Nazi Germany. Why does the movie show Welles objecting to a union-required break during rehearsal? Why does the ventriloquist leave his dummy on the stage? Why is the main character of the play a prostitute? Why does Diego Rivera refuse to paint the design he agreed to?
Be sure to ask teens what they think about the movie’s final image, an attempt to tie the story directly to the present day. See if they think that the movie has any heroes, and if so, how they can tell.
Parents should know that the movie has strong language, nudity, including an artist’s nude models, and sexual references, including references to homosexuality.
FAMILY PROJECT: Welles went on to annoy one of the most powerful men in the country, William Randolph Hearst, with his next project, “Citizen Kane,” number one on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest movies. Teens might want to read more about Nelson Rockefeller and check out Digeo Rivera’s surviving murals at http://www.diegorivera.com. For more on the Federal theater project, read Hallie Flanagan: A Life in the American Theatre, by Joanne Bentley or Flanagan’s own book, Arena: The Story of the Federal Theatre.