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August 18, 2007

The Great S&M Amusement Corp.

By Kathy G.



Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951)

Today Digby writes about the disgraceful way the media has kowtowed to Bob Murray, the owner of the mine that collapsed in Utah. Sadly, the media (the teevee media at least) have by and large let Murray set the agenda and have failed to ask hard questions about dubious safety practices in this and other mines he owns. In addition, they have all but ignored the way the right in general and the Bush administration in particular have done their best to destroy unions and gut the enforcement of workplace safety regulations, two enormously important contributing factors to this disaster.

Next week I’ll have more to say about the policy issues implicated in this tragedy. But for now I want to heartily second Digby's recommendation that you check out Billy Wilder’s film, Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival). This film, when it was originally released, was a box office and critical disaster. It was out of circulation for many years, but lately it’s been showing up on Turner Classic Movies with some frequency (it will be broadcast there again on August 26th), and recently it (finally) was released on DVD.

The reason Digby brings up Ace in the Hole in the context of the Utah mine disaster is that the film’s plot revolves around a somewhat similar media circus. It concerns a man trapped in a mine collapse. A reporter (Kirk Douglas) gets wind of the story, but rather than helping to rescue him, he conspires with local officials to keep him trapped there as long as possible. The reason? The longer he’s there the better it is for Douglas’s career, because it’s a great story that sells newspapers. The local officials and business people also have their own self-interested reasons for not going to the man’s aid.

Given that Ace in the Hole has a mixed reputation at best, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But in general I’m a big fan of Wilder’s work so when it screened on TCM earlier this year I decided to check it out. I watched it with three of my best cinephile friends. None of us had ever seen it. I remember at a certain point, we all looked at one another, and my friend Kyle pronounced, “This is a totally fucking awesome movie!”

Which it is. It is certainly one of Wilder’s strongest films, and I think a lot of people are now realizing this for the first time.

But Jesus Christ, this is one cynical film! It’s cynical even for Wilder, who, let’s not forget, is the dude who made films like Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd., which are about as dark as Hollywood gets. Yet Ace in the Hole outdoes them both in its sour view of human nature. Watching it is like a full-body immersion in an acid bath. I mean, up until that time, was there ever a character in a Hollywood film consumed with as much self-loathing as Kirk Douglas is here?

As I mentioned before, contemporary critics mostly hated this film, even the more discerning ones. Pauline Kael said of the film, “Some people have tried to claim some sort of satirical brilliance for it, but it's really just nasty, in a sociologically pushy way.” Andrew Sarris said that the film “proved” that Wilder was “inadequate for the more serious demands of . . . social allegory.” That was before Sarris’s famous reversal on Wilder, whom he now considers to be among the pantheon of great directors. But still . . .

I think part of the reason critics like Sarris and Kael recoiled from the film is that they thought the portrayal of the media was completely over the top. Wilder’s depiction of the media’s utter heartlessness and craven devotion to nothing bigger than its own self-interest must have seemed grotesquely exaggerated. But you know what? In the post-Iraq, post-Judy Miller era, it’s not especially hard to accept the film’s premise, and Wilder’s pitch black view of the media. In 1951, though, people weren’t ready for this film. Ace in the Hole is a great example of a work of art that was misunderstood in its own time. But man, does it ever speak to our own.

Btw, the title of this post refers to one of my favorite Wilderian touches in the movie. The mine collapse has become a 24-7 media circus, drawing crowds so large that enterprising hucksters set up an actual carnival on the site. The name on the carnival trucks? “The Great S&M Amusement Corp.”

One last thing: I also join Digby and Jane Hamsher in urging that you check out the classic documentary Harlan County U.S.A., which also is now available on DVD. It’s often cited as one of the greatest documentaries ever made, which it totally is – politically galvanizing and emotionally heart-wrenching. Though it’s over 30 years old, I saw it earlier this year and it holds up beautifully.

August 18, 2007 in Film, Labor, Media | Permalink

Comments

Hey, I'm watching that movie tonight!

One, Two, Three is also a terrific unknown Wilder film

Posted by: chris | Aug 18, 2007 10:00:39 PM

The movie was based on the real-life tale of Floyd Collins, a spelunker who got trapped (and eventually died) underground in the 20s and in the course of doing so created the first broadcast-age "media event". The media carnival, with tourists, and vendors, and whatnot? All real. Someone won a Pulitzer for it, IIRC.

And of course, that brings up memories of "Baby Jessica" in the '80s, the first time CNN beat the networks, where they first developed the "continuous live coverage of nothing happening" model of event-driven reportage that would go on to serve them so well.

Posted by: Senescent | Aug 18, 2007 10:40:31 PM

Funny thing about the Sarris comment is that when I took his class on Wilder at Columbia, he thought that Ace in the Hole was pretty much the pinnacle of Wilder's brilliance. Of course, he also thought that Wilder's Sherlock Holmes movie was an undiscovered masterpiece, so ... grain of salt, is all I'm saying.

Posted by: collin | Aug 18, 2007 11:01:19 PM

I've not seen the film, though my instinct (from experience) is to listen to Kael; I remember loving Terms of Endearment and then reading her rather breathtaking pan of it and realizing that she had a point about it being an especially shameless tearjerker. In any case, I'll try and see the film... though if this is anything like the way people oversell Sweet Smell of Success (also Douglas, and decidedly sour), I won't exactly be surprised.

However, I do want to challenge this notion that nothing's been said about the Utah mine's poor record, or that the owner hasn't faced some tough questions. I was watching Fox News the other morning when ED Hill (no one's definition of unbiased) was quizzing the owner, and to my surprise, she actually got kind of rough towards the end about the poor safety record and his history. If there's a reason that this line of questioning hasn't amounted to much, I suspect the reason is twofold - one is, with Hill, and with others, this guy doesn't give an inch, and second that the search and rescue operation kind of overwhelms the rest of the story as long as it's continuing. Now that the search and rescue aspect has also turned into its own disaster, I get the impression that the whole question of mine safety has gotten altogether too big to ignore. I'm not trying to excuse the ghoulish exercise of having cameras there round the clock over dramatizing the event, but I don't know that it's entirely fair to say that a discussion of mine safety isn't happening right now. It may not be exactly the discussion some want it to be, but it's there.

Posted by: weboy | Aug 18, 2007 11:09:33 PM


If there's a reason that this line of questioning hasn't amounted to much, I suspect the reason is twofold - one is, with Hill, and with others, this guy doesn't give an inch, and second that the search and rescue operation kind of overwhelms the rest of the story as long as it's continuing.

Related to the fact that the search and rescue operation is still going on, one of their main sources and personalities in that ongoing story is Murray himself. So none of the news organizations want to confront him or accuse him directly because they still want him to talk to them and give them updates about how the search and rescue is going.

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 19, 2007 1:22:08 AM

Ahem.

Posted by: Senescent | Aug 19, 2007 2:20:15 AM

I can't comment on the movie, but as weboy points out, in real life digby's wrong about the press letting Murray set the agenda. The primary agenda is the drama of the rescue attempts. Along with that, as digby actually shows by the links in her post, the press is also investigating and reporting the other aspects. And Murray has been portrayed as something of a clown, hardly given a pass.

If you bother to read the article digby links to about the Murray's safety record, the record turns out to be about average or better overall, and far better than average at the mine in Utah. You may wish to condemn the way mining is done in general, but Murray's not an especially bad actor in that regard.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 19, 2007 2:49:28 AM

Excuse me weboy but The Smell of Success has no connection to Kirk Douglas. It starred Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.

That said I saw Ace in the Hole on tv when I was a kid. I thought it was great then and I still do.

I wouldn't exagerate its cynicism though. After all, can any movie where the hero/villian punishes himself really be described as cynical?

Posted by: WB Reeves | Aug 19, 2007 3:06:29 AM

"This film, when it was originally released, was a box office and critical disaster."

Isn't this the case with all movies that hit to close to the core, that really hurt, because they unpathetically show the US as it really is (or was)? Another prominent example that comes to mind is Cimino's masterpiece 'Heaven's Gate'. And I wasn't surprised to read at imdb that 'The Molly Maguires', starring Richard Harris and Sean Connery, a beautifully filmed and very authentic piece of art, with a phantastic soundtrack, was a commercial failure, too. No matter how masterly crafted such products are, if their message goes against what Americans want to see in their nation, they will flop. Face it, self-criticism isn't really part of the American way of life.

On the other side (of the ocean), many of those movies instantly became cult in Europe. And eventually, even US critics find the 'hidden' qualities when reviewing the films. Just a few decades later. Must be some kind of Murthy's law working here.
:-/

Posted by: Gray | Aug 19, 2007 8:03:18 AM

"The Smell of Success"

Hey, that's interesting! I saw this one only recently and was impressed by Curtis' performance. Didn't know that he could do more than just comedies. Another movie that fits into this category is "Touch of Evil", starring Orson Welles, Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston. Regardless of what we might think about Heston as a person, his acting was great sometimes.

Posted by: Gray | Aug 19, 2007 8:14:39 AM

Speaking of Burt Lancaster, he was great in "Elmer Gantry", a movie exposing 'professional evangelists' as crooks. And afaik this wasn't a commercial flop, nor was it deep sixed by the critics, so it may be the exception from the rule. On the other hand, the film's critical message was sweetened by a lot of humor, and it was made in a time when the christian movement wasn't such a political force in the US as it is today. You think such a movie would be possible today, showing all the hypocrissy of guys like Pat Robertson or Ted haggard? Hmm, not sure...

Posted by: Gray | Aug 19, 2007 8:28:58 AM

Sry, don't want to spam this thread, just one last question: What does "S&M" in the amusement corps name stand for? Sadistical and Masochistical? This would be fitting...

Posted by: Gray | Aug 19, 2007 8:40:24 AM

Oy, WBR, what can I do but hang my head in shame? :)

Lancaster... Douglas.... Grrr...

Oh well, can't really salvage anything from that point. Thank goodness sanpete can back me up on the other one.

Posted by: weboy | Aug 19, 2007 9:30:36 AM

"Oy, WBR, what can I do but hang my head in shame? :)"

Noo, come on, they starred in so many films together that it's easy to get confused. Lancaster, Shmancaster, no big deal...
:D

Posted by: Gray | Aug 19, 2007 9:44:24 AM

I caught One Two Three at Doc Films (the tremendous U of Chicago student film center) last year. Very funny movie with a boatload of Cold War jokes. I hope we'll see Ace in the Hole soon at Doc ASAP.

Posted by: Rev Transit | Aug 19, 2007 10:29:17 AM

Now, now. Don't underate Burt. He gave some terrific performances. All My Sons with Edward G. Robinson, the The Killers, the above mentioned Elmer Gantry, The Sweet Smell of Success and who could ever forget him in the role of the defendant Ernst Jannings opposite Spencer Tracy in Judgement at Nuremberg?

Of course Kirk has a legacy of excellence all his own. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Bad and the Beautiful, Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Lust for Life, etc.

That said, I don't think Burt and Issur ever made a bad movie together.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Aug 19, 2007 10:44:53 AM

oops.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Aug 19, 2007 10:46:22 AM


Sanpete, you're actually being unfair to Digby. You spend a lot more time attacking bloggers than you do politicians and public figures. It is impossible to reconcile a claim that Murray was no better or worse than any other mine operator given the fact that his company has been fined for millions of dollars in safety violations over the past year and a half. The articles have plenty of quotes saying, "Murray isn't a bad guy," but plenty of data indicating that his mines have problems-- unless, of course, it is normal for mines to be fined millions of dollars every year (heck, it may well be normal, but I find that difficult to believe).

Whether the Utah mine was actually safe or whether there were safety problems that simply hadn't been cited yet is up for grabs, but I have no interest in giving Murray the benefit of the doubt based on his word alone. Keep in mind that he took over the Crandall canyon mine relatively recently, so there isn't a lot of data available to evaluate the safety or safety changes since he took it over.

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 19, 2007 2:41:30 PM

Tyro, it isn't unfair to digby to point out what the article her source links to actually says. It's normal for mines to be fined quite a bit, but I don't know how Murray compares on that. His overall safety record in terms of results, though, has been average or better. Nothing I've said about this is based on Murray's word, nor does it have to do with benefit of the doubt. There are government statistics regarding mine injuries and deaths, and the Utah mine has been far better than average since he's owned it. (The large fines are for another mine Murray owns.)

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 19, 2007 4:46:54 PM

It's normal for mines to be fined quite a bit

Really? EVERY mining company is fined millions of dollars every year? Do tell!

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 19, 2007 5:48:24 PM

His overall safety record in terms of results, though, has been average or better

That is exactly what the National Mining Association said, which he is on the board of. Some of his mines do have poor safety records, above the national average. You didn't mention that and dishonestly attempted to portray Murray as a person who wasn't any different than any other mine owner. You're actively making an argument in support of a particular agenda, not an unbiased one. Whether you're blinded by your ideology or being actively dishonest because you have some ire against digby, I can't say. I can say that, based on your statements, you haven't read the articles closely, which say:

safety at some of his mines was suspect. Only a few months' data is available for the Crandall Canyon mine under his ownership, but at several other mines owned by Murray, the accident rate was well above the national average, in some years several times the rate for comparable mines.

the Utah mine has been far better than average since he's owned it

Link? Does this include the current accident? How does it compare since before he owned it, including the current accident? Why aren't you asking these questions, and why did you reflexively attack digby in service to your ideological agenda, rather than reading the articles honestly?

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 19, 2007 6:02:59 PM

EVERY mining company is fined millions of dollars every year?

Read what I actually said, Tyro.

Some of his mines do have poor safety records, above the national average. You didn't mention that and dishonestly attempted to portray Murray as a person who wasn't any different than any other mine owner.

If you're going to accuse someone of dishonesty, get your fucking facts straight yourself. Of course some of his mines have sub-par records. And some have better than average records. What I've pointed out is the fact that his overall record is average or better. How is that dishonest?

I don't see the reason for your obsession with digby and my supposed ire towards her. All I've done is disagree with her. You're getting quite twisted up about it.

I don't have a link for the recent safety record of the Crandall Canyon mind. It was detailed in an extensive radio interview here in Utah with Grayson, one of the experts quoted in the news article you've read, about mine safety and the Crandall Canyon mine. He also pointed out that the size of the failure in the mine appears to be unprecedented, suggesting an unusual geological circumstance.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 19, 2007 6:48:35 PM

This is just about the mine disaster. I worked for two different Utah mines, and sadly enough went though six miner deaths. The uppy ups do try to keep a lot quiet. We were told exactly what we could and couldn't say.
But what I don't understand, is the question and confusionl. There is a plan underground. There are roads and maps. Engineers and Geologists are paid well for ant maze blueprints. Workers are in specific areas. They're not running around in diferent areas. When you are mining, you're mining in a deliberate, engineered site. You have constant contact with the outside. How do they not know where these miners are. It's not like an underground open mall. It's a very restricted maze, with full accountability. Where you are, is where you are. So why don't they know where they are??????

Posted by: laurel | Aug 19, 2007 7:41:22 PM

Laurel, they know the area the miners were working in, but they don't know exactly what part of the area the miners were at, exactly what parts of the mine fell, or where the miners might have gone if they were alive. They would have to seek oxygen and water.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 19, 2007 8:00:53 PM

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Posted by: judy | Oct 11, 2007 7:41:57 AM

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