Cool Hand Paul Newman


By now you have all heard that Paul Newman has passed. And, me being too busy or stupified to log a comment am just getting around to paying homage. Since, most of what has already been said — about Newman’s philanthropy, his beauty, his grace, his humility, his political ethos, his sly, understated acting craft — has been said well enough, I don’t need to dwell on that. For those of you looking for more about any of this, The New York Times obit well summarizes his life, and a capsule recap of his key films was posted a day or so ago on the PM site. Those are fine starts if you thirst to know more about the man that was.

But now Mr. Newman is gone and that means, like all passings in our peripatetic world, we experience a dual loss: deprived of one less human voice, while being reminded once more of our inexorable evanescence.

These are proximately insoluble outcomes; yet, they serve to remind us, as well, of ultimate things: one of which is just why art exists; precisely why do humans produce things of intelligence, wit, courage, inspiration, hope, meaning — tangible entities that they might leave behind. If much of it is the vanity of being remembered, some of the rest of it is to move people, and whatever remainder there might be is aimed at conveying something of value to generations to come.

Now, I know that it is “only” film, but among Mr. Newman’s contributions in this regard, was one that I often use in the classroom: his 1967 movie, Cool Hand Luke. It is the perfect film for courses where talk centers on the tension between society and humans, where our goal is to get at the clash between the forces that Marxists have labeled “structure” and “action”. Luke — along with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Ikiru are still the best on the subject that one can find in any film library or video rental shop. In earlier eras, perhaps professors would have called on Mister Smith Goes to Washington, Born Yesterday, or Mister Roberts. But, by Newman’s day, times had changed. Appreciation for the depredations visited on compliant, everyday folk by “the system” had already begun creeping into American consciousness, and the just loner who wouldn’t swallow one more spoonful from a corrupt and/or overbearing “moral order” had already taken root as a laudable role-model. As Roger Ebert notes in his original review,

With this film, Newman completes a cycle of five films over six years, and together they have something to say about the current status of heroism.

For the record, those other films were The Hustler, Hud, Harper, and Hombre. Whether they all painted an identical, or at least fully consistent, portrait of the hero is doubtful, but certainly in Luke America found an icon. Recalcitrant, obdurate, warm, shrewd, quiet, a bit self-absorbed, but oddly, communally-conscious. You can’t call Luke jaded — not like Sam Spade — but Luke knows the score. He understands that whatever setting he enters, it is a structured environment, an iron vise, a throttling machine; it certainly won’t be a fair fight. Every new context is another box, controlled by “bosses” who exert their petty agendas over whoever they can bully in order to achieve their picayune victories that might stroke their base egos.

That self-justificatory blather is bullshit. Luke knows that. And doesn’t care. It is because he knows all that — because he understands that every scene that he is forced to take a role in is a pre-written script: contrived to enable the boss to wield his blackjack — that will spur him to rebel. Not because he doesn’t care, but rather because it is the nature of the game. The inherent asymmetry of every game: there are always bosses pitching their shovels at your skull and cracking their canes across your spine. The only certainty is that the blows will come, so why even trouble pretending that that bell won’t toll, that judgment can be forestalled? Judgment will come, and you will be broken.

At some point you will be broken.

Because that is the nature of bosses, it is the nature of the script that has already been written; a script which ensures that those in charge will enforce the asymmetry of the psychodrama.

The key is what happens after. Not in the afterlife; but in the aftermath of enforcement. The time after they break you. Or try . . .

And the answer is: your reaction will be no different than the time that the boss of the prisoners challenged you to go toe to toe. Did you say: “oh, I’m not big enough to take on Dragline”? No, you still gave him a match. And when you didn’t have any cards to win that round of poker? Didn’t you still say: “kick a buck” with each new card until you were all in? And when no one believed that anyone could eat 50 eggs? Wasn’t it you who said: “I can eat 50 eggs”? And in how long? Why, didn’t you brazenly declare: “in one hour!”?

Does the audience truly believe that all of this rebelliousness is simply, as Luke says, because it “would be something to do”? Not hardly. It is because of where we are and who we are. It is because the bosses think it is necessary to lock us in the box the weekend of our mother’s funeral — that is precisely why, after the funeral, after they release us from the box — we will go rabbit on them. Because the bosses saw fit to play the role that they, in their myopic, self-centered aggrandizement, were only too happy to play.

Our bosses.

This explains why we entered the military as a buck private, became decorated war heros, and exited the military as … buck privates; it explains why we cut those heads off the parking meters that landed us on the prison farm; and it explains why, after they hunt us down and deliver their final solution, that light in the intersection finally stops flashing red and turns green.

And, most of all, it explains why, in the final frames Dragline wears those double chains with pride and makes damn sure that no one in captivity forgets our exploits … or our engaging, ever-hopeful smile.

As Dragline intones in the final frame:

“Cool Hand Luke — hell! He was a natural born world-shaker!”

For a society to return to where it once was is as impossible as it is fool-hearty. That certainly was one lesson of Afghanistan under the Taliban. However, it is also the case that societies reach a moment when it is clear that their present models of nobility and achievement are less satisfactory than those lodged in the past. There is something of that in the current moment. It might be Hollywood’s fault, who knows? But we are in a stage of the heroic cycle where the solution to problems is a physical gesture rather than words — action rather than cogitation — and more often than not that gesture is an invasion of a sovereign territory — if not a swift kick in the groin.

How did that become heroic? Actually (and ironically) it may have been Paul Newman who helped usher in that era, as this scene from Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid makes clear:

A regrettable development. For, although that scene is a delight in isolation, its greater role in the evolution of American heroism may have helped steer us off course. For what our societies require today is more of Luke and a lot less of The Dark Knight or Iron Man. Or even — for that matter — (and for all his maverick bluster), politicians like John McCain.

One thing I know for certain, we could use a lot more Paul Newmans . . .

An actor for the ages; whose Luke was a model for the ensnared individual, struggling to survive in the smothering organizational order enveloping us.