Race relations fail to come into ‘Focus’

Arthur Miller and Alfred Hitchcock: both great champions of the white male antihero, both preoccupied with vision, voyeurism and vice. Both are everywhere in “Focus,” the first film from director/artist Neal Slavin.

Miller’s influence is obvious: he wrote the 1945 novel on which the film is based; his language saturates the work; his characters are resuscitated from classics like “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible.”

Hitchcock’s presence is more subtle. In the opening scenes of Slavin’s film, Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy) asks his mother, with whom he lives, if she would like him to carry her onto the porch. She replies “Yes, I can listen to the birds.” The shy adult son living with the cranky, overbearing mother can only be a nod to “Psycho,” with the birds comment an inside joke for cinephiles in the audience. Furthermore Macy, actor extraordinaire and the lead in “Focus,” played Detective Arbogast in the (horrid) 1998 remake of “Psycho.”

Beyond pastiche, references to Hitchcock serve Miller’s text well. Though known for his brilliant style, Hitchcock’s equally important contribution to cinematic history was a series of male protagonists, ordinary men, many unlikable, who are asked (by the narrative, their country, their lover, etc.) to act. Hitchcock’s men are memorable because they are forced to confront their own moral cowardice. Hamlet lives.

Our coward in “Focus” is Newman: the “new man” of the 1940s. A passive bureaucrat, he is too old to be serving in Europe and thus of little use to his country. Unmarried and very much in his fourth or fifth decade of life, Newman is a man of routine, not at all a man of confrontation. But the world in which he lives demands action of him. It is a World War II America often obscured by sanitizing retroactive propaganda — a United States of racism and anti-Semitism, and one that only 10 years later would welcome paranoid McCarthyism.

Though he is a gentile, Newman’s adoption of a pair of glasses early in the story makes him look “Jewish,” according to his mother (she disapproves), his boss (he moves him to a back room) and his neighbors (who assume he’s a Jew and harass him). Continuing the tradition dating from Plato of likening physical sight to moral (in)sight, Miller’s novel and Kendrew Lascelles’ script blatantly describe how, though Newman possess “sight,” he cannot (or refuses to) “see” the moral injustices occurring in his own neighborhood.

An anti-Semitic group harasses his Jewish friend Finkelstein (David Paymer); Newman stops buying from him. A Puerto Rican woman is attacked in the street; he watches from his room and reports nothing to the police. The window blinds through which neighbors spy on each other stand as perfect emblems of a suburban paradise rendered cruel and corrupt.

When Newman meets, woos and marries “Jewish-looking” Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern) — sequences that plod along and slow the rest of the narrative — his neighbors and their parent organization, the Union Crusaders, place the couple on their list of targets. Though the violence never escalates beyond dumping garbage in the “Jews’” lawns and a few broken windows for Finkelstein, it is not difficult to see where this might lead.

Gertrude tries to convince Newman to join the Union Crusaders or move away from the neighborhood, but true to his character, he cannot do either. He can neither join the organization (when he attempts to do so, he looks too “Jewish” and they assume he’s a spy), nor does he condemn them.

Newman develops the “correct” sight only in the last five minutes of the film. And even then, he only reports his own victimhood, having been attacked minutes earlier; he says nothing about having witnessed the attack of the woman nor the attack on Finkelstein. This is not a protagonist we yearn to identify with. For much of the film, the only character we do not despise is the underdeveloped Finkelstein. The spectator is abandoned.

Although the film makes overt nods toward an enlightened reading of race relations, the narrative treads in ideologically murky waters. It seems to be standard practice in Hollywood to represent the troubles of a minority group by displacing them onto a member of a dominant group (gender: “Tootsie”; class: “Trading Places”). Here, we see all the prejudice of anti-Semitism levied against a gentile.

This narrative practice suggests that audiences can better identify with a member of their “own” and, through that, will see the horrors of living life as an “other.” But in exploiting this practice, the film refuses to tell truly the story of anti-Semitism. It says that anti-Semitism’s true crime is that even non-Jews who look Jewish are harassed.

I hope, however, that people go to see this film. Its stilted language and too obvious symbolism notwithstanding, it has a great cultural value today: compare the rhetoric of the anti-Semitic Union Crusaders (“we all know who they are,” “we must protect our Christian values,” “the destruction of the American way of life”) with the words of our dear President Bush (“Today, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack,” “We will rid the world of evil-doers,” “This crusade — is going to take awhile”).

Lest Americans think that the fetishized American flags and posters reading “God Bless America” flying right now automatically symbolize morality, let them remember that we live in a country where that very rhetoric was appropriated for troubling and immoral ends. If “Focus” serves as a timeless lesson on the dangers of conformity, let it also serve as a warning against blind patriotic fervor.

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