Posted in First Take

[1937.1] The Life of Emile Zola

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

J’accuse… the nonsense self-interest of the economical man; the quibbling political machinations of the machine; the political, militaristic, duplicitous charge – forward from childishness and backward from sophistication.

J’accuse… the difference between the man who acts is the man who is and the individual who collects ideas can conspire to decimate those of another tout simplement parce que.

J’accuse… Over a century later and nothing has changed and it feels as though as we get “smarter,” we can shift the conversation; there’s anger here; and the anger is, in hindsight, directed at the whole complex that General Eisenhower warned us of fifty years after the Dreyfus Affair, but fifty before the age of the militarized police. The timing of The Life of Emile Zola, 1937’s Best Picture Winner, is curious and prescient in hindsight, striking a modern nerve only compounded by technology and perpetuated by an endless and self-referential news cycle. Zola’s writ polemic, only in print in 1898, is a classic example of public momentum realpolitik to expand coverage for what many consider to be a landmark in writ opine. The Dreyfus Affair, they call it, is a century-old singularity; a case-in-point. Today, for every j’accuse…there’s plural others.  It continues to be curious, however, that the the words that rang from Paris to South America at the turn of the 20th century mean less and less. What does it all mean?

Every story has a break. Some are grandiloquent and bombastic and some are slow-burning. The curious Life of Emile Zola was both, simultaneously and would perhaps foreshadow the role of the news media at each pivotal moment of perceived public injustice. There happened to be a single, defensible victim in Dreyfus’ story and depending on perspective, a wrongdoer clearly perpetuating a wrongaction. To assign blame is to assume responsibility for squelching it; to ignore it is to demonstrate apathy. Either way, the curious and precarious Emile Zola – once ambition, now content – takes up the cause against the establishment as a matter…of principle?

The injustice, compounded past the point of a simple resolution, is easy to understand from the outsider’s – Zola’s – perspective: Eisenhower’s warning is loud and clear, almost as if eight-year-old-Ike had uttered the message himself. Without an honest interest, acting on behalf of the public no incentive exists to tell the truth – save a moralistic one. But the Army’s whole existence is to perpetuate the ironically indefensible – war machinations. So who can justify? One hand, the ambition of the author takes up the cause against his better judgement; but how much of his words were borne of self-interest?

The central and repetitive theme in The Life of Emile Zola is freedom from persecution: Alfred Dreyfus from political persecution; the “Army” from public persecution; the public from persecution of gross injustice; Emile Zola from conspiratorial persecution. Clearly the story, as told through the narrator-character, attempts to elicit empathy toward Zola, poor Zola, and root for him to unburden himself from the shackles of conspiracy. J’accuseas a narrative reads more like a declaration of independence than it does a declaration of truth, but its place in the schema of the military-industrial-media complex is undeniable, and its timing – Interwar – serves as a Great Representation of hindsight and prescience.

And so The Life of Emile Zola won Best Picture in a crowd of 10 pictures more or less indistinguishable from one another: some musical comedy-dramas, a Frank Capra mystery, a Perl Buck adaptation. It would seem that in a race as packed as this one, with precedent for gestalt not yet solidified, The Life of Emile Zola won the battle for marginal greatness with gravitas. It does not hurt that his incendiary headline “J’accuse…” has become standard-bearer for the weight of injustice, it’s only gotten a hell of a lot harder to point just one finger.

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