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E. Michael JonesWhy The Aviator Didn’t Fly

by E. Michael Jones, Ph.D.

I had this empty feeling when I left the theater after watching Martin Scorcese’s biopic about Howard Hughes, The Aviator. It wasn’t the worst movie I had ever seen. In fact as movies go it was fairly good. I went because the reviewer at Chronicles recommended it. He kept referring to it in the same breath as Citizen Kane, and I suppose that was at least one of the movies Scorcese had in mind when the decided to take on a larger than life figure like Howard Hughes. The special effects were great, but all Hollywood movies have great special effects. In fact, a possible definition of a Hollywood movie could be a film with great special effects but a defective plot, which could also serve as a good definition of life in America. But why did I have this sense of eerie incoherence when the final credits started rolling up the screen? Why was keeping me from dismissing The Aviator as just a more factual version of Star Wars, the ultimate American movie, one which is all special effects and no plot whatsoever.  

In order to plumb my perplexity, I began to reassemble the movie in my mind. If it’s about anything, The Aviator is an anatomy of Hughes’ madness. Hughes screws lots of beautiful women but ends up worrying about germs on doorknobs. He produces films and builds airplanes but ends up a naked recluse in a room covered with the tissues he uses to touch potentially germ-laden objects. He beats Pan Am at their own corrupt game, but he shuffles around his room in wearing shoe boxes for shoes. At one point, after Kate Hepburn leaves him, he burns all his clothes. In order to make a stab at explaining all of this bizarre behavior, Scorcese begins the movie by treating us to a scene of little Howard being bathed by his mother, who warns him he is not safe because of all the germs out there. The key to understanding Hughes’ madness, in other words, is Freud. Howard was too attached to his mother. He wanted to kill his father and marry his mother. Because of this he was afraid of germs and went mad.  

If you find that explanation implausible, so do I. It has all of the earmarks of a Hollywood explanation, i.e., something imposed from without by a universally recognized authority which really has nothing to do with the plot it is supposed to explain (or, in the case of Freud, any other plot as well, including Oedipus Rex). The answer to this riddle is in the biographies which Scorcese pillages to make his film. I will be honest with you though. Like some heroic Oedipus, I solved the Hughes riddle before we got home from the theater, simply by adding up what Scorcese threw into the movie but did not explain. What do compulsive womanizing and compulsive handwashing have in common? What is the link between hearing loss, fear of germs, grandiose projects like the Spruce Goose, whose one hundred yard leap into the air provides the climax to the film, and madness. The answer is obvious for anyone with eyes to see, namely, syphilis. Howard Hughes had syphilis. Martin Scorcese has made a movie about syphilis without once mentioning the disease. He has done the biographical version of King Kong without the monkey.  

To get back to the film, the clothes-burning incident is in Charles Higham’s biography The Secret Life of Howard Hughes, which is evidently where Scorcese got it, but with one small difference. Hughes, in the process of throwing all of his clothes into a fire, is interrupted by one of his employees, who asks if he can have Hughes’ leather jacket before he destroys it. “Not unless you want to get syphilis,” Hughes answers. Once we add the word syphilis to The Aviator, the story of Hughes’ life suddenly makes sense. People who are afraid of picking up germs from doorknobs do not engage in promiscuous sex, but if we put the incidents in Hughes’ life in their proper causal relationship, it is easy to see that someone who contracted a venereal disease through promiscuous sexual intercourse might then become afraid of all physical contact as a result. Hughes’ compulsive handwashing just seems crazy in Scorcese’ re-enactment of his life, but obsessive compulsive disorder makes sense in light of syphilis, even in the absence of a deteriorating brain, one of the symptoms of tertiary syphilis.  

This brings us to the next question. Why did Martin Scorcese, who was reportedly furious over the fact that he got passed over once again when the Oscar for best director went to Clint Eastwood, wreck his own story by leaving out the only element that could make sense of Hughes’ life? We have dealt with related questions before. Fifteen years ago (see “Marty’s Christ,” Fidelity, November 1989), I did a long article on Scorcese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ. At that time the question was, why does Martin Scorcese want to make Jesus Christ look like a pathetic loser, a man not unlike the character Travis Bickle, played by Robert de Niro in Scorcese’s early film Taxi Driver. The answer to that question is fairly simple. Scorcese had just broken up with his third wife at the time; he had just finished his “rockumentary” The Last Waltz and had moved in with the main character in that documentary Jaime “Robbie” Robertson of The Band, and the two of them were conducting marathon drug and sex orgies in their Bel Air, California home. Scorcese, the man who was a Catholic seminarian in his youth, found that portraying Christ as a pathetic loser who had an affair with Mary Magdalene and then forced her into a life of prostitution by jilting her was consoling. Why? Because if Christ was an idiot, why should Scorcese feel bad about rejecting his teaching?  

The situation with The Aviator is not quite so simple. Jesus Christ is simply an empty vessel onto which Scorcese projects his guilty conscience. Scorcese obviously relates sympathetically to Hughes’ womanizing, but there is no indication that Scorcese has syphilis as far as I know. Why then the suppression of this fact? The suppression is especially telling in the light of the Hollywood ethos of full disclosure, the rationale that was used to break the production code in the ‘60s. “It’s part of life,” the codebreakers used to tell Joe Breen throughout the ‘50s. Breen replied by saying that the bowel movement he had everyday was part of life too, but no one was proposing to make a movie out of it. Hollywood, we are told in just about every history of the film industry in America, needed to break away from the oppressive censorship of Catholics like Production Code enforcer Joe Breen so that they could make films that were true to life.  

Well, 40 years after the code got broken, Hollywood is still involved in censorship, but now it is not obscenity which gets censored, it is the idea that “actions have consequences,” to paraphrase Richard Weaver. Scorcese can’t bring himself to admit, in his film, that Howard Hughes screwed a lot of women, contracted syphilis and went crazy, but he can’t completely avoid making that statement either. As a result, he simply wrecks his own story. Why is he drawn to Hughes’ life if he can’t portray it as it was? Why did Jonathan Harker in Dracula, another book about syphilis, say to Minna after he had spent a night with three strange women in Dracula’s castle, “Here is my diary. Do not read it.”? Because, as I said in Monsters from the Id, some things are too painful to talk about but too painful not to talk about as well. The suppression of moral causality on a scale of this magnitude proves what truly moral creatures we are, but in a perverse way.  

The Aviator was especially interesting in light of one of the less-acclaimed biopics of the same year, namely, Kinsey, starring a generally wooden and glum Liam Neeson. (If you had to face a script like Kinsey, you would be glum too.) Alfred Kinsey is portrayed as a courageous scientist who had the courage to pursue his studies and break irrational sexual taboos. The Kinsey you get in Kinsey is essentially the guy featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1953 when the female volume came out. This is the man who champions “diversity,” because in nature there is nothing but diversity, something Kinsey concluded by studying gall wasps. Or by engaging in homosexual behavior. Of course, that Kinsey was never mentioned in Time, largely because every article that got written on him was personally vetted by Kinsey himself, often after he took the sexual history of the reporter. Blackmail is a theme which goes unmentioned in Kinsey, but it informs the Kinsey story every bit as much as syphilis informs The Aviator.  

There is, of course, a syphilis sequence in Kinsey. I have talked with nurses who graduated from Indiana University who were forced to watch films of syphilitic prostitutes having sex. They were forced to watch these films largely because of Kinsey’s influence at IU as part of their education. Just what medical benefit they derived from this is hard to say although it should be perfectly clear that propaganda of this sort certainly broke down any resistance they might have had to what Professor Kinsey, the disinterested scientist who happened to be obsessed with homosexual eroticism, might have had to say. If it did nothing else, the film derailed any objections they might have had to Kinsey’s idea of “diversity” as the bedrock of human life.  

It is the bad sex educator in Kinsey who shows films about syphilis, and we know he is a bad person because he drags morals into his sex ed course. He is bad because he proposes “abstinence” as the best prophylactic against syphilis. Kinsey, of course, promotes penicillin, even though at the time of the sex ed course, which is to say in the ‘30s, it was not available to IU students or anyone else for that matter. Deb Hayden, who has written a book on syphilis which was reviewed in these pages, says that “What constitutes adequate treatment” of syphilis “remains an open question since spirochetes shed round bodies that can appear as active spirochetes later in a cycle. Tissue from rabbits treated with penicillin and then injected into healthy rabbits can cause syphilis. The concept of ‘cure’ at any stage of the disease is controversial.” So much for penicillin as Kinsey’s silver bullet. Kinsey is the good sex educator because he attacks morality as out of place in this area of life. “We have technology; we don’t need morals,” is not something Kinsey says in the movie, but the movie is suffused with that idea because it is one of the primary myths of both the Enlightenment (as proclaimed by the Marquis de Sade) and the American version of it which uprooted traditional American mores and morals in the years following World War II.  

Syphilis was decertified as a moral cautionary tale by penicillin, long before the same thing happened to AIDS. In fact the whole AIDS virus myth, created at a news conference by Margaret Heckler in 1984, was precisely the syphilis story extrapolated to another disease. The virus was convenient in this regard because it let homosexuals off the hook of their behavior, which was the real reason they were dying. Polite people did not say that the wages of sin were death in the context of AIDS, which was real enough as a form of self-induced poisoning among homosexuals even if it wasn’t caused by a virus. Syphilis is mentioned in Kinsey and banned from The Aviator for the same reason—to break its link to moral causality.  

And why is moral causality so repugnant to Hollywood? Because it is the only thing that allows people to make sense out of their lives. Hollywood is in the business of control through entertainment. Morality is the opposite of that. It is autonomy through restraint. Hollywood’s main weapon against moral causality is pornography in its various forms because passion short-circuits reason and provides the simplest form of control. But their lust to dominate goes beyond that. The thread that leads Theseus out of the labyrinth of his own passion is practical reason, which is another word for morality. Syphilis was a moral tale that got decertified in two different ways in two different movies. Which shows how important it is to those who are willing to wreck their stories and lose Oscars by not mentioning it.  

At this point, it might be appropriate to mention successful cures, not to syphilis but to what causes syphilis, namely, movies. The antidote to Hollywood used to be known as the pledge, not the Alcohol pledge (although it was similar) but the Legion of Decency pledge not to see obscene movies. The Legion of Decency Pledge was the teeth in the production code. I’ve written about its demise in John Cardinal Krol and the Cultural Revolution. The pledge is based on the premise of moral causality, the one premise which Hollywood goes out of its way to deny, even if it means wrecking perfectly good stories that could earn lots of money. As Larry Dickson has pointed out, an oath is the only thing that most people have. The only oath of any significance left in our culture is the marriage vow, which is undermined by Hollywood because Hollywood wants to weaken and control people by robbing their lives of moral significance. The pledge is the one thing Hollywood feared in the past, and it is something they can learn to fear again. The details still need to be worked out, but a pledge of total abstinence when it comes to television might be a good place to start.CW

E. Michael Jones, Ph.D. is the editor of Culture Wars.

This article was published in the May, 2005 issue of Culture Wars.

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