Culture of Death Watch
Why The Aviator Didn’t Fly
by E. Michael Jones,
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
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
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
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
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
At this point, it might be appropriate
to mention successful cures, not to syphilis but to what causes syphilis,
namely, movies. The antidote to
This article was published in the May, 2005 issue of Culture Wars.
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