Petrified Politics and Cosmopolitanism

Continuing my tour of Cultural Front filmic cosmopolitanism, I’ve been thinking a lot about the 1936 Warner Brothers film, The Petrified Forest. Like many of the Warners’ movies in the 1930s, The Petrified Forest (which was based on a 1935 play) was attentive to the social reality of the 1930s. But it wasn’t a “message” picture in the sense that it explored a social issue in order to find some kind of resolution; it’s more oblique than that. Instead, by offering a desolate western diner and gas station for a setting, and placing it on the outskirts of Arizona’s Petrified Forest, it poses a metaphor for the decaying status of America itself. Furthermore, because its two protagonists are not American-born, it suggests a cosmopolitan perspective that would be erased a decade later with the onset of the cold war and Hollywood’s red scare.

The Petrified Forest takes place almost entirely at a diner populated by its weary owner, his somewhat senile and alcoholic father—who is obsessed with the mythic west—and his daughter, Gabrielle, who is played by Bette Davis. Much of the film’s commentary is provided by European traveler Alan Squier who arrives at the diner, a disillusioned writer and intellectual from England played by Leslie Howard. Squier and Gabrielle fall in love, although the Brit is nearly too intent on giving up on life to pay much attention. They bond over her having been born in Paris, and her pining to return to France to see her mother. But importantly, the film suggests Europe is decaying nearly as America is; after all, in 1936, Spain had erupted in Civil War and Hitler was preparing to invade eastwards. As Squier explains, “world chaos” was being wrought because powerful men thought they could master the globe. “Nature,” he tells Gabrielle, is “hitting back.”

 

As David Noble has written, Americans had long understood that America was exceptional in that it’s cult of individualism offered an alternative “world” to that of old Europe. But The Petrified Forest takes pointed exception to this. Its characters are nearly all betrayed by the American myth: the grandfather, for example, who deliriously pines for the days when Billy the Kid took a shot at him, or Gabrielle’s longtime local suitor, a dopey ex-“All-American” football athlete with zero future prospects. But Humphrey Bogart’s gangster figure takes the most explicit condemnation; the Brit Squier acerbically declares him the “last great apostle of rugged individualism.” He explains to Bogart that the Petrified Forest is the graveyard of their own civilization, where all of their “outmoded ideas” are buried.

The Petrified Forest is remarkable because it so clearly sees its own time as a watershed, a point of fracturing, where something needed to change. It never gets around to articulating what that change might look like. But in a weird way, by rooting its protagonists in a cosmopolitanism, it offers an expansive vision for such a vision. Like last year’s Hell or High Water, it makes a clear argument for something being broken. But The Petrified Forest rejects the idea that the fix is rooted in the American past, or even in America itself. All the west offers is, to quote Gabrielle, “the stink of gasoline and hamburger.”

Last week I offered the concept of “epistemic change” as a way to define an alternative to politics as “resistance” per se. Part of the project of epistemic change will necessarily be putting aside American myths. A couple of essays in the past week (Beverly Gage in the New York Times and Jan Clausen in Jacobin) or so did a good job of getting at this problem. The issue with asserting “this is not who we are” is that it fails to lead to the question: “who do we want to be?” The Petrified Forest, in my opinion, at least asked as much. It proposed that there might be a new generation, represented by Gabrielle, of “nature’s children,” those who might not reap damage on the world but bring about a new paradigm altogether.