This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra. To obtain the book from which this discussion is excerpted, click here.

Excerpts from a discussion of
Meet John Doe
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This world is one of such pervasive systems of control and interpretation that there is simply no way for John to break free into an assertion of mere individuality in the final movement of the film, no matter what he intends or does. Personal intention counts for little or nothing in this world (perhaps as little as it counts for in a modern bureaucracy). The machine inscribes individuals within its own alternative "intentional" structure, independent of their will or wishes. It gives their acts meanings and values beyond their personal knowledge or control. How radically and profoundly at odds this is with the traditional Hollywood film, grounded in its sentimental post-Romantic exaltation of the autonomous ego, needs no comment.

Capra's most powerful image of the pervasiveness of the systems of control and understanding around John is contained in the scene in which John attempts to tell the truth, to speak personally and as a mere individual to the John Doe Convention (though the utter impossibility and meaninglessness of merely personal and individual speech in this situation–in a convention, on a stage, in front of a crowd of thousands of people–is the point of the scene). Having just had Norton's effort to use the John Doe movement for his own political purposes revealed to him (and the passivity of his role in the discovery is relevant–he does not seek out the truth but simply has it disclosed to him by Connell), he leaves Norton's mansion and rushes to the field where thousands of his followers have assembled. His intention is to talk to them man-to-man, to tell them the truth candidly and personally, but Capra's narrative, photography, and editing tell us how radically displaced the individual presence or personal voice is in this institutional universe. One cannot talk to a convention man-to-man; one cannot talk to thousands of people personally and intimately. Capra's layered visual field reminds us one final time of all of the layers of technological and bureaucratic packaging that contain and control discourse in this world, from the radio announcers looking down on the stage from their sound booths above the crowd to the public-address system that strips the intimacy from the tones of one's voice. (The irony of this taking place in the first baseball field we have seen John actually present in the film needs no underlining; but a baseball player, especially, should realize that self-expression on the diamond is possible only in terms of obedience to impersonal rules and regulations.) Capra's layered sound track and contrapuntal editing demonstrate that the technologies of knowledge and understanding are as completely in place in the field as they were during his speech in the radio studio earlier. The technology that allows Doe's voice potentially to reach thousands of individuals by the same virtue necessarily robs him of a personal presence. Every technology is precisely as repressive as it is expressive.

Doe makes his way through the crowd in the stadium to the stage, only minutes ahead of Norton's men, who are determined to stop him. Many of the shots of the convention are deliberately not direct shots of John or of the crowd but are shots of others–for example, radio announcers–looking at and describing John or the crowd to us and to their listeners. That is one of the things it means to say that experience is always repressively mediated in this world. The alternation of close-up shots with shots from the radio booth and the use of a layered sound track remind us that these contents are always contained. Both the visual and the acoustic effects are presented as layer after layer of packaging and merchandising. We are reminded of how the human figure and voice exist here only insofar as they are transmittable by a technology of information processing. In this study of visual and acoustic "perspectives" (in both the cinematic and the Nietzschean sense), events acquire significance only insofar as they are put in perspective'' by these technologies.

John is only a step ahead of Norton's henchmen, and every second counts, but even once he has pushed his way through the crowd and arrived on stage he cannot speak. He has to wait for the ovation greeting him to die down. Then a patriotic anthem has to be sung. Then a minister rises to offer the benediction and a silent prayer for "all of the John Does in the world."

Crowds of people, a national anthem, a prayer: The film metaphorically equates the hordes of ordinary citizens, the state, and the church as cooperating, interlocking forms of repression. All three are surrogates for and extensions of the moral, intellectual, and social repressiveness that Norton and his storm troopers represent. They keep John from speaking just as effectively as Norton does. Just as he is finally about to speak, Norton and his men arrive and move into action. They are at least as adept at the technologies of control as are society, the church, and the state. Newspapers denouncing him as an impostor have been printed up in advance, just in case of this eventuality. Cries are sent up by stooges in the audience to shout John down, and the instant he begins to speak and to accuse Norton from the stage, in the final coup de grace, the wires to the amplifiers are cut.

This last event is one of the most powerful in all of Capra's work. Capra's close–up on the wire cutting makes it almost as tangible and painful as if we were watching John's vocal cords being cut before our eyes. Deeds and Smith were at least in control of their own voices. Whether or not anyone listened, they could at least hoarsely, hesitantly, passionately talk–to remind us that individual speakers were at least hypothetically still at the center of institutions, to restore an eccentric personal voice and tone to a system of discourse otherwise mechanically normalized and denuded of personality. That is what has changed in this film. This is a world in which even the individual human voice becomes inaudible except insofar as it can find a way to patch itself into the licensed networks of knowledge, to plug itself into the power system. With that almost surgically painful severing of John's vocal cords, the film might just as well have ended. The self is too small and weak to escape the systems (both cinematic and institutional) that create and regulate expression in this film.

In effect, the self as a free and autonomous agent does not exist. The technology has done it in, erased or replaced it, as it will again, perhaps even more finally and definitively, in Capra's last important film, State of the Union. That is why every possible ending to Doe represents a form of suicide for John. Whether he literally kills himself by jumping from the top of a building or only symbolically erases himself by becoming part of Norton's network of faceless, personality-less puppets, or by becoming the symbolic head of the John Doe movement, the individual, eccentric, quirky, personal self has been written out of life and the film. Even suicide is superfluous or redundant insofar as "John Doe" has never lived, and "Long John" Willoughby has already committed suicide by an act of self–erasure long before.

The argument has been made that in Doe Capra is parodying the mythopoetic structures of his earlier work, playing with the filmic, as well as the social technologies of creating instant heroes. To talk about play or parody presumes a degree of detachment, control, and ironic bemusement that the film and Capra's account of the worried, anxious making of it nowhere communicates. Rather than being characterized by playful detachment, Doe is Capra's most disturbed work and the one most torn by conflicts of feeling. It is his most troubled and out-of-control work, and there is no reason to doubt his own account of his confusion about and dissatisfaction with the final film and with each of the five endings he made for it. It is possible, however, to feel that this confusion was a creative one. Capra brings all of the basic assumptions of the immediately preceding films into question. His form inadvertently overwhelms his characters' powers. The master of the depiction of individual imaginative energy and creative social performance, for the first time in his career, recognizes and is able to depict a system of social, institutional, and psychological controls that is fully as powerful as his individual performers and able to frustrate, absorb, or rechannel into its own repressive systems of relationship all of their free energies. Doe is a crisis film in which everything Capra had previously taken for granted is worried and puzzled, even the technologies of his own filmmaking, since, as I have already argued, the most pervasive of the systems "John Doe" is inscribed within, even more than the John Doe Club network and the political and journalistic systems, is the cinematic matrix of knowledge and interpretation that Capra's layered sound tracks, deep-focus photography, contextual editing, and complex narrative create around him. Out of that crisis of confidence in his own organizations of experience, as well as that new acknowledgment of the potential power and pervasiveness of the world's systems and arrangements, comes Capra's greatest film, It's a Wonderful Life....

This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra. To obtain the book from which this discussion is excerpted, click here.

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Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.