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The Chairman
Victor Niederhoffer

01/01/05
Film Review: The Aviator

A great work like The Aviator deals with large, timeless ideas in heroic language. You can tell when it shakes you up, makes you want to see it again and again, and touches the common person. The great idea of The Aviator, whether the director, writer and actors know it or not, is the struggle of an innovator, of technologists, of entrepreneurs to create and sell better products in the face of restrictions, disbelief that our society places on the road to greatness, and the destructive forces that are unleashed on such individuals. The heroic language of this movie is the two and three color movies of the '30s and '40s when talking pictures first emerged, and the great icons of that day like the Coconut Grove, the emphasis on cleanliness to prevent death from polio, cholera and plague, the desire for healthy food like fresh orange juice and milk, the quest to conquer the environment through higher speeds, distances and heights in transportation, and yes, the businessman's dialogue with a government that has been snatched by special interests and buying votes.

The movie appeals to the common person through a series of set pieces that resonate with great themes that we all encounter. Everyone's favorite will include the government hearings of Senator Brewster of Maine who has been corrupted and snatched by Pan American's and every other businessman's dream of maintaining a monopoly in the interest of "the public." Hayek points out that competition is the major force that protects us from laziness and inefficiency and "excess profits" of business and naturally every businessman hates to see competitors alongside. In a classic exchange right out of Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, Hughes says he believes that competition will serve the traveler better than a monopoly and that's in the public interest. Brewster, whose bill and travel has been financed by Pan American, says "Juan Trippe is not like you, he's a patriot, he's not interested in money." Amazingly, truth is stranger than fiction. the trial scene with Senator Brewster is taken entirely from actual transcripts of the congressional hearings. One charge left out is that Hughes paid 200 a head to have starlets swim nude at parties for defense dept. purchasing agents. One of the regulars at these parties commented that if these girls were paid $200, they were vastly underpaid.

A related vignette out of the same garage, indeed almost a homologue to the cocktail party scene in Atlas Shrugged, shows a Katherine Hepburn dinner at a mansion in Connecticut where her former husband asks Howard about "all that guff" he's involved in with faster, quieter and safer planes as opposed to their 8-year-old's recent forays on a sleigh. Like Rourke, but unlike Reardon, Howard says he chooses to work for a living and leaves the dinner table to brood over a croquet game.

One of my favorite set pieces occurred after the Beverly Hills crash of the D2 photo reconnaissance plane he developed. He's lying completely covered with bandages and burns, broken bones and ribs, near death, in a hospital bed, in tremendous agony, yet remembering his mother's s#xy admonition (and teaching at the same time) to stay clean. He demands a fresh orange juice and insists on seeing it made with a clean machine in front of his eyes. It is ironic that Hughes's obsession with fresh soap, not touching bathroom faucets, doors or towels, which was quite functional and life sustaining in the 30's, was beyond the reach of all but the richest in that day, but now through automatic towel dispensers, motion detected flushers and faucets, and ergonomic private doors without handles, is now available at almost every contemporary rest station or McDonalds on the highway. Also ironic is the great unleashing of human potential, romance, travel, increasing standards of living, pleasure and equality of opportunity that the discount fare operators in Europe, through competition have given to the very people who are most vigorous in their support and belief in government regulation of travel rather than competition.

The set pieces concerning Hughes's attention to stars like Jean Harlow, Faith Domergue, Ava Gardner and Jane Russell, and his method of romancing them, apparently are quite resonant to director Scorsese and star DiCaprio. Similarly for the attention to perfection and attention to detail and realism, with expense no object, in making such movies as Hellfire, including shooting it again as a talky when he felt that silent films were passe. However, one can't come away from seeing the scenes with these s#xy women and comparing them to the masculine, pompous and affected Katherine Hepburn, without believing that living with her, with her obsessions, false facades and jealousy would be enough to drive any man crazy. Among all the reviews I have read of the movie, I have not seen one that comments on this, although one or two did point out that Katherine Hepburn is the only actress who never once wore a skirt, and adopted that affected pseudo upper class language and gait, and love of the nobility and leisure pursuits, that the Founders tried to knock out of the American republic.

The chief defect of the movie is somewhat predictable and necessary indeed for such a picture to be made. The only way to tell the story of a successful businessman in our day and get it reviewed favorably is to picture him as a murderer, con man, unrecognized hero like the director (as in Tucker), or as a madman. In this case, Scorsese and screenwriter Josh Logan choose the latter. Their take is that he suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder induced by unholy incestuous fantasies about his short lived, s#xy mother. But all that emphasis on his craziness leaves out that he was able to conquer all his illnesses at will, indeed use them for his benefit when the bottom line of profits and romance, two of the three main goals of all humans, was at stake.

It is also predictable that no one associated with this movie seems to have an idea that the dynamics of Hughes's contributions to the material well being of travelers, and film, in the face of a coalition of government and second handers and the snatched in the business community, is the main story of American business as can most clearly be seen in the recently visible coalitions against companies like Microsoft and Pfizer. Presumably Hughes was able to become the wealthiest person in the world, run the most profitable oil field equipment company of his day in Hughes Tool, make a billion by spearheading TWA, buy and sell RKO, create the biggest health foundation in the world, the Hughes Medical Institute, create a $10 billion electronics company in Hughes Electronics, become the biggest government defense company via Hughes Aircraft, amass vast real estate and hotel holdings in Las Vegas, along with 29 other companies, all in an estate valued at only a billion bucks by the government through attempting to bankrupt himself over and over again, held back only by the long suffering former race car driver turned accountant Noah Dietrich. This is predictable because the facts behind the movie are apparently based on the Donald Bartlett and James Steele book Empire: the Life, Legend and Madness of Howard Hughes.

Both authors, as far as I can tell, hold views on the evilness of business similar to those of Ellsworth Toohey and Wesley Mouch. On the contrary, there was method behind his madness. And someone should write about the lessons one can learn from Hughes about business, including the importance of the deferral through the foundation, the buy and hold strategy through leverage, the delegation of details to people like Dietrich and Mayheu, the need to change to keep up with technology (for example going to jets versus props, or speakies versus silents), the use of scientists as consultants for business (particularly effective here is the meteorologist who becomes a mathematician on the spot and proves with calipers that Jane Russell's breasts are not more extensive than others that the film board had approved), and most important of all, to invest in businesses with a recurring product. Indeed, the fountainhead of all Hughes' success was the recurring revenues and profits from replacement parts that the diamond drill bits invented by his father's Hughes Tool allowed him to reinvest in all the other risky ventures.

The Aviator ends on a low note with Hughes obsessively repeating homage and hope for the future. This is a movie that will repay repeat visits, uplifting you and your loved ones, for many future generations.

Easan Katir adds: A second-person glimpse: Howard Hughes leased my grandparents' house at 211 Muirfield Drive in Los Angeles. He and Marlena Deitrich moved in. Marlena wanted to be accepted by high society and would arrange elaborate formal dinner parties. Hughes would either not show up at all or show up wearing casual clothes, smoking a cigar, and putting one leg over the arm of the chair at the dinner table. When the lease was up he asked to buy the house and everything in it, furniture, paintings, china, silverware. They struck a deal at $35,000.

 

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