NIGHT AT THE GARDEN—Conversation on Moral Intuition with Director Marshall Curry

by September Williams, MD

This article was first published by Bioethics.net the online arm of the American Journal of Bioethics http://www.bioethics.net/2019/04/a-film-review-a-night-at-the-garden-conversation-on-moral-intuition-with-director-marshall-curry/ Posted on April 28, 2019, at 6:02 PM

Boarding my flight from Burbank, I flicked through my phone emails, finding that director Marshall Curry was available for interviews. It was a few weeks before the Academy of Film Arts and Science 2019 shindig. I had not seen Curry’s most recent film nor had I realized it was now also nominated for an OSCAR® in the Best Documentary – Short Subject category. This new work is added to his eight films since 2005 with their 38 awards and nominations. The new film is A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN — The title references New York’s iconic venue, Madison Square Garden. 

Photo attached by courtesy of photographer Bill Johnston Caption: Marshall Curry in Conversation with September Williams
I clicked on the email link. The run time was 7 minutes. A bit longer than the usual for a trailer, I thought. But what do I know, nobody ever nominated me for an ACADEMY AWARD®. Seeing the first few frames of Curry’s film, everything around me seemed to grind to a halt. Seven minutes wasn’t the length of a trailer but the whole film. It had been culled from hundreds of hours of 1939, black & white, newsreel camera footage. A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN shows twenty-thousand Americans at a gathering of the German-American Bund. The event was billed as a “Pro American Rally.” They lifted their arms in Nazi salutes, toward American Flags and a portrait of George Washington. This gathering took place a historical breath before the USA would enter WWII against the Nazis. Given the linkage between the development of bioethics to the atrocities of fascism associated with that war, it was clear that on my arrival in San Francisco I would head straight to interview Marshall Curry. 
Curry’s film enhances the understanding of fascism while illuminating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25:
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control; (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
The Nuremberg Doctors Trials circumscribed the need for Article 25 which is operationalized by the Nuremberg Code, The Declaration of Helsinki, and the Belmont Report. These are the roots of the policy basis and the discipline of biomedical ethics. Article 25 makes the prima-facie argument for the protection of vulnerable third parties at risk to be preyed on by societies, professions, and individuals. 
A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN’s seven minutes adheres to the Aristotelian plot curve (the narrative Holy Grail) with near metronomic precision. People seem to absorb stories best when the narrative establishes characters, setting, plot turning points, and the climax of conflict for the main characters, in that order. The final point in the plot curve is the resolution of the conflict in the story. Notably, there is no resolution in Marshall Curry’s film— leaving the viewer uncomfortable—as the director and history wants us to be. 
The film climaxes when Khun (the head of the American Nazi Bund) has his fascist rant interrupted by a 26-year-old plumber’s helper from Brooklyn—Isadore Greenbaum. Greenbaum yells, “Down with Hitler!” This results in Bund Guards dragging the protestor around the stage, beating him, tearing off his clothes, particularly his pants, maximizing the victim’s humiliation. Khun at the podium, flanked by young boys in brown shirts, laughs. Greenbaum is subsequently arrested by New York City Police. The plight of Mr. Greenbaum is the film’s climax though it is not the cinematic origin of the documentary.
A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN’s website is filled with archival material and director interviews in part because of Marshall’s collaboration with Field of Vision. Field of Vision is a filmmaker-driven documentary unit which resources works of universal importance. Historically, bigotry is a tool of fascist ideology worldwide, including in the USA. In a given setting, fascism exploits the differences between people rather than promote similarities. The exploitation is usually in the service of the benefit of some group perceiving an economic threat to themselves. Anti-Semitism, racism, and heightened nationalism lead to fascists hallmarks of scapegoating and murdering of visible minorities in a given region.
Devaluation of groups, including German Americans, over time in the USA likely, left a hole to be filled by (German) Nationalism and its path to fascism. But all of that is the low hanging fruit of purpose for A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN. I searched for the film’s website but did not see the answer to my key question. So, I asked Marshall Curry, “What was the moment when you knew you had to make this film?”
The director paused, then explained. A cameraman had caught one of the brown-shirted pre-adolescent Bund boys flanking the stage behind Khun. The child was hopping up and down with glee, air punching, trying to get closer to the frenzy of Khun’s guards and policemen ripping apart Mr. Greenbaum’s dignity. The kid was spoiling for a fight, giddy and enthralled with the power of attacking a single man with many. During the early review of the newsreels, that child triggered Curry’s moral intuition.
Curry’s perspective is reflective of his being both a father and educated in the field of Comparative Religion. He saw the misplaced zeal in the indoctrination of the children in the film. He was appalled by the absence of special provisions to avoid the abuse of young spirit captured by the camera lens. One wonders what level of loss of dignity does it take to foster fascism? No one’s self-worth should be conditional on destroying that of others—particularly not children’s. To make it so is tantamount to firing bullets through those young heads. We see it in child soldiers—domestic, foreign, current and historical—leaving ramifications running deep in our emergency rooms and clinics.
As a parent whose children’s ages mirror those in his film, Curry expressed the icky feeling that recognizes moral violations. Children are “vulnerable third parties,” and there is a special ethical obligation to their well being and protection. The young, old, sick and infirm are historically defenseless and abused. Dr. Abraham Maslow’s motivational theory of behavior is another related approach to maximizing the best potential of individuals. That night in 1939 at The Garden, there was no respect for health, peace or the special consideration due to children by Article 25 of the UDHR. In fact, the UDHR represents a leap in human consciousness not documented until 1946 with the inception of the United Nations.
Where did they go—those twenty-thousand fascists who were present that night at The Garden? They became invisible as the USA entered WWII on the side of the Allies—invisible but not absent. Daily the news reminds us fascism is uncloaking. Curry joked that as the youngest of many siblings, he came to support the underdog—which by birth position was usually himself. But he is more complex than that. In our century’s mayhem, Marshall Curry’s exquisite documentary short film, A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN, uniquely beckons us to resist crimes against conscience, humanity, and children.
Director Marshall Curry requests A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN, be shared ubiquitously by all means possible including online. See Curry’s other credits and upload A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN here