Film Economy: Sullivan’s Travels

Where I write a bit about a movie –old or new– that has to do with the economy…

Appearing near the end of a Depression and during a war that forced Americans to ration and live in their means, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is a movie about whether Hollywood can genuinely portray suffering and hardship and whether it should. Ambitious director John Sullivan wants to make a movie about real people and their problems, instead of the light-hearted fare he has become recognized for. His credibility as a chronicler of the downtrodden challenged by his studio executive bosses — Sullivan is a well-healed prep school and Ivy League grad — he decides to travel outside of Hollywood and experience destitution for himself.

The film is a funny and honest take on the theme of whether those removed from hardship can genuinely portray it through art. Supposedly, writer and director Preston Sturges, made the movie to go after those of his contemporaries who produced serious work about the depression that were heavy in a certain aesthetic (think the movie version of the Grapes of Wrath) and in a certain moralistic view of the goodness of frugality (think It’s a Wonderful Life). At the same time,  Sullivan’s Travels is greatly influenced by those movies (which I happen to like), and seems a bit in debt to them. The scenes of poverty, which include freight cars traveled by hobos and the travails of a chain gang, look similar to the aforementioned aesthetic.

Sullivan’s ultimate eagerness to return back to his life of wealth and ease after he gets into real trouble teaches him that sometimes people need to be transported from difficulty rather than reminded of it. Whatever your take is on that statement, it is a thoughtful movie, its theme perhaps best summed up by this line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

“I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad, and to travel for it too!”

Sullivan’s Travels (Photo credit: Night Hawk News)

Currently reading: The New Deal, the Real Estate Craze and the Mad Men Era

The economy has me reading about what exactly constituted the New Deal and its signature program the Works Progress Administration in Nick Taylor’s American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA (When FDR Put the Nation to Work).

Before this, I finished the sprawling late-’90s novel Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, which depicts the fall of a grandiose real estate developer in Atlanta. Lately, I have found that reading things from the late ’90s evokes an almost foolishly  optimistic and unaware time, and this book’s depiction of a developer’s gluttony and false sense of self is more cheerful than grim. It is still compelling to read about the seeds of the kind of avarice we are today accustomed to from the latest news reports on investment banks profiting from the foreclosure crisis .

I also just began Kitty Kelley‘s biography of Frank Sinatra, His Way, which gives the exhaustive, warts-and-all account that she is known for. I picked up the book after watching the somewhat vapid musical High Society, which Sinatra starred in opposite Grace Kelley and Bing Crosby. Frank’s marriage to first wife Nancy is straight out of Mad Men (well, Mad Men, more likely was inspired by marriages like theirs). He is a consistent philanderer who is rarely home, and she is a jealous wife who nonetheless acquiesces to her role and wants above all else to prevent Frank from divorcing her. It is the kind of dispiriting story that is best read without attachment to either person.

But back to the New Deal book. As Taylor says on his website, “The WPA symbolized an impulse of government that before the 2008 election was under severe attack. But that impulse toward generosity and human dignity is poised to make a comeback.”

American Made describes a program that was arrived at not only because the unemployment rate was 25 percent when Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered office in March of 1933 but also because he and the chief administrators of the program made no bones about the fact that the government would create a comprehensive jobs program. There was no love lost between them and those who FDR referred to as “economic royalists.”

Though it had its share of inefficiencies and infighting, the good of the New Deal and Works Progress Administration seems to far outweigh the flaws. It left the nation with national facilities, bridges, parks, schools, art and civic buildings that have sustained us since. Although I’m pessimistic a similar program will be enacted soon, what with the prevailing skepticism of powerful people toward the government’s role in job creation, convincing arguments have been made that no one else will.

Right now, the Obama administration seems to be averse to political risk. As Paul Krugman says in a recent blog post about Obama’s administration:

[T]hey have to propose new initiatives that might not pass, and be prepared to run against the do-nothing Republicans if the initiatives fail.

Now consider what FDR said during the 1932 election, as quoted in American Made:

The country needs and unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.

The Book Title Road Trip Game

During our West Coast road trip, my brother invented a car game where the driver lists then fictitious book titles that he has made up and the two passengers invent plausible-sounding subtitles for those books.

Here are ten titles that my brother Arthur came up with:
Inch by Inch
From the Inside Out
Morgan’s Turn
Shop Class
Hurry, Hurry! The Cows are Coming!
Pretend Lovers
Monroe’s War

And here are the subtitles I came up with, a few of which I am quite proud of:
Inch by Inch: A Community Garden Grows in Gritty Detroit
Capone: The Psychological Life of America’s Most Notorious Gangster
From the Inside Out: Confessions from the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Years
Morgan’s Turn: The Rise of an American Tycoon
Shop Class: Life Lessons from Dad
Indigo: The Hidden Dangers of Clothing Die
Hurry, Hurry! The Cows are Coming! The Story Behind the Filming of ‘Green Acres’
Geronimo: The Heroism of the 42nd Infantry Division in World War II
Musica: A Catalogue of Sensual South American Sounds
Pretend Lovers: The Charles and Diana Story
Monroe’s War: The Birth of an American Foreign Policy

Brüno is funny. That’s all.

A few nights ago, I saw a free screening of Brüno at the BAM theater in Brooklyn. As we were entering, several security guys methodically and politely collected cell phones, Blackberries, and iPhones as if they were doing a coat check. They did this to prevent people from filming the movie secretly.

When my brother and I got into the theater, we saw a couple of skinny, hipster looking guys wearing blue Brüno t-shirts walking around with cameras. Of all things to film in this world, people arriving for a screening of Brüno should not be one of them, my brother said to me. A man then announced that he was throwing out Brüno t-shirts, which brought many people in their audience to their feet, waving and screaming for a shirt. It was almost embarrassing. Here we were, a perfectly representative group of Brooklyn-lookin’ people in our twenties and thirties sitting down to watch a Sacha Baron Cohen movie and to no doubt spread the word about it to our friends, as is part of the reason that these free screenings take place.

And then Sacha Baron Cohen came out in full Brüno costume. My feeling of being pawns in a marketing game vanished at the excitement of having one of the most influential comedian’s of today in the room. He came down from the top of the theater, shaking hands and playing with guys’ hair. When he got to me and my brother, he brushed my brother’s glasses off his face onto the floor. He then told us how he had been in Sydney (the city, not the guy) and asked us if we were ready to see a lot of penis. And then he left.

His movie did not disappoint. In fact, I thought it was much funnier than the Borat movie. When my brother and I left the theater, we were recounting all of the jaw-dropping sequences with glee.

So I was pretty surprised when I started reading reviews of Brüno to find that many people either think it a disappointment after Borat (I’m sure many were disappointed with Waiting for Guffman after This is Spinal Tap, but think of what a cult classic the former has become since). Some people just don’t think the movie is funny, which I disagree with, but what I disagree with even more is the contention that Brüno should be an important movie for gays, that it should go so far as to skewer homophobia while avoiding putting gays in a box as flamboyant clowns. Ideally, according to this view, Brüno should skewer the vapid world of showbiz and runway fashion and nothing more.

In fact, the film is an equal opportunity offender, that is, if you find yourself personally identifying with or feeling the need to defend: moralizing talk show audience members, Paula Abdul, runway models, Southern hunters, wrestling fans, Christian gay converters, gay Austro-German types, really flamboyant gays generally, beauty pageant-type parents, cause-espousing celebrities, Ron Paul, Israeli Hasids, or Arab terrorists. I personally think all of these groups are worth poking some fun at, and fun it is. Why people are so insistent that the movie only target a certain group, as if everyone else–like homophobic Southerners–are salt of the earth who don’t deserve a little prodding is beyond me.

The only fair criticism of the movie I have seen is that Brüno disprorportionately targets people who have less savvy about how they are be portrayed. It’s too bad actually that he didn’t spend more time making fun of the fashion world like he does on “Da Ali G” show, but from accounts, it sounds like fashion week was almost impossible for the Brüno crew to get into, owing to the organizers blacklisting him. The fact that he did get into the show and pulled an outrageous stunt though is testament to that Baron Cohen tried to get everyone.

Quote of the solstice

Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.-Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby

Not this year.

Whatever Works kind of works

My brother and I have seen two movies together since I moved to New York City, both by Woody Allen, both at the independent Lincoln Plaza Cinema. Last August, we saw Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and last night we saw Whatever Works. As the prolific writer/director’s newest feature was about to begin, my brother said “Two New York Jews watching a Woody Allen movie on the Upper West Side.” With the starring role played by Larry David, it was truly a movie for people like us.

Yet, like most Woody Allen movies I have seen in recent years, I have had to prepare myself to be disappointed by self-conscious and unnatural dialogue as well as the inevitable May December romance. It always comes off a little creepy when the old neurotic, Jewish character dates the beautiful young woman (almost always gentile) in these movies, not just because of the age difference but because of the way the relationship depends on the younger woman revering the intellect of the older man.

Whatever Works did not bother me too much for these reasons, though. Maybe this was because Larry David’s intellectual wasn’t a lecherous character but rather almost asexual. Or maybe because I don’t think Woody Allen’s script actually bore out that he thought this kind of relationship, born perhaps of his fantasy (and since he started things up with his step-daughter, his real life), is functional.

No, the real fantasy in Whatever Works was the way Allen portrayed dim, God-fearing Southerners who come to New York City and are inspired to shed their small-minded ways and their NRA memberships. I guess this is the ultimate fantasy for many of us who live here.

Overall, I would give the movie a Meh, but an entertaining Meh. I liked Vicky Cristina Barcelona a lot better, though.

Strange San Francisco

In order to gear up for my trip out West this August, I’m reading a book called San Francisco in Fiction: Essays in a Regional Literature. It is an anthology of essays about how San Francisco writers like Mark Twain, Jack London, Dashiell Hammet, Joan Didion, and Amy Tan, portrayed the city and the region. The great theme of this region is the search for new beginnings that its settlers bring with them from other American regions and foreign nations.

I have to share this passage from the essay about Frank Norris by Joseph R. McElerath, Jr. Norris wrote in particular about the bizarre urban life of San Francisco. The following description of a scene from The Octopus about the Midwinter International Exposition (similar to the famed Columbian Exposition that took place in Chicago in 1893) is just the sort of weird stuff that makes fin de siecle urban life sound like such a delirium.

[W]ithin the compound, one might also encounter a Japanese Tea Garden (which still survives), a life-sized elephant made of walnuts, an enormous wine bottle composed of wine bottles, a knight on horseback made to scale from prunes, and “native villages” inhabited by Eskimos, Hawaiians, and Africans imported for the occasion (University of New Mexico Press, 51).

Escapism does not equal cheesy romcoms

Last night the siblings and cousins were flipping channels together, through 24-hour news TV, through NCAA basketball, even, until we came upon Cameron Diaz and Jude Law, together, in a British cottage, hedging as they tried to figure out the other’s level of romantic interest while pretending they did not care at the same time.  Of course, with this build-up, I could not resist and made my begrudging family stop and watch this movie. (Another instance when I have to just come out and own my inferior standards).

At first, Diaz’s character thinks Law’s character might be a cad, and so the suspense forms around how she might deal with the inevitable feelings that she develops for him. I was thrilled. There are few things I like better than watching romantic comedies with somewhat trite but nonetheless entertaining and truthful dilemmas.

And then, the movie begins to disappoint.

The following is a SPOILER, though I don’t think you should be afraid of having this movie, called “The Holiday,” spoiled for you, because it is not worth seeing.

Anyway, what happens is she discovers that Jude Law isn’t a cad at all, in fact, he has NOTHING wrong with him: he has two adorable daughters, is widowed, not divorced—divorce, of course being an indelible character flaw—and he has a huge, beautiful house.

Why should a movie where the cutely self-deprecating Cameron Diaz character and the devoted and playful Jude Law character are thrown together at random only to realize their love for each other be soo unsatisfying?  Maybe I have a bad case of schadenfreude—and I think I kind of do—but I want to see characters with problems. Read more of this post

Review of Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power

Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power by Gerald Posner

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
A highly fascinating subject, and Posner unearths some goodies, but unfortunately, he writes like an investigative journalist and not a literary one. In particular, he does not work to build the sort of suspense that drives a good story, which Motown most definitely is, and he fails to weave the FASCINATING characters together with much depth; rather, he seems to feel like he has a laundry list of Motown dysfunction to go through with each person he covers, from Temptations lead singer, the sadly drug-addled David Ruffin to spurned Supreme Flo Ballard. I wish instead, Posner could re-create what it would have been like to be IN A ROOM with say, Smokey, Ruffin, Flo, Marvin, Berry Gordy, and Diana. Still, I must give credit where credit is due: Posner clearly went through a rear end-load of lawsuits in order to understand all of the contract battles between Motown artists and Gordy. He also rightly keeps Gordy as his center and alludes to the fascinating question–whether intentionally or not–of whether Motown’s legendary CEO was really the music visionary some give him credit for or just the only guy who would get black musicians together to make pop in the late 1950s. I think the latter, in a way. It seems like BG clearly recognized talent but ran Motown like a straitjacket with no appreciation for his artists’ individuality. He actually didn’t want to put out Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?! That’s almost a crime. Also, he and Diana Ross had a majorly DYSFUNCTIONAL relationship. Not to judge or anything, because I love that reading about that stuff.

View all my reviews.

Preserving “the individual soul” in a world of generalizing studies

This morning as I read my usual websites, I noticed two articles that seemed to me at unintended odds.

The first is a simple news item from the Chronicle for Higher Education on a study that says college students get the same value whether they spend a short or long period studying abroad.
The second is actually a speech by the author Haruki Marukami that he gave in Jerusalem after winning a literary prize.  This is the line that stuck out:

I have only one reason to write novels, and that is to bring the dignity of the individual soul to the surface and shine a light upon it. The purpose of a story is to sound an alarm, to keep a light trained on the System in order to prevent it from tangling our souls in its web and demeaning them.

In a world of studies like the one above that try to unite individual experiences together with some kind of coherence, I appreciate Marukami’s pleas on behalf of the individual soul.  I would like to say that good journalists do the same thing as Marukami and tell the truth, but I think the work of a good novelist is in some ways more truthful.

I’ll leave you with more from Marukami:

We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called the System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong — and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others’ souls and from the warmth we gain by joining souls together.


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