Wednesday 27 February 2019

Old movies part 2: To Have and Have Not

A few weeks ago I wrote about black-and-white movies like Stagecoach, and how they often dealt with our modern, 21st-century problems in a way that modern media does not. It occurred to me, though, that someone reading that might ask the question I most feared as a reporter: So What? If a movie made nine decades ago had a timely message, you might say, how does that affect my problems now? I realised this warranted a whole series of posts, this entry focusing on the stories we tell each other about class.

Before any conservative readers go ballistic, I’m not saying that because class exists, we need to eliminate it; there will always be people who have more than others, either through hard work, inheritance or luck, and I think we should reward the first of those three. And before any socialist readers go ballistic, I’m not suggesting that all inequality is good, merely that it exists and shapes our lives, and we should stop pretending it doesn’t.  

Most of us in Europe or North America are seeing our cultures slowly unravel; unemployment, depression, mental illness, debt, homelessness, addiction, poverty and illiteracy are alarmingly high and rising in many places. Drive through once-prosperous towns in my native Midwest and you see decaying houses and crumbling infrastructure, peppered with the occasional Wal-Mart like a lord’s medieval castle on a hill. The gulf between the wealthy and poor might be greater now than in medieval Europe – certainly peasants then kept more of their earnings and had more days off than US workers today.

When I point this out, many people quickly respond that our ancestors also endured hardships we can’t imagine – most of the Depression-era audiences for old movies, for example, earned only a fraction of what Americans do today in straightforward numbers. That does not, however, tell the whole story.

Most people back then had the skills to make and fix things themselves, from homes to tools, and if they didn’t, they had parents or uncles who knew and could show them, or local boys from their club. If they lived outside a city, they typically had gardens to grow most of their food, and they knew how to preserve it whether they could afford electricity or not.

People usually had extended family to look out for each other, and they had clubs like Kiwanis and Oddfellows, they had book clubs and ladies’ societies, and they were more likely to belong to churches and unions. As different as these groups are, they all provided much-needed support; their members helped to pay each other’s bills, offered networks to find jobs, gave emotional support, shared intellectual ideas and gave the otherwise lonely elderly a chance to mentor the otherwise foolhardy youth. Today, however, all of these things are fading from our culture and even our memory, as their members age and the young never join.

Instead, we have become the first generations in history to spend our lives largely alone, staring at little screens. We are surrounded by media, all the time – films and television, Youtube and Netflix stare back at us from our phones and laptops, from the back seats of cars and the walls of restaurants. So if most people are to realise what their problems are and do something about them, what they see on those screens becomes vitally important.   

At a time when more and more people are struggling, our media --- let’s assume we’re talking about my native USA – shows almost none of that reality. This was bad enough when I was growing up in Missouri in the 1980s and 90s; we weren’t poor, but compared to us it seemed like every family in movies or television was from Planet Rich People.

The friends in Friends would have had to make millions every year to pay for their spacious apartments, even though they worked menial jobs or were unemployed. The families on Full House or Family Matters – and even on Rosanne, a show entirely built around the premise of a “working-class” family – lived in giant, palatial homes. 

Nor did anyone ever have to worry about getting their car to start, or paying a medical bill, or paying off a debt, or being able to afford groceries. Characters could pop off for a vacation episode to Hawaii or Las Vegas, whereas we’d never taken a vacation. Certainly no one on television lived in a trailer park, nor were sleeping rough.

I looked at popular shows of the last few decades and found that little has changed; from Modern Family to Parenthood, all the families live in homes that, like the average new house in America, covered more ground than the biblical Temple of Solomon. Even the family in Breaking Bad – a show entirely built around the fact that the protagonist must become a drug dealer to pay the bills – lives in quite a spacious house with no other families in it.  

As writer David Wong pointed out, even characters in a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic future typically have nicer apartments that most of us. The miserable slum-dwellers of Elysium, The Matrix Reloaded or Dredd have spacious flats that would thousands of dollars a month in New York, and don’t need a dozen room-mates.

You might point out that all these programmes are just entertainment, and that’s true. But Hollywood also created entertainment in the 1930s and 40s – hundreds of films a year -- and theirs often dealt with real problems. Also – as mentioned – people then had mentors and groups to show them how to cope with poverty or build a better future; the films showing them the same thing were just frosting on the cake. People today have more need for entertainment that teaches those things, because many of us don’t have anything else. 

Our “reality” media today is much the same as our fictional media, and doesn’t have much to do with our reality. What I’ve seen involves wealthy models arguing, or rich families buying wedding dresses for more money that the down-payment on my house. Meanwhile, programmes like Cops and the evening news show the threatening faces of street criminals from neighbourhoods most likely to be contaminated by toxic chemicals, but not the polluters who made the chemicals.  

We take the same approach with the media we exchange; viral video clips, circulated on social media as hilarious comedy, often show trailer park residents describing the tornado, or slum dwellers describing the robber, all poor people who were unprepared for national news cameras and were globally mocked for years afterwards. Whole web sites are devoted to mocking the unfashionably dressed “People of Wal-Mart” like they were animals at the zoo.

When you think about it, almost all our political insults are class-based. When conservative friends of mine mock campus “social justice warriors,” they say they and their philosophy degrees are destined for jobs at McDonalds. Feminist friends of mine say their critics are just men “living in their parents’ basements.” Democrats I know mock Trump fans as redneck “deplorables,” while Trump fans I know mock welfare families who don’t want to work. All these groups have more in common than they realise: they all sneer at their opponents for allegedly being even lower down on the ladder.

When struggling people are depicted seriously and sympathetically – say, a news item on homelessness -- it is almost always as objects of pity. The rare inspirational story that gives speaking roles to the poor – slum children adopted by a rich family, say, or a teacher who inspires their inner-city high school class – ends with the poor people leaving all the other poor people behind and becoming one of the winners. Wealth is seen as normal, poverty and misfortune bizarre and occasional, and the heroes are typically the rich who are “raising” others out of poverty.

Imagine stories told another way, in which having very little was assumed to be the norm, and in which everyone knew that tragedy and injustice took place. Imagine stories about people whose goal wasn’t to get a big break and leave their neighbours behind, but to make sure their neighbours had enough. Imagine stories that were inspirational not because the heroes won everything, but because they lost everything, dusted themselves off and heartily carried on. In a time when social roles, jobs, politics and the climate are all unpredictable, those stories could be actually useful for audiences.

Movies from the 1930s and 40s did show that, in ways that would feel alien to people across the political map today. For example, they presented poverty, misfortune, homelessness and failure as completely normal, which they are; millions of Americans have been evicted and become either homeless or must live uncomfortably with relatives, like the elderly couple in 1937’s Make Way for Tomorrow.

In fact, it would be quicker to list the films from that era that didn’t deal with class. I mentioned last time that the characters in Stagecoach were from the highest and lowest levels of society, forced to work together and show who they really were inside, and how the homeless of Our Daily Bread pulled a farm together. Likewise, swashbucklers like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood and Westerns like Destry Rides Again focused on slaves, serfs and other victims people pulling together to overcome the lord, plantation owner or rancher attacking anyone who stood against them.

Even the down-and-out could be strong, these movies realised, if they stood together. The wacky family in You Can’t Take It With You always lived on the verge of eviction, but pitched in to support each other. The homeless protagonist of Meet John Doe inspires neighbours across America to form John Doe clubs and look out for each other.

Upper-class characters appeared too and not always as the villain, but sometimes needed to learn a few things. My Man Godfrey begins with a group of wealthy party-goers on a treasure hunt, charged with retrieving a homeless man as a prize. When they find one – the titular Godfrey -- sleeping in a garbage dump, he quickly humiliates them for treating him as an object of amusement.

Many films from that era show once-prosperous people losing everything and seeing first-hand how the other 99% live; the aristocratic refugees of Casablanca must pawn everything to escape Europe, the lords and ladies of Tovarisch must find a new life as butlers and maids, the runaway rich girl of It Happened One Night learns to hitchhike and live on carrots. Sometimes, however, the rich person puts their business talents to new uses.  

The hero of 1932’s Beggars in Ermine begins as a successful factory owner – but when he is crippled in an accident, he is reduced to selling pamphlets on the streets from a wheelchair. After talking to other itinerant vendors he realises that most of them have no ability to save money; by pooling their resources, however, they could pay for each other. Thus he uses his skills in finance and persuasion to form a guild and get people to pay a small fee to join, and together they can pay for old age pensions and doctor’s visits.

Some films even showed people living on the edges of society banding together in less wholesome ways. The street criminals of M form an underground network to track down and stop a child murderer, and once they catch him, they hold a trial themselves, telling him that “Every man you see here is a legal expert.”

Perhaps the most curious example came in 1933’s Gabriel Over the White House, in which the US President has a spiritual awakening, forgets his wealthy backers and takes bold steps to provide for the struggling populace – including holding a political summit with the “King of the Hobos” leading an army of homeless on Washington.

I’m not backing all the politics of the film – the president seizes power to do these things, in what could be seen as an endorsement of fascism – but the film treats the homeless with respect, as a genuine political constituency that needs to be won over.

None of this praise, for that matter, is necessarily an endorsement of all the politics of all the people who made these films. Film-makers then cared deeply about the problems of working Americans, but some of them thought fascism or communism would be good solutions to those problems. They were wrong, but I can admire their compassion and their public works of art without agreeing with their private solutions. 

Working-class sympathy became so normal that it was gently lampooned in Preston Sturgess’ brilliant Sullivan’s Travels, in which a Hollywood director wants to make a serious drama about the plight of the common man. In his search for authenticity he takes to the road in disguise, only to discover that only the wealthy care about pretentious Oscar bait – the genuinely suffering, he finds, want real entertainment to give them a few hours’ relief. Of course, it’s a meta-joke with many layers, for Sturgess made this very point in an entertaining comedy with a serious edge, portraying deftly the injustice he satirised other directors for portraying clumsily. 

The reason I’m talking about this – and will talk about how old movies are useful when thinking about democracy, refugees and climate change in future posts – is that humans think in stories, and we arrange our lives according to the stories that we know. When people talk about stories that changed their lives, they usually talk about the ones that made them realise something was possible -- “even though I was a girl, I could still be a pilot,” for example.

Movies from this era did not show audiences that they were failures for not being rich, or that they could do anything they want; rather, they taught that everyone is dealt cards, sometimes bad ones, but that no matter how low you’d fallen, you were still somebody, and your actions showed who you really were. They said that even the worst of us can get better, and even the greatest of us can’t do much by ourselves, but together even the homeless and forgotten can move mountains.  

They let us know that we could scrape by and still have a good life – because if you had enough to survive, life wasn’t primarily about money. All these are useful lessons in any age, but we move into an age of greater scarcity, they will be needed more than ever.

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