Monday, August 18, 2003
thanks for telling me about the film MY MAN GODFREY that Ashbery turned you onto.
i was used to seeing William Powell with his spoiled rich wife as The Thin Man detective, solving murder cases out of boredom, for fun. when this film opened with Powell as Godfrey, unshaven, filthy, living at the city dump by the river and confronting the bad manners of some impossibly out-of-touch rich folks, it was a nice twist. of course, it turns out that he's another rich guy who was really searching for his soul at the dump, questioning his family and their riches.
still, it's one of those films from the 30s that doesn't shy away from issues of class, and how the rich have no real idea how much they profit off the poverty of other human lives. even the language in the film, the upper class characters referring to the men at the dump as "forgotten men." who has forgotten them? certainly not one another, it seemed, since they knew one another, had their community. forgotten by the rich, that is, or so the film wants us to see it this way, forgotten by those who have created an oppressive, unlivable world.
it's been said that these were tactics Hollywood used to make the poor feel better about their troubles. okay, but what's the next sentence in that? WHY was Hollywood doing this? it seems clear to me that the writers, actors and other studio workers were far more radical back then, films like ON THE WATERFRONT, even much earlier, silent films like MARTYR TO HIS CAUSE. these men and women making statements against the powers of industry and the powers of government.
of course not everyone in Hollywood back then was interested in the plight of the poor. Ronald Reagan was in films in those days, for instance. but by comparison, Hollywood is much more conservative today. there are so few messages about what life is REALLY like for most Americans.
my grandparents really SAW themselves in film back then, proud of the communities of unions they were part of. but my father, especially since NAFTA, has had six different jobs in six different factories, and he and his brothers and sisters all feel like idiots and losers when you talk to them. they feel as though they need to WORK harder, that they're doing something wrong. they wouldn't admit that this is how they feel if asked, but it really is how they feel if you listen to them, they're always beating themselves up about their disappearing factory jobs. i can't think of a single recent Hollywood film that takes on this issue of working class Americans losing everything: jobs, houses, spouses, sanity. losing it all to the greed of a handful of rich people looking to poorer nations who don't have unions, don't have child protection, don't have a successful body of environmentalists to upset profit margins, etc.
i was talking about MY MAN GODFREY with an old friend, and she pointed out TITANIC and OH BROTHER WHERE ART THOU as recent films where the protagonists are poor, fighting injustices stemming in one way or another from the actions of the rich. okay, however, neither film is set in the current America. TITANIC of course is about a ship that sunk nearly a century ago with all of its grand luxuries. the story of the young hero dancing his way from steerage class into the arms of a young socialite is easy, in early 20th century clothes and nostalgic jargon with nostalgic swing music to boot. and OH BROTHER WHERE ART THOU is set in the depression. there are NO films of struggle out of Hollywood about our post-NAFTA America. nor are there any Hollywood films about our Mexican neighbors going to work everyday in the shiny new American factories with no OSHA or EPA standards.
Spike Lee has made more than a small effort to show the poor and working poor in a dignified light. a couple of other films come to mind, SILKWOOD, and NORMA RAE. but neither of these films are post-NAFTA.
i'm not saying it's impossible to come up with examples, i'm just saying that there's no real, constant empathy in Hollywood these days. most of the films which deal straight-up with class issues are out of Europe, South America, and Asia.
maybe Hollywood never recovered from McCarthy's Hollywood Blacklist? unions are weak, everyone seems to be hustling for work, afraid to offend, not to mention Schwarzenegger's Republican sprint down the runway.
back to the film though. William Powell's confronting education turned the worst possible profile of wealthy people around. we get to watch them slowly break down to the point where they HAVE TO focus on what they are doing to others in their selfishness. Powell's character Godfrey was admirable and courageous, unlike anything defined as admirable and courageous in recent Hollywood.
JUST the other day i went on a date to the movie S.W.A.T., which i knew i wasn't going to like, but went along with the choice to really take a look at what is going on in the stark conscience of today's Hollywood screenwriters. every possible trick is used to make the hero seem admirable and courageous, but it just didn't work for me. there's no inner-life being examined here, no real challenge except to regain the status quo. it's grotesque. and it made me sad, very sad.
for crying out loud, EVEN Scarlet O'Hara was eventually made to feel ugly and ashamed for having slaves in GONE WITH THE WIND! there's no redeeming social progress in today's Hollywood films, no room for the poor to feel like anything but stupid losers, no attempt to raise awareness, build self-esteem, unless the goal of the poor is to join law enforcement and battle other poor folks in their world of crime which never seems to have a purpose expect JUST the thrill to be a criminal. there were many film characters in old Hollywood where criminals were shown to be men and women trying to survive in times of extreme polarized wealth and poverty.