This might seem like an odd statement, but it’s never been more true. I’ve been thinking it a lot for the last few years (as those who have read my review of Mr Smith Goes to Washington will know) but a post I read recently on Tumblr galvanised me to write-up the interlinked thoughts on this matter that have been batting around my head.
The post was by Robert Reich, and is called ‘Why there’s no Outcry‘. It’s concerned with a matter that’s been close to my heart, lately: the fact that we know the gap between the rich and the poor is widening at an alarming rate, but we are not responding as we have done in the past, with such things as ‘the Progressive Era or the New Deal or the Great Society‘. The answer, Reich posits, is that groups who have previously engaged in the activism that prompted such reforms are too inhibited by their financial and political restraints to demand the change that is necessary. Reich focuses in particular on the working poor, who are too afraid of losing their jobs, and for most of whom unions no longer have the political clout to seem like a viable ally; and on students, who in the past have had the political freedom, intellectual stimulation, and lack of immediate financial pressure, to allow them to participate in activism in a way working people rarely have the luxury and resources to. The working poor are not unionised, students are hemmed in by debt and fear of being unable to obtain a job with which to pay it off. And all people have had their liberty to protest restricted as our civil liberties are eroded.
Technology also plays into this. Whilst the Internet gives us new avenues to communicate, spread knowledge, voice anger, governments and big business also use it, and increasing surveillance, to monitor us. Speaking up becomes a significant risk. Chillingly, protesters in the Ukraine were recently texted by their government: ‘Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance’. And right now the Ukrainian government is preparing to shut down all access to internet, TV, and telephone to cut off communications with the rest of the world to prevent news of the protests spreading. Meanwhile, Net Neutrality is under threat in the US, and the US government plans another war whilst the victims of Hurricane Katrina still languish in poverty, 8 years on. And, as is noted in that link (attributed to Bryan Pfeifer, but I couldn’t locate the original) most of the ignored victims are people of colour – our social divisions deepen along financial lines as rich white people fail to be interested in plights that largely affect people of colour. It’s hard to ignore the comparison to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, immortalised in the song ‘When the Levee Breaks’, in which ‘somewhere between 700,000 and 1 million people were displaced’, mostly black people, many of whom were held in concentration camps when they tried to seek refuge elsewhere.
But whilst the similarities to events of the 1920s and 30s abound, our popular media is full of eccentric billionaires and superheroes who right our wrongs in fantastic style, wowing us with showy fights and special effects which offer us nothing that we can turn to in ourselves to fight our struggles with. I love Person of Interest and its evident concern with surveillance culture, but the answer is not a white billionaire genius computer nerd teaming up with a white super-spy. I’m the first to enjoy a good fantasy, and I love superhero films, but we’re drowning in sedative culture that ignores the pressing concerns of our day to day lives and seeks to make us forget to take our own stands.
As a Jimmy Stewart fan, I sought out a number of his old films simply to watch the great and beautiful man do his thing. What I got was a punch to the gut of people living the experiences we’re feeling right now nearly a century ago. When you mention It’s a Wonderful Life, people think of a feel-good Christmas movie. When you talk about Mr Smith Goes to Washington, you think of a political drama about an Everyman figure fighting the good fight. If you’ve heard of it, then you might think of The Shop Around the Corner as a sappy romance, in a similar vein to its later incarnation You’ve Got Mail. But there are important differences between You’ve Got Mail and The Shop Around the Corner, and these differences chiefly arise because You’ve Got Mail was made in the boom years, where the social pressures of The Shop Around the Corner simply do not apply. Meg Ryan plays a shop owner who is put out of business by the owner of a big chain, but she’s never really in dire financial straights, and neither is he. The stakes are pretty low on both sides. For a film whose premise is to take an old film and try to show that despite changes in technology, things are still pretty much the same, it kind of strikingly misses the point of the original film.
Check it: The Shop Around the Corner starts as Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), having been forced to leave a job where she was being sexually harassed, is desperately seeking work at another department store. She approaches Alfred Kralik (Jimmy Stewart), the senior clerk at Matuschek and Company. He’s clearly at the top of his game and a good deal brighter than the store owner, and he tries to let Klara down gently, pointing out that Matuschek & Co. aren’t doing such great business themselves. But Klara gets a lucky break when Mr Matuschek overhears their conversation and is impressed when Klara manages to sell a box that he had disagreed with Kralik over earlier. Klara is hired, but she and Kralik have got off on the wrong foot.
It turns out that Kralik has been engaged in romantic correspondence with a woman he has never met. They arrange to meet, but on the day of their date, Kralik is fired, due to a misunderstanding, and the fact that he’s the only person in the place prepared to stand up to Mr Matuschek. Kralik can’t face keeping his date, but his friend persuades him to go see what the girl looks like anyway. I hope it’s no spoiler to say that it turns out to be Klara. The rest of the plot unfolds as you might expect, with some interesting side plots.
You can already see how economic uncertainty (including how this can be affected by issues like gender) is at the heart of the plot. These are people who are in employment, but still living very much on the edge. Klara is truly brave to leave her former employment after she’s sexually harassed, but doing so leaves her in desperate straights. Both Klara and Kralik are intelligent and self-educated – their meeting of minds is over literature, and Kralik had found Klara’s ad in the classifieds when looking for second hand encyclopedias – both clearly capable of performing roles much more challenging than those they are employed to perform, and both extremely grateful to be employed at all. Kralik’s bravery in speaking out is noted as rash on several occasions. Kralik’s friend, Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) advises him, gently:
Pirovitch: Kralik, don’t be impulsive, not at a time like this. Not when millions of people are out of work.
Kralik: I can get a job anywhere.
Pirovitch: Can you? Let’s be honest.
Kralik: I’ll take a chance. I’m no coward, you know. I’m not afraid.
Pirovitch: I am. I have a family.
Kralik: Well, I haven’t.
Pirovitch: Think it over. Those were nice letters, weren’t they?
Pirovitch is pointing out that even love has a cost. To speak out is to endanger not only your own health and happiness, but that of those around you. If you lose your job, you can’t support a family, you can’t plan a family, and you become a prospective burden to anyone who might become involved with you. In times of economic hardship, the wise person avoids risks. Maybe money can’t buy you love, but love can certainly leave where the lack of money makes loving too hard.
And it’s no empty warning: we see that Kralik’s intelligence and outspokenness puts him in the firing line when the boss is looking for someone to blame, even though Kralik has been nothing but loyal. He does lose his job, and his boss loses a good worker. But he can afford to do so – there are other good workers who will step up to the plate to fill his place. Of course, this is a romantic comedy, it’s required to have a happy ending, so things work out OK, but every conversation is underwritten with a tension that says that everyone except for Mr Matuschek is living on the edge. And even though Mr Matuschek is basically an OK sort of guy, the extent by which his wealth exceeds those of his workers is striking.
Sure, this is a film about love, but it’s also a film about economics, unfairness, the poverty line, and how this interacts with one’s ability to protest and live a free and independent life.
By the same measure, Mr Smith Goes to Washington isn’t just an underdog film, it’s a film about political corruption, the power of the state and big business to destroy anyone who dares to protest; it’s about media control and the control of education and the right of children of all races to have freedom to learn in a positive environment, and how rich white men will not only take that away without thinking, they will fight viciously, and they will win if we do not have laws in place to prevent it and a populace knowledgeable, willing, and brave enough to make use of those laws.
Similarly, It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t just a tale about how an angel gets his wings by helping a good man see how the world is a better place with him in it. It shows how reckless and selfish bankers can ruin hundreds of lives and leave unfortunate ordinary people to take the consequences in their place. It’s a film about hardship and desperation before the happy ending, and how good people can be driven to take their own lives by economic hardship. And it’s a film about how we need to stand together in difficult times against the rich and privileged who would throw us under a bus.
I don’t know how we get out of this state we have allowed this world to get into, but what I do know is that we have faced these issues before and found a way out the other side. So maybe it would do us some good to watch the films we made the last time around.