16 October 2009

29. Sullivan's Travels




The thing I find most admirable about studio pictures of the 30's and 40's is their economy of narrative. Here we get the beginning, a patently false action scene: a train chase to end a picture, and then the lights come up in the studio office and the heads (commerce) duke it out with the director (art) -- a parallel with what the director was trying to represent with his fight, and a tip of the hat to the audience that Sturges has already made up his mind about the subject: he plans to give the audience what they want.

This is rich stuff already, and we're only in the first five minutes.

The director wants something that Robin Williams, Will Ferrell and Jim Carrey can relate to: he wants to make people think. Making them laugh is not good enough, not honorable enough for him anymore. He wants to discuss The World, he wants to make a picture about the poor, the common man, about Trouble. The problem? He's never had to work a hard day in his life, nor does he know from the poor. So: he'll LARP a hobo.

Within 10 minutes, they're off. He's tramping with an old-timey RV behind him, clad with a doctor, a photographer, a PR man. The director resents this entourage, because he desires an authentic experience. He wants no hand-holding, and gets away from the rest by hitchhiking with a boy in his derby car. Thus: a chase. The audience gets some laughs and some excitement, but there's a reason for it.

He heads off again, promising to meet them in Vegas. He has a run-in with a widow (and there's a great gag with her husband's portrait).

He meets the girl: Veronica Lake. Boy, is she beautiful. Boy, does she have great dialogue. But she also displays generosity, and his new desire in act 2 is to help her fulfill her dreams of being a working actress. His ruse is up with her eventually, and they go off again together, tramping at the train station. In this, she's doing more acting than she's probably previously done.

He gets sick on the train, so they hop out at a lunch counter. Again, generosity in the form of a counter-owner who gives them coffee and cakes for free. He is repaid when they spot the RV. They must return -- he is sick and must be bedridden. The counter-owner gets $100.

Once he's well, they're off again, this time locally. They goes to where the destitute, showering with them, eating with them, sleeping in piles with them. He trades boots with another man who's feet are freezing. All of this we're given almost as a silent film, with no word, just music. It's too long to be a montage, and it conveys everything we need to know about the poor. As such, it's what we would imagine Sullivan would want to make himself, if he could.

With this, he's done. He feels he's seen enough, but he goes down one last time to pass out money to the poor. A greedy old hobo notices and knocks him on the head, drags him off into a train car and steals his boots and money. The train takes off and the hobo is killed while trying to retrieve the cash.

Note: this above section with the old hobo is almost a small story unto itself. It remains me immediately of the Chris Tucker section of "Jackie Brown", which played as a small aside, still within the larger narrative, that could play without it. Again, the economy contained within is breathtaking -- we see an entire arc, are given a moral, and get a great image of fluttering dollar bills over a boot. Incredible.

The 3rd act begins. Now he's not longer acting -- he really is down-and-out. He commits assault and is sent to prison. Now he knows how the other half lives and, gaining that wisdom, he wants to return to his real life.

And why not? This life is hard, stuck in a sweat box, manual labor all day, a terror of a boss/warden. The only relief the men get is going to a church where they put a sheet down to play movies. A cinema in the church! The conceit is too great: this little bit of release is their salvation. Again, the generosity of people is too much -- they give up the front rows and sing "Let My People Go."

The show is a simple cartoon, but it allows them to do what is missing in their lives otherwise: laugh. That's when the lightbulb comes on over Sullivan's head: movies work best as entertainment, as escape, and there's no shame in giving people pleasure.

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