Sullivan's Boom-and-Bust Travels

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An article in the Telegraph describes the recession as a good time to "[r]ead happy fiction. The bottom has fallen out of the market for ‘misery memoirs’ — but Bookguild Publishing, which specialises in novels with ‘cheerful’ titles like Taking a Chance and Every Other Inch a Gentleman, has seen its fiction sales up by 13 per cent."

This trend can be seen in other popular art-forms, specifically the great American enterprise of film. Sky News reports that "with the world in economic meltdown, a series of slapstick and feel-good films are proving to be box office hits. . . . It is thought people are choosing to sidestep heavy dramas in favour of films that give them a bit of escapism from the reality of the real world." Furthermore, we know that Hollywood sees itself as recession proof, partly since it "has historically done well in recessions because it provides the escapism needed." While movie-going diminished by one-third during the Great Depression, Americans still frequented theaters quite often, compared to other luxuries that took a harder hit. Movies have done great lately, too, even as other forms of recreation have declined.

This movie/recession business brings to mind Preston Sturges’s classic 1941 film, Sullivan’s Travels. The title character, played by Joel McCrea, is a director itching to move away from his blockbuster comedies and instead make the Great American Film — a tragic exposé of the life of the Depression-era downtrodden in all its sordid realism. He has an artistic drive to do something important.

And so he goes undercover as a hobo, living in shelters and eating from soup kitchens. A thief steals his identity and is found dead. Everyone thinks the corpse is Sullivan, who in a confused state assaults a man and is sentenced to five years of hard labor.

During his term, he finds laughter in the prison’s screening of a Disney cartoon, the one reprieve from misery for most of the inmates. Sullivan comes to an epiphany that people who truly feel depression do not need to be reminded of it through the arts. What they need most is laughter and so he redirects his focus back to uplifting film. He is released from prison when his identity is discovered and Sullivan’s Travels ends emphatically happy.

Sullivan, as an artist, a man who wants to react to and shape reality, had lived in a personal bubble, and so became obsessed with looking at the dark side. When he actually saw the dark side up close, he realized the artist’s reaction should be to cheer people up. As his own personal boom turns to bust, he reacts appropriately with compensating focus on the upside of life. He is in many ways a microcosm of the artistic marketplace in a changing world. The film market often paradoxically reflects the economic situation.

Before 1914, the establishment of the Federal Reserve, Hollywood was an embryonic shell of what it soon became. Color movies were rare and there were no talkies. We do not have much of a film industry during a period of sound money to analyze.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, most smash hits were feel-good movies. Most of the dark and serious films still provided escape from, rather than focus on, depression-era life. Comedies were demanded by the market and American needs, which is why Sullivan had done so well with them. 1939’s biggest movie by far was Gone With the Wind, the highest grossing film ever, adjusted for inflation. Certainly no festive comedy, it nevertheless provides escape and ends on a hopeful note: "Tomorrow is another day!"

We have seen a few boom-bust cycles in film in the last couple decades. Consider the unusually optimistic Clinton years, which many remember with at least some nostalgia. Late 1980s and early 1990s celebratory comedy and pop music had become gauche. In the midst of Gulf War fervor and wide approval of the George H.W. Bush administration, the recession was foreshadowed by the Best Picture Oscar winner for 1991, Silence of the Lambs, which depicted extreme pathology hidden in an otherwise familiar and comfortable world. But the post-Gulf War recession demanded a sanguine response, so the most popular film became Disney’s Aladdin — Sullivan’s fellow prisoners would have loved it.

This eventually gave way to the boom of the 1990s. For the mid-1990s, popular entertainment remained optimistic, but art culture progressed toward irony, sarcasm and deconstruction. Grunge and alternative music had for a few years played to angst and disaffection with a world that artists suspected was not as bright as it seemed. This underground irony began as an alternative but by the end of the decade overtook the mainstream, signifying the height of the boom. When even mainstream popular culture can afford to be knowingly sarcastic, the boom phase is almost done.

The "serious" side of film, the movies that drew critical claim, were increasingly those that drew attention to the underbelly of humanity. The Best Picture for 1993 was Schindler’s List, likely the most somber film ever to win the award, beat out The Piano, a film that sought to explore human dysfunction. Titanic won for 1997: as everyone was living it up on a platform thought to be as stable as was ever built, artists sought to focus on the tragedy around the corner. Titanic was also the big box-office smash. The greater world was beginning to be clued in to the danger, to be distracted from their seeming prosperity long enough to see the frustrated artists’ pessimism. But these films focused on settings far removed from modern American experience. It would take a couple years before such accessible tragic art began not just focusing on evil and suffering, but to question the illusory status quo of prosperity known to the common man.

By the mid-1990s, underground cynicism toward modern existence had begun to enter the mainstream, and become self-aware in an unsustainable cycle of ever-growing irony. One famous 1996 Simpsons episode summed up the postmodernization of mainstream consciousness in a wonderful bit of dialogue, taking place at a rock festival:

Teen 1: "Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He’s cool."

Teen 2: "Are you being sarcastic, dude?"

Teen 1: "I don’t even know anymore."

Consider film at the very height of the dotcom boom. The Best Picture award for 1999 went to American Beauty, a film that deconstructed normal American bourgeois culture and times of perceived high prosperity. Many were offended by the movie’s attack on their identities, but it in any event reflected an attempt to discover the downside in a superficially positive reality. The boom of the late 1990s did not have quite the utopian implications that many artists sensed.

At the time, the most interesting and socially critical films were also huge ticket sellers. The hits were artsy and uneasy, signifying a reaction to the boom. Being John Malkovich was uncomfortably introspective and metaphysical. The Blair Witch Project found terror in the commonplace of American rural exploration. Eyes Wide Shut featured a well-to-do character whose life, once the surface was scratched, was perverted and deceitful. Magnolia was a postmodern attack on modern social values, finding emotional degeneration in a multitude of characters from diverse walks of life. Fight Club explored the fragility of civil society, governance and the social order. Office Space discovered depression in the corporate world. The Matrix questioned reality itself.

These films were not merely tragic while maintaining escapist elements; they did not focus on tragedy from a distant time and place, as did Gone With the Wind or Titanic. They did not point to hope in an otherwise hopeless world; rather, they examined modern American life at the height of the bubble from a critical perspective, searching for agony and hopelessness in a reality assumed by popular culture to be at the height of evolution.

American Beauty was thus representative of a trend in the popular artform. The film industry was shorting the American dream.

Then the dotcom bubble burst. 9/11 happened. So the successful movies became the well done but simplistic tales of pure heroism and good vs. evil. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Monster’s Inc. and Shrek were the most popular films of 2001, when people wanted to be cheered up. By 2002, the big movies told great and sometimes cartoonish stories: The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter again; Spider-Man and Star Wars Episode II. The dystopian Minority Report did not do as well as Men in Black II, although it was certainly a more thoughtful treatment of government and a better movie.

Early after the dotcom bust, some of the most artful and thoughtful movies were colorfully jubilant. The Best Picture Award for 2002 went to an energetic and fantastical musical comedy: Chicago. Not in 35 years had a musical won the top prize, not since the late-1960s film Oliver! Chicago was resplendent and sharp. Art and entertainment were working together against the bust.

Bush and Greenspan were also working on the bust. Instead of letting recession play out, they quickly folded the economy into another, bigger bubble. As the Bush-Greenspan housing boom progressed, the more thoughtful movies began to question the optimism of the bubble, even as the box office hits continued painting a rosy picture. At the same time, war patriotism slowly began giving way to war discontent. This allowed for simultaneously thoughtless and yet socially ironic reality television. It also saw the divide widen between the more interesting films and the less inspired yet popular ones.

Mass audiences still did not yet realize it was a bubble. Shrek, Harry Potter and Spider-Man each had a sequel in 2004 and 2007, topping the popularity contests for those years. The 2007 sequels were invariably less inspired than the 2004 ones. People were still trying to be cheered up and to take their mind off of negativity, even reality, and even poorly made movies would suffice. But eventually the people got a little too comfortable and the film market responded.

A lot of the more interesting films had already been suggesting that 2000s prosperity and security were artificial. I Heart Huckabees in 2004 trivialized modern life, searching for meaning and anti-meaning. The same year, Napoleon Dynamite drew attention to the frivolity that constitutes meaning in the modern world. The year 2005 saw the magnificently subversive V for Vendetta, a film that both judged government with moral universals but also scrutinized overly elementary concepts of ethics, all at a time when housing prices were going up ever higher and opinion about the war on terror was still much higher than now. Munich stripped apart Manichaean morality on the controversial subject of terrorism. Little Miss Sunshine in 2006 was somewhat reminiscent of the late-1990s search for pathology in rosy America.

Meanwhile, many of the most sophisticated live-action stories emerged not on film but on television. The character development, the writing, the direction and acting all improved in serial TV dramas. HBO’s The Wire (2002—2008), one of the greatest artistic achievements in our time, tore apart the sacred institutions of contemporary America — the police, the unions, the school system, electoral politics and the big media. Criminals and respected authority were both treated with stark realism, neither dehumanized nor glorified.

By 2007—2008, the artistic forces short-selling the Ownership Society were picking up traction in the mainstream. The winner of 2007’s Best Picture Oscar was No Country for Old Men — a powerful movie far more negative and nihilistic than, say, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the beautiful 2000 comedy made by the same film duo, the Cohen brothers (who took the name from Sullivan’s Travels — specifically, from the title Sullivan had wanted to call his brutally real Great Depression film).

By 2008, critical and contrarian art was again both interesting and popular. The biggest movie was The Dark Knight, which was hardly the same kind of joyful morality play of good vs. evil that was seen in the early Bush years. Directed by Christopher Nolan — whose 2000 film Memento deconstructed reality perception at the tail end of the Clinton era, was too an exploration of nuance and continuum — The Dark Knight examined the different grades of evil, the corruptibility of heroes, the paradox in social responses to the antisocial. The Joker was maintained as a classic embodiment of undiluted wickedness, bad for the sake of it, malevolent by nature, reminiscent of pure villains like Iago from Othello. And yet our caped crusader himself was much, much darker than the superheroes of the early Bush era and the confident boom period. He was even an antihero. He signified something was wrong. Our hero Batman was going too far to root out his nemesis, becoming a bit like the enemy. What did it mean?

It was after the summer of the Dark Knight that everyone finally agreed the bubble was unsustainable. By late 2008, no one needed to be reminded of institutional evil since it was on the news every day. Heath Ledger did get the post-mortem Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, but the Best Picture award and the lion’s share of other honors went to the optimistic and uplifting Slumdog Millionaire.

We can now expect a period of more movies that are positive, classically funny and good-natured, with lots to laugh at and find happiness in. Not just the superficial mass audiences but the more "serious" art community will be responding to the current depression the way markets often respond: with compensatory reallocation of resources and focus. There will be fewer films trying to make us aware of the uncomfortable truths being obscured by our now-popped bubble reality, fewer fatalistic and introspective searches for the negative in a world just recently misperceived as unrealistically positive. Instead, the film market will react by trying to cheer us up and have a laugh, identify the humorous and joyful, just as Sullivan did after he hit bottom.

This will happen quickly, because the film market responds so much faster and rationally in serving our needs in a downturn than most of the rest of the establishment. This means, in the short-term, more happy endings and higher-quality comedies, as the more artistic, unusual and creative find that there is more demand and social need for their efforts in telling the bright side of the human story rather than a neglected dark side.

In the long term, after we eventually recover from this slump, so long as we have a central bank, watch Hollywood. If the popular movies are campy and simplistically cheerful while the intelligent movies are almost overbearingly socially critical, we’re probably moving toward the peak of another boom phase. When irony and deconstruction become box-office smashes, it’s time to pull out while you still can.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a research analyst at the Independent Institute and editor-in-chief of the Campaign for Liberty. He lives in Berkeley, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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