Ahhhh Sullivan’s Travels….first time I heard this argument was in reference to the Cohen Brothers, and their movies like Barton Fink and Oh Brother Where Art Thou, and I remember first reading of it and thinking yeah that might be right, but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s bullshit.
For those uninitiated into the arcane lore of Depression Era movies, Sullivan’s Travels is a movie whose sole promise is propaganda of a certain sort. It was dark and troubling times, with many homeless and without work and without money. And the movie is about some rich movie producer/director/writer who wants to make a film much like Grapes of Wrath that shines a light on the darkness everyone experiences, the darkness, he says, of the common man. And then he loses his jobs and he goes broke, and he becomes homeless and a con. And when he’s in prison he goes to see a movie and sees all these convicts laughing and he has an epiphany- what these common men need is not a reminder of all the pain and suffering they are in, nonono, what they need is an escape. They have enough suffering. They need to laugh and forget it for awhile.
On the outside, it seems like a sound argument. There is enough suffering in the world, why add more to it? But then it’s simplifying things, making things overtly basic. And it’s insulting- it’s saying that normal people have hard lives enough as it is and can’t get any enjoyment out of anything but the basest pleasures. That to expect more of them is to not understand them. It’s coying, it’s talking down, it’s looking down noses at the working class of society.
But lets get beyond that for a moment. Why are people still using this argument today? It’s old and hackneyed and from a time that’s so different from today it’s not even close to being parallel. First off, it’s insulting to assume that anyone that’s not of the uppercrust can only be entertained by things that are mindless. Second off, it assumes the only way to relieve this pain is through idiocy and entertainment that helps them forget their suffering. Thirdly, it was done at a time before television like it is now with a million channels, movies like they are now with all of their escapes, and video games, and the internet, and etc, etc, etc.
We have gone from a cynical, insulting concept of a necessary release valve for those who suffer to a world where all we’ve got is mindless entertainment. The main thrust of almost every mass-market movie, almost every sitcom (and even reality show), and every popular bit of mass-consumed-fiction (Romance, Urban Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, etc & etc) is to put the reader into a spot where they don’t have to engage with the plots or their lives or anything anymore, they just consume and forget and consume and forget and consume and forget.
And if you point out even a minor flaw in these, or say you don’t find them entertaining, you get rage, you get anger, you get insults. Not, may I add, a critical response but instead a gut filled hate response. Why is this? Why is criticizing something so mediocre, something so pat and meant to be just digested and shit out without thought or consequence- why is this proceeded by such venom?
Have you ever told a drug addict that maybe they should stop that maybe they’ve taken it too far, and that fun is fun, but they are destroying their lives?
Yeah, that. This mass-market consumer culture for our media-based narrative engines is a drug meant to placate us. It’s a drug that’s marketed (as they insultingly say in that movie, and in Barton Fink over and over again) to the common man, to the blue collar man, etc & etc &etc, and sure you could say hey that’s what people like that’s what people want we’re just giving them what they want- but is it really what they want, or is it what they’ve been raised to want? From birth suckling on the television, being fed it and ingested it and being raised on it to the point if something varies from the formula it’s seen as being a mess as being not right as being ill-fitting and unreal. If it doesn’t prescribe to the blockbuster monomyth etched into holy writ by George Lucas than the media narrative is a lie, is something that’s being forced to us by people that think they are smarter than us.
Let me just say this: Jim Carroll. Or maybe Bukowski or maybe Vonnegut or maybe any of the beat writers (any at all take your pick), or maybe Darcy Stienke, or maybe Kevin Canty, or maybe any and all those rough trod writers who reveal what they see in every day, or in comics you can have much more, so many more people like Harvey Peakar, Crumb, etc etc etc and with music you’ve got punk and blues and ska, and with movies…
Well I could spend all day and that’s not even a partial list. But here’s the thing- we’re addicted to this now, aren’t we? We’ve become drug addled sleep walkers to simple entertainment that helps us forget, and it’s become an opiate to us, and there is so much of it, so much so much so much of it, it becomes all we have, it becomes all consuming in every bit. People get done with work and they play a video game or watch tv or a movie or something or browse the internet and write fan fiction for movies and television, subsuming these narratives and not living the lives in front of us, and all the while the narratives of just entertainment seep in and corrupt the symbols of our own experiences, until that’s it, that’s all we have…
Here’s the thing- here’s something that’s being ignored in the original movie and argument: empty entertainment leaves us empty. But entertainment that shows other people who are going through the same thing, and shines redemptive lights on them, and make them beautiful and all that, it makes everyone feel less empty and less alone in the universe. And isn’t that a more important thing? It’s not depressing to see your life made beautiful, it’s not depressing to see someone else go through all that same rigmarole you’ve gone through.
It’s comforting, it’s a stab in the dark heart of loneliness in a time when you need it most. But it’s not an empty comfort, nono, not a void comfort. It’s filling. Think of it as the difference between scarfing down McDonald’s as a grown overweight man, versus the time as a child when you were spending the night at your grandparent’s house, and they’re making you a warm dinner and at night you sleep under a mountain blankets in a house were the stars are not forgotten, but shine their auguries out into the night.