Friday, October 19, 2007

Captive Audience

Sullivan's Travels, 1942, dir. by Preston Sturges

The basic plot is this: bigshot director John L. Sullivan is tired of directing mindless comedy, and wants to do a message picture. He realizes he doesn’t know anything about the problems of the poor, so he dresses up as a hobo and goes out to look for America. A case of mistaken identity leads Hollywood to assume he’s dead, and he ends up with a six year hard labor sentence. At this point, he and his fellow prisoners are taken to a black church to see a movie.

Sully has been making trouble for the warden, and thus for himself, by insisting he is not supposed to be there. (There must be some mistake. You see, I’m rich!) This makes the movie scene a tense, even scary moment. His hope, and our fear, is that he might see himself on screen, and make more trouble.

His hope that the movie will liberate him would be touching, except that the audience (in the film and outside the film—all audiences are both inside and outside the film) knows that films do not liberate. How is he imagining he would be freed, exactly? Seeing his name on a film would do nothing to prove he is who he says he is. Even suppose he is able to demonstrate a total knowledge of the film; this mastery over the film would free him from the manipulations of the film itself, but would do nothing to convince the skeptical warden that he actually made the film. After the studio distribution process, he has no more right to the film than the rest of the audience does. The culture industry enchains even the director.

Expecting to see his own reflection, what he gets instead is this:

A charitable reading of this would be that Sturges is making light of Sully’s pretensions. You think you’re a bigshot? You and your fellow humans are nothing but silly animals. There’s nothing to do but laugh at the human condition.

That would probably be more appropriate if we were looking at Chaplin, someone showing his own ridiculousness. (There’s a difference between Sturges the writer-director and Chaplin the director-actor—Chaplin's self-mocking is direct, Sturges's is indirect.) But there’s no pathos in Mickey Mouse, it’s pure product. This is a defense of the worst aspects of the culture industry: you are prisoners, film will not free you, it will only make your bondage slightly bearable. There is nothing anyone can do to change it, so don’t try.

The only way I can see this movie as anything else is to read the deus-ex-machina ending that comes right after this scene as an ironic attempt by the film to subvert itself. (See: The Last Laugh.) Saved by modern mass media! His sentence magically reversed! No sympathy at all for his fellow prisoners. A huge plot hole that shows the inadequacy of the very type of movie it claims to be. Somehow I don’t think this was how it was intended, or received.

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