2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 55, fall 2013
From Hoover to Bush Jr. —
home and crisis scripts in U.S. social cinema
by Antonio Sánchez-Escalonilla
In their respective accounts of U.S. cinema in the 1930s, Ross and May highlight the role of Hollywood directors such as Ford, Wyler, Capra, LeRoy and Vidor who, supported by their producers, articulated a narrative countercurrent reflecting social values in the aftermath of the Great Depression. During the years of New Deal and the 1940s, this school of thought and feeling within the Hollywood industry sought to empathize with the suffering of ordinary people. As Ross asserts, this tendency backed a multicultural approach to cinema that fostered
“a new, inclusive democratic ethos which heralded the equality of all citizens and called for cooperation between previously hostile groups of elites and outsiders” (Ross, 2002: 128-129).
May also argues that by backing such an approach several producers distanced themselves from the studio system, prompting them to reformulate dramatic archetypes and even to revise national myths. They
“created a language for what did not yet exist: a pluralistic producers’ democracy rooted in hostility to what President Roosevelt called the new ‘money changers’ and ‘feudal lords’ of industry” (May, 2000: 97).
This new cinematic output emerged in opposition to the classical or conventional film narratives of the 1920s. At the height of an unprecedented crisis in U.S. history, it re-shaped a significant number of social standards and symbols—in particular, the collective image of home.
In cinema the Great Depression awakened social consciousness through narratives of crisis. And this tendency, in my opinion, is still valid in how film narratives reflect social conflicts during periods of economic convulsion. During their second term, the Bush-Cheney administration faced financial problems that emerged in June 2007 and a consequent meltdown in 2008 that triggered the worst U.S. economic crisis since the 1930s. Seventy years later, in the aftermath of another financial downturn, “independents” within the film industry in the United States have once again begun to address narratives of households in crisis, as seen with directors such as Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, Jason Reitman and Tom McCarthy. These four filmmakers made feature fiction films between 2006 and 2010 that fit narrative patterns laid down the above-mentioned narrative countercurrent that emerged in Hollywood during the New Deal.
The “independent” aspect of certain films produced in the 1930s is not mirrored exactly in “Indiewood,” the present-day hybrid phenomenon of indie productions and major Hollywood studios. However, in their respective historical periods, both cinematic movements have explored narratives of economic crisis by means of alternative production formulas, beyond exclusively commercial concerns, so as to offer U.S. viewers a set of portraits and reflections on social life. Currently such distinguished independent-minded productions as Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2006), The Visitor (Tom McCarthy, 2007), Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009) and Win Win (Tom McCarthy, 2011) all depict households in crisis by drawing on visions of domestic life that were formed in the 1930s and consolidated in the 1940s.
In this article, I intend to explore the scope and enduring validity of home as setting and theme in cinema. It is fundamental to filmic narratives of crisis in light of its ties to the history and identity of the United States. Both in the 1930s and in the late 2000s, a threat to or the destruction of the home functions as a succinct dramatic premise for screenwriters and filmmakers. It is especially so if the filmmaker’s goal is to portray from a critical perspective the conflicts that the victims of the economic crisis are caught up in, especially families—whether long-established in the United States or newly-arrived to its shores. My analysis here is specifically framed by the work of Capra and Ford, two pioneering directors whose creative accounts of menaced homes still echo in the films produced by contemporary filmmakers. In our time, Dayton, Faris, McCarthy and Reitman and their screenwriters also depict the lives of ordinary people, whose homes are threatened by the interests and insensitivity of political and financial leaders.
John Ford: exodus from home on Route 66
According to Selcer, the concept of home is more than a commonplace; it is a fundamental cornerstone of national collective memory. Of all the archetypes reflected in cinematic narratives, none has proven so powerful or so lasting:
“During good times in our history, it has been a symbol of everything good in American life. During the bad times, its status has been used as a yardstick for the decline of America” (Selcer, 1990: 55).
Indeed, Mackey-Kellis holds that during one such period of hard times, the 1930s economic Depression, the domestic archetype was reformulated as the “myth of the lost home” (125-160), a re-imagining spurred on by real dramas of family life: mortgage payments, repossessions and unemployment. By depicting social poverty, the cinema of the New Deal underscored the link between home and the re-foundation story, historically associated with the emigrant, a figure with a vital role in the foundation of the United States (127). Home in contemporary cinema has new connotations, especially at an historical moment when the United States and Europe, which share certain narrative criteria and social concerns, are facing the consequences of an economic crisis that, like the 1929 crash, has had a global impact.
Among filmmakers associated with narratives of crisis, John Ford and Frank Capra have shaped the filmic model of the U.S. home, especially in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Both directors frame the characters’ search for home and their endeavor to re-build it in relation to three tropes: the family, epic struggle, and the United States as a domestic space. Ray (1985: 185) holds that this threefold frame mirrors the three pairs of traditional binary values in U.S. literature and mythology:
In relation to this shared threefold framework, the main characters in Capra’s comedies tend to be individual heroes in the mould of Odysseus; they want to return to home and homeland, unchanged and untouched. In contrast, Ford’s characters, in both dramas and Westerns, assert themselves as re-founders of homes. They are collective heroes of a Virgilian kind, journeying like Aeneas and his countrymen to a promised land.
According to Shindler, the image of home discloses Ford’s historical perspective, encapsulated in
“the relationship of man to the soil, the importance of the family as a bastion of love in a hostile world, and the action of those individuals who are forced by age, temperamental instability or economic vicissitude to fight a hopeless battle” (Shindler, 1996: 80).
On the other hand, Capra depicts provincial heroes struggling against the venality of city-life in New Deal United States, and his films frame such heroism in relation to two fixed standards:
“First, they exalted the dignity of the individual by emphasizing his uniqueness as a person, the value of his friends and the rewards of his steadfastness […] Second, they restored a sense of patriotism that the nation as a whole had left in abeyance in 1929” (Shindler, 1996: 95).
The Grapes of Wrath, Ford’s outstanding contribution to narratives of crisis in Hollywood, tells the exodus of a family of Oklahoma farmers, the Joads, during the Great Depression. They leave their property behind to escape poverty and to begin a new life in California, “the land of milk and honey.” In a ramshackle van, three generations of an Okie family tag onto the convoy of caravans travelling along Route 66 across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, almost half the span of the country, only to face terrible disappointment at the end of the road. In California, the promised land barely affords an inhumane form of life in collective confinement, with migrants subject to constant police supervision. In adapting Steinbeck’s novel, Ford extrapolated from the domestic upheaval experienced by the characters in the drama to embrace the suffering of the nation as a whole during the Great Depression when families were driven into uncertain exodus across the country. However, the film also contrasts the failure of the American Dream with the renewal of hope that accompanies the Joads in their decision to take to the road. Success in life, as well as an acute survival instinct, guides the family over the course of their journey. And in this context the third generation of Joads is depicted (Tom, Rosasharn, and two children), who undertake the journey in a spirit of innocent enthusiasm.
Through the characters of Tom and Ma Joad, Ford articulates a social discourse and reconstructs the three aspects of the domestic archetype (family, struggle, nation) in the film’s ending. The domestic is extrapolated into the communal. Ford reads from the Joads’ home into the U.S. home.
The mother’s strength is presented as a cornerstone of the family’s survival in a time of domestic crisis. In the end, Ma Joad overshadows the father-figure, who seems weak and wavering in the face of the adversity afflicting his older children. Tom fails to find a decent job and Rosasharn, who is caring for their newborn child, is abandoned by her husband. Gallagher interprets such a rise of the mother-figure in the home as a shift brought about abruptly by the economic crisis. He notes that patriarchal power in the Joad clan appears to die with Grandpa:
“What is actually happening is nothing less than the transformation of the Joad family from a patriarchy rooted in the earth to a matriarchy uprooted on the road […] Once on the road, the men have a tendency to wander and finally run away altogether either via drink or via distance. The women of the family must then hold the fort and save the children as poverty and unemployment destroy the authority of the paterfamilias” (193).
The preeminent role of Ma Joad as the head of the household is clearly revealed at the film’s end in the final conversation with her eldest son. Although she initially confesses to Tom her fear that the experience of prison might have compromised his moral integrity forever, their words at the leave-taking articulate the reasons that led him to leave home behind and fight against injustice:
“I’ll be everywhere, wherever you look. Wherever there’s a fight so human people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there too.”
Shindler considers this scene a kind of redemption:
“the ending of the film, as conceived by Ford is similarly religious in feeling. Seated together on an empty bandstand, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) tells his mother (Jane Darwell) that he has learned from the death of Casey, the preacher, that he must exchange his natural family for a greater family: the American people” (77).
As this exchange discloses, the struggle to preserve home opens out from the domestic sphere to encompass the country as a whole, offering a more hopeful vision than the ending to Steinbeck’s novel. The novel comes to a close with Rosasharn breastfeeding a dying man in an abandoned barn. Although the film likewise ends on a maternal note, a different tone is struck in Ma Joad’s final remark to her husband, which takes on twofold significance because of the content of the speech and its speaker. The mother of the clan, whom Ford wanted to have the final word in the script (Wagner 156-157), asserts the victory of society over the evils stemming from the Depression:
“We are the people that live. Can’t nobody wipe us out. Can’t nobody lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa. We’re the people.”
Capra and the American Dream: Pottersville versus Bedford Falls
In allegorical terms, Ford underscores the close parallel between the domestic home and U.S. society as the national home, and he highlights the notion that the strength and virtues of the former are crucial to the recovery of the latter during times of crisis. From a different dramatic perspective, Capra presents a similar vision of the family home as the cradle of future anonymous heroes committed to social justice in It’s a Wonderful Life. This Christmas tale echoes the literary work of Dickens and the paintings of Norman Rockwell. It tells the story of the personal breakdown experienced by George Bailey, a husband and father who has never set foot outside his home town, Bedford Falls, sacrificing his own hopes and dreams (travels, adventure, career, job offers, even his honeymoon) so as to look after friends and neighbors through his work at the Building & Loan Company. George provides funds to owners too poor to get loans from the local bank: in other words, he builds homes. The drama is set in motion when an unexpected twist of fate, which could see him end up in prison, prompts him to set his principles aside and even leads him to contemplate suicide.
George Bailey’s frustration repeats the disappointment incarnated by other New Deal, Capra heroes such as Longfellow Deeds, Jefferson Smith and John Doe, as well as characters from earlier times, such as the altruistic banker in American Madness (1932) who battles against the tycoons on Wall Street. Nevertheless, at a deeper level, Bailey’s personal crisis in It’s a Wonderful Life reflects the rebellion of the little man against his own impotence in a struggle that seems already wholly lost: the defense of domestic values. In despair, Bailey curses his concern for his neighbors and even the family he has founded, thus breaking the bond between the two connotations of the image of home: the domestic and the national.
In presenting the threefold binaries of adventure/domesticity, worldly success/ordinary life and individual/community, Ray argues that the victorious individual adventurer has always prevailed over the idea of home in the U.S. imagination. However, Ray notes,
“It’s a Wonderful Life attempted to correct this imbalance […] George was a Victor Laszlo who wanted to be a Rick Blaine, a Good Good Boy desperately trying to be a Good Bad Boy, who seemed to get the most of the glory and the most of the fun. The goal of It’s a Wonderful Life was to liberate George, and the audience, from the frustrations caused by this desire, which the film identified as mistaken” (Ray, 1985: 186-187).
Capra’s vision of the domestic archetype also addresses the worldly success/ordinary life dichotomy by setting up a contrast between Pottersville and Bedford Falls. The former stands for the corrupt United States of the Great Depression. It is a hellish, obverse vision of Bedford Falls, for which Bailey’s love is renewed through the intercession of the angel Clarence, his ghostly visitation at Christmas. However, Bailey’s conversion is not sparked by the social decadence seen in his nightmare. Rather, he is moved by the real disappearance of his home and family. Pottersville involves the destruction of domestic and national homes. As Ray points out,
“the overt intent of It’s a Wonderful Life was to acknowledge George’s dilemma and then solve it, to reaffirm the American Dream by showing that the conflicts between opposed values were illusory. To succeed, the film had to demonstrate that a domestic, responsible, ordinary life contained possibilities for adventure, heroism, and success” (Ray 1985: 199-200).
It’s a Wonderful Life comes to a close with the generous response of the small owners supported by the Building & Loan Company, who are willing to repay Bailey’s debt by means of their own modest contributions. By that time, Bailey has returned to Bedford Falls. Re-united with his nearest and dearest, he recovers his heroic qualities and the happiness he had lost. The small-owners’ gesture, inspired by Bailey’s generous example in former times, is a sign of the importance Capra attributes to altruism and personal solidarity in his narratives of the crisis. At the same time, it also highlights the preeminence of the people over individualism, as Tibbets argues:
“It is typical of Capra and the times that the final answer lies with the listeners and not with the prophet” (307).
“Indiewood”: re-imagining the U.S. home
Ford’s and Capra’s use of the image of home may be summarized in three ways. First, their work reconciles the antitheses in the threefold set of binaries noted by Ray, wherein the victorious individual adventurer is set in contrast to the ordinary domestic hero committed to his community. Second, the family home is expanded out into the national home, which in effect marks a historical return to the narrative of the nation’s foundation. Finally, the fate of the family home is identified with the destiny of U.S. society in a time of crisis, a link enabled by people’s acute social consciousness. The reach of this filmic reimagining may be gauged in terms of the number of filmgoers: in the New Deal years, an average of eighty million viewers went to the cinema every week.
The survival of the archetype of home may be seen more recently in the films made by Dayton, Faris, Reitman and McCarthy, whose modern narratives of economic crisis have roots in the older filmic countercurrent of the 1930s and 1940s. These filmmakers belong to a more independent-minded stream in U.S. cinema, which has been shaped by a commitment to the national cultural, political and ideological landscape, and also is marked by a challenging and engaged approach to social issues, one often otherwise occluded by Hollywood’s commercial interests. In the images of home depicted in Little Miss Sunshine, The Visitor, Up in the Air and Win Win, these four filmmakers have explored the social dynamic of a nation, first demoralized by the 9/11 attacks and seven years later, convulsed again during an economic collapse of global dimensions.
The current social dynamic has many parallels with economic, social and political conflicts in the Great Depression. First, the two periods are marked by a financial collapse caused by the greed of the financial class, under the guise of a false prosperity. Second, middle-class households are the major victim of bankruptcies that call into question the American Dream, now no longer a commonplace. Finally, the two phenomena occur within the conservative Presidential terms of Hebert Hoover and George W. Bush. Given national social impoverishment, narratives of crisis emerge in Hollywood as a specific reaction, a complaint. As Lay and May note, home is the object of attack but at the same time as the key to recovering social prosperity.
As a universal myth, the search for home or the quest to rebuild home is not bound by time; it may be situated in any culture, historical era and/or social context. Nevertheless, as discussed above, this re-imagined archetype may enrich the social discourse of narratives concerning the current crisis, lending new meanings and connotations. Although they draw on a timeless premise in the narratives they produce, the films by Dayton, Faris, Reitman and McCarthy distance themselves from the classical style of Hollywood, characterized by a poetics of closed endings. These filmmakers favor techniques that have more in common with the rhetoric of contemporary independent filmmaking. According to King (2005: 63), they prefer
“devices designed to deny, block, delay or complicate the anticipated development of narrative, to reduce clarity or resolution and in some cases to increase narrative self-consciousness.”
The four films analyzed here are character-driven stories and, given their endings, Up in the Air cannot be regarded simply as a romance nor can Win Win be seen solely as a sports movie.
In spite of this open-ended approach to screenwriting, the four scripts are underscored with a Capraesque form of optimistic comedy. In most cases, conflicts are resolved leading to positive outcomes in line with the hopeful tone of the archetype first shaped during the New Deal period. Indeed, King cites the ending to Little Miss Sunshine as an emblematic example of the happy endings in Indiewood movies, a sort of independent filmmaking that, for commercial reasons, must make some concessions to the demands of the studios (King, 2009: 270).
At the same time, these four filmmakers retain the three keystones of the domestic imagination (family, struggle, nation) within an epic, (re)constructive context and in the face of social setbacks stemming from the economic crisis. This approach marks their work as different from a particular kind of individualist and ominous vision, commonly used in postmodern cinema. That other current trend is characterized by Boggs and Pollard thusly (2003: 246):
“Postmodernism reflects and feeds into a generalized mood of pessimism and defeat associated with widespread popular retreat from the public sphere—a trend visible in film as well as society as a whole. In the splintered, discontinuous world of postmodernism, social bonds linked to community and collective action are severely weakened, further undoing the linkage between the personal and public arenas.”
Little Miss Sunshine: “America the Beauty”
The first example I want to explore appears in 2006 during the first signs of the financial crisis. Little Miss Sunshine deals with the theme of failure as experienced by the members of a lower middle class family, recently impoverished. They are an antithetical symbol of the American Dream.
By means of a road movie—a true U.S. film genre—Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have offered one of the most striking examples of the domestic archetype set during the current crisis. Little Miss Sunshine transposes the distinctive version of the narrative of re-foundation articulated by Ford in The Grapes of Wrath onto the peculiar saga of the Hoover family in their wandering journey from New Mexico to California. Despite the seventy-year lapse in time, the Joads are clearly reflected in the members of another dysfunctional family who set out for a mythical land in pursuit of their dream: the unlikely victory of seven-year-old Olive in a national child beauty pageant modeled on Miss America.
Screenwriter Michael Arndt follows the formula outlined by Nunnally Johnson— juxtapose a domestic crisis with a crisis at a national level. At the heart of both plots is the narrative trope of the return home of the U.S. hero, as described by MacKey-Kallis. Like the Okie Joads in Steinbeck’s novel, the three generations of the Hoover family are likewise facing a calamitous financial future. They travel in a clapped-out van, suffering similar setbacks as they make their way across three Western states: death of the grandfather; run-ins with the police; shortage of food; problems with the van’s engine, and worst of all a hostile welcome and great disappointment when they finally arrive in California. The family surname, Hoover, is an obvious reference to “Hoovervilles,” the drab shantytowns spontaneously appearing during the Great Depression. Like Ford’s 1940 adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, the plot of Little Miss Sunshine is based on the idea of an allegorical journey with a twofold goal: first and foremost, the quest for success; and second, the reconstruction of a broken and wayward home. Both objectives give rise to a re-imagined account of the never-ending American Dream and revised versions of ideas of success and failure, in which home is the shared narrative and social literary topos. Although Little Miss Sunshine is a comedy, its makers have established themselves as documentarists, and there are many touches of realism and truthfulness with which they represent the different situations and social settings that the Hoover family experiences on the road (Smith 66).
In Little Miss Sunshine, the individual/community binary is framed in terms of a conflict of perspectives between Richard and Sheryl Hoover, characters who recall the roles of Pa and Ma Joad. Richard has invested all the family’s savings in a self-help manual, a guide to personal success following the American Dream that will in fact destroy his own home. While he was writing the script for the movie, Michael Arndt heard a statement by Arnold Schwarzenegger, then Governor of California, remarking that the only thing he hated in the world were losers. Arndt contested this:
“I wanted to attack the idea that we could only be divided into winners and losers, which inspired the character of Richard, Olive’s father” (Goldsmith, 2007: 68).
Sheryl is the polar opposite of Richard, a figure who ultimately undermines her husband. As a mother, she struggles to keep the family together, and is determined to go on the journey to California so as to keep Olive’s dream alive. When the grandfather dies, her words echo thoughts once spoken by Ma Joad:
“Whatever happens, we’re a family. And what’s important is that we love one each other.”
At the end of their journey, the Hoover family does not encounter the anger of Californian vineyard laborers as the Joads had. But they do experience a similar kind of scorn, a harsh sense that they are not welcome. At the film’s climax, during the beauty pageant, the conflict between Richard and Sheryl concerning the meaning of success takes on a national dimension, a shift that discloses the hostile conditions of social life reduced to a contest between “perfect” children. At the children’s beauty pageant final in Los Angeles, the Hoovers become the target of the audience’s rage when Olive innocently performs a provocative dance taught to her by the grandfather. The family’s spontaneous response is to get up on stage with her and take part in the performance. Their public act of solidarity with Olive evinces how the family dynamic has been transformed. For the first time, free of shame and embarrassment for their own failures, they come together in a shared success: the reuniting of the family, with Olive at its heart.
California, the land of promises, may be the most fitting place to set a cinematic meditation on the meaning of success in a time of crisis. When they arrive at the hotel, the Hoovers are exposed to the pathos of a contest staged beneath a patriotic flag. There, little girls from across the country are required to behave as miniature beauty queens. A flamboyant version of the anthem “America the Beautiful” sung by the MC is symptomatic of an uneasy social mindset. Here the quest for success has been reduced to the triumph of image and appearance, and it’s a place where people—in this case, young girls—are dehumanized and seen as objects. In a sociological reading of the film, Beck highlights the moral superiority of the Hoover family, who embody a set of heroic values that renders them similar to the Joads—in particular, the way in which they succeed in overcoming their sense of being losers in an inhumane, overly-competitive society:
“In this movie, the joke is on the mainstream world of success and efficacy, warped, ambitious, spiteful, and lonely. The dysfunctional family, bless their hearts, in contrast, are warm, happy and together. Here, the conventional movie sentimentality prevails. The minority outsiders are blessed, and the callous, persecuting dominant group is the accursed one” (Beck, 2007: 30-31).
Released in the aftermath of 9/11, Little Miss Sunshine reflects a collapse in social, moral and human values that foreshadow the dramatic economic downturn. The script underscores the link between family breakdown and the social dysfunction of the United States as a whole, and it echoes the story of the Joads in asserting the need for a collective journey, a return home. In the narrative envisioned by Dayton and Faris, the solution to the Hoovers’ unhappiness and frustration, setting aside their economic, existential or professional problems, is to be found in an act of domestic solidarity that ought to be extrapolated onto the national stage.
The political dimension of the script is reflected symbolically, and it takes place at the family/national home level. In my view, the social bankruptcy denounced here is allegorically expressed in a discussion that Richard and Sheryl have at the motel, while their teenage son watches on television the image of George W. Bush. The Presidential icon represents, in this scene, the apex of confrontation between two divided Americas on the scenario of the erupting crisis.
Up in the Air: “What’s in your backpack?”
In 2009, with the economic crisis in full spate, Jason Reitman released Up in the Air, whose main character, Ryan Bingham, appears to be an antithesis to the Capraesque hero. While George Bailey provides ordinary people of limited means with houses, Bingham is a “termination specialist,” who travels throughout the country firing people and menacing their homes. Bailey is profoundly committed to social justice, whereas Bingham gives corporate speeches on how to disclaim responsibility, speeches entitled, “What’s in your Backpack?” Bailey sympathizes with the terrible plight of his neighbors; Bingham causes such hardship without a second thought.
As regards the threefold binaries of adventure/domesticity, worldly success/ordinary life and individual/community, Bingham represents the most attractive or seductive pole in each pair. In this regard, Ray notes:
“The traditional ideology officially celebrated both halves of each dichotomy. But despite American culture’s apparent impartiality, the successful, individual adventurer had clearly won the competition for the American imagination—at the expense of the man who did the quiet work at home” (Ray, 1985: 186).
Reitman’s script offers a more in-depth take on this pragmatic aspect of the U.S. imagination. The protagonist of Up in the Air, Ryan Bingham, is a travelling executive who feels at home in airports and whose greatest goal is to build up ten million air-miles on his American Airlines VIP card. In marked contrast, despite having bought a large suitcase in his youth, George Bailey has never seen his dream to travel around the world come true; he never went to university; he never even went on honeymoon—all because of his lasting commitment to the Building & Loan Company.
As an antihero—that is, as the opposite of the Capraesque hero—Bingham has no plans to settle down and have a family. His voluntary solitariness has prevented him from forming stable relationships and his love life is nothing more than a string of casual affairs. Within this framework, Reitman makes his character undergo a process of radical transformation towards the opposite pole in each binary pair. The first shift is marked by Bingham’s falling in true love with Alex, his alter ego. Bingham becomes aware of the emptiness within himself, which is shown outwardly in the airport used as a setting. Speaking about that setting, Reitman says that the airport is an
“interesting metaphor for the central theme, which is searching for purpose in your life. That’s what Ryan is [doing] and that’s what people are doing when they lose their jobs. Being in an airport gives you a false notion that you are everywhere, when you are in fact connected to nothing” (James, 2009: 31).
The importance of a sense of family rootedness, a dramatic need assigned to characters, is also evinced by a state of social and financial turmoil. In this regard, Kinkle and Toscano have noted the difficulties Hollywood has faced in trying to frame the current financial crisis in narrative terms, especially in looking at it solely from an economic perspective. In their study of the few films that have attempted to address the issue from 2008 onwards, they emphasize the effort made by directors such as Reitman to dramatize the financial debacle by humanizing the drastic situation:
“Detachment and family are what matter in this drama, as in so much of the mass-culture response to the crisis” (Kinkle and Toscano, 2011: 44).
The script of Up in the Air foregrounds the idea that social dehumanization is both a context and cause of the economic crisis and depicts Bingham as a victorious avatar of selfish individualism. As the film bitterly records, a worker may be fired nowadays by videoconference and a relationship ended by text-message.
Like George Bailey, Ryan Bingham’s eyes are opened. He wakes into the limbo of his non-existence, the noir hell of Pottersville where there are no social bonds or ties to home, nor any true personal relationships. Having decided to embark on a new life at Alex’s side, he flies to her home-city of Chicago only to discover that she is a married woman with a family of her own. At the threshold to her home, Bingham’s shock in the winter cold recalls the terrible scene in It’s a Wonderful Life when Mary fails to recognize George Bailey. As a result of this failed encounter, Bailey returns to his own true home; however, Ryan Bingham is obliged to remain in the dark limbo he has always inhabited as the successful, individual adventurer. At the same time, Alex mirrors the role played by Mary in Bingham’s voyage of self-discovery, thus displaying a certain likeness to the type of female characters depicted in Capra’s films,
“whose task, like Capra’s, is exactly a matter of making the invisible newly visible, expressing the socially repressed” (Poague, 1994: 188).
Unlike George Bailey, Ryan Bingham’s return journey home is thwarted: Alex’s rejection and his inability to (re)build a home he has never had literally leave his life up in the air. Bingham suffers the fate of Capra’s villains, who fail “not so much because they are bad, but because they do not know how best to serve themselves as creatures who share needs and characteristics with others” (Mistichelli, 1997: 122-123). This observation is congruent with Reitman’s own view:
“I never thought I was really making a movie about firing. I always thought I was making a movie about a guy who has decided to disconnect from the world and the sacrifices that come with that, and then the consequences of when he inevitably starts to connect with somebody” (Goldsmith, 2009: 22).
In terms of the traditional archetype of home, the focus in Up in the Air shifts from an allegorical description of the United States as a shared home to the actual domestic space. The downbeat note is that neither image of home has any real bearing on the life or experience of the movie’s main character. However, a note of hope is struck in the film’s epilogue. In a series of interviews, individuals recently made redundant, the true losers in the economic crisis, describe their families as refuge and stronghold.
The Visitor and Win Win: “The Strength of America”
In 2007, just in the beginning of the financial collapse, Tom McCarthy returned to a setup he had already explored in The Station Agent (2003): the film presents a gathering of disparate characters from different backgrounds, each engaged in the attempt to rebuild their homes. The Visitor and Win Win use a similar set-up against the broader backdrop of social crisis. The former is set in a United States for which the trauma of the 9/11 attacks is still an open wound, with an economic meltdown looming in the near future; the latter takes place at the height of the fallout from the financial crisis.
In both cases, McCarthy uses the archetype of home to show the deep connection between strengthening of family and firming up the nation. He also depicts social empathy and real contact between people from the same country (Win Win) and from different cultures (The Visitor) as true remedies for economic, social and ethnical rupture.
Released during the xenophobic aftermath of the Patriot Act, The Visitor tells the story of a tentative relationship that arises between Walter, a recently widowed professor at Connecticut College, and Tarek, a Syrian musician living illegally in New York. Although they come from wholly different cultures, professions and generations, each character strives to provide the other with the type of home he needs. Through Tarek, Walter discovers djembe, a kind of African drumming, enabling him to release the emotion pent-up since the death of his wife. According to McCarthy, Walter needs to
“stop thinking about his past. Stop thinking about what he hasn’t achieved. Stop thinking about where he is in life—and just live life.” (Clines, 2008: 58).
In turn, Walter gives Tarek and his girlfriend a roof over their heads in his own apartment. Later when Tarek is taken to a detention center, Walter takes legal action, which grants the university professor the status of an epic character.
This plot twist expands the domestic home out into the shared national home, both of which are presented as offering refuge to foreigners or strangers. Thus, in The Visitor, McCarthy critiques the immigration policy then in force, enacted in accordance with the special security measures put into effect after 9/11. When he was writing the script, McCarthy debated the issue with lawyers and visited a number of detention centers like the one shown in the movie, which is decorated with a mural that articulates a paradoxical message: The slogan, “The Strength of America… America’s Immigrants,” is emblazoned across iconic scenes of the American Dream. To McCarthy’s mind, empathy for immigrants is not a political decision; rather, it is above all a social and human commitment:
“I felt strongly that this movie was representative of this time in our country and in our world, where politics and world events interfere directly in personal relations, be it family, lovers or new acquaintances” (Clines 58).
Whereas Ford decried the internal barriers in U.S. society in The Grapes of Wrath, The Visitor draws attention to the obstructions created by external boundaries. McCarthy depicts fear of the other and suggests that if a young Syrian may help resolve the personal ordeal suffered by a New England professor, then openness to other people and peoples may enable a country mired in terror to overcome its social trauma. In this regard, especially allegorical is a scene in which Walter visits Tarek in the detention center and the two improvise a moment of music together, despite the pane of thick glass that separates them from each other in the visiting room. Heyraud (2008: 367) points out the marked differences between the two characters, who have complementary weaknesses and strengths:
“Walter and Tarek gradually forge an unlikely friendship connected through unspoken mutual compassion. The nature of the bond between the two men begs the question of who is visiting whom. Despite Tarek’s lack of a physical home, it is he who is most at home in the world and Walter who is the transient visitor.”
McCarthy’s second “indie” referring to the economic crisis is the comedy Win Win, set in a small town in New Jersey where the main character, Mike Flaherty, lives and works as a lawyer. Flaherty is a Capraesque hero: a model father and family man living in a microcosm of United States. He works for the elderly, gets respect from his neighbors, and is generally regarded as a “pillar of the community.” Like so many other homes in a time of crisis, his too is ravaged by setbacks. So in an attempt to resolve his problems, he decides to take on the custody and care for one of his clients, Leo Poplar, who is suffering from senile dementia. However, instead of taking Leo home, as he had promised at the court hearing, Mike puts him in a nursing home and pockets the money from the monthly benefit issued to cover the costs of care.
According to McCarthy, Win Win is an attempt to consider other root causes of the economic crisis, apart from financial mismanagement and fraud:
“I think there’s a fair amount of evil people out there, but I also think there are a lot of very decent people who’ve put us in this position, people who made some really bad choices. So I was really curious to explore that idea” (Wise 112).
The figure of Mike Flaherty mirrors the character of George Bailey, albeit forced to commit a personal fraud to save his own home, at the same time contributing to the downfall of the national economy.
Mike’s moral recovery begins when he welcomes into his home Alex, Leo’s adolescent grandson, a small-time delinquent who has been mistreated by his mother’s boyfriend. Mike includes Alex in the wrestling team he trains, and this decision inserts a sports-movie subplot in the film. Beyond the sports storyline, which is never fully resolved, the narrative tension pivots on Alex’s new home, which is threatened by his mother’s sudden arrival and the public revelation of Mike’s deceit. As McCarthy notes,
“I didn’t feel like it was a movie about wrestling and winning. It felt like it was more about doing the right thing and being responsible for one’s own actions” (Goldsmith 2011: 19).
Win Win shows a family home in the eye of the economic storm, in a dramatic context that is markedly different from the family portraits presented in films during the New Deal era. Keough writes:
“back in the ’30s, with directors like Frank Capra and John Ford, Hollywood showed great sympathy for the forgotten men and women laid low by the economy (…) but most movie characters nowadays don’t need to worry about mortgages or even working for a living” (Keough).
However, within the context of crisis imaginaries, the archetype of home still shows the strengthening of family is a means to firm up the nation. And social empathy is depicted as the cornerstone of real contact between people from the same country (Win Win) and from different cultures (The Visitor).
In reference to the film’s title and the closing scene, in which Alex and a friend are playing with Mike’s young daughter, McCarthy concludes:
“It felt like the real victory maybe speaks to more of what the real American dream is—three kids on a lawn, playing croquet and that’s it. For a lot of people in the world, that’s a victory. Seeing your children hang out, play safely, enjoying their lives and knowing that they have a future—what more is there than that? For me, it’s such a quiet moment in the movie and it’s such a throwaway, but that is the great victory” (Goldsmith 2011:19).
John Ford, William Wyler, Orson Welles and Frank Capra, among other filmmakers interested in social problems, were accused of being unpatriotic when Senator McCarthy’s witch-hunt was extended to the film industry in the early 1950s. Social concerns shown in their stories aroused suspicion in those who considered dangerous any artistic claim for social and civil rights. However, as a countercurrent, narratives of crisis began to reshape cinema and film genres during the years following the New Deal.
Seven decades later, independent filmmakers like Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, Jason Reitman and Tom McCarthy keep alive the tradition of storytelling that basically tries to convert the U.S. common ground into a home for victims of crisis, especially marginalized groups, various minorities, ethnic groups, immigrants and workers. Both in the Great Depression and in the current United States of financial meltdown, a vast majority of citizens and artists question dominant values and institutions when their home is threatened. As Ross explains,
“Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, immigrants, workers, women and people of color—the so-called marginalized of society—fought to institute their vision of a more just nation. Despite hard times, they and millions of other Americans continued going to the movies to be entertained and, perhaps, to find solutions to the problems plaguing their lives” (128).
The implemention of the Patriot Act and the following constraints of civil liberties, the risk of xenophobia after 9/11, and all family dramas resulting from the financial meltdown nurtured these narratives of crisis between 2006 and 2009—in my sample of the social concern showed by independent-minded filmmakers. At the deep core of their stories, protection of home and family offer clues to healing society.
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