Capra-corn and the life of our time
There’s a quote about Carl Jung that I’ve come across a couple of times and shamelessly stolen every chance I’ve had: “We live a double life whether we know it or not. We live our own life and we live the life of our time.” Economists are now warning of a double-dip recession, even though most people can’t tell we’ve reached the heights that make the second dip possible. A lousy economy is no longer news – it’s just mundane reality. For some, it’s an excuse to argue political and economic theory, for others, it’s too much of an individual concern to even worry about a larger national context. I’m somewhere in between: a bit worn out by the back and forth, but still hungering for something that blends everyday life with “the life of our time.”
It’s led me to start inventing an odd little bit of theater. I’m a big walker, and lately I’ve been making a deliberate attempt to make eye contact with and smile at people passing by or just sitting on their stoops. Usually they smile back – what else would they do? – and I later turn that common gesture into evidence that people are becoming softer during hard times. I was stuck in downtown traffic yesterday and waved over several cars with their turn signals on. The drivers waved thanks, and I felt comforted: clearly, humanity is rising to the occasion. We’re all in it together; we’ll beat these economic times after all. I create the fantasy and let unsuspecting others play a role in that story. When you’re trying, evidence is everywhere: a nice server in a restaurant, a conversation in a grocery store line, any daily courtesy becomes proof that people are returning to a simpler goodness, neighborliness, to weather the storm. Of course, I’m not naïve, and on a more fundamental level I know I’m inventing the narrative. People are the same as they were before 2008; they just have less money and more stress.
But here’s the thing: we’re about to enter year 3 of this… recession? depression? and we still don’t have the cultural expressions that both reflect the anxieties of our time and provide the hope to deal with them. We don’t have our Frank Capra.
I go through a bit of a Capra kick every couple of years even though, ironically, the only movie of his I really love is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He had a few others that I liked, some that I thought were terrible, and some that were pleasant enough if forgettable. Mostly, I like the Capra myth, the use of his name as shorthand for gentle Americanness – not the oft-referenced “can-do” American optimism that, in national lore, won us a World War and took us to the moon, but the more pedestrian American goodness that prized hometowns and simple people, generosity and idealism and upheld a reverence for non-martial American symbols. There are many who argue the “dark side” of Capra films. It’s a fair point; even his most upbeat films dealt with some very downbeat themes. But the dark side is almost always defeated and the audience is allowed to get caught up in sentimentality without being made to feel ashamed for buying in.
The Capra genre has outdone the talent of the man himself, with later non-Capra films like Field of Dreams, Jerry Maguire, and Seabiscuit more Capra-esque (and frankly better) than were most actual Capra films. TV shows like West Wing may have been preachy at times, but also allowed the audience to envision a government led by honest, patriotic, and idealistic people – and it debuted a year after the conclusion of the Lewinsky scandal. Sometimes, timing is everything.
That sense of timing is what separates actual Capra from most of the later entrants in the genre. Jerry Maguire might have declared in his wife’s living room that “we live in a cynical, cynical world,” but in 1997 when the movie opened, concerns about cynicism were somewhat lost in national prosperity and a sense of complacency. Audiences liked the movie, but our need for a national hero living the life of our times wasn’t in high demand. As for Seabiscuit (or Cinderella Man for that matter), the filmmakers didn’t even bother reflecting the life of the times of the audience, but instead reached back to Capra’s own depression era to draw out the old Capra lessons. Field of Dreams may have the best post-Capra claim on the meeting of the message and the times; premiering at the conclusion of the Reagan years and only a couple of years after Gordon Gekko preached the gospel of greed, Terrence Mann announced that it was “money they have and peace they lack.” That peace, of course, could be found by returning to a timeless innocence – not rooted exclusively in the depression years as with Seabiscuit, but stretching back and touching every period of American history from 1919 to the characters’ own time. And as with Capra’s corniest – and best – endings, Field of Dreams gave its audience a full serving of sentimentality without needing to temper it with a last-minute dose of reality.
There’s actually a documentary on Capra, called appropriately “Frank Capra’s American Dream” that I watched recently. His first film that dealt explicitly with the depression, Lady for a Day, was made in 1933, three years into the depression that time-stamped his most famous films. A series of hits over the next decade and a half followed and exhibited similar themes: money corrupts, American ideals will triumph over greed, common people are made of good moral stock. Capra’s last film that could truly be considered “Capra-esque” was 1948’s State of the Union.
In the “American Dream” documentary, Martin Scorsese pointed out that one reason Capra’s works lost relevance in the late 1940s was that his movies depended on a broadly unified audience that shared universal “American” values. Once that ceded to the political and ideological polarization of the McCarthy era, common values were harder to recognize. HUAC even investigated Capra over State of the Union. Imagine that – Frank Capra, un-American.
Maybe that’s the case today as well, and why, 3 years into this economic mess, there has been no revitalization of the genre. Could a movie or TV show be made in today’s climate that celebrates the goodness of America and expresses hope without being considered either Left-wing or Right-wing schlock? About the only recent hit movie that has even come close to the genre was The Blind Side (really much more of a generic feel-good movie than a Capra-esque commentary on the American people during a specific time) and that did run into an ideological wall with the “benevolent white lady helps impoverished black youth” criticism. I guess it’s tough for any film about Goodness and overcoming adversity to also be noncontroversial. If it seems to promote faith, if it seems to make villains of the greedy, if it seems to promote tolerance or peace or patriotism or duty or anything else which could have at one time been considered shared values, well, that film is now suspect.
It’s a chicken-egg question whether fragmented audiences led to a breakdown of shared values or whether evolving values led to fragmented audiences. For whatever cause, the result is that our entertainment reinforces differing (and sometimes opposing) definitions of goodness and reflects different kinds of anxieties that can’t possibly speak for the life of the times of anyone beyond its little segment of the population. None of that is new and the flip side is that it does allow for more niche entertainment that doesn’t have to contend with the burden of pleasing the masses. Maybe in another era, when times are better, I’ll have more of an appreciation for that niche entertainment. For now though it just seems oddly juxtaposed with reality. For the first time in a long time, there actually is a national mood and people are actually living through shared problems. It’s a little disconcerting that there hasn’t been a comforting cultural outlet to guide us through.