Here’s a short bit from the diaries of the writer Mavis Gallant, excerpts of which are published in the current issue of The New Yorker (and not available online). Gallant wrote this in 1952, when she was a young, poor, and very hungry writer living in Madrid:
Chose cinema over potatoes. I found myself watching the women’s clothes, drinking in their texture, appreciating every bit the actors put in their mouths. When one of the characters (because of some imbecility of plot) wore old clothes and pretended to be poor, I was furious and felt cheated, having chosen this over a meal. Now I really understand why the Italian poor detest De Sica and neorealist films, and why shopgirls like heiresses and read every line in gossip columns. I mean, I understand it, and not just intellectually.
This is more or less the lesson of the film “Sullivan’s Travels,” and something intellectuals and middle class people keep having to learn. It also brings to mind something that happened to me in the autumn of 1988, when I was living in Washington, DC, on a college internship. Somehow I met a pair of college students from West Germany, one of whom had recently defected to the West from Czechoslovakia. I went with the two young women to the National Museum of American History for a couple of hours.
At one point, we found ourselves in an exhibition showcasing film loops of American film musicals. The Czech girl was transfixed in front of some Technicolor spectacle. I thought she was rolling her eyes at the garishness and the showboating quality of the thing, as I, who was 21 and who knew everything, certainly was. I had seen that fall Wim Wenders “Wings of Desire,” and was full of dark, broody, existential Germanitude. But no, the girl loved what she saw, and loved it unironically. Puzzled, I asked her why.
“If you have lived without color or happiness, this is great,” she said. And I felt like an idiot, which was appropriate, because I was.
A much funnier version of the spirit of that exchange occurred on SNL, after the Wall fell: